The start of the 44th running of the ultimate test on the GT3 calendar kicked off in less than desirable conditions, shall we say. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that we had unpredictable weather on the Nordschleife, but I’d be willing to put decent money on there not being too many spectators who’d prepared themselves for what was to come, early doors. Teeming rain and vicious hailstorms reduced the 24 hours to a mere 20. The rain hammered down with such velocity that it forced multiple cars off the circuit, both through standing water at Schwedenkreuz and the poor visibility it provided for the drivers. Admittedly, some utterly ridiculous driving didn’t help and the overly ambitious were caught out as they aquaplaned straight into the barriers at Aremberg.
It didn’t take long for the hail that followed to freeze, leaving a vast baize-like sheet of white all over Adenauer Forst, which made it incredibly difficult for many cars to get up the hill. The race was subsequently red-flagged with Maro Engel in the #9 Black Falcon Mercedes leading the way ahead of Jörg Müller in the #18 BMW and #88 Haribo Mercedes under the control of one of the many DTM drivers on show, Maxi Götz.
At 8:04 p.m. local time, the race resumed once more under – yet again – questionable conditions. The safety car lead the pack for 4 formation laps around the circuit before relinquishing its hold on the drivers in its wake and allowing the race to continue in the same order that had been lined up in lap 4, in still torrential rain. The Radio Le Mans crew were flabberghasted, perhaps everybody was, but little were we to know at the time that the race organisers had called it very well!
Immediately, Müller in the slightly less attractive of the Schubert BMW’s nipped around the outside of Engel at Turn 1 to snatch the lead, with the #29 Mercedes and #22 ROWE BMW following him through, relegating Engel to fourth. Despite the questionable conditions, Müller was able to prevent himself from losing the lead on the entry to the Nordschleife by arresting his car from its wide line. At this point, the #2 Audi was still in and around the leaders, throwing its tuppence in too. Much to my delight. In fact, that car – with Vervisch on-board – was second following the first proper racing lap since the restart, with former Marc VDS driver Markus Paltalla leading the way in the #22 BMW.
An all-too-familiar scenario began to unfold though, as the Audis struggled for pace on the wet Nordschleife surface. Everything was fine on the grand prix loop, but a noticeable drop was in evidence as soon as they left it and they started losing places. After the first 9 laps, the #2 had dropped to fifth. Though it must be said, in such dire conditions, they weren’t the only ones to be struggling, with drivers baying for position all over the place; the excitement encouraged by the number of Code 60 zones created by drivers tumbling into barriers and suchlike.
For quite some time, it was the story of the two Haribo Mercedes as they led the way; the #88 22 seconds ahead of Paltalla in the third-placed BMW. Speaking of BMW, late on in the 6th hour they were to provide us with our first major drama on camera. With Jesse Krohn at the wheel, the #18 was pelting along the Döttinger Höhe straight (and in the lead) and it appeared that the engine blew, leaving a humongous trail of thick, white smoke flowing behind. Speculation led to the conclusion that this was in fact a blown turbo, rather than the entire engine. This all meant that the #88 had to negotiate the smog, but once it’d done so, its prize was to inherit the lead. The #100 Schubert BMW’s uglier sister was forced into retirement. The #2 Audi had by now slipped to ninth, just ahead of the #6 in tenth. It was already looking like the race had potential to be a dismal one for the four rings.
Leading up to the midway point of the race, Mercedes asserted their dominance by locking out the top 5.
Conditions continued to improve and we saw the frontrunners go onto intermediates, then onto slicks. Once everyone was back on an even keel in terms of pit-stops, the #88 Haribo car had extended its lead to over a minute. The drivers on-board that car also had the relief of the #8 being retired from the race. Why do I say that? Well, both cars had an identical driver lineup. Had both cars continued, I can only imagine how absolutely knackered Alzen, Arnold, Götz and Seyffarth would have been by the end. The #8 was retired due to sustaining damaged steering at Pflanzgarten.
Also sharing his duties with two cars was Maro Engel, and the two went through contrasting fortunes, with the #4 climbing the order into second and the #9 he’d started the race with slipping into fourth. They were joined by the #30 HTP Merc in a 2 second time gap scrap for second as the race plundered on into full darkness.
Yet another driver double-shifting was Aston Martin’s Darren Turner, but not long after 1am, he was driving just one. The #007 Vantage GT3 retired with a damaged chassis, meaning he’d be fresher in the #42 GT8.
