HH survives the gruelling 24hr race and “death by 1,000 cuts” to secure a finish.
22 June 2014
Somehow, no matter what the weather in the actual race is like, its beautiful for the grid line up – remember a few years back when the start was delayed for the river in Hatzenbach Bogen? It didn’t start raining until less than 10 minutes before the start. It's an unusual grid this year, since the second start group contains plenty of SP9 etc cars, which reflects the sheer number now entering the race.
The whole team mills around taking pictures, basking in the sunlight; some wander up and down the grid greeting old friends and rivals, wishing them luck. Ridiculously tall and ridiculously blond pit girls litter the front group, usually with large crowds pushing and shoving to have their picture taken together. Guido Wurtz (aka Bugs Bunny) comes past sitting on a lawnmower pushed by a pit girl (I’m sure someone somewhere understands that one!). Whatevs, as the youth say, we’re going racing…
As the grid starts to thin out with the warning tones, Danny is strapped in to start his first N24hr race. Its not his first race start here, since he started the N24Q, but he’s properly hyped for it. The formation lap is a bewildering mess of noise and colour, with the fans only partially giving the circuit up to the cars. After the big crash and all the hard work by the mechanics, it was a real pleasure for DB to drive HH through the Green Hell on the formation lap with the fans lining every mile of the track, even standing directly at the curbs at some points; and from Hohe Acht through towards Wippermann DB is serenaded with a fanfare of horns, recognising the astonishing work of the team: Tom, Carsten and the mechanics. Thanks are due. Group One spears past the pits with a mix of howls, roars and grumbles (that will be the SLSs, then) and disappear off round the Nordschleife at an unbelievable pace: the McLaren is just disappearing. Group Two comes past with a more consistent group of sounds; with an Audi TT RS leading; and then we wait for our Group. Even over the din of so many racing cars, HH’s angry buzz is easy to pick out. Danny is off!
Thanks are also due to the gap in front of us on the grid, so DB was able to close right up on P4 at the start. He wisely stays wide in the first turn to let an overenthusiastic Clio Cup car pass on the inside and concentrates on the first few turns. Cars everywhere, but all went well and DB finishes the first lap on same position he started in.
In the mirrors, though a GT86 closed up fast up the hills and long straights with their highly-dubious “200bhp” (at least before they press the cruise control button a few times, that is….). Starting the second, lap, DB returned the compliment to the Cup Clio and manages to hold the GT86 behind him, even gapping it a little; but things started to liven up a bit at this point: in NGK chicane, a Porsche and an SLS have crashed heavily, then on the way into Schwedenkreuz a 235BMW stands on the left and yellow flags are fluttering. As if that was not enough, on the next lap NGK chicane and Schwedenkreuz remain under Code 60; and the green Viper crashes heavily into a Mini and a Marshals car under double yellows and a Code 60. You wouldn’t believe it unless you actually saw it, we are under an hour into a 24h race.
Through the double yellows, the GT86 in front of DB clearly thought that only 35kmh was safe, so the Cup Clio and the other GT86 closed up again. Doh! DB tried to overtake but the GT86 was too fast on the straights; at least, using the GT3 cars overtaking a little distance could be established between HH and our friends in the mirrors behind. One lap later the NGK chicane was cleared, but still Code 60 at Schwedenkreuz; but then another big crash at Kesselchen with double yellows, which remain for a couple of laps.
In his last lap before pitting, DB had to let an SP3T Scirocco pass at Antoniusbuche; knowing he would lift at Tiergarten, DB stayed flat and put HH right alongside the Scirocco, but then saw a R8 literally flying through Hohenrain; as everyone around him anchors up, DB fights not to lose control of the car, while braking down from 200k, whilst still avoiding the cars around him, who are also struggling to control their steeds. That’s quite enough excitement for one stint, and DB heads for the pit lane with nearly empty fuel and nary a scratch. Good lad.
TK is ready for action as HH rolls to a halt. The two swap over with little drama and TK is on his way with a squawk and a rasp. A few laps into TK’s stint, the puncture fairy strikes; and he radios in, worry colouring his voice. As the car rolls to a halt in front of the garage, it’s clear that the tyre is completely shredded, giving little clue as to the source of the problem. TK has had to recover a long way on the tyre, so it’s no real surprise. As the crew gets stuck into the car, TK sits impassively waiting to be waived out again, frustration burning in his eyes. The service takes a fraction longer than the fuel, since the flailing rubber has damaged the undertray a bit, so Julius has to cable tie bits of it back on again, but then he’s off with a squawk from the tyres and a rasp from HH’s exhaust and the team settle back into waiting again.
