5th in class was a towering achievement for the Carpe Diem Racing Drivers and the RPR Racing Team in their first race of the VLN Opel Astra Cup.
29 March 2014
The weekend looked to be sunny and dry, so the team arrived at the Ring for the test day on the GP circuit, and the first VLN race the day after, full of anticipation.
Testing and practice
First task was to establish a basic set up for the car on the GP circuit, bearing in mind that the needs of the Nordschleife are somewhat more testing. MC was sent out first with a brief to do an outlap, then four laps alternating using the kerbs and not; then one in lap. His first reaction was that the car was a significant improvement on the prior weekend’s work, now that the toe and camber settings had been set back to the factory recommendations. After a few quick adjustments, he was sent out again; and then once more. The car now felt quick and clean; so ET was tasked with checking how the car now felt. ET completed two sets of laps; as we debated the rear damping set up. Finally CO ran two cycles of laps. Overall, the team felt the car was quick and easy to drive, but possibly a little too stable and biased to understeer. Both ET and MC were running consistently in the very low 1:40s, with the smooth laps 0.5 secs slower than if they used kerbs throughout.
The decision was taken to be more aggressive on rear toe, so Stefan and the team set to adjusting and checking that. The dilemma we faced was that with only two hours of testing on the Nordschleife (without any stoppages), if we went in the wrong direction, we would have to take a shot in the dark for qualifying the next morning. CO was sent out first, to maximise time in the car; briefed to do a couple of laps and come in; he pounded out four solid laps, each one quicker than the last as he got more and more comfortable with the new car. Into the pits, Carsten leapt out, sweaty but pleased with the feel of the car; and clearly beginning to develop the confidence needed for quick consistent laps. A happy man.
A quick debrief when CO came in and the decision was made to add another click of damping at the rear to try and help control the heave over the quick low-frequency inputs so characteristic of the Nordschleife, so that MC could test that set up and they could form a view on which would be the best collective set up for the three drivers. Just as MC was about to pull out, keen-eyed Pascal spotted some worrying signs of oil under the near side front wheel arch: a quick inspection and it was clear that all was not well with the that drive shaft, so the car was pushed back in the garage; Stefan, Julius and Pascal descended on the car, while MC sat patiently in the hope that at least one lap might be possible. ET on the other hand, realizing that there would be no time left for him to get any Nordschleife laps, returned to the computer to study the data- and video-recordings for inspiration. Astonishingly quickly, the driveshaft was out, and a new one installed; so MC was waved out 12 minutes before the end of the session; with a big stroke of luck and some confident driving on cold tyres, he managed just to squeak on to the Nordschleife for a second lap before the chequered flag; A brilliant save by Stefan, Julius and Pascal; thanks lads.
All three drivers still wanted more from the car. Easy to drive and stable, but still debating rear damping and whether there was too much rear toe. A bold decision was taken to reduce the toe still further overnight to make the car a bit more aggressive on turn in but keep the rear controlled under heave. All three drivers then went off to the English drivers’ briefing and were disappointed not to be able to watch the 1970-style video on intervention cars yet again. On return, MC went off to another of his many meetings muttering about the lack of rain; while ET pored over the telemetry and videos to see what could be gleaned for the morrow; and Carsten set off to talk to Kissling further about set up, feeding his insatiable appetite for more data, more inputs and feeding on the experience of experts; plus the team manager meetings, of which there seemed to be an inordinate number.
The team gathered early on a beautiful Eifel morning in high spirits. ET and MC decided in an entirely inclusive way that CO should go out first to make sure that the track was dry and that the car was thoroughly warmed up; then ET; and lastly MC with his aversion to cushions, which reduced the number of changes needed in the pits. Being the good sort he is, Carsten helmeted up and strapped in. Stefan and his team had reduced rear toe still further overnight; and the Astra was one of the first cars out on circuit. Carsten pounded out two quick laps and came back full of smiles. Both had been below 10.00, which had been one of his targets, but crucially, each lap had been quicker than the last and he new that there was plenty more to come. He liked the set up. [Einar, there are some pictures of CO straight out of the car both at this point and in the race, which you might like to use]
ET was ready to go as CO came into the pits. The team took the opportunity to practise pit work yet again changed drivers, tyres, fully fuelled the car; and ET rolled out less than two minutes later at 0854hrs, with the fuel taking the longest time. ET’s brief was one short lap, two full laps and one short in lap; he set off looking like he meant business. In no time at all ET was back in again and one could see from a distance that his smile meant that he approved of the car’s setup. The monitors also confirmed that he had lowered his laptime from last weekend with no less than 13.5 seconds! Back into the pits, again practising hot changeovers; and MC was installed with fresh pre-heated tyres on the front and a cycled set on the rear; but the dreaded yellows put paid to any hope of a quick time from MC; however he came in pleased that the car could now take the bump on the approach to Tiergarten flat before braking after the right; but he had not been able to achieve his target of breaking out of the 9.30s.
