It feels like I have wandered onto the set of the latest Carlsberg commercial. I keep expecting a voice as deep and rich as pipe tobacco to say ‘Carlsberg don’t do customer drives at the Nurburgring 24 hours, but if they did, they’d probably look like this…’
'This' being an immaculate truck with an awning shading a pair of mean-looking matt black Audi R8 LMS race cars (and a spare one sat outside), six road-going R8 V10s, and coaching staff including the exceptionally talented Marco Werner (three-times Le Mans 24h winner), Sepp Haider, Frank Schmickler and Florian Gruber. Oh, and the boss who’ll be in charge of the two-car team come June 23-26 is none other than Manfred Jantke who ran Porsche Motorsport during its incredibly diverse and successful period, from ’72-’91. Anything else? Well, pavement splitting sunshine, natch. All this for six customers who want to do the Nurburgring 24 hours, big time. ‘I don’t think there’s another company in the world that offers anything like this,’ says Rainer Kammerbauer, representative of the Audi Race Experience team. I can’t think of anyone who offers a seat in a competitive, top class car for one of the world’s greatest races. Normally, that would require a vast amount of cash, either to buy a place or create your own team. Yet for what sounds like a bargain price (19,500 euros each), six of us will be racing in the pair of R8 LMSs that scored a 1-2 finish at the Bathurst 12 hours in February. The Race Experience team was formed last year and ran customers in four and six-hour VLN races at the Nurburgring but this year is the first time it will run at the 24-hours. In each car there will be four drivers, three customers and a professional, in one Frank Schmickler (a previous 24h winner) and in the other Florian Gruber (road car lap record holder, in a Gumpert). We’ll be in the premier class, SP9, the one that usually delivers the overall winner, alongside the Abt and Pheonix and other Audi R8 LMSs, the Manthey Porsches and Mercedes SLSs. Lordy. Makes my tongue tingle just thinking about it. The SP9 cars are the fastest and most demanding in the race, with the potential to lap the 24-plus kilometres of the combined GP and Northern loop in around 8min 30, at an average speed of approaching 175kmh (108mph). Naturally, the team wants to know that we can handle the car, and we want to know we can too, so our first experience is not at the Ring but on a fiddly, twisty-turny little track built at Gross Dolln, near Berlin. It’s a fascinating place; before the wall came down there were 10,000 Russians based here and a MIG scrambled from one of the hangers could be over London in an hour… As expected, there’s a decent amount of Nurburgring experience among the five drivers (all German) signed up for the Ring; most have raced in the 24h a few times, but only a couple have raced anything like the R8. ‘We have said to people who have come on the course, “Sorry, we don’t think you are ready for the Nurburgring yet,”’ says Klaus Demel, head of the Audi Race Experience. Oh. Right. The first part of the two-day course (which you can do if you simply want to experience an R8 LMS), is laps in the R8 V10 road car behind an instructor (Schmickler, in my case). He manages to drive ever faster while watching my progress in the rear view mirror and calmly giving feedback on my lines and commitment and car control via the two-way radio. It’s a little humbling but the way the road car moves around, the effect its mid-mounted V10 has on the car’s behaviour, sets you up nicely for stage two - a drive in the two-seat R8 LMS alongside Sepp Haider. He has been warming it up and it sounds fabulous, the V10 smooth, rhythmic, potent. A little more muted than I’d expected, though. ‘There is a department in Audi that determines how things should sound, including race cars,’ explains Kammerbauer. First of us to clamber in over the LMS’s cage and into the embrace of the deep-bolstered race seat to experience its abilities is Christian Bollrath, CEO of a US-based lighting company. He looks flushed when he emerges after a few laps: ‘Oh, yeah,’ he says emphatically. I’m last to go in the two-seat race car alongside Haider. The R8 is as purposeful on the inside as out, and as unlike the stock R8, too. It’s got less power – about 500bhp versus 518, thanks to GT3-class air restrictors, and it’s rear-drive rather than four-wheel drive, also to meet GT3 regs. The gearbox is a paddle-shift type but unlike the road car there are three pedals in the footwell: you use the clutch to get going and after that you can rest your left leg, unless you left-foot