HH appears down the pit lane at pace, TK clearly agreeing that the pit lane is part of the race circuit, and seems to leave the braking impossibly late. TK is well dialled into the car, having done 11 laps now. He leaps out athletically and gives MC a one-word briefing: “fantastic”. Julius hurls the cushions aside and straps MC into the hot seat, while the rest of the crew checks pressures, cleans the screen and fuels the car, all under the beady eye of Tom Daub who misses nothing.
HH sets off again with a rasp and a squawk and disappears down towards T1. The GT3 cars have spread out a little now, making for easier progress and the team settle into waiting for the usual crisp report on Dottinge Hohe. On his second lap, MC’s report alludes to 3rd gear being a “little crunchy”, which being translated means a lazy synchro on 3rd gear. Tom and Carsten question whether the car is driveable and elicit a response that all that is needed is a slightly patient hand on gear shifting and there is no problem. The laps pass uneventfully as MC carves up the field until at the end of his usual lap report, he calls: “box, box, box” one lap before expected. He thinks he’s picked up a puncture in the area of Galgenkopf and Dottinge Hohe, the slight vibration turned into more of a vibration and he can smell rubber.
“Pitlane, Pitlane” comes over the radio, and HH hoves into view; again going impossibly quickly until just before the pit crew. MC’s circumspection turns out to be well advised: the front left is mostly deflated and would have come nowhere near lasting another lap. Well, it is his 43rd 24hr, and 20th N24, so we should expect a nose for trouble. ET is standing by, trying hard to focus and not letting his crash in Quali 2 distract him. Calm thoughts such as “take it easy, keep out of trouble, minimize risk” fill his mind, but having basically totalled the car in Quali 2 his self-confidence wasn’t all it could be.
MC climbs out and debriefs him: “Track clear, two double yellows, car’s good apart from the puncture, but careful with 3rd gear”. The well-drilled crew is done in less than two minutes and again, HH sets off with a rasp and a squawk, with new hot tyres and a full 65l tank of fuel. ET settles in for what turns out to be a lovely evening stint with rather light traffic, a handful of double-yellows, but nothing really disturbing. Lap-times about 10 sec slower than our target of 10:40-10:45, but ET was not in a risk-taking mood, so had good margins everywhere. During the last half hour of the stint ET is smiling again as dusk starts to fall, seeing the spectators light up their bonfires, the neon lights going on, smelling the BBQ smoke drift across the circuit and even, in some places, hearing the parties get going. That must be LOUD music to be able to hear in HH, but this is the N24!
TK straps in as the light fades. He’s going to have full darkness at the end of the stint; and will have to contend with the failing light until then. He’s off with a rasp and a squawk into the deepening gloom. A relatively peaceful and trouble-free stint ensues.
Darkness has well and truly fallen and the last hint of daylight has gone from the horizon – its time for the vampire stints now. HH’s piercing LED lights appear at the far end of the pit lane as the crew awaits TK’s arrival and the pit lane warning sign chirrups again. Tyres, fuel and driver this time, so the whole crew is out. A Porsche parks super considerately right in the way, so TK is squeezed in at an odd angle, to which the fuel pump hose only just reaches. Thanks, chaps.
TK’s briefing is, um brief: “Car’s great” so MC is strapped in and waits the signal to pull out. He’s pushed back first, then HH is off again into the darkness. Lights flare at the first corner and HH is gone, although the shrill rasp can be heard a little longer in the quiet of the night. HH is now back at 8th in class.
MC is now leading the class in lap times and carving up through the field at a prodigious pace. All the pits hear is a calm, short briefing each lap on Dottinger Hohe, but the pace out on track is very mixed. As usual, some of the drivers seem to be on a Sunday drive, while the GT3 cars carve on at immense pace. HH seems to be overtaking as much as being overtaken, with plenty of cars leaping out of the way of its bright lights. 3rd lap in, and, coming into Hatzenbach Bogen, MC is closing on a 991; the 991 lifts for Bogen and MC doesn’t, so fires around the outside and on into Hatzenbach itself: the 991 lights close as Flugplatz approaches, but again the driver lifts, whereas HH forges on with the throttle pedal mashed to the floor. The cycle repeats itself until Adenau Forst, by which time the little Clio has opened enough of a gap that the 991 isn’t seen again, even on the climb up to Mutkurve; next lap and a V8 Aston befalls the same fate on the entry to Wipperman, where the Clio enters on full throttle as the Aston brakes and stays wide. MC is clearly having a ball; and we are now 3rd in class.
