The Nurburgring 24 Is Europe’s Best Race. Here’s Why It Was Missing Five Crucial Things in 2020
It’s a party that makes Le Mans look tame. But in a pandemic, it had to change the equation a bit.
Held annually since 1970, the 24 Hours Nürburgring is the most exciting and enjoyable endurance race held in Europe. The tightness of the Nordschleife, the weather and the revelry of the fans camping around the circuit all make Le Mans look like a church bake sale by comparison. It's usually held in late May or early June to have the best chance for good weather in the mountainous woods of western Germany.
This year, however, has not been like most years. Like nearly every other facet of life, the N24 had to come to terms with a pandemic.
The uncertainty triggered by the first wave of the coronavirus in March postponed the race to late September. As a result, the 15.77-mile combined track consisting of the Nordschleife and the GP Circuit saw only 97 entrees racing in 21 classes—around half the usual number of cars on the starting grid.
For the fans, there was even more bad news. Just like at Le Mans a week prior, the race was supposed to be held with no spectators at all, and with very limited media presence as well. That meant that apart from a few people allowed on the GP grandstands, fans had to watch from a distance while BMW scored a well-deserved victory by having two of its M6 GT3s on the podium. The N24 is legendary for its camping parties, but this year, the forest was quieter than it's been in almost 50 years.
It must also be noted that the actual racing lasted only 14.5 hours due to heavy raining that called for a red flag just before the night. The weather has cut the racing shorter at the N24 before, namely in 1992, 1994, 2007, 2013, 2016 and 2018, of which the hailstorm four years ago must be the most memorable.
I braved the pandemic—with as many safety measures as I could muster, of course—to see if the N24 could still put on a good show despite 2020's general awfulness. (As a result, most of the photos you're about to see are from 2019's race. I wanted to show you what a "normal" N24 looks like, and what we missed out on this year, with everyone socially distant instead.)
While this year's event went down without a hailstorm over the Eifel mountains, there are the five things I hope to see back at the 24 Hours Nürburgring in 2021, maybe held once again in late spring or early summer, and hopefully way past the COVID lockdowns.
Your The Drive live reporting
Ever since I first drove to this race from Budapest in 2014, only to cover it while sleeping on the office floor of racing ace Robb Holland's nearby garage, I've been hooked on the atmosphere and action the Nürburgring offers by default. The history, the community, the greenness of the region littered with random prototypes from major OEMs, plus the sheer surreality of this nearly 16-mile circuit that's open to everybody just got to me.
This year, I was supposed to get a "Volkswagen Polo or similar" rental car on the other side of Germany, make my way to the 'Ring in a day or so, only to drive James Glickenhaus' first road-going SCG 004S prototype just after the company founder did his parade laps.
Looking at the whole weekend, I could have reported on how the only American team with its brand new center seater 004C achieved the fastest top speed overall at 175 mph, finishing at 14th overall ahead of a whole fleet of GT3 cars, despite its ABS system being totally not ready for a wet track. There would have been a story on BMW's victory as well, and that's only scratching the surface.
Instead, four days before my flight was due, Germany issued new quarantine regulations, making it impossible for me to report from the Nürburgring 24 Hours in 2020. I shall see you there next year, hopefully along with an SCG that began making road cars in Connecticut by then. That will help with the FIA and the team's GT3 dreams.
Last year, 150 race cars and almost 700 drivers took part in the 24-hour race, making this massive event interesting enough for a whopping 200,000 visitors. Past Friday, once you grab a Bitburger and go for a long walk around certain sections of the Nürburgring, it becomes clear that the N24 fans take their weekly motorsport-infused techno-folk festival a touch more seriously than your average race spectators, but without taking themselves too seriously.
You almost have to see it for yourself to understand what I'm on about. There are purpose-built vintage trucks booked for the same patch of the forest each year, equipped with raised sofas for the perfect view, also carrying as much beer and frozen Jägermeister as the rest of the camping equipment would allow for.
Others mount multi-screen TV systems on the fence, tie swings to the tallest branches they can reach by the track, construct pools for those inevitable foam parties and crank up their hi-fi stereos so loudly that you'll swear you now exist in the "Phatt Bass" video.
Then comes the main night over Saturday, when spectators keep feeding their bonfires with whatever they can still find, while multiple fireworks light up the sky above the already intense race towards sunrise.
