- Sprint for the Flag

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Normally a 24-hour race is one of endurance, staying power and pain. 2009’s event at the Nürburgring was a shade different. The fastest race in the competition’s history, lap after lap was at full qualifying pace, with no let up. Andrew Mulholland relives the thrills and drama for you.

Day 1: Thursday Nürburgring 24 hour race... What the above words mean to you depends greatly on your past adventures and experiences. That said, no matter whether you’ve just seen Sabine drive round it on Top Gear, have been over for some Touristen Fahren, or you race there, you’ll know the little village in the Eifel mountains is home to a very special stretch of tarmac. For me, I’ve spent countless days, nights, weekends there, have racked up over 6000 miles around the track, and have experienced the 24-hour race as a spectator before. So I know what’s in store, and I’m rather excited.

The story starts in London on Wednesday evening. My partner in crime for this trip is Kevin - a 6ft 5 Irish guy who is almost as crazy about cars, motorsport, photography and the Nürburgring as I am. As a means of transport, we have my heavily modified M3 CSL, which is stripped, caged and generally not exactly the typical vehicle of choice for either long distance driving (500 miles each way), or for lugging us and photo gear along dirt tracks to locations around the circuit for shooting opportunities. So, on Wednesday evening, we go out for pizza and then try to get an early night ahead of the pre-dawn start for our journey.

Hah! Some hope of an early night and good sleep. Due to the arrival of a new puppy, I have not had time to pack before hand, so end up finally getting to bed after midnight, and doing so with a mind racing at the thought of the weekend ahead, meaning I don’t drift off until almost 2. This meant it was an unwelcome sound to hear my alarm going off at 3:55, knowing I had to get up. Still, we make it to the Eurotunnel, and cross into France without incident.

The BMW M1 of Achim and Peter Heinrich dominiated first practice in the Classic but withdrew later

It is only in Belgium that I find myself feeling decidedly weary. Kevin is sound asleep in the passenger seat, so I wake him and we stop at a service station for some much-needed coffee. Here we meet some Estonians returning from holiday in the UK, with a broken-down car. We offer to help, but all they seem interested in is hearing my car rev round to the limiter. Naturally we oblige!

With coffee drunk, and breakfast duely consumed, I am feeling fine again, so we blast down the E40, stopping again just past Brussels for fuel and a change of driver. From here on we press on - Kevin quickly becoming familiar with the power, brakes and handling of my car, which he compares to a touring car, and arrive in Nurburg for just after 12.

After signing on, picking up passes, and dropping kit in the office, we head down to the track to capture some of the Classic / Youngtimers free practice. This is great fun: seeing M1s, and 935s lapping almost as quickly as modern cars is a sight to behold. (And that’s before you even mention the sound). It is ethereal. With the sun beginning to set, night qualifying for the race proper begins, so we head down to Breidscheid bridge in Adenau to soak up the atmosphere, and to watch cars flying in, brake disks glowing in the darkness. Night qualifying for the 24hr was in the wet, but it hardly seemed to slow Carlos Sainz

Day 2 : Friday The VW Motorsport Scirocco of Hager, van Dam, Cheng and Mailleux clearing the jump at Pflanzgarten Checking over the RJN 370z

Pole Position to the Ford GT

2nd on grid for Manthey RSR

Car 99 was the lead Audi R8

Two more Audis close behind

Qualifying and Jumps Friday morning comes far too quickly - the toll of the travelling on Thursday making itself known. So upon arriving in Nurburg, the first mission is to find some strong coffee.

The morning is spent wandering around the pits, looking at cars, chatting to team bosses and drivers about their prospects. Despite the fact that entry numbers this year are lower than last, there are still over 170 cars crammed into 30 or so garages. How the mechanics have the space to change engines, gear boxes and other parts, let alone do it so quickly is beyond me. The level of organisation is astounding.

