There are only three great endurance motor races that run for a full 24 Hours - Le Mans, Spa-Francorchamps and of course Nürburgring. Sure, there are others throughout the year, like Dubai, Zolder or Daytona, but they possess neither the heritage nor the fan following of the three greats.
I suppose the majestic tracks of the great three help in setting the stage - adding to the sense of occasion, theatre, and participation - although I think participation is perhaps the most important common element to these events. Crowds must join with the racers in creating an event of this magnitude, which beyond these great three only the Sebring 12 Hours can claim to have a similar status in endurance racing.
The Nürburgring 24 Hours is the baby of this illustrious trio (not that baby is a word commonly associated with this monstrous event). First run in 1970, and therefore less than half the age of the other 24 hour classics, the race now attracts competitors from all over the world.
The numbers are staggering, 180 cars competing on a combined Nürburgring/Nordscheife circuit that is over 25 kilometres in length, with nearly 200 corners. All of this action is witnessed by a crowd to the north side of 200,000, it is one of the major sporting contests in the world of any shade - comparable in spectator numbers to the Indy 500 in the US.
The German car industry uses this opportunity to engage in a show of corporate arm wrestling, with bragging rights garnering a hefty pricetag. This year the charge was led by a full factory-backed effort from BMW. With 19 previous wins to their name, the men from Munich regard the Nürburgring 24 Hours as their private property, sending no less than four of their BMW Z4 GT3 racers to the circuit.
The main opposition to this phalanx from BMW was expected to come from Audi. Although they maintained their effort was based on customer teams, the reality was that a heavy presence of Audi Sport personnel, both drivers and engineers, were at the track for the Nürburgring 24. With triumphs at all of the Big Three events during 2012, would the latest version of the Audi R8 LMS ultra still be on top?
As many have found to their cost over the past 60+ years, Porsche should never be discounted, or taken lightly - particularly when represented by a team of the quality and experience of Manthey Racing. Like their sister company, Audi, there were many folks from Porsche Motorsport on hand. It was hardly a covert operation.
Perhaps the dark horse of the German motor industry effort was that of Mercedes Benz, which showed up supporting four of their SLS AMG GT3 cars. Certainly they had the talent behind the wheel, but stories coming out of Germany indicated that Mercedes were not putting the same resource behind this area of competition as were Audi or BMW. Time would tell.
One other realistic contender for the overall win showed up for this Nürburgring 24, the Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3. With the full weight of the factory behind it, a win for the company's centenary year would be icing on the cake for Aston Martin. The Nordschleife was the scene of some the marques most celebrated victories during the 50's and there remains a strong bond between the the track and Aston Martin.
Besides the manufacturer teams, another recurring theme over the past few 24 hour races at the Nürburgring has been the participation of manufacturers senior management getting behind the wheel. One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the race is Dr. Ulrich Bez, CEO of Aston Martin. This year he took to the track in a Rapide S...but not just any old Rapide, one that is powered by a Hydrogen Hybrid system.
The experimental car is the result of a collaboration between Aston Martin and hydrogen experts, Alset Global. The Rapide is powered by a prototype twin turbocharged 6.0-litre V12 engine. The engine can run on pure gasoline, pure gaseous hydrogen, or a blend of both. In pure hydrogen mode, Aston Martin and Alset Global aimed to show that a zero CO2 emissions lap of the Nordschleife is possible, with virtually only water being emitted from the exhaust.
I'll let Aston Martin explain things:
The Hybrid Hydrogen system comprises a hydrogen fuel rail, storage tanks and proprietary engine management system. This enables flexibility in the control of the combustion process according to each particular driving situation: either pure hydrogen, gasoline or a arbitrary blend of both can be selected to ensure optimum power, acceleration and CO2 reduction. This control results in a powerful and dynamic propulsion system that provides sports car performance but with a carbon footprint more akin to that of a supermini.Safety is paramount, of course, and the system includes four ultra-high strength carbon fibre tanks holding a total of 3.5kg of hydrogen stored at a pressure of 350 bar – two tanks housed next to the driver and two in the boot of the car. Meanwhile the entire hydrogen system developed by Alset Global and its partners is approved by German motorsport’s governing body, the DMSB.
Another car company boss racing at the Nürburgring was none other than Akio Toyoda, the President and CEO of Toyota Motor Corporation. It does not get much bigger than that!
It is encouraging to know that the head honcho of the world's largest car manufacturer is, at heart, a car guy (like those of us who populate this site). The Toyota/Lexus effort was run by Gazoo Racing, whose founder Hiromu Naruse, was the chief test and development lead for Toyota. Naruse worked for Toyota for 47 years and was respected throughout the entire motor industry, earning the nickname "Meister". He was killed in a road accident in 2010 after testing the Lexus LF-A on the Nordschleife, and the Toyota team honored his memory in their pit box.
On track, the Lexus LF-A was a popular car, dramatic in appearance.
The song of its 4.8 litre V10 engine was unique and grabbed the attention whenever it drove into view.
The headlines may have been about the LF-A, but perhaps more significant for Gazoo's future were the seven Toyota GT 86 entries. With more customer cars in queue, there had been plans to develop Gazoo as a performance sub-brand in the Toyota empire before its founders death put that in doubt. It would appear that the Toyoda family is keen to show their respect to the memory of such a loyal servant, and for the moment the project continues to grow.
Another Japanese company that is a regular at the Nürburgring is Subaru, who were chasing a hat trick of wins in the competitive SP 3T class. Their quest fell just 54 seconds short, however second is no mean feat. Since the demise of Subaru's World Rally programme, the sporting flame of the company has been kept alight through their participation at the Nürburgring 24 Hours. There is stiff competition amongst the employees to become part of this annual project and the brand is certainly well appreciated by the fans.
Nissan have also been a fixture in the recent past, but this year's effort was low key with only one customer GT-R GT3 racer. Werks pilot, Michael Krumm, made the thing fly at the Flugplatz.
More Nürburgring 24 Hours coverage to follow in Part Two.
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