RPR Racing and the Carpe Diem Drivers live up to expectations from VLN #1, until disaster strikes in the shape of a GT3 Aston in the penultimate lap!
12 April 2014
As the day drew near for RPR’s second race with Lightning MECQueen, the team started to gather at the Nürburgring for the Friday T&E session. The forecast was bright and clear but cold for the entire weekend; and the team had a few choice upgrades for the car. All was set for a wonderful spring weekend.
Obviously, this wouldn’t be the Ring without a good session of documentation beforehand (although they were unusually disinterested in our stickers). This, however, was a documentation session like no other at the Ring – the T&E girls were drinking prosecco, puffing away merrily on what I would like to claim were Sobrani Cocktails, but that would be a poetic licence too far; reality was some foul-smelling local cigarettes. Now we know why the T&E sessions are so expensive….
Reality descended at the VLN documentation (you don’t think that we would only have to fill in one set of documents, do you?). No prosecco or fags for the VLN girls, even for Carsten’s favourite, Anike Osenberg: maybe we should take some along for her next time? However, a moment of levity presented itself as we walked out onto the balcony over the paddock in the fresh afternoon air. Down below was the Falken Porsche, looking very shiny & new. Because it was. Repaired in double quick time after its untimely demise in Tiergarten during the RCN race the weekend before, although we soon learnt that Peter Dumbreck had been told to stay at home – if you can’t stay on track in the baby race, you can’t come and play with the big boys….
Back at the truck, Gerd was installing our new toy; a shiny, well matt black actually, new €4k digital radio. Gerd solemnly informed us that if you press this button and wait for a second, you may be able to hear him. He didn’t sound entirely convinced.
Fighting our way through the haze of cigarette smoke, it was time to make sure Lightning MECQueen was ready for the test session. How could we doubt Julius, who must have been born prepared. The car was ready to go, missing only the nut behind the wheel.
After a quick discussion on how many laps and what the plan was, MC was sent out first to make sure all was well with the car. First two laps were cold, cold, cold judging by the lack of grip from the tyres. Next lap was cough, cough, cough at Kallenhard: was there a problem? The car coasted down the hill, staying on the right out of the way of the traffic and pulled off safely at the Breidscheid exit.
Carsten took a call from MC with a nervous edge to his voice. Was the car OK? Seemingly it had just run out of fuel. A basic comms error between MC and Julius had led to the car only having fuel for a few GP laps, and MC thinking he had fuel for 2-3 Nordschleife laps. The team leapt into the Cayenne and practiced their emergency starts; another jerry can of fuel was added; Carsten being most relieved that the car was still running, so the turbo would not be cooked; and MC was sent out for another lap and a half on the principle that even with Julius on a mission in the Cayenne and using both turbos to their fullest extent, it was unlikely that they would beat MC back to the pits. There would probably be a sticker or documents check involved getting back into the paddock anyway.
So MC was waved out again once there was a gap in the traffic and set off to see if he could beat the Cayenne back even with a lap extra to do. He seemed to relish the cold tyres, but what was that dark line on the tarmac on the way up the hill to Steilstrecke? Well, fancy that if he ddin’t spy a dark-red Mazda still peeing fuel out of its rear left quarter – you’d have thought that they worked that one out at the N24Q race, but maybe this is the only way to get through their immense budget? Lucky none of the marshals smoke.
MC drifts steadily down the pit lane as Carsten stands by. The team has resolved to practice pit stops every time the car comes in, mostly because it stops MC coming out with yet another military aphorism about prior preparation and planning. As Carsten rolled down the pit lane, Julius turned to MC for the usual detailed debrief, but was somewhat disappointed by a somewhat terse: “cold tyres every lap: couldn’t get them properly hot, then I ran out of fuel, and what heat they had got faded. Fun though”. Very helpful, MC, very helpful.
3 laps and Carsten is in again, let’s say, glowing. OK, sweating. He was also pretty succinct in his debrief: understeer, understeer, understeer. The whole team felt pretty frustrated and settled down to talk it through, while Einar extracted the data and videos. OK, it was cold: even MC was wearing an Opel Motorsport jacket over his T-shirt, but had something else changed since VLN 1? Set up was the same except for reduced rear toe in, which should reduce understeer.