After lunch, we head down to Pflanzgarten, to watch day qualifying. Thankfully, in contrast to the previous night’s efforts, it is bone dry and sunny, so the cars are flying, literally (see picture at bottom left!). Pole is set by the Ford GT entered by Raeder Automotive with a time of 8:36.536, which, due to regulation changes is 10 seconds off last year’s pole, but still translates to an average speed of about 110mph, which is stunning. Less than two hundredths of a second behind is last year’s winner, the Manthey Racing Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, and after that the top 5 are rounded out by an impressive turn of performance, demonstrated by the new Audi R8 LMS.

In fact, Audi occupy positions 3,4,5,6 on the grid and it quickly becomes very clear they are there for one purpose - to win. This year’s new regulations are designed to equalise performance between the GT2 spec cars like as the 911 GT3 RSR, and the GT3 spec cars such as Audi R8-LMS. However, in some quarters we hear rumblings that the equalisations have gone too far, and now in fact favour the GT3 category which leads to Zakspeed withdrawing their entry. With that said, having the top 10 cars separated by less than 10 seconds, and putting the politics and regulations to one side, everything is set for an close and exciting race!

Day 3: Saturday Warm up Act On Saturday we make sure we’re at the track early. The Classic starts at 9:50, and the urge to be back and hearing them echoing around the Eifels is strong!

We spend most of the race watching from the miniKarrusel at Schwalbanschwanz. Whilst the M1s have been imperious in practice, in the race the Martini Porsche 934/5 comes through to win ahead of one of the M1s and a 911 RSR.

The first hour was an out and out sprint between the Ford and the Porsche

The grid, and the start. It is as crazy as ever on the start line, with thousands of people crowding round the cars, pushing for interviews with drivers, and a band playing “Pretty Woman” as Sabine dances into view. We chat with Bob Neville, the team principal of RJN Motorsport, who are running a brand new Nissan 370z. He is happy with the car - it has qualified 5th in class, 42nd overall, but has the pace to go quicker. More importantly, the car has run well in practice and qualified with no major problems occuring

In fact, as we drive up to the track, passing Pflanzgarten we have to stop to let a Jaguar E-Type Le Mans pull off circuit onto the 412, to head back to pits.

This beautiful 934/5 won the Classic race from the M1 and RSRs pictured below

As the grid is cleared, I head down to the first corner and await the start with anticipation.

Clockwise from top left: RJN Nissan 370z, Manthey Porsche RSR, Sabine entering grid, Schirmer E92 M3 GTR was fast, So too were the Audi R8s.

From the word ‘Go,’ it is a charge by the front runners, with the Ford GT and Manthey RSR breaking away during the opening laps. Particularly impressive in this period is a run by Car #50 - an E92 M3 GTR from 88th on the grid, due to qualification misfortune, up to 17th within the first hour.

A spin by the Ford passing a back marker grants the lead to Manthey, however after the initial break away, the larger fuel tanks allowed in the Audis as a result of the regulation changes begin to pay off, affording them greater gaps between pitstops, and so by the beginning of the 3rd hour of the race car #99 - one of the R8s - takes the lead. Manthey doesn’t give it up easily though, with the lead changing hands constantly throughout the night, but the Audi generally spends more time in the lead.

Everyone’s favourite Eifel girl - Sabine Schmitz entering the Fuchsohre at night

Into the Night As night falls, we head up to Schwedenkreuz to marvel at the cars getting airborne in pitch black, and then down Fuchsohre, before continuing round to Adenau Forst where the camp sites leave us somewhat speechless. Not only are there the usual scaffold towers, exmilitary unimog personnel carriers, and campfires, but we also spot boilers - providing central heating and hot water for showers and hot tubs. The level of organisation which goes into preparing for the 250,000 spectators camping around the circuit is almost as impressive as that in place for the teams with cars racing round it.

With my watch showing 3am, I am tired out and leave Kevin to catch a couple of hours sleep in my car. The Recaro buckets prove surprisingly comfortable and I sleep soundly through til 5:30.

