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Q&A: what does it take to win the Nürburgring 24 Hours?

"You want to have the thing dancing..." TG chats to British N24h winner

TG.com survived its trip to the bonkers, hail-hit, rain-soaked Nürburgring 24 hours. Two hours before the end of the race, we caught up with Brit Adam Christodoulou, driver for Team Black Falcon, 45mins after he’d climbed from the AMG GT3 for the last time. Little did he know as we chatted his car would soon snatch victory in the closest N24h finish in history…

TG: How does your mindset for racing at the Ring compare to other, ‘normal’ circuits?

Adam: “Well, the ‘Ring comes with its own challenges. One being the size of the track and due to that, the weather, which as we’ve seen in this race, can change from one section to the other. That makes it extremely hard to get the correct tyres, the pressures – to get it right for all the conditions is impossible. The drivers really have to give good feedback to the engineers as we’re lapping the circuit. Between the four cars all in Team Black Falcon we can get an idea of where’s wet and where’s dry.

“It’s a 24-hour race, but the cars are so well built now that you push like it’s one long sprint race. You just reduce the risks. As you’ve seen in this race, many of our competitors have simply crashed out due to mistakes. At the moment we’ve got a Mercedes-AMG running 1,2,3,4. The toughest thing about a 24-hour race is just keeping it clean, making sure there are no silly mistakes, making the right calls, and not getting any penalties.”

If you’re playing the long game, are you less likely to go for an overtake?

“It’s a balance. How much risk do you take? What’s the reward? The worst thing is to have contact with another AMG [take note Nico and Lewis], but we’ve been able to race wheel-to-wheel and have no damage. If you get damage it hurts you all the way through the race. Okay, it might not get you straight away, but it’ll weaken a part, and might haunt you 20 hours later. It’s just all about keeping the thing on the track.

“Qualifying was pretty tough here. There was a single dry line, and I scared myself. During the warm-up I was third out on circuit, got to the corner after Wippermann, braked, turned in and hit standing water. I just kissed the barrier, and took the paint of the wing mirror and wheelarches, slid downhill and back onto the track. I backed off when I went though that corner next time…”

Where were you when the hail hit?

“I started the race in the car, and started 17th, I’d worked my way up to 8th or 9th. As I went over Flugplatz the engineer came on the radio and said slow down for Aremberg, because it’s hailing there. Literally a second or so later on the straight, I just went through a wall of water.

“It was unreal, just like driving into a waterfall. I slowed down and watched the BMW in front of me. We must’ve been doing 60 or 70kph around a corner we normally hold 250kph around, and the BMW just slid off the track in front of me.”

“I slowed down more but before I realised it, my car was sliding off in the same direction as him. Luckily I just managed to get it slowed down enough before I reached the grass, but the aquaplaning was unreal. Because we have such wide, slick tyres, the car was a boat in the rain, lifted clean off the track by the water.

“It was chaos. There were six or seven cars off at Aremberg, then as I went into the Fuchsröhre there was another handful of cars that had crashed. I was chatting to the engineer the whole way, and he said ‘Okay, it’s been red-flagged – come back to the pits’, and I replied ‘I’ll see you in about 25mins then’. I simply couldn’t go any quicker than 40kph without aquaplaning clean off the circuit. I got through Adenauer Forst and that’s when the hail really started to hit…

“These things were like golf balls being lobbed at the car. I’ve never experienced anything like it in a racecar. I’ve had quite a bit of weather at the ‘Ring in the six years I’ve been racing here, but nothing quite like this…in the middle of summer.”

Is the AMG GT3 relatively easy to drive?

“Yeah, the AMG’s quite comfy. I have a seat insert so it fits me perfectly, and we can adjust the steering wheel and pedals. The airflow is direct from that big front grille, so the quicker you go, the cooler you are.

“We’ve got power steering, a drinks system, and we could fit air-conditioning, but generally it’s not needed at the Nürburgring. It’s not too physical. Around here, you could easily do three hours flat out.”

Do you switch off between your stints?

“If you get out of the car at say 10pm, you want to have a quick debrief with your engineer, take on food and water and then just shut your eyes for as long as you can. Generally though, we’re always ready again one hour before we’re actually needed in the car, just in case anything changes. When we’re in the pits we can tune into the team radio and hear any conversations between the driver and engineers, learn about the track conditions and what to expect when we get out there.

“That’s what you need if you’re going to win a 24-hour race. You need to know what’s happening out on the track way before you get in the car. If you arrive at a corner without knowing, there’s, say, oil on the track, that could be your race over for one tiny mistake.”

Are you on the radio most of the lap when you’re in the car, then?

“Generally we try to keep it to a minimum. The team appreciate we need to be in the zone. We’re hanging on that thing out there, pushing it to its limit. You want to have the thing dancing. If the car’s not moving around under you, you’re not pushing it hard enough. If you’re talking on the radio, you’re not 100 per cent focused, and if you’re not fully focused you’re not pushing the car, then the next corner might be your last. We try to keep the talking to the straights.”

Do you consciously slow down a bit once it goes dark?

“It’s tough. You want to push hard, but it’s that risk/reward battle again. At nighttime, if there’s water on the track, or antifreeze, you’re more than likely going off. You naturally have the fear factor come in – a little bit – so you leave a tiny bit more margin, just in case.”

Do you have any sympathy whatsoever for the guys in the slower cars who have to jump out of your way every other lap?

“To some extent yes, because when I first started here I was in a lower class. They understand that they’re going to be spending most of the race looking in their rear-view mirrors while we’re tearing around the circuit.

“It helps if you can limit having your main beams on, because if your eyes are acclimatized to driving in the dark and then a GT3 car’s bearing down on you with full beams in your mirror, you can’t tell if that car’s 100 metres behind or 10 metres behind.

“In some places here the Nordschleife is barely two cars wide. I had a moment passing a backmarker with the Haribo GT3 on the Dottinger Höhe. I was literally on the edge of the white line. At 275kph…”

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