“MC Dottinge Hohe, Fuel 15, one-five, engine good, brakes good, understeer the same” is the call on MC’s 7th lap. Tom and Carsten consult quickly: on Danny’s first stint, he had come perilously close to running out of fuel with the same reading, so caution correctly leads them to give the “Box, box, box” call to MC, who, although clearly surprised, confirms. At the stop, only 47 litres goes in the tank, so the reading must have been out, but better that than running out of fuel.
TK’s briefing is much the same from MC: “track pretty clear now, some yellows, the double should be gone, car all fine except 3rd gear: have fun, there are some slow cars out there.” TK is already zoned into night driving, so is on it straight out of the pits.
Its still pitch black as HH heads down the pitlane for what is likely to be the last night pitstop. The stop is very slick as the crew is now well practised. Tom holds MC for a moment to let a Z4 GT3 past and the car is on its way again. HH comes out into some clear air, so its not until Flugplatz that MC sees another car, which turns out to be the McLaren, a Z4 GT3 and an SLS scorching past at a scarcely believable pace; a few more faster cars come by, but the first half of the lap is remarkably peaceful. Exiting Adenau Forst, a gaggle of V3 cars hove into view, so MC sets off with determination after them, not knowing their race position; and closes them down on the rise up to Hohe Acht. The three of them clearly think that it’s a GT3 car closing in and make space on the entry to Wipperman: thanks, chaps! MC doesn’t hang around to let them reverse their error, but the Toyota sneaks up alongside under the bridge heading down to Tiergarten: he’s taken the inside on the left, but that leaves him on the outside at the crest and the right, where he decides discretion is the right move. Even with his superior straight-line speed, he can’t stick with the charging Clio round the GP circuit and the lights slowly recede in HH’s rear-view mirror. Next up the road is another GT-86 that takes the best part of the lap to catch and sticks like glue to HH after MC slips past in the first complex of the GP circuit. An almighty ding dong follows for the next few laps with HH unable to live with the suspiciously fast GT-86 down Dottinger Hohe. With supposedly less horsepower, those Swiss horses must be very big ones, since HH can’t even hold the tow. Two laps later, MC has finally gapped the GT-86 between Hohe Acht and the Pflanzgarten complex and its lights are a good 200m behind.
Just as he arrives at Galgenkopf, the yellows start fluttering again; it’s clearly a bad spot at night, since there had been a double yellow there for most of the stint. Roughly opposite the apex is a very sorry-looking Nissan GTR GT3 that has clearly had a good chat with Mr. Barrier; and as MC exits the corner, he can see the yellows turn to double yellows, which should nail the GT-86s challenge. He’s about to report in on the radio, when he feels the dreaded vibration again, followed by a rubbery smell. Another puncture with dawn breaking: the team’s third, so he backs off to 50 kmh and hugs the right side of the track indicators on. The dawn is usually the time when everyone’s spirits lift and because of the still cool air, often when the fastest lap is achieved, but it’s not to be so for HH. White flags proliferate before and after poor HH as it makes its way back to the pits. The team has already been alerted, instead of the usual report; MC chimes “Box, box, box, another puncture”. The Fates haven’t finished with HH, yet, no more than 500m from the pits, just at the braking point for Tiergarten, the factory Subaru WRX clatters off the side of HH, piloted by a kamikaze Japanese driver, Sasaki-san, whose bravery clearly either exceeds his eyesight or his talent. Soaked-in-Saki-san more like it.
A clearly exasperated MC calls in again and reports the contact. There is clearly damage to the rear left, since the car is crabbing up the road. The weary team gets stuck in again, but we are beginning to run out of parts to fit to the battle-worn Clio. At that point, the Gods must have felt a little sorry for us, since the familiar and very welcome face of Karl Mauer appears at the front of the garage to see if he can help. Very shortly, he and Carsten appear carrying a new rear subframe, which was the only piece of the jigsaw missing. The man is a brick – many thanks are due.