The team qualified 12th in class, not where we had wanted to be or where the car and drivers were capable of being, but a start to the season.
Somehow the two hours between quail and the race start seem to disappear in no time at all; and the team nominated Carsten to start the race, since he alone of the drivers was able to make the formation lap and 8 race laps on fuel. It was Carsten’s first ever VLN race start, and he was understandably nervous, thinking about the new car and the first corner; ET to go second and MC to finish the race. The grid formed up in the beautiful spring weather, with a white Cayman in front and another Astra, Bliss Autosport’s car 354 behind the RPR Astra. Tension built as the support teams left the grid, leaving Carsten alone. With 180 other cars.
The wait for the first start group to pass the start finish line and get the race going seemed interminable; and then suddenly with the usual mix of engine notes from the deep rumble of the SLS to the chainsaw howl of the 911s, they passed; and silence descended while we waited for our start group. With scarcely less noise or commitment the group roared past with Carsten sensibly maintaining the outside line. A clean first corner all round and we settled into the rhythm of the race. Carsten, meanwhile, quite rightly took a cautious approach to the first lap: you can’t win a race in the first lap, but you can lose it; but he quickly got frustrated by the Cayman, Car #399, which for a while was the widest car on the track and seemed determined to check whether each part of the track was safe to drive on. Down the main straight, the Astra was no match for the Cayman’s slinkier and lower body; but Carsten’s legendary last minute braking skills came good on the exit from the Mercedes Arena, and he was past both the Cayman and an Audi TT which seemed to be playing the same game. He latched onto the back of a V6 911 and nailed himself to it for the next few laps; taking good care to stay out of the way of the front running Audis and SLS, who had already caught up later in the 3rd lap, such was their pace. He then got a most unladylike tap in the back from the Frikadelli 911 in the compression in Fuchsrohre, just to help him settle in you know….
As his confidence grew, Carsten switched the traction control and ESP system completely off, since it was interfering in some of the quicker corners. It soon became clear that the system was helping more than it was hindering as a few “moments” in Flugplatz and Schwalbenschwantz testified. The next lap and a half was spent trying to cycle the system back through full on to the ideal setting of TC off and ESP 2, which involves pressing a button that you can hardly reach when strapped in, twice in quick succession on a bumpy and twisty track, all at high speed. Eventually, success and Carsten was back under the 10 minute barrier and cutting over 5 seconds off each lap he reeled off; then on the way down to Schwalbenswanz keeping the Adrenaline M235i at bay: past an orange BMW M3 on the way in; and around the outside of the Bliss Astra when the Falken 911 loomed into view on the left kerb clearly with a problem and going very slowly. Everyone squeezed to the right, with Carsten’s right wheels edging onto the grass; when the Adrenaline M235i decided to create a gap between the two Astras, and bangs Carsten’s left front wheel as he tried to make space. I guess the name says it all.
Back in the pits, the team waited as Astra after Astra came in after 7 race laps, but as planned, Carsten carried on: one of only two Astras to manage 8 laps although his final lap was slowed by yellows in Wipperman and after Kleine Karrusel. ET prepared himself; Stefan and his team waited for the car to come in. A great pit stop, again the time defined by filling the fuel up; fresh pre-warmed front tyres and Einar was out; and the times started tumbling. Shortly after ET went out, Carsten was called to the Clerk of the Course: never a call you want. He had been awarded a 4-minute penalty for speeding: 118 kmh in a double yellow at Breidscheid. He was livid, having seen the yellow and the green, but no double yellow, so he protested the penalty immediately; but a slight pall fell on the team. A good result would be impossible with a 4-minute penalty, ET, meanwhile, was oblivious to these goings on, and focused on lap times.
