We Race the Nürburgring 24 and Live to Tell About It
Navigating the Green Hell through the dark and the rain is harrowing and utterly exciting
Considering I'm about to sleep on a bench in the back of a truck while still wearing a sweaty race suit, I feel on top of the world. I've just had one of the greatest driving experiences of my life: hammering into dusk at impossible speed, howling past slower traffic, and looking on in awe as the leading pack of GT3 cars muscle past in a shower of sparks, flames, and attitude. The Green Hell at its most heavenly on a balmy, dry evening and my race car—a 500-hp AMG GT4—getting faster and faster in the cool, dense air. If this is what the Nürburgring 24 hour is all about, sign me up forever.
Even better, my teammates and I have concocted a plan to maximize our night running: We'll double-stint because conditions are so good and save our secret weapon—five-time DTM champion, four-time Nürburgring 24 winner, and all-around legend Bernd Schneider—for the morning. Rain is forecast, and Schneider's experience and freakish talent will make all the difference. I sleep as sound as can be for two hours or so.
Waking up under harsh LED lights is a bit of a shock. My back aches, and one of my legs is numb where it's rested over a gear bag. But what's worse is that sound. It's a faint but unmistakable "shhhhhhh" at first, like aluminum foil being swished around the room. Then it builds to a gentle but insistent drumming. Rain. My heart sinks. The precipitation that was scheduled for 6 a.m. has come early. And it isn't going anywhere until well after the race ends at 3:30 p.m.
"Don't be an ass. Keep it out of the barriers. Be brave." The latter is key.
My double stint starts in 20 minutes or so, at 2:30 a.m.—just when the rain really kicks off. As I stumble out of the truck and into the garage, Pim de Wit, our performance engineer (he looks at the data and tells us why we're slower than Schneider), tells me, "Monsoon rain, possibly ice rain [he means hail, but it sounds so much scarier when a German spits out 'ice rain'] is coming fast." I nod confidently. Then head for the restroom.
Rain is of course a part of racing. But rain at the 'Ring is different. It's somehow bigger, wetter, and more dangerous. And the sheer scale of the track, its hemmed-in narrowness and its total lack of runoff areas, make it hugely intimidating even for the experienced. Me? I've done the N24 before but always in mercifully dry conditions and in cars slower than our monster AMG. We're running in the top 25. Falling into the cold clutches of those endless shimmering barriers is the stuff of nightmares.
So I wait in the pit lane, sky flashing great purple streaks of lightning. Christian Gebhardt, another of my teammates, brings the car in, and I rip open the door, pull out his radio and drink connectors, and stand back for him to climb out. Then I fold myself into the seat. He straps me into the harnesses, and my earpiece chirps to life. It's Marius Dietrich, our race engineer, calm as can be. "OK, Jethro, reset fuel, select driver position four. You have new wet tires. We expect more and more rain. Sixty kph in the pit lane, watch the white line on pit exit." Then a pause. "Take it easy." And with that I'm given the signal to join the mayhem.
At this precise moment I long for a track with endless runoff areas, an overzealous race director throwing out the red flag at the first hint of drizzle, and a nice, quiet car. This is the other side of old-school no-holds-barred racing, and suddenly it seems more foolhardy than heroic. But I have just a few seconds to contemplate what's ahead. The moment I cross the line at the end of the pit lane, there's no thinking time. That's probably for the better, as surely I'd just pull over, park it, and hitch a lift to the hotel bar. We all would.
The N24 combines the modern grand prix circuit with the craggy old Nordschleife to make a circuit of more than 15 miles. That means for the first minute or so there is some margin for error on the smooth Formula 1-spec tarmac. It's a great chance to get a feel for the car and work some heat into the tires. Racing "wets" are amazing things; the AMG still has loads of braking capacity and surprisingly good traction. I'm running engine map one, which saves fuel and reduces torque, but it still reels in everything but the fearsome GT3s at an alarming pace. Weirdly, I'm not so worried about the corners. I can feel the understeer or oversteer build. Hydroplaning, on the other hand, scares the bejesus out of me. Just how quickly can I go on the faster sections before I start floating and sail into the barriers? Erm, who knows?