At around 2am, it was time for me to take centre stage. Reading through live timing, looking for how ‘Bugs Bunny’ was getting on in the #67 Porsche, I noticed he was driving alongside ‘Schiller’. As a fan of Marc VDS in GT3 racing last season, I do still keep an occasional eye on how they’re doing in the Renault Sport Trophy and wondered if this was Fabian Schiller. For those who don’t know, Fabian is a 19 year old German driver and the son of Hardy Schiller, who has also raced in the 24 hours of Nürburgring in the past. Being praised live on air for this spot of mine was quite satisfying, to be fair! It’s worth noting that so far this season, he’s won his first race for Marc VDS at Aragon and also finished top of his class in the 2nd round at Imola. He’s no mug. Marc VDS, of course, have a hell of a lot of history themselves in 24 hour races.
Pit-stops began to take their toll and assert their influence on the race as shortly before the midway mark, the #88 had a longer than expected stop to repair front bodywork damage with a bit of the good ol’ tape applied to the bonnet. If it can’t be fixed with tape…
At this point, its lead ahead of the very quick Maro Engel in the #4 was 23.6 seconds.
As we moved on towards the 18th hour, we saw the #88 lose and regain the lead during each pit cycle. The #1 Audi, which had crept into the top 10 – again, much to my delight – had to pit for a new set of tyres following a puncture, and we saw the #22 ROWE BMW retire.
Let’s focus on Audi though, because much to my frustration, they were having a shambolic race overall. Within 3 laps, the 3 best placed Audis all suffered setbacks. Nico Müller in the #1 collided with the barriers after trying to avoid another car’s spin. In doing so he found spilt oil on part of the track. The collision with the barrier caused damage to the rear suspension and the car returned into 90th position. A massive, massive drop from where he was previously. THEN there was a collision between Markus Winklehock and Connor de Philippi in the #6 and #28 respectively after a mistake in a Code 60 zone. Engineers made attempts to save the #28 but to no avail. Neither car returned to the action.
Another retirement along the way came for the #30 HTP Mercedes, that of Blancpain GT pairing Dominik Baumann and Maxi Buhk, along with Thomas Jäger and Stefan Mücke. They got involved in an accident at Adenauer Forst.
Meanwhile, the leading #88 Haribo Mercedes was staving off a challenge from the #4 Black Falcon, now in the hands of Adam Christodoulou who was evidently determined to keep up the good work produced by Schneider, Metzger and Engel earlier on, as he set a fastest lap of the race prior to his stop. Behind that little fracas, the #29 of Christian Hohenadel inherited the lead once the #88 pitted. This kind of toing and froing went on for quite some time, making things all the more unpredictable. Generally though, despite the quick laps set by Christodoulou in the #4, they were never a serious threat at this stage as they were out of sync with the pit-stops of the other cars in the chasing pack.
The #18 BMW M6 GT3 that retired earlier in the race (the #100’s ugly sister) miraculously made a comeback to the race following a full engine change! Needless to say, it was a long, long way behind at this stage.
Following another round of pit-stops, Uwe Alzen led, but under the very close attentions of Christodoulou right behind. This was mainly down to the #25 Lamborghini holding the race leader up for no reason whatsoever, despite being laps down but then letting the #4 through. Game on, as we now had a proper battle temporarily.
Sadly, the end was nigh for the beautiful #100 car. As it was shunted on the grand prix loop and had to retire.
With 6 hours remaining, the #88 of Alzen led the #4 of Christodoulou. The best of the Audis being the #2 of Stuart Leonard in P7.
Into the final 6 hours then and the race had become a four-way Mercedes battle. I’d already resigned to the fact that Audi were getting nothing this year, after such a good performance last time around, so I stuck my neck out and backed the #4 in the battle with the #88.
What I didn’t necessarily expect was the #88 losing the lead to the #29 of Hohenadel during a pit cycle. Once the cycle had taken effect, the #88 slipped to fourth. Endurance racing has a habit of wearing you out, mentally, but for some reason I just can’t peel my eyes away. It grips you in ways you can’t always describe to those who are outsiders. Astoundingly, we’d now seen such a significant shift that the #29 led by 11 seconds from the #9. The #4 was third and the aforementioned #88 rounding off the top four.
Twist number 83,974 of the race so far… rain! With 5 hours left, the leading #29 pitted in order to put on cut slicks. The frontrunners all continued to take it in turns to hand each other the lead. As I walked into work, I was tuned into Radio Le Mans, who were having a chat with Marco Seefried. The information provided was that Renge van de Zande was apparently the most comfortable of the #29 drivers in the wet and boy did he prove it as he reduced the gap more and more to the now ahead-again #88. Eventually, he took the lead from the Haribo car as it too pitted. That car was also handed a 92 second stop and go penalty as a result of not respecting Code 60 zone rules – yet another twist in the tale!