ET wanders blinking into the bright lights in the pit box and looks somewhat disappointed to find the car with mechanics crawling all over it. TK, once he had come down from his previous stint, had called ET at 0415hrs, since he couldn’t find him, and was worried he might oversleep. No wonder ET had thought the night had been short. The crew makes a superhuman effort and, with just over an hour lost, Danny rasps off down the pitlane shortly before 0600hrs to a huge cheer from the other crews and fans that have filled the garage. Daylight is flooding the circuit, and we have lost one of the nicest stints, coming out of dawn. We’ve dropped from the front of the class right down the order, so have all the work still to do; but at least 10 hours in which to do it. ET and MC visit the Subaru garage, which has at least also suffered through Sasaki-san’s idiocy, to ask about the driver before visiting the Clerk of the Course. There is a large queue outside his office and well, guess who turns out to have been in there for the previous half an hour. ET and MC almost leave assuming it must be about their incident; but luckily stay, just to check. It turns out to be a different incident, so they ask the Clerk to investigate how a works driver can drive into a car under white flags. The poor chap looks as incredulous as he’s weary; and the duo leave it in his hands.
The night drivers have now handed over to DB & ET for around 6 hours, so head for rest, while the pit crew sleep in deckchairs in the pit itself. As they do, DB calls in that the car feels fine, which is welcome news.
ET has by now managed to exorcise yesterday's gremlins from his mind and heads out into the traffic, which turns out to be very light; from time to time faster cars come, pass, and disappear and when he catches somebody up, they make room and the overtake goes swiftly. Car feels very good and laptimes are now just where we had agreed, low 10:40s, excepting a few with double yellows. ET is mindful of being towards the end of the 2nd stint on the tyres, and the 3 punctures, so becomes obsessed with driving smooth lines. 8th lap, Dottinger Hohe and still 16 litres indicated, and the “Box, box, box” call ends his stint. The crew swarm all over the car, adrenalin piercing their tiredness: fuel, tyres, screen, body check, debris check – oh, and a fresh driver.
As DB sets off down the pitlane with a rasp and a squawk for his 2nd morning stint the team looks at the tyres and agree that the Box call was smart; while ET would have had fuel for another lap, but tyres were totally gone. Good call, lads!
Danny comes in from his 2nd morning stint, jumps out seemingly as fresh as when he started, grabs his cushion and disappears into the pitbox. ET, eager to get into the car, is reminded by Julius that some admin documents have to be filled in first so that it is safe to drive the car again. Strapped in, and reminded by Tom that 3rd gear needs gentle handling, ET sets off on his second morning stint. ET quickly radios in to say that the car handles very well; it feels sharper on turn-in and overall understeer is gone - is it the harder compound or the fact that it is his first time on fresh tyres? All is well, but when braking for Aremberg and wanting 4th gear, the box objects and ET is reminded that priority is to get around the corner rather than visiting the gravel pit; 4th gear will have to wait. Going even easier than before on the gearbox and enjoying lap after lap in the rather light traffic, ET dutifully reports fuel level at Dottinge Hohe, and to avoid any calculation error is given the “box-box-box” message after 7 laps; better safe than sorry.
TK is briefed on the gearbox situation by ET and leaps into the car; the narrow gap in his very orange helmet looking faintly sinister in the brighter light. The mechanics swarm round the car; fuel is filled and HH is off with a squawk and a rasp. Concern clouds the faces of Tom and Carsten as the radio lights up: TK has had yet another puncture and is recovering to the pits. Something is clearly awry with the car to have so many punctures; so Hankook are consulted quickly and recommend moving to the harder tyre compound. TK rolls steadily into the pits, front left fully-deflated, but still on the rim at least. The car is pushed back into the garage, so that the team can check the tracking again.
The crash and subsequent repairs must have weakened the front structure; since the front is now running nearly 5 degrees of camber; way in excess of the design limitations of the Hankooks and clearly the reason why the inner edge of the tyre is overheating. Carsten briefs MC, who has been sitting patiently in the car: “Take it gently, we’re going for a finish, not a position now” and MC rolls out of the garage and down the pitlane with much less of a rasp than normal.
At the end of his first lap, the radio crackles into life: “MC Dottinge Hohe; engine good, 3rd / 4th crunchy, suspension fine; a lot of understeer and brakes weaker than before”. Tom and Carsten are less puzzled by “crunchy” this time and remind MC that he’s on harder tyres with only 2 degrees of camber; although this doesn’t really explain the brakes fully. Our troubles are not yet over, however.
