Stephen Errity, GT correspondent
Nurburgring 24 Hours: Thursday Qualifying and Paddock Notes
The event in numbers
The Nurburgring 24 Hours may be a one-off event, but its sheer scale dwarfs an entire season of many other racing series. The 2012 running is the 40th edition of the race and will be contested by over 170 cars piloted by about 600 drivers. Around 200,000 spectators are expected to attend over the course of the event, and everything is kept running smoothly by a team of 2,000 staff. But perhaps the craziest number is seven – that's how many cars have to share each garage in the unbelievably busy Nurburgring 24 Hours pitlane.
New qualifying format
Drivers often comment that qualifying for 24-hour races carries little importance, as the race provides so much time for the fastest cars to come to the front. But this year at the Nurburgring, the organizers have implemented a new Top 40 qualifying shootout to inject more excitement into proceedings. Each car that makes it into this session will complete two timed qualifying runs on the Nordschleife, running at ten-second intervals to ensure they don't get held up by traffic. To further guarantee a level playing field, the order in which the Top 40 runs will be determined by a random draw. Ten of the Top 40 slots have been pre-assigned to cars that run in the German VLN series, which holds shorter-duration races at the Nordschleife throughout the season. These include challengers for overall victory in the 24 Hours such as the Black Falcon, Rowe Racing and Hankook-Heico Mercedes SLS entries; the Phoenix Racing Audi R8s; the Team Schubert and Team Vita4One BMW Z4s, plus the Falken Motosports and Timbuli Racing Porsche 911s. The remainder of the grid outside the Top 40 will be based on times set during Thursday night and Friday afternoon's regular qualifying sessions.
Heidfeld and Ludwig team up at the Ring
One is a recent mover from F1, the other is a German touring-car and endurance-racing legend: Nick Heidfeld and Klaus Ludwig will be joining forces in the Gemballa Racing McLaren MP4-12C GT3, along with Heidfeld's old Formula 3 team-mate Sascha Berth and Hendrik Vieth. We caught up with Heidfeld in the busy Gemballa Racing garage during Thursday night's qualifying. Smiling from ear to ear, he said the lower speed of the GT car compared to the F1 and LMP1 machinery he has been driving has taken some getting used to, but that he absolutely loves driving the Nordschleife in any car. Ludwig says their aim is simply to finish the race – but adds that if they do so, he expects them to be running strongly in the overall top ten. “Endurance race? Forget it,” he laughs. “Today the 24 Hours is a sprint race from start to finish. There are 30 top cars and they are all very reliable and stable. So you have to go flat out right from the start.” We'll be keeping a close eye on this car's progress throughout the weekend.
Spa and Nurburgring race organisers to award new 24-Hour Trophy
The German ADAC and Belgian RACB motoring clubs, organizers of the Nurburgring and Spa 24-Hour races respectively, have come together to offer a special trophy to three highest-finishing GT3 teams on aggregate that enter both events. The 24-Hour Trophy presentation will take place immediately after the Spa 24 Hours podium ceremony, on July 29.
What does a lap of the Nordschleife involve for the tyres?
The Nurburging Nordschleife is a legendarily demanding circuit for drivers. But what about the four circles of black rubber connecting them to its hallowed tarmac? Just how hard do the tyres work on a lap of this unique track? Dunlop Motorsport, tyre supplier to much of the field, including many of the top-flight teams, gave some insight: At Aremberg, about a quarter of the way around the 25km lap, there's an extremely heavy braking area. The 3G compression of Fuchsrohe sees the tyres having to withstand three times their normal load, while at Breidscheid, the uneven surfact tests the tyres to the limit. Through the banked Karussel corner, the tyres experience increased lateral load and sidewall pressure, while at Pflanzgarten the whole weight of the car presses down on the rubber after becoming airborne. On the long Dottingher Hohe straight, the shoulder of the tyre comes under stress due to the relatively small contact patch experienced at the Nurburging. This is due to the high camber run by most cars.
With Thursday night's mammoth four-hour qualifying session in the bag, the #11 Manthey Racing Porsche 911 driven by the highly fancied line-up of Marc Lieb, Romain Dumas, Lucas Luhr and Richard Lietz sits at the top of the timesheets with a time of 8:27.671. The Mamerow Racing Audi R8 trailed them by just over two seconds, with a shorter gap back to the third-place Audi Sport Team Phoenix R8 of Marc Basseng, Christopher Haase, Frank Stippler and Marcus Winkelhock. The #18 Team Vita4One car is currently the fastest BMW Z4 in the field, while the new GT3 Aston Martin Vantage V12 is showing strongly in fifth place thanks to the efforts of factory drivers Stefan Mucke and Tomas Enge. The Gemballa Racing McLaren with Nick Heidefeld and Klaus Ludwig at the wheel was ninth – confirming the drivers' earlier predictions of top-10 pace. Many teams used the extended qualifying to work on race set-up, however, so tomorrow morning's two-hour session could see significant changes to the order.