Endurance motorsport in Europe has a secret, unofficial contest, primarily between the German Werks Competition Departments, as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche all compete to a greater or lesser extent at the highest level. The bragging rights for success that are coveted by these giants of the automobile industry are to be found at the three classic 24 Hour races held each summer, Nürburging, Le Mans and Spa.
The Nürburging 24 Hours is the youngster in this trio of endurance challenges, the first event being held in 1970, the other pair trace their history back to 1923 and 1924 respectively. Prior to the 24 Hours of Nürburgring there had been a hybrid of race and rally on the Nordschleife, known as the Marathon de la Route. This event was clearly deranged, being 84 hours in length - how the drivers, teams, marshals and any spectators survived and maintained the will to live over that extended period is a mystery.
The atmosphere coming into this year's Nürburgring 24 Hours was somewhat subdued, even apprehensive, following the accident at an earlier race when Jann Mardenborough's Nissan cleared the Safety Fence at the Flugplatz killing a spectator. Measures such as speed restrictions at some points around the circuit were introduced, even the hard-core fans seemed a little less exuberant than normal, despite their customary prodigious, some might even say heroic, consumption of beer.
On track Audi had swept all before them in 2014, taking the top step of the podium in all three events and based on the evidence of the early season competition, something similar was expected this year (I looked at those triumphs HERE, HERE, and HERE). Audi had a new weapon in the GT3 class, the R8 LMS and had equipped two crack outfits, Phoenix and WRT, with a brace of cars each. The second generation R8 had been first shown at the Geneva Salon and I looked at it HERE.
Audi's main opposition was expected to come from BMW who also had two teams, Schubert and Marc VDS, each running a pair of the venerable Z4s. Now in its final season as a factory backed car, the men from Munich hoped that they could win their first Nürburgring 24 hours since 2010. Next year will see the arrival of the BMW M6 GT3 and another chapter will open in the long history of BMW and GT racing.
Some smart money was on the phalanx of Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3s entered, eight in total. This would also be the final curtain call at the N24 for the 2012 winner, its replacement was also premièred at Geneva, THIS is what the Mercedes-AMG GT3 will look like next year. In fact the car made its début at the Nordschleife in July.
For a brand that has dominated GT racing in all its forms since the 1950's, Porsche have had a thin time of late, at least in the GT3 category. There were but three 911s considered to be in contention on the grid, this Falken example being the top dog. The news that a new GT3 car is on the way cannot come soon enough for Porscheofiles and, as if on cue, it was presented at the Nürburgring. Revised aerodynamics, greatly reduced running costs and a direct injection engine were the talking points, it will make its first racing appearance at the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona, a tough baptism in prospect.
Bentley were present with three examples of the Continental GT3, two run by the factory. While they were expected to be competitive, their comparative lack of experience on the Nordschleife would cause most observers to discount them for overall honors. This car had forsaken the customary white livery in favour of a homage to the 2003 Le Mans winner's green.
In the wake of the fatal accident during an earlier round of the VLN, Nissan scaled back their involvement in the race to one serious entry......
The grid was down in numbers, with 151 starting, some 14 less than 2014. There were some big names from the GT world missing, notably Ferrari and McLaren, but the class structure of the Nürburgring 24 always throws up something interesting. A pair of SGC 003c prototypes from Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus were a welcome addition to the race, though only one started after an accident in practice forced the withdrawal of the other car. A class win in SP-X was some compensation for this reverse.
Subaru are a regular entrant at this event and were rewarded with another class win for their WRX STI.
Lexus too have a long involvement with the race. Toyota's President, Akio Toyoda takes a strong interest in Gazoo Racing and has competed himself, he is a proper "car guy". This year they brought over a Lexus LFA Code X once more to score a win in SP-PRO class.
The contest for overall honors was, as expected, a dog fight between Audi and BMW. That part followed the script, the premature demise of the two German teams, Phoenix and Schubert did not.
BMW dominated the early proceedings from Mercedes and Audi, but as happens so often in the Eifel Mountains the rain arrived. The track is difficult at the best of times and the combination of heavy rain and darkness soon took its toll. Both Schubert BMW's fell prey to accidents and subsequent retirements.
Then it was the turn of the Phoenix Audis to both crash, and by the halfway point the battle was between the two Belgian teams, WRT and Marc VDS.
As the conditions eased, both teams' lead cars, #28 (Audi) and #25 (BMW) swapped the lead according to pit stop schedules.
The R8 seemed to have an advantage over the Z4 on fuel economy, being able to run for 9 laps against 8. However any extended Safety Car period would negate that superiority, the whole race was very finely balanced.
As dawn broke, the Audi was up the road by just over a minute and should prevail on the run to the Checkered Flag, but nothing is taken for granted in endurance racing.
Traffic was still an issue to be accommodated by both contenders.
The BMW's challenge came up 40 seconds short, not much of a gap after 24 hours on the Nordschleife. The Falken 911 was a further lap down for the final podium place.
So Christopher Mies, Edward Sandström, Nico Mueller and Laurens Vanthoor scored a convincing victory in their Audi R8 LMS in the face of very determined opposition from BMW. The first leg of the 2015 Triple Crown had gone to Ingolstadt, what would happen in France at Round Two?
Photography copyright and courtesy of Sören Herweg