In May 2018, retired DTM racer Olaf Manthey's factory-backed Porsche team won the 24 Hours of Nürburgring with its green and yellow 911 GT3 R driven by Frédéric Makowiecki, Patrick Pilet, Richard Lietz and Nick Tandy. In November, the same crew sent their highly modified GT2 RS MR to the Nordschleife to set a "production" lap record at 6:40.33. When it comes to the 'Ring, Manthey's got what it takes.
Unfortunately, after some of its team members tested positive for the virus after Le Mans, Porsche had to pull its participants from the Nürburgring 24. Not having its multiple N24-winning local Manthley Racing piloting the SP9-class cars this year meant all the 911 GT3 R could grab was a 7th and a 10th place, thanks to the Frikadelli Racing Team and Falken Motorsports.
Meanwhile, one special Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport MR CS built by Manthley Racing and wearing Four Motors' #420 tackled the challenge featuring wood and flax body panels. With BMW taking the overall cake in 2020 for the 20th time in the N24's history, Manthey's 911 GT3 R shall be extra spicy for 2021.
The night driving
Come rain or shine, surviving the night is the ultimate challenge here.
Nobody was shocked to see that this year's inevitable storm led to a 9.5-hour red flag session right through the dark, certainly making it easier on the teams, yet also less spine-tingling. Fighting the elements with the utmost respect is crucial, as a small mistake in the wet, and the Nordschleife's always too-close barriers are likely to knock you out of the race.
The Manta, Calibra and the Viper CC
Of the 160-220 entrees each year, there are plenty of teams campaigning cars that you just wouldn't expect to see in the same race as Audis, BMWs, Porsches, Lamborghinis, Mercedes-AMGs, Ferraris and Aston Martin's latest GT3 cars. Yet that's the beauty of the Nürburgring 24. Unlike Le Mans or Daytona, this 24-hours challenge is open to anybody with the experience, dedication and respect the Nordschleife demands.
One fan favorite is the 1988 Opel Manta known as for its foxtail on the antenna. It's an iconic car that's been racing at the Nürburgring in the sub-2-liter SP3 class for 20 consecutive years, first operated by Kissling Motorsport, and then ran by Olaf Beckmann's crew in 2019.
This year, however, the Manta had to stay away from the race, as following a failure at the ROWE 6-hour ADAC Ruhr-Pokal race back in August, the team just couldn't source the replacement parts for its custom clutch and other components in time for the main show.
Entered by MSC Adenau e.V., TJ-Racing's former Deutsche Tourenwagen Challenge Opel Calibra is another classic worthy of all the cheering. As team manager and driver Tobias Jung explained three years ago, their rapid 1990s touring car got every upgrade from the catalog for the 2017 season:
"We have revised the Calibra completely. This includes a new and more powerful engine, a new gearbox and power steering. We have moreover reduced the weight by about 130 pounds and modified the underbody. We are confident that these adjustments will result in improved performance. New instruments will also be used in the cockpit.”
TJ-Racing's hot Opel Astras were hard at work in 2020, yet the yellow Calibra has now been transferred to race in the Touring Car Legends series instead. This is 1989's most aerodynamic production car seen here at its best form in 2019.
The Dodge Viper Competition Coupes are the GT3-spec customer racing cars offered by Chrysler after the discontinuation of its factory GTS-R GT1 program. They were built by Oreca, gradually upgraded to offer GT2-levels of performance as an option. Seeing one flooring its V10 for 24 hours at the Nürburgring is something you're not likely to forget, not to mention that this skate-aid car racing between 2017 and 2019 even did charity work for the children.
In 2020, however, all we got from the now LPG-powered "green beast" is this cheerful gallery.
As long as this race stays on each year, it is bound to remain fantastic, mostly thanks to the location and the wide range of dedicated contenders who always help each other out. Knowing that, all I can keep my fingers crossed for is that by late spring of 2021, the authorities can allow for the fans to return and camp out by their favorite race track, ready to explode into a glorious N24 forest jam fuelled by gallons of pils and an endless supply of pretzels.
As for the teams? BMW got the win this year, so 2021 shall favor either Audi or Porsche, unless of course BMW refuses to get slower or AMG finds some extra speed. With that German game settled, SCG should finish within the top ten while we cheer for a certain Opel Manta to survive.
All images apart from SCG's by the author from the 2019 N24. Got a tip? Send us a note: firstname.lastname@example.org