With still only two laps under the belt in the car with its current setup, ET was still learning the car and getting used to its front wheel drive characteristics, so half way through his second lap he was overtaken by the English SP5 M3 that shared their pitbox. As ET had already convoyed with this car during qualifying, and determined to not let it get away this time either, the next 5.5 laps became a bumper to bumper chase, very fair and never intimidating, and often making passes possible that would otherwise have been more challenging. One example was when they caught up with no less than three Astras in Kallenhard, who kindly made room for the BMW only to find out that they were also being overtaken by one of their class competitors who followed the BMW like a shadow.
As ET was coming down Dottinge Hohe for the final time, Stefan’s crew took the tyres from the tyre warmers: new fronts and scrubbed rears; while MC got his very bright shiny new helmet on. Inch perfect, ET stopped in front of the pumps and the team sprang into action. ET debriefed MC that the car was perfect and the track clear: he’d even had a decent tow from the English SP5 M3, which was suitably quick down the main straight. Cushions out, MC in and belts adjusted; just the wait for the fuelling to be completed, then MC was off for the final stint; to come out just behind the orange Astra, car #363 whom he was to chase throughout his stint.
MC’s stint turned out to be one of double yellows as drivers fell off the circuit right from the first lap in Hatzenbach all the way to the end with the long, long, double yellow from before Eschbach right through to the exit of Brunchen 2. Obedient to a fault and mindful of Carsten’s penalty, MC was waiting right until the green flag before accelerating above 60 kmh, only to see the orange car 363 nail the throttle as soon as he passed the accident; following which he would close the car down again only to reach another double yellow and watch him disappear again well before the green flag. Three laps before the end, though, Gert came on the radio with some excellent news: the penalty had been lifted; push, push, push. MC did just that putting in fastest sector after fastest sector.
As he entered Dottinge Hohe for the penultimate time, the Camp David Astra piloted by Elmar Jurek managed at last to get in MC’s slip stream, having been trying for the previous six laps to close the gap. As the car inched closer down the straight, MC made a tactical mistake and moved out a little early, allowing Elmar to take the inside line under Antoniusbuche Bridge. Side by side down to the compression, Elmar had managed to get a nose in front before the bump, so MC took a slight lift and slotted in right behind. There were now three Astras within 50m on the circuit, all competing for 4th, 5th and 6th place in class. No quarter was going to be given or expected. Nose to tail through the GP chicane, onto the Nordschleife with no more than 40m covering the three cars; where the gap remained over Flugplatz and into Schweudenkreutz and a double yellow at Aremberg, where a Z4 GT3 had gone off and covered the track in gravel. All three cars struggled to slow for the accident, which was unsighted until after the crest at Schweudenkreutz, crept through the gravel and then helter skelter down Fuchsrohre for the last time. At the compression, 363 turned in and gripped, but as the Camp David car turned in, sparks flew from the front left wheel arch and the car speared into the outside barrier, the front mounted the barrier with a further shower of sparks, came off again, only for the rear to replace it. Bits flew from its bodywork and smoke billowed out of the front wheel arches as MC desperately tried to slow and avoid joining the accident as well. Finally, a gap opened almost at the left crest and MC was through unscathed, but slowed. Thankfully, although the accident was super scary, we understand Elmar is unhurt. The gap to 363 had now opened to almost 100m, but MC had the bit between his teeth. With an almost superhuman effort, he was right on 363’s tail again on the exit of Wipperman, into the long double yellow through Brunchen, only to watch 363 nail the throttle immediately after the accident. Sadly, with only the high speed sections left, MC was unable to close the gap before the end of the race, hampered further by another yellow and a V3 car under the bridge to take the chequered flag.
The car was left running in parc fermé to help the turbo cool, as the team celebrated their first finish in the Astra. 5th in class was a towering achievement for RPR’s first race in the Astra Cup, and shows the intent the team have. There’s plenty more to come from the car and drivers in VLN 2.
Thanks to all track-side photographers for great pictures; watermarks are preserved for identification and rights protection.