MC is short shifting carefully at 6,500rpm and stroking the car home a few laps later, but braking into the left after Metzgefeld, he slots 4th, turns in and there is no drive. Calm as ever, after recovering the ensuing oversteer, MC puts HH back into 5th, which is still fine; although a quick check at Kallenhard reveals that neither 3rd nor 4th gear will play ball. The gear lever slots into position, but there is no drive and the gearlever feels like its in neutral. Well, if Michael Schumacher can drive an F1 car in 5th, thinks MC, then I can drive a Clio round the Ring in 5th. Of course there is no radio reception until after Hohe Acht, at which point he radios in and explains the problem, although its takes a while as it’s a busy part of the track and the reception comes and goes. Back in the pits, the team can see on the GPS Auge race app that the Clio is still at race pace, so whatever is troubling MC, its not too bad. Finally the message is through and after a brief consultation, Tom asks MC “Can you drive another lap, with the car as it is?” and quickly gets a reply “yes, I’ve just done almost a whole lap in 5th, no problem”; so Tom asks MC to carry on.
The team confers on what to do now. There isn’t time to change a gearbox, so HH has to soldier on. Linkage problems are ruled out as 2nd, 5th and 6th can all be selected normally, so the issue must be a selector fork inside the gearbox. Carsten is concerned that if 3rd / 4th has gone, 5th / 6th is next to go; and there could be broken metal from the problem in the gearbox oil, which could cause a catastrophic failure at any point. DB is told to get ready and MC is called in.
The engine note is different as HH comes down the pitlane, since the car is in 5th, not the usual third. MC stops on the mark; and the crew swarm all over, checking what they can on the gearbox. Indeed the linkage is fine, so it’s an internal problem. HH is fully-fueled, so DB is sent out with cautions ringing in his ears from Tom and Carsten. As Tom and Carsten confer further, they decide to pull the car in and run it only for the finishing lap to minimise the risk of a total gearbox failure; so DB comes back into the pits and is pushed into the garage.
We turn and watch the TV monitors, conscious that we aren’t on circuit. There is a fantastic battle for 5th place going on between Pedro Lamy in the factory Aston and a Z4 GT3. We all watch, jaws agape, as the two cars split either side of a gaggle of cars on Dottinge Hohe and Lamy overtakes on the grass at 260 kmh+. It’s an astonishing display of bravery and talent and makes utterly compelling viewing.
Its an odd feeling not racing in a 24hr race with a functioning car, but it’s the right decision, so the team wait nervously until 1550hrs before DB heads out again, told not to hurry the lap and to avoid shifting if at all possible. The rest of the teams are already starting to climb all over the catch fencing, jostling for a position to see their cars cross the line. Flags start appearing in all sorts of colours and designs: national flags; manufacturer flags, tyre makers, sponsors, component makers. With somewhat irritating efficiency Audi has even planted pretty girls at regular intervals along the pit lane with Audi flags: not right now, love.
The cheering starts as the countdown to 1600hrs comes to a close, but with scarcely 10 seconds to go, an SLS and 911 scorch past the line fully on it and clearly fighting for position. That’s another fully-committed lap for them, then. From then on, the rest of the cars have all backed off and cross the line, some weaving, some even honking their horns, some revving their engines, one or two coasting. We wait tensely for HH and sure enough, there is DB with HH, looking rather battered and war-torn crossing the line. The angry buzz is missing, but we’ve made it.
The team hug and shake hands, although look more bewildered than delighted. The emotions come pouring out; A tear slips from behind MC’s orange-mirrored glasses. Carsten just looks shell-shocked and isn’t taking his large shades off; ET’s just gone quiet; Torsten is busy hugging his rather lovely girlfriend, Nina, who has stuck the entire race out. The crew have all found cans of something somehow and quite correctly are getting stuck in. It’s their day; and their victory; and we even beat the Mazda factory team. It almost feels like it was too big an event for the little Hornet, but HH survived and that was entirely down to the phenomenal efforts of Carsten and his crew. “Let’s go and find Danny”, says Carsten in a quiet voice. It’s the first time he’s spoken since the race finished.
Danny is just leaving parc férmé and is in high spirits. He downs half the bottle of water that MC profers in one gulp and then sets about hugging everyone. He’s very touched that the team let him both start and finish the race; it was quite an experience. We stand in a circle for a while and just drink it in.
The teams start drifting back to their transporters and tents, so RPR follow, some to the pits, some to the lorry, no one seemingly quite sure of what to do. Back at the truck, Julius, ever organised, starts the packing up while the drivers change.
We survived and we finished. In many way, that was the longest day.