THE OTHER 24HRS
The Nürburgring 24h saw another Aston victory. Meaden drives the winning car
‘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.