Off to the Drivers briefing, which it was deemed prudent to attend, since although it is clearly much more convenient having a one-on-one with the Clerk of the Course, being on first-names terms with him isn’t a good idea. We were all bitterly disappointed by the continued lack of the 70s-style intervention video, but thought that the new format was a huge improvement; especially MC who was asked to step outside. For a picture.
Fully briefed for all possibilities now, Carsten & MC headed off for a meeting with the VLN to try and resolve the issue with the Clio’s differential, or rather lack thereof compared with all the other cars in the V3 class. Very positive meeting generally, and the organisers said that they would try to see if they could do anything about it this season (with a clear implication that it would be OK next season), but wanted to meet privately to discuss the matter.
Since MC was hungry yet again, it was off to the Opel tent for dinner. The Agnesenhof had done us proud and we found beef and broccoli – isn’t there a 50 Cent song in there somewhere? There certainly wasn’t in the music selection playing, which was plumbing new depths from the 70s and 80s. Better still, there was tea, from which point on MC was hardly to be seen without a large cup of the stuff. Just as the team had finished eating, Karl Mauer, from the VLN management, appeared and said that they had a solution to the differential and would tell us tomorrow. Aaaaaarrrrgggghhh, the frustration.
Talking of frustration and untersteuer, untersteuer, untersteuer; the team spotted Stefan Kissling, the poor chap having headed back for a spot to eat, and buttonholed him to ask about set up and why could we not get the Astra to handle like our beloved HH? We set out the problem, and Stefan was clear: you’re going too fast, use the outside line to the corner, not the inside line; you have to load the front as little as possible; it’s a 1300kg car with 400+Nm torque at 2,500rpm; so its very easy to get too much front axle two-wheel spin as soon as the differential locks up.
He was reassuring that our time was good for our first outing in the car, but we had to learn a new driving style to get the best out of the Astra. We could try harder rear springs, maybe a little toe out? Of course the right springs were not in stock and we couldn’t adjust the rear toe finely enough with what we had at hand, so it was down to the nut at the wheel. It was at this point that MC came out with the statistic that the Astra has the weight of an entire Clio on its front axle and proceeded to ask Stefan to demonstrate the speed at which he actually moved the steering wheel. The rest of the team got slightly English at this point, clearly thinking MC had properly lost it at last, but Stefan, being the brick that he is, demonstrated away. Having pushed their luck enough, the team repaired to the truck.
With the early start the next day; and Einar had yet to suck out & crunch the data, the team dispersed for the day in a thoughtful mood.
Saturday was beautiful, crisp and COLD. The team assembled early to the heady smell of cooking tyres; ET fretting about what he had forgotten, having packed for the weekend in moment; MC appeared clutching the inevitable cup of tea already, saying that he been thinking a lot, whatever that meant; and Carsten appearing firing people off in all directions on various missions. The drivers changed into their tasteful Opel-branded romper suits with the curious half belt on the front.
The good news was starting to emanate all over the paddock from the wap, wap waaaap of the 911s , which must be a warm up programme, unless the mechanics have all been programmed by Porsche as well, the tuneless blare of the Toyotas & Mazdas, and the basso profundo rumble of the SLS’. There’s nothing quite like the VLN paddock waking up anywhere else in the world in terms of sheer numbers and variety. The cars are amazing too.
Out of the morning haze, a VLN official appeared with the Solution. Which was a free VLN race in a car with no diff. Not the answer that Carsten had been hoping for, but maybe next year? In the meantime, we are 15 secs off the pace in V3.
After a quick Chinese parliament, the team decided that it would be Einar first, then Carsten and after a period of meditation, MC would run last with fresh pre-heated boots. Why he can’t just wear them like everyone else is entirely unclear? The dampers were adjusted down one click at the front to try and help turn in and mid-corner understeer, of which we had all had quite enough. Oh, and exit understeer: that too.
Einar set out first with pre-heated tyres and bangs in a 10.02; then a 9.44. The conclusion: one less click on the front dampers works. Turn in is better, there’s a bit less understeer, although its still the prevalent mode. Carsten has already gone down the pit lane by the time the debrief was over and Einar & MC have worked out what to try next.