brake. I don’t. Haider seems a little disappointed. I am in love with the R8 LMS after one minute. All those laps in the R8 V10 road car, trying to get it stopped and turned in, trying to get the nose to the apex quickly and sweetly and be on the power as early as possible but without causing the front tyres to push wide or provoke the rear into a slide... The LMS feels absolutely brilliant because right from the off I can find precisely the lines I was looking for. I feel like a hero. The much lighter R8 LMS goes light years faster, stops like it’s hit a wall and turns like a slot car. I feel like I can do no wrong. Of course, I’m driving the LMS probably 10 seconds off the pace but, damn, this is great place to start. A couple of laps in, out of a late apex left I get on the power, run to the outer edge of the track and the R8’s right rear slick rides the tall kerb slightly. In a moment the car snaps out of line. I find the right amount of opposite lock and steady things, but it’s a shock and a warning. After lunch, we go solo, both cars running once they’ve been warmed up by Werner and Gruber, each of us then making 10-lap runs. Interestingly, we haven’t been shown what the car can do or even advised what gears to use where. It’s up to us to work the car and the track out, make progress. It’s fascinating and demanding once you’re at the pace you think the car can do, because you then realise there’s much more to come. The car still feels fantastic, it’s simply a process of feeling what the thing is telling you – the light, fast steering has surprisingly good feel and you can sense the loading at the rear and how close to the limit of traction it is. Well, in the slower corners, at least. There is one fast sweep where you have to take the speed in and trust the aero. There is anti-lock and ESP/traction control, both adjustable, and as your confidence grows, both get wound back. As the pace picks up you realise that those laps in the road car show you the subtlety needed to get the best out of the racer in certain places on this funny, neck-straining little track. It’s not all about flat on the throttle or hard on the brake; a little soft-pedal to prevent triggering the traction control can get more power to the road sooner, while one braking area requires modulation of pressure into the gradient and then over it. The day ends too soon. That evening there are discussions within the Audi Race Experience team and before dinner we are gathered into a lecture theatre at the hotel. Manfred Jantke explains with level-headed passion that our two-car squad is works supported and describes the philosophy of Porsche to 24-hours races when he was there. ‘We would run a few second a lap off our qualifying time for 15 hours and then see if it was worth pushing for a result.’ Then we are told the team line-up for each car. I’m in Schmickler’s squad, along with Christian Bollrath and Rudi Speich, a nine-time 24h racer and class winner in an Audi A3. Next morning there are two more ten-lap runs each. Early in my first session I manage a fourth gear spin – that’ll be the limit there, then! – and take things a bit too easy in the second. Well, until my mentor, Schmickler, standing on the infield, twirls an arm - the time-honoured get-your-foot-down! sign. Back in the paddock he wanders up. ‘It’s all up here. Everything is good, forget the spin. You went two seconds faster after I gave you the hurry up’. Marco Werner says the same: ‘So you had a spin. Forget it.’ Werner also offers advice for the Nordschleife: ‘You tread gently on the brakes here but you really have to stand on them at the Ring, and while you use the pitch to get the car turned in here, you don’t do that at the Ring or you’ll destroy the aero, lose the downforce. The car won’t feel great around the GP circuit, too much roll and pitch, but once you’ve turned left on to the Nordschleife…’ My teammates in the ‘Top Service’ liveried R8 LMS are in different moods. Christian is happy to have found a good, consistent and quick pace, whereas Rudi is a bit frustrated. ‘I thought I’d improved my times in the last session…’ I suspect all three of us will be doing plenty of thinking between now and the end of June. It’s possible to race the R8 in one of the VLN rounds before the big race but the next time I’ll be in the car will be in qualifying for the 24 hours. It’s going to be a steep learning curve but I am very, very excited.
Subscribe to evo magazine
Several evo writers are racing at the 2011 Nurburgring 24 hours, and you can follow all of their progress on evo.co.uk, including race coverage on June 25-26