Turning left for the first time from the expanses of the well-lit GP track and being swallowed up by the darkness of the Nordschleife is unforgettable. I distinctly remember saying, "Here we go … " aloud to myself. Then, silently, giving myself a set of simple instructions: "Don't be an ass. Keep it out of the barriers. Be brave." The latter is key. Your natural instinct is to creep around as carefully as possible, but to do so just sends your confidence spiraling into the pits of hell. Tires lose temperature, the ABS starts working overtime, the car runs away from you on turn-in as the front tires skate over the surface and the rear tries to bite you as soon as you dare think of opening the throttle.
I know this because my first lap indeed plays out like a nightmare. I'm not brave, and the car and the track punish me over and over again with scary near misses. Think back to your school days and the moment of panic when you realize you haven't prepared nearly enough for an exam. You get a hot feeling up your neck and a sudden burst of furious heart pumping that literally shakes your ribcage. Now imagine that half-second physical reaction to swelling panic coming over and over again. You're drowning. That's a wet lap of the 'Ring in the dead of night.
The second lap is slightly better, but I still feel like I'm walking the car around the circuit. When I make it back to the GP section and begin lap three, I'm determined to start actually driving. So I pick up the pace. I keep the throttle wide open on the straights even when the speeds creep up to 150 mph. I brake a little later, turn in a bit harder, and use the wider "wet line" more confidently.
Every lap there's a new crash and more yellow flags and Code 60s (at the scene of bigger crashes, a 60-kph temporary speed limit is imposed), and my car feels a little better. I wouldn't say I'm driving fast, but nothing comes past me except the odd super-committed GT3 car, and I'm picking off other GT4s pretty easily. Even so, this really is endurance rather than enjoyment. My internal coaching is now interrupted by proper shouting: "This is horrible. … Why am I doing this? … Please stop raining!"
Finally, after 11 laps, my stint is over, and the plan for me to do a double is abandoned. I hand over to Schneider, or "Five-Time" as he's known within the team. The No. 190 Mercedes disappears into the gloom and the spray as I stand in the pit lane soaked from sweat, exhausted, and so, so relieved. I wasn't an ass. I kept it out of the barriers. I was brave. Eventually.
After the Nordschleife's oppressive darkness, the pit garage feels floodlit and weirdly disconnected to the mayhem playing out on the track. "Good job, mate," Pim says. "Nobody around us was going as quickly." I glance at the screens, and we're running in 22nd. I am utterly elated. Then I realize the race is barely past the halfway mark just as Fabian Jung, team manager, delivers a line that almost floors me. "Bernd is in for a double. Then it's you again. Sorry."
Those incredible, earlier laps in the dry—sun setting and the 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 flinging the car along with a sense of unstoppable force—seem so long ago. Flying into the Foxhole in sixth gear and keeping the throttle pinned to the bulkhead into the compression at the bottom, jumping over the big rise before the fast left of Schwendenkreuz at well above 150 mph, working through the endless third- and fourth-gear twists and turns toward the end of the lap and feeling the GT4's incredible stability—it's all out of reach.
I won't feel the euphoria of a fast, dry lap again, nor will I get the amazing physical sensation of leaning and leaning on the car and it pushing back, barely shrugging at what you ask it to do. Now it's just rain and survival. I eat a schnitzel from a cardboard box and go back to my bench. Sleep doesn't come easily. But I do sleep. A bit. And when I awake the plan has changed.
Patrick Simon, who's experienced and very, very quick, will be in next, so I can relax. Schneider has seen it all before, but even he looks a little ruffled. "How was it?" I ask. His eyes widen. "No grip. Understeer, oversteer … all the time." He mimes the car slipping out of his hands. "It's ****ing dangerous." I've been with Schneider for the best part of a week, and it's the first time I've heard him curse. His thoughts mirror mine exactly.
I hope this sense of impeding dread doesn't make me feel ungrateful. To be a part of this event is pure magic, and even in dire conditions there are moments you just can't buy: rushing into the dark with lightning splitting great chasms in the sky; GT3 cars dancing past, front wheels a blur as the driver catches every mini-slide; the rear of the cars sparking over curbs or into compressions. Every lap is a privilege. But the stakes are high in every sense.
And so it continues. Another fearsomely slippery stint, this time with the added bonus of heavy fog and more near misses. More unbelievably exciting overtakes and more shouting into my crash helmet. Through it all, though, the AMG GT4 just keeps going. Passing slower cars and hanging on gamefully to the GT3s. The race is stopped for fog then restarts. Fittingly, Schneider takes the checkered flag. We finish 22nd overall, first in class, and with only GT3 cars ahead of us. It's over. Thank God. Take me home. Can't wait until next year.