Sooner than expected, Carsten is back and he liked the new set up. When pushed, he’s still getting understeer, but less of it. He’s more confident and managed a 9.48 even with a lift for an Aston in Tiergarten.
MC had to be wakened from his Zen-like trance to be put in the car. New warm tyres and big expectations met his calm gaze. He was released into gaggle of GT86, M235i & a Cayman: and carved straight through them before the cut through. Hmmmm, so much for his calm demeanour, eh? First lap out is a 9.37, so he clearly means business. On his 2nd lap, Marvin Gaye must have been muttering sweet nothings in his ears, since despite a very dubious release of a M235i from the Pflanzgarten sanctuary, just as MC was braking from 200+ on the crest, he manages a 9.30.49, which would have been a 9.27 absent that.
Back to the pits where there was no one to meet him, but that’s because they were all wreathed in big smiles at the back of the garage. Einar, meanwhile was seeing how many layers he would wear, claiming he had no padding of his own. We counted 6 at one point. Isn’t he from the frozen wastes of the North?
After the usual Chinese parliament, the race order of Carsten, ET, MC was settled on. CO starts well, with a big tussle with BMW, then settles down group of three Astras, each pushing the other on. His lap times reflect it, and we watch as some cars start coming in for a splash & dash.
RED, RED, calls a sharp-eyed MC. There’s been a smash somewhere and all the teams wait anxiously for news that their cars are OK. Carsten radios in to ask what the issue is, so he’s clearly OK. We have a long, long wait before Carsten comes in, as he was held up waiting for the marshals to clear the track and allow the field to pass the crash in Pflanzgarten 2.
Its ugly. Getspeed’s Porsche has had a massive altercation with a green Scirocco which saw both cars in the air at one point. The Scirocco has punched a 5m hole in barrier and is sitting in the trees. The Porsche is 100m away, or at least most of it is. Much of it is scattered across the track. By a miracle the drivers are OK, though they must be pretty shaken. We are told to expect at least an hour’s delay to repair the barriers, which are not safe to race past for now. We decided that Einar should take over, since by the time the race restarted, Carsten would be timed out.
Restart at 4pm. The commentators ran out of things to say and were reduced to running down the entry list, car by car, driver by driver. Even they ran out of enthusiasm for that before getting to the end of the list and serenaded us with particularly awful music that presumably someone thought we might like. We didn’t and eventually, even they realized that silence would be better. MC paces up and down the other Astras looking for set up clues, and realizes that they are mostly running a different wing set up to RPR, so Julius is dispatched to change ours to match.
Finally, finally the 5 minute warning. The circuit staff finished off the shiny new barriers (always a sign to take care in a corner); and the “Helfers raus” call went up as engines started burbling into life. Two formation laps were announced. All the time, Einar sat in the car with admirable fortitude. Must have the bladder of a camel.
Then the rolling start came past, with the second of the two laps counting towards race distance, effectively being run under safety car; at last, they were in and the race was on again.
First lap, and Einar who is a very experienced starter, got the best of most of his Astra Cup competitors through the first couple of laps. Still bumper to bumper with other cars at the approach to Schwedencreuz he had a “moment” across the ridge that was taken on a slight angle; oops, that did not feel as composed as expected. Pushing further and attacking Wippermann with confidence, the car once again becomes very loose and Einar must back off to regain control; hmmm, maybe that new rear wing setting wasn’t working after all. OK, full concentration and line precision is needed to avoid further wobbles at pace.
Einar found himself without lap times, which always unsettles the great data man; he was also stuck behind the more powerful, but ultimately slower #404 Sing Mercedes SLK, which he passed with a real all-or-nothing effort through miss hit miss giving him a good overspeed on the entry into Werseifen and on. With a best of 9.33, Einar was clearly coming to terms with the Clio-on-the-front-axle weight of the Astra and boxed just after 5pm. Jumping out of the car he can’t wait to tell the team “I got him, I got him!”, referring to the result of his multi-lap battle with #363 that ended with a successful slipstream maneuver on Doettinger Hoehe – on his in-lap. Oh well, the lead didn’t last long, but demonstrated that this opponent can be beaten on track .
