Attending one of the world’s greatest endurance races is overwhelming, but taking in two of them over subsequent weekends is absolutely mind bending. While I’ve watched both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Nürburgring 24 for years, this was the first time I was fortunate enough to attend these historic events.
France’s great sports car race through the countryside is the great-granddaddy of all sports car races. It predates the 12 Hours of Sebring by 27 years and is nearly four decades older than the 24 Hours of Daytona. It attracts the top competitors – cars, teams, and drivers – from around the globe, and tests their mettle in what many consider the most important sports car race.
Audi has been the dominant manufacturer for the last 15 years, winning 13 races overall during that time. In that decade-and-a-half, Le Mans has become a showcase for the latest in automotive technology, which has dovetailed perfectly with Audi’s product strategy. In many ways, Le Mans is a better competitive outlet than Formula One, which most fans consider the pinnacle of motorsport.
Audi’s latest LMP1 racer, the R18 e-tron quattro, embodies the latest automotive technologies, including lightweight construction and a hybrid-diesel drivetrain. The hybrid portion of the R18 drives the front wheels, which makes this racing car uniquely all-wheel drive and authentically quattro. Even the diesel engine uses advanced energy saving technology like an electric turbocharger. This Audi is the epitome of a modern, efficient racing machine.
Although Audi has been successful in this modern age, there are never any guarantees in endurance racing and this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans marked the return of the biggest name in sports car racing, Porsche. With sixteen overall wins, Porsche made its motor racing reputation at Le Mans and for 2014 they arrived with an all-new LMP1 competitor, the 919 Hybrid.
At the drop of the flag, Toyota’s LMP1 TS040 Hybrid ran away with the race, leaving the Germans in their wake. Watching my first in-person laps at Le Mans was surprising. Despite hearing that the Audis were notoriously quiet, there really isn’t anything that can prepare you to experience 200 mph prototypes not screaming, but simply cutting through the air. Even when they leave your field of view, they’re remarkably quiet. Perhaps with advanced drivetrains like these, “quiet performance” is the future of motoring.
For Audi, it’s not just what happens on track. The German automaker invites hundreds of guests from around the globe to experience the race while fully immersed in the brand of Audi. As their guest, I experienced not just the most important endurance race, but endless diversions. There were shuttles to trackside locations that I recognized from decades of watching the race on television, multiple hospitality buildings and virtual races in the R18 e-tron quattro on Xbox’s Forza Motorsport 5. For me, the highlight was a pair of brilliant kart races just inside the circuit.
Another literal highlight was the announcement of the special edition Audi R8 LMX supercar with real laser-based headlamps. Unfortunately, we won’t see it on this side of the pond because, alas, headlights made of frickin’ laser beams will never be legal here.
With all of the things to do at the circuit, including a little sleep, there was also a race going on, and by the end of the 24 hours, Audi had emerged victorious. It was no walk in the park though. The Toyotas and Porsches were quick, but Audi won this year’s competition through the team’s hard earned tenacity and reliability.
Mere days later, I found myself in western Germany at the historic town of Nürburg for the annual race around the clock at the circuit Sir Jackie Steward dubbed “The Green Hell.” At 24 kilometres in length, it is the longest road course to hold sanctioned competition, and has countless turns and challenges for the drivers. In some ways, the Nürburgring 24 is similar to Le Mans, but in most ways it can’t be more different.
There are a number of manufacturers present, both officially and otherwise, with many of them entering multiple cars. For example, Toyota’s unofficial works team, Gazoo Racing, entered four cars – two Lexus LFAs, one IS-F and one Toyota 86 (known on our shores as the Scion FR-S). McLaren had two MP4-12C GT3 horses in this race, while there were countless Porsche 911s, Mercedes-Benz SLS GT3s, Audi R8 LMS Ultras and factory-prepared Nissan GT-Rs in the competition.
Aston Martin’s works effort was more fitting with the character of the Nürburgring 24. During the weekend, I’d heard this race described as the world’s biggest club race, and that is perhaps the most accurate description. With a half-dozen cars and teams sharing one garage, the camaraderie in the paddock and garages is far from the hostile, closed feeling you experience at a top level professional race.
With a test centre located at the Nürburgring, Aston Martin was well prepared to support a number of cars, notably the GT3-spec, V12 Vantage (appropriately sporting No. 007) driven by its works drivers, Darren Turner, Stefan Mücke and Pedro Lamy, fresh from racing at Le Mans the previous weekend. Aston Martin also supported a number of V8 Vantage racers, notably two N430s for the race, including one for Aston Martin CEO, Dr. Ulrich Bez, as well as one for motoring journalists Chris Harris and Dickie Meaden, who paired with Aston Martin’s in-house Nürburgring Test Centre specialist. The N430 is same production car we’ll soon get in North America, but under the V8 Vantage GT name.
At the start of the race weekend, over 200 cars enter the race, which means there are at minimum 800 drivers at the Nürburgring 24. I can’t imagine what that drivers’ meeting looks like. With just team personnel, nevermind the fans, all of the hotels are fully booked within the vicinity of Nürburg, which is why most fans choose to camp at the circuit.
The normally reserved Germans let loose during the race, treating it as a non-stop, long weekend party, which just happens to take place at a racing circuit during a motor race. Bonfires, fireworks, strange parties and who knows what else happen all around the circuit. One driver told me he could determine which corner he was driving through by the smell. That’s right – the smell of the corner.
The factory 007 Aston Martin V12 Vantage eventually finished fifth overall, after a very exciting two-lap race to the finish against the BMW Z4 of Team Schubert. At the checkered flag, the No. 007 Vantage was two laps down on the winning Audi R8 and, notably, the Aston Martin Test Centre car finished a remarkable second in class.
“To compete in Nürburgring 24 Hours and finish in the top five is no mean feat,” says Aston Martin’s Head of Motorsport, David King. “To come here with only one car against the might of the German car industry was a challenge, but the team rose to it magnificently, and showed that a win in the near future is within our reach.”
“Many of the drivers competing with us this weekend aren’t professional racing drivers, but you wouldn’t know that from working with them. The level of professionalism has been impressive and we are proud to have them racing with the Aston Martin wings.”