THE OTHER 24HRS

The Nür­bur­gring 24h saw an­other As­ton vic­tory. Meaden drives the win­ning car

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS RICHARD MEADEN

‘IT’S FULLY CRAZY. IF LE MANS IS A SWORD- FIGHT, N24 IS A FULL-ON PUB BRAWL!’

As­ton Martin Rac­ing’s dra­matic, last-lap class win at Le Mans rightly stole the head­lines, but it wasn’t the first time an As­ton had won its class in a ma­jor 24-hour race in 2017. That hon­our fell to the Van­tage GT8 com­pet­ing in the Nür­bur­gring 24 Hours, or N24 as it’s known by endurance rac­ing fans.

The N24 took place a month be­fore Le Mans, and the win­ning car was built and run not by As­ton Martin Rac­ing (AMR) but byas­ton Martin Lagonda’s Q Ad­vanced Op­er­a­tions di­vi­sion, based at Welles­bourne. It was the lat­est in a line of suc­cesses in the N24, which AML has long used to show­case the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of its road cars.

The pro­gramme be­gan back in 2006, un­der the lead­er­ship of Dr Ul­rich Bez. With AMR’S fo­cus very much on Le Mans and the World Endurance Cham­pi­onship, Bez could see the po­ten­tial and op­por­tu­ni­ties in mak­ing the N24 a mean­ing­ful and high-pro­file sign-off in the de­vel­op­ment of the com­pany’s road cars.

That was a dozen years ago, in which time the com­plex­ion of the N24 has changed al­most be­yond recog­ni­tion. Back in 2006 it was very much a race for all-com­ers. With the ca­pac­ity for 200 or so cars, a broad and ac­com­mo­dat­ing class struc­ture and a unique bal­ance of pro­fes­sional, ex­pe­ri­enced ama­teur and hob­by­ist teams, the vibe was a throw­back to the ’60s and ’70s.

This was re­flected in As­ton’s first N24 foray, which was very much a home­spun ef­fort. Start­ing with a 4.3-litre V8 Van­tage for­merly used as an emis­sions test­ing pro­to­type, a hand­ful of AML tech­ni­cians stripped the car back, con­verted it for rac­ing and headed for the ’Ring. Res­o­lutely road-le­gal and close to pro­duc­tion stan­dard, it was raced by Bez, to­gether with de­vel­op­ment en­gi­neer Chris Por­ritt, head of the Nür­bur­gring Test Cen­tre Wolf­gang Schuh­bauer and re­spected Ger­man mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ist Horst von Sau­rma. They drove a fault­less race, the car never missed a beat and the N24 im­me­di­ately be­came baked into As­ton Martin’s prod­uct de­vel­op­ment and mar­ket­ing pro­grammes.

A dozen years on, rac­ing at the Nür­bur­gring re­mains some­thing close to As­ton Martin’s heart. Things are a bit slicker than they used to be, but many of the faces are the same and the de­sire to field cars that re­flect the lat­est road prod­uct is still strong. As last year, As­ton de­cided to run a race-pre­pared Van­tage GT8, this time crewed by AMR reg­u­lars Dar­ren Turner and Nicki Thiim, to­gether with long-stand­ing As­ton N24 driver Peter Cate and Markus Lungstrass, who shared the GT8 racer with Turner at the Bathurst 12 Hours in Aus­tralia at the be­gin­ning of the year.

Af­ter some bad luck in the pre­vi­ous few N24s – par­tic­u­larly last year, when the GT8 crashed out of a solid class lead – it felt as though As­ton was due some suc­cess. And so it proved, the GT8 do­ing what As­tons have come to do so well at the ’ Ring: cir­cu­late quickly and con­sis­tently, avoid trou­ble and stay out of the pits for any­thing other than a re­fill of petrol and a change of driver and tyres. Even a late down­pour in the last few laps of an other­wise freak­ishly hot and dry race couldn’t de­rail the GT8 from a hard-earned and well-de­served class vic­tory.