As the cars flew over the crest at Schwedenkreuz, the ground shook on landing, causing my tripod to wobble slightly. Often they came three abreast with the faster cars picking their way through traffic in the darkness. Sheer Magic

Jumps at Pflanzgarten were bigger than ever... the lead Manthey even sending a shower of sparks on landing!

Day Four - Sunday Coldness and flying cars I awake not from my alarm, which I have slept through, but through shivering cold - I had left the windows in the car open when I went to sleep, and despite the mid-twenties temperatures during the day, it is only 4 or 5 degrees when I awake.

drive past Pflanzgarten.

As I have just finished shooting there, I want to find somewhere else, so walked to Wipperman.

It is further than I remember, and it is now about 25 degrees, so by the time I get there, I am exhausted. No matter, there’s a job to be done, so out come the cameras, and round the cars go.

It becomes clear now that Car #99 - the Audi which has been leading for much of the race I have missed dawn and am desperate to get - has problems: some laps have passed where some shots before day fully takes over from we’ve see the big green and yellow Manthey night, so, after stopping at the petrol station at RSR charge round, without any sign of the Audi. Dottinge-Hohe for a coffee, I make a beeline for This later transpires to be due to a defect in the Pflanzgarten to see if the cars are still clearing transmission, leading to a replacement of the the leap. driveshaft and suspension, which costs the Audi I shouldn’t have worried: not only are the jumps its chance of victory. bigger than ever, but the lead Manthey car is also sending up a shower of sparks, which look most impressive - it later turns out to be due to a damaged splitter. After a couple of hours snapping shots, I head back to the office, meet Kevin, and pursuade him to finally get some sleep - My two hours kip has served me well.

Once Kevin surfaces, we decide to go off to get some more photos in the field before the finish. Due to traffic - and concerns for getting back to the GP Circuit in time - Kevin is not keen to

In a twist of fate, the second Manthey, car #2 also suffers from a drive shaft failure, but precision teamwork by the mechanics has it on its way again within 24 minutes. The race is far from over though, it is now game on between car #1 - the RSR, and car #97 - the closest Audi. They are still on the same lap, and still lapping consistently in the region of 8:40. With photos taken, I walk back more slowly than my jog up, stop off at numerous vantage points along the way to catch a few last shots out on the Nordschliefe.

The R8’s exhibited good stability and speed everywhere

Cocking a wheel at wipperman seemed to be a fashionable thing to do - they all did it

The lead manthey passing through Pflanzgarten

Car 7 - an Aston Martin V12 Vantage finished first in it’s SP8 class

A formation finish, Manthey’s Porsches came 1st and 3rd, a drive shaft problem costing the Cup S a chance of 2nd - that went to an Audi.

Marcel Tieman, Romain Dumas, Timo Bernhard and Mark Lieb raise the winner’s trophy The Finish

It has been a tight battle, and I think Manthey’s undoubted reliability, combined with the excellence of their drivers has been key to their sucess - as taking into account fuel consumption (and hence pit stops), it is not clear they would have made it with raw pace alone.

At 3:58, the Manthey Porsche crosses the line, with the closest Audi R8 just under 6 minutes behind. The race finishes at 4pm, so, as such, by the time the Audi crosses the line, the race was already over, so the Porsche’s are some of the last cars to “finish”.

However, in doing so they complete an extra lap, taking it to 155 completed laps, the furthest distance ever covered in a Nürburgring 24hr race- making it the fastest race ever. Judging by the pace and determination to win, or in some cases just finish, I feel pretty sure that this year’s Nürburgring will go down in history as one very special race.

Whilst Audi will be disappointed not to have won, having led for a good part of the race, it is still a hugely impressive 24hr debut for the R8, and I’m sure they’ll be back next year to try and prize the coveted trophy from Olaf Manthey’s hands! It seems every podium needs a champagne shower these days, and 12 bottles creates quite a spray.

All I can say is: Roll on Nürburgring 2010!