With little over 2 hours remaining, the #88 and #9 Mercedes had a couple of battles; one for third place and then another for second.
With ONE hour remaining, it was still ALL to play for.
The final pitstop for the #4 Black Falcon saw the utterly brilliant Bernd Schneider get out of the car with Maro Engel getting in. At this point, I had a rejuvenated sense of hope that the #4 would win. Even as a staunch Audi fan in all forms of motorsport (apart from Formula E) I couldn’t help but still be enthralled by the finish. No matter what stance you take, it’s impossible to take anything away from Mercedes for their improved GT3 performances this year, they’ve been fantastic and this race was evidence for that. I had my heart and mind set on the #4. Tactically, the team seemed more alert to me.
It had become clear that HTP had expected to go the distance without refuelling, trying to get by without pitting whilst the others did. A bold move, but would they pull it off?
Show time. With 10 minutes and effectively 2 laps to go, HTP surprised everybody, including a very tense Radio Le Mans crew, by pitting for a splash and dash. The car wouldn’t start back up again so the pit crew had to give it a push start; Paul Truswell stating that there was no rule against doing so. Valuable time lost, however, and Engel, on that penultimate lap, had just set the fastest lap time of the entire race (8:19.002). He genuinely could not have timed his run any better.
This was now going to be officially the closest ever finish to a Nürburgring 24 hours. Christian Hohenadel was now left with the task of holding off a very rapid Maro Engel in the #4 Black Falcon Merc, and he only now had a 5 second head start. It was now on the same stretch of track. This was now effectively a sprint race between the race leaders, across the most dangerous and challenging circuit on the planet.
This had now become one of the most nail-biting finishes I’d ever witnessed in motorsport. On every single corner Hohenadel blitzed through, you could see Engel slipping into vision and then through that same corner. But faster. Engel was lapping quicker. He had the better car, that was clear.
In the pits, HTP were hugging each other, as far as they were concerned, the race was won. This was the final lap. If that were to be the case, Christian Hohenadel would now have to drive the lap of his life. Nobody was entirely sure if this was the final or the penultimate lap.
The #4 now had to negotiate traffic on its way round, you could tell how much Engel was pushing, the way he aggressively negotiated each apex was not only risky, but also insanely impressive. As they soared through the Hatzenbach, the gap seemed a couple of seconds smaller, was it at any stage? Who knows? The helicopter shots showed that the #29 was till quite some distance ahead, but in reality, the lead had now been cut. Engel was closing. It was at this moment that I was so fucking grateful that I was on my lunch break at work, watching this.
As we moved into 5 minutes remaining, Radio Le Mans swiftly realised this was in fact the penultimate lap. Engel was closing and he was going to have another tilt at it. He had time and space to turn this into a race-winning opportunity. What’s more, he’d just set the fastest sector 3 of the whole race too with a 1:57.1 on the lap that counted. At this stage, they may as well have been side by side.
Hohenadel negotiated 2 back markers with sublime skill, real eye of the needle stuff. Engel got a clearer run. Closing even more. Then they slipped onto the Karussell, the #29 got caught right on the backside of a Porsche. Again, Engel got a completely clear run into and out of the Karussell. By this point, he’s right on the #29’s tail. No need for a stopwatch now. More traffic though. Engel was held back by a fraction of a second, in fact there was barely any difference made.
Onto the final lap then, 0.7 seconds the gap. They weaved in and out of 7 corners of the grand prix circuit, then turn 8… the straight leading onto turn 8… Engel braked as late as he dared and took a very firm but fair pass. Contact was made but Engel had done no wrong. He held on and over the course of the final lap sought about building his lead. His pace was far superior to that of Hohenadel, whose previous momentum had now dissipated and Engel took the chequered flag following the remainder of that final, rather comfortable lap.
A truly stunning drive from not just Engel – though the race will be remembered for his sparkling display on the last 3 laps – but also from the evergreen Bernd Schneider and the truly brilliant Manuel Metzger. Adam Christodoulou was also fantastic when it mattered. Every single driver in that car put in the performance of their life, and that’s what this is about. Can you negotiate all weather? Have you got the lineup to do it? Have you got the car to do it?
Fair play to Black Falcon and Mercedes in general, they had the car and they had the drivers to do it.
Watch out in Spa though, Audi’s top finisher came 8th this time around and they won’t take that lightly.
Anyone wanting to watch the final 3 laps can do so here.