For Turner, driver in As­ton’s vic­to­ri­ous N24 and LM24 en­tries, the race holds a spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance: ‘N24 is a com­pletely dif­fer­ent event and my favourite 24-hour race by far,’ he tells Van­tage. ‘It’s fully crazy. If Le Mans is a sword­fight, N24 is a full-on pub brawl!

‘Do­ing it with the GT8 meant we’re not tilt­ing at an out­right win, but it’s a mas­sive chal­lenge just to fin­ish the race. As a driver you have to

quickly ac­cept that you can­not do the per­fect lap, be­cause it’s al­ways com­pro­mised by traf­fic, yel­low flags or in­ci­dents hap­pen­ing right next to you. Maybe once in a stint you get some clear track, but all you can do is try and be re­ally ef­fi­cient in the traf­fic.

‘The GT3 cars in the top SP9 class are built to race and take the pun­ish­ment, but I’m stag­gered that road-based cars like the GT8 can go the dis­tance. It’s a bru­tal, ex­treme en­vi­ron­ment to push cars so hard for so long. The GT8 was fan­tas­tic. Con­sis­tently quick in its class, easy to drive and tough as old boots. To take a class win at the Nür­bur­gring is very cool. Of course Le Mans is the Big One, but I love be­ing part of the N24 ad­ven­ture. Es­pe­cially when we win!’

IT FEELS ODD TO BE BACK in As­ton Martin’s pit box at the Nür­bur­gring. The last time I was here wear­ing race over­alls was as the che­quered flag fell on the N24 in 2014, cel­e­brat­ing a sec­ond­place fin­ish in the SP10 class in a V8 Van­tage GT4. Pri­vately I knew be­fore I started that it would be my last N24, thanks largely to a big ac­ci­dent in the pre­ced­ing VLN race a few weeks ear­lier. I still loved rac­ing, just not at the ’Ring.

I’m here to try the 2017 SP8 class win­ner in the fa­mously chaotic Fri­day free prac­tice ses­sion prior to an­other 4 Hour VLN race the fol­low­ing day. Just as I re­mem­ber it, the pit lane is a place of mad­ness, with cars and peo­ple ev­ery­where. Spon­sors’ guests are be­ing strapped into rac­ing cars tem­po­rar­ily fit­ted with pas­sen­ger seats for the af­ter­noon, while the re­ally se­ri­ous teams are get­ting in some early laps to check set-up or bed tyres and brakes.

As­ton Martin is part of the fur­ni­ture at th­ese race week­ends, but the cars stand out among the Porsches and BMWS and al­ways draw a crowd. No won­der, for the GT8 looks fab­u­lous. Broad and mus­cu­lar with very ob­vi­ously raced­erived aero tweaks to the car­bon­fi­bre body, it bears more than a pass­ing re­sem­blance to AMR’S Le Mans cars.

The in­te­rior is much more like that of a pure race-car than was the case with the early Van­tages and even the later Za­gatos that I raced here with the team. Back in 2009, when we won the SP8 class in a bright blue, road-le­gal V12 Van­tage (on the same week­end the pro­duc­tion car made its world de­but) it was still lit­tle more than a stripped-out road car with safety equip­ment and rac­ing brakes and dampers in place of the stan­dard road items. Sit­ting here in the GT8, that feels like a long time ago.

Just as they al­ways did, my nerves kick in as the air-jacks hiss and the car drops onto its wheels with a thud. The feel­ing and the rou­tine are hard to for­get: eyes on the tech­ni­cian wav­ing you into the flow of cars leav­ing the pit lane,

‘JUST AS THEY AL­WAYS DID, MY NERVES KICK IN AS THE AIRJACKS HISS AND THE CAR DROPS ONTO ITS WHEELS WITH A THUD’

foot on the brake, pull the right-hand pad­dle for a gear, squeeze the throt­tle and away we go. Out onto the mad­dest race­track of them all.

