Stephen Errity, GT Correspondent
Basseng, Haas, Stippler and Winkelhock enjoy victory at The Ring
BMW had the pace and Mercedes looked potent at times, too, but it was Audi that vanquished the opposition at the 2012 Nurburgring 24 Hours with a dominant 1-2 finish courtesy of customer squads Team Phoenix and Mamerow Racing. Non-German marques didn't get a look in at any point during this fascinating race, which included carnage from multiple punctures in the early laps, as many as 17 GT3 cars running on the lead lap with nine hours already run – as well as a bizarre and dramatic conclusion to the battle for the final podium place.
“It was a great weekend, we had a perfect car and no problems,” said a delighted Markus Winkelhock, son of two-time N24 winner Joachim. “There are so many cars and drivers that could have won, which makes our victory even more satisfying. It means a lot for Audi, too. They've tried everything to win this race in the past and suffered a lot of bad luck, so we were under a lot of pressure this year. You need a lot of luck over 24 hours on the Nordschleife, and it was on our side this time.” Winkelhock was joined in the winning car by his regular GT1 World Championship team-mate Marc Basseng, as well as Christopher Haase and veteran Audi test and development driver Frank Stippler.
We are absolutely delighted about this long-desired victory.
"We are absolutely delighted about this long-desired victory," said Dieter Gass, Head of Racing Commitments at Audi Sport. "For three years, the Audi R8 was the best GT3 car at the Nurburgring. Now we have taken overall victory in the fight with seven other brands. Over the last 24 hours, nothing whatsoever was handed to us on a plate. Our victorious drivers and teams produced a fantastic, consistent and error-free performance. My sincerest congratulations go to our winners."
Until the halfway mark, the #19 works BMW had controlled the event, constantly managing the gap to its rivals and showing not a hint of weakness. But in the early hours of the morning, what looked like a regular pitstop turned into a protracted stay in the garage as the Team Schubert mechanics crawled all over the back of the car. The problem was a driveshaft, and by the time it and other ancillary components were replaced, all chance of victory had disappeared. The sister #20 car initially looked like it would take up the mantle and fight for the win, but several hours later it, too, was pulled inside for lengthy mechanical work. The one consolation the team can take from the event is that both cars finished, coming home seventh and eighth overall.
Amidst the chaos and carnage, the second-place Mamerow Racing Audi R8 had a quiet and unassuming race. But as lead driver Christian Mamerow explained, this was key to the result. “It was a very tough race – we lost a bit of time during the night,” he explained. “But we just stayed came and ensured we made no mistakes. It's a very special moment for me as I haven't done many 24-hour races before now.” Although the car he shared with DTM veteran Christian Abt, Michael Ammermuller and Armin Hahne finished in the position it qualified on the grid, it spent much of the race in the lower reaches of the top ten, staying out of the trouble that afflicted many others.
While the #3 car's victory looked fairly assured in the final hours of the race, third place was disputed right up to the chequered flag, leading to a truly extraordinary ending. What would have been a fight for fourth turned into a scrap for third when the #65 Heico-Hankook Mercedes began spewing smoke with less than 30 minutes left in the race.
Its eventual retirement promoted the embattled Manthey Racing #11 car to third, but hot on its tail was the still-healthy #66 Mercedes, crewed by Christian Frankenhout, Andreas Simonsen, Pierre Kaffer and Lance David Arnold. The SLS AMG was clearly the faster of the two, but Dumas in the Porsche put up a brave defensive performance in the closing laps. Crucially, the pace these two were running while they battled meant that they unlapped themselves from the leading #8 Audi – which meant they would have to complete an additional lap. But Dumas was running extremely low on fuel and elected to bring the Porsche to a stop just short of the finish line, intending to let the #66 Mercedes through into third. Yet as he didn't complete the final lap, the #11 wasn't classified as finishing the race. Even worse, as he slowed on the line, a Renault Clio Cup Car behind couldn't slow in time, and hit him on the start-finish straight.
Fourth instead went to the Marc VDS BMW Z4 – a remarkable performance from a team making its Nordschleife 24 Hours race debut, and one that was achieved by steady, consistent and mistake-free driving by Bas Leinders, Markus Palttala and Maxime Martin as they recovered from earlier tyre and clutch problems. "I'm extremely proud of all the team and what we've achieved this weekend,” said driver and team manager Leinders. “It hasn't been easy; the guys and the engineers from BMW have had to work extremely hard to make sure we arrived here with a competitive and reliable package. I think today's result, and some of the issues experienced by the other teams, shows quite clearly what a great job they did.”
Le Mans winner Marcel Fassler and his co-drivers Christopher Mies and Rene Rast were left wondering what might have been for their #2 Team Phoenix Audi R8, which also listed Frank Stippler on its driver roster. Having been best-placed to capitalise on the BMWs' misfortunes, they lead the race until shortly after dawn, when a sudden rain shower caught Mies out, leading to contact with another car and a delay while the resulting damage was repaired.
Another team rueing a missed opportunity was Rowe Racing, who at one stage looked a strong bet for the win, particularly when Klaus Graf got to demonstrate his formidable wet-weather skills during the morning shower. Later on Sunday, though, a heavy landing at one of the Ring's several 'airborne' sections damaged one of the dampers beyond speedy repair. But probably the most bitterly disappointed team at the event was Black Falcon, whose third-place-qualifying Mercedes SLS AMG saw its race ended after only a handful of laps by a dramatic tyre blowout on the high-speed Dottinger Hohe straight.
This was one of several tyre failures that blighted the early running. Another team to be affected was the works Aston Martin outfit, whose #006 and #007 V12 Vantage GT3s never got back on terms with the leaders after tyre failure and a clutch replacement respectively took them out of contention. The teams running McLaren MP4-12Cs also had a race to forget, with neither the two Dorr Motorsport cars nor single Gemballa Racing example making the finish. The Gemballa car's exit was particularly unfortunate, as it was heavily damaged in a clash with one of the race's many privateer touring-car entries.