Into the Dark­ness

Automobile - - Contents - By Jethro Bov­ing­don

Many driv­ers think they’re good enough to step into a race car and per­form at the sport’s high­est lev­els, but few ac­tu­ally are. When pre­sented with an op­por­tu­nity to race in the 24 Hours of the Nür­bur­gring in a Mercedes-AMG GT4, con­trib­u­tor Jethro Bov­ing­don finds out if he has the right stuff—a trial by fire made all the more dif­fi­cult by rac­ing at night and in the rain.

A WILD RIDE IN THE NÜR­BUR­GRING 24 CAN FEEL LIKE A DREAM— AND A NIGHT­MARE

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 is at its most heav­enly on a balmy, dry evening, and my race car—a 500-hp AMG GT4—is 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 (bot­tom right)—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.

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.

“DON’T BE AN ASS.

KEEP IT OUT OF THE BAR­RI­ERS.

BE BRAVE.”

T H E L AT T E R I S K E Y.

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 time to think. 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.

The Nür­bur­gring at night is the ul­ti­mate chal­lenge. Five-time DTMcham­pion Bernd Sch­nei­der has seen it all but still de­scribes it as “un­drive­able” in th­ese con­di­tions.

Our AMG GT4 races in the SP8T class— al­low­ing more aero and boost. The car laps the Nür­bur­gringin about 7 min­utes;only the fac­tory GT3 cars are faster. When it’s dry. But it’s never dry.

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