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The 2017 Nürburgring 24hr race: still as mad as ever

Another year of crazy weather, inspired driving and 'passionate' fans at the Nordschliefe

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The Ring always plays its part. Last year, the microclimate that hangs over the Eifel mountains intervened within the first hour, smothering the circuit in rain and hail, stranding slick-shod GT3 cars halfway round the 25km lap. This year, it waited until the very final half-hour of the Nürburgring 24 Hours to start messing with the drivers…

It’d all started in the glare of glorious sunshine too, with the Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus 003 prototype taking a very popular pole position after posting an 8min 15.427sec lap. That was as good as the weekend got for Glickenhaus and co, though – during the first round of back-marker lapping early in the race, the lead yellow machine was tagged by a lowly hatchback and suffered damage that cost it the lead. It and its sister car soldiered on but one half of the duo would later meet the barrier in a nasty-looking tank-slapper and retire spectacularly.

Audi’s R8 LMSs charged into a dominant lead, showing pace they simply couldn’t find last year. The growling Mercedes-AMG GT3s, so unassailable at last year’s N24 taking a 1-2-3 finish, had no answer for the V10 pace. Apparently, the cars simply weren’t as good in the 35-degree Celcius heat. A pity for AMG, celebrating its 50th birthday at the race this weekend, but good news for anyone who likes an Audi/BMW grudge match.

As the sun mercifully dipped below the horizon on Saturday evening all signs pointed to a straight fight between the hard-charging R8 LMSs and a brace of evil-looking M6 GT3s.

Into the night, the N24 stops being simply a very attritional endurance motor race and morphs into a kind of small-scale war for drunken German viewing pleasure. Street-standard Clios and 3 Series’ piloted by amateurs are expected to jump out the way of €300,000 supercars fighting for a VLN championship. In order to show their appreciation for the duels and tactics on display, the tens of thousands of spectators, camped out in the woods around the lap, set off fireworks, flares and drank enough Weiss bier to refloat the Titanic. It’s a surreal, cultist place, like nowhere else on Earth. Once in your petrolhead life, make the pilgrimage to an N24. You’re guaranteed some drama…

A sweltering, sticky sun rose on an N24 still being contested by 100 cars, led by the green and white no.29 Audi R8 LMS of Team Land Motorsport. It hadn’t had a pretty race. It’d had a spin while leading after grabbing too much kerb, and a tag with a back-marker caused scarring to the rear nearside and required some highly technical patching up with duct tape. But it was still running hard, lapping consistently, and it appeared that as long as it didn’t fall foul of a forecast thunderstorm in the final hour of the race, Audi would restore R8 supremacy to the Nordschliefe.

In the pits, plenty of folks turned their attention to their smartphones, catching up on the (lack of) action at the Monaco grand prix. As the sultry morning turned into a downright tropical afternoon, and droves of zombified walking hangovers emerged from the forest, it seemed like we were all set for an uncharacteristically routine finish.

Right up until the moment the commentators on the tannoys and livestreams starting barking feverishly tense German. It appeared the lead no.29 Audi R8 was slowing, crawling at walking pace around the GP circuit. The headlights that’d blazed through the night were flickering – a tell-tale sign the driver was punching every single button in the cockpit in a desperate effort to make the car reset itself. The old turn it off/turn it on again even works on racecars. It all looked eerily similar to the cruel demise of the Toyota LMP1 effort at Le Mans last year, which handed victory to Porsche’s 919.

As the cameras flashed up images of the Audi Land team holding head in hands and kicking a few chairs over, its wounded car limped back to the pits. The team managed to get the car reset, which cured its electrical gremlin, but by the time it’d been pushed out of the pit-box to rejoin the race, the rival no.9 R8 LMS from Team WRT and Rowe Racing’s no.98 M6 GT3 had sped past and were one lap ahead. There was less than 90 minutes of running left in play, and you’d have forgiven the trophy engraver for making his first dent on the silverware at that point. The stricken Land R8 was back on fast lapping form, but the idea of it catching the cars it’d lost time to was preposterous.

In the drama, few folks had noticed the clouds gathering. It was still baking hot in the foothills of Nurburg. But all of a sudden, the track played its sly weather hand, with cameras cutting from the bone-dry GP circuit to a rain-spattered helicopter cam over Adenaur-Forst. The track was awash, and having been rubbered-in for the past 23 hours, was now lethally slick. And the tyres on all the runners were slick too. It was difficult to know where to look.

Having just pitted for a final set of fresh slicks, the leading no.9 R8 LMS and chasing no.98 M6 were caught out by the sudden, vindictive change in the conditions, and lost time rapidly. Behind them, the fourth-place M6 GT3 lost control in its efforts to get back to the pits and lost its rear bumper in an Armco interface. Meanwhile, the crestfallen Land team who’d had victory snatched from their grasp an hour earlier saw their stars align.

Their car was already in the pits for attention to a loose fuel cap. Someone who was presumably very, very hungover right now made the call to switch onto full wets for the final charge to the line, and hope the rain didn’t dry up the moment their car came down off its jacks. It didn’t, and the revitalised, reinvigorated R8 suddenly had the bit between its teeth again. It was the fastest machine on the circuit by miles. And it promptly took the lead right when it mattered – as its rivals pitted for wets and the final of the 24 hours elapsed. After 158 laps of Green Hell drama, Audi and BMW shared the podium.

Elsewhere in the field, TG’s Sabine Schmitz and former N24h winner competed once again in a Porsche 911 GT3 R as part of the Frikadelli team and came home in a very commendable 16th place. Her car completed 152 laps and its fastest lap was 8mins 35.196sec. Lower down the order, BMW’s M4 GT4 finished first in class on its first outing. Last year’s victorious Black Falcon AMG GT3 came home fifth, and the old-timer likes of the Opel Manta and Calibras that pound round refusing to die remain crowd favourites. And the track itself is the biggest character of the lot. Same time next year?

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