Knowing how MC likes his new boots warmed, Julius has a fresh pair waiting. Tyres. Einar’s briefing is short and to the point: “perfect”; so MC is strapped in and is off down the pit lane humming quiet soothing music to himself and thinking 400kg more than a Clio to get himself in the right frame of mind.
Soon he catches up the Adrenalin Motorsport Z4, car #444 and has a one-and-a-half lap tussle to get by, which he eventually manages with a better exit out of Hohe Acht down to Wipperman: the Z4 sticks with our man on a mission, though and closes up again using his superior straight line speed down the main straight. MC is having none of this, and leaves it planted through the compression and up into Tiergarten, which the Z4 thinks better of challenging. By the end of the GP circuit, its clear MC is pulling away cleanly.
Penultimate lap and a great finish is beckoning for our second race, but our nemesis is looming behind in the shape of an inexperienced and over ambitious driver in an SP9 Aston Martin GT3. As MC nears Klostertal, he sees the quicker machine in the mirror and moves over to allow the Aston past on the exit. Sadly, our hot-headed hero doesn’t have enough experience to know how to pass at Klostertal and has what he later describes to the Aston team as a “minor contact” with the RPR Astra; a minor contact that registers 4g on his data logger and fires the Astra into the barriers at around 175 kmh. Experienced though MC may be, there is nothing he can do at this point; his unblemished 31-year history of no accidents at the Nürburgring is over; and the Astra tumbles over and over, time and again, with pieces of body work flying left and right, before coming to rest on the passenger side with the roof against the barrier.
Double yellows spring up immediately further back on the circuit and the marshals run from their post to the stricken Astra, where MC is trying to force open the jammed driver’s door. With some help from the marshals, he succeeds and climbs out of the driver’s door and hops over the barrier to safety. Of the Aston, there is no sign, so he climbs up the bank and stands behind the catch fencing, where a kindly marshal offers water and checks him over.
Carsten gets his second call from MC for the weekend, but this time its not as happy as the previous one. MC is direct that Lighting MECQueen is no more, having rolled 4-5 times from around 175 kmh. Little will be capable of being salvaged. He has the presence of mind to take a few pictures.
It simply isn’t possible to put enough in writing to complement the job that the marshals and medics do. They risk their own limbs to save ours; bless them. Equally, thanks are due to Opel and Kissling for building such a strong car; there is little deformation to the passenger cell: the roll cage has done its solemn duty well enough. Luckily, despite one of the most spectacular accidents that those marshals and spectators had ever seen, MC is broadly unhurt, but is quite sensibly taken to the medical centre where he is chuffed to find his own private loo, with a sign saying “MC personal” on the door. Carsten & Einar didn’t have the heart to translate, still slightly in awe that MC is in one piece and coherent.
The team then set to identifying the Aston in question. With some kind help from the VLN officials and a quick call to Test Centre boss, Wolfgang Schuhbauer; the driver is identified as Stuart Leonard. He’s new to the Ring, and new to GT3 racing. Over a coffee in the Aston lounge, the team meet up with Wolfgang for a quick chat. Leonard had already left the circuit, despite having been counseled to be less aggressive before the race and having only told the team that he had a “minor contact”, which had led to the puncture in his rear left, not even where it happened. He hadn’t the courtesy even to check that MC was alive, since it seems inconceivable that he might not have noticed an Astra cartwheeling off his left flank shortly before he felt the puncture. Happily, such poor behaviour is contrasted with the Aston team itself, who behave impeccably with a promise to meet up to go through the data the next VLN weekend; broker a meeting with the driver and follow up with a number of calls to check that MC is OK.
A sour taste is left from the weekend. An ambitious young driver causes a colossal accident through a complete lack of experience; and then leaves without telling his team, checking on the driver or facing the music.
Some questions spring to mind:
- Do we want drivers like that in the VLN?
- Do we need them?
- Should they be disciplined?
- Sanctioned; and in what way?
You tell us.
RIP Lightning MEC Queen. We will miss you.
Get well soon MC, we want you back racing.
Thanks to all track-side photographers for great pictures; watermarks are preserved for identification and rights protection.