The car might look more se­ri­ous, but the sounds and sen­sa­tions are un­can­nily fa­mil­iar. Both to the other As­tons I’ve raced here, and to the GT8 road car. That’s the point, of course, but it’s nice to know As­ton’s mo­tor­sport ac­tiv­ity at the ’Ring is still more than just mar­ket­ing puff.

The stan­dard V8 en­gine snorts and barks with en­thu­si­asm, just as it al­ways has. The Sportshift trans­mis­sion still feels a bit clumsy, just as it al­ways has. As­ton’s sub-gt3 en­tries have never par­tic­u­larly en­joyed the long curves of the mod­ern GP cir­cuit, and though it feels grip­pier and keener than the cars I raced here, the mod­ern cir­cuit still high­lights the fact this is not a pure rac­ing car.

How­ever, once we pop up and out onto the old Nord­schleife, it’s a dif­fer­ent story, for the Van­tage feels very much at home. It’s the bal­ance of the chas­sis that’s al­ways im­pressed, more so now that the me­chan­i­cal grip has been sup­ple­mented by mean­ing­ful down­force. It feels so much more set­tled and com­posed over the bumps, poised where the wing­less cars felt fid­gety. It fills you with con­fi­dence.

On the Nord­schleife there are count­less places where you catch your breath. The sec­tion that never failed to make me squeeze the steer­ing wheel a lit­tle tighter was over the jump at Flug­platz, then through the quick dou­ble-apex right and on to­wards the su­per-fast crest­ing ap­proach to Sch­we­denkreuz. The GT8 feels beau­ti­fully planted all the way through here, squash­ing the crests and hold­ing one clean line through the cor­ners. You just need to show it trust and com­mit­ment on the way in, point the nose ac­cu­rately to­wards your apex, then chase that slightly giddy sen­sa­tion as you take the rest of the cor­ner with your right foot pinned.

This is where the GT8 has made big progress over its N24 pre­de­ces­sors. It feels lighter and more pre­cise ev­ery­where; calmer and less busy over the bumps and through the chal­leng­ing cor­ners, more sta­ble un­der brak­ing. It feels more like a rac­ing car.

One of the as­pects of the N24 I al­ways en­joyed was the feel­ing that you were tak­ing a road car into a big race. The GT8’S more pro­fes­sional ap­proach and fit-for-pur­pose feel has moved the game on, so there’s less coax­ing in­volved to get it round, but there’s still the feel­ing of rac­ing some­thing with road car un­der­pin­nings.

One thing I hadn’t ex­pected was how much slower it is on the straights. Back in the slip­pery, wing­less V12 Van­tage, we’d reg­u­larly nudge to­wards an in­di­cated 190mph on the long Döt­tinger Höhe straight. It went like a rocket, com­fort­ably quicker than the GT3 cars in the top SP9 class. The speed was big and you didn’t like to think about the con­se­quences of a blowout, but be­cause what was in your mir­rors as you ex­ited Gal­genkopf had got much smaller by the time you reached Tier­garten, the straight was a mo­ment of respite and a safe place to over­take.

In the GT8, even wind­ing the tacho nee­dle to the lim­iter in sixth doesn’t quite see the revs fall sweetly enough for the en­gine to get on top of sev­enth, so the speed tends to peg some­where be­tween 150 and 160mph. Only at the Nür­bur­gring could that be de­scribed as slow.

It’s great to get the op­por­tu­nity to test a win­ner like the GT8, es­pe­cially at the scene of its finest (24) hours. Le Mans is rightly the pin­na­cle of endurance rac­ing, but it breeds highly evolved race-cars. The Nür­bur­gring 24 Hours might have changed over the years, but it still of­fers some­thing dif­fer­ent, and the GT8 vin­di­cate­sas­ton Martin’s con­tin­ued en­thu­si­asm for the world’s wildest endurance race.

V

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MAX EAREY & SERGEJ FALK

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