The dust has barely settled on the 2020 Le Mans 24 Hours and already, less than a week later, it’s time to start looking ahead to the next major endurance race: the Nürburgring 24 Hours (N24).
Predicting who will take the crown at the N24 each year is notoriously difficult, with so many cars in the SP9 category featuring crews of world-class drivers in with a legitimate shot at glory.
Gone are the days where it felt like a small-time event lacking appeal outside of Germany. Now it’s a race with a huge international following, that is taken incredibly seriously by a slew of major manufacturers. That’s not to say it has lost its club-racing roots, as it is still very much a race with its own culture, that welcomes just about every type of GT or touring car past and present.
With the absence of fans on the Nordschleife, (though happily there will be some on the GP loop) this year’s race may look and feel different, but the teams and manufacturers involved will all be pushing as hard as ever to be crowned ‘King of the ‘Ring’
So who are the contenders? What oddball entries should you follow?
Let’s take a look at some of the storylines to follow in this year’s race:
The SP9 war
The battle for the overall win at the N24 is seldom a dull, predictable affair. This year will be no exception. The race as a whole may featuring a lower car count than usual, but in the SP9 class there’s 30 cars all in with a chance at taking overall honours.
Customer teams from Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes, and Porsche will be going tooth and nail with GT3 machinery. So far Mercedes, BMW and Audi have taken wins in the NLS (formerly the VLN), with an Octane 126-fielded Ferrari almost taking a surprise win in the third round.
Could the 488 GT3 prove to be the surprise package here? Ferrari has never won the Nurburgring 24 Hours, despite having produced GT3 cars more than capable enough. This is mainly because there hasn’t been a serious factory-supported effort from the likes of AF Corse or any of its other major teams since Hankook-shod models came close a decade ago in the pre-GT3 era, with GT2-spec 430 and 458s.
Porsche meanwhile, hasn’t taken a win this year at the ‘Ring in NLS competition, but its customer teams should never be counted out. Frikadelli Racing, KCMG, Falken Motorsports and Huber Motorsport will all be present, and eager to score the Stuttgart-based marque its second victory in three years at the event.
The spotlight will be on Porsche in particular this year, after Manthey withdrew its ‘Grello’ #911 entry due to some positive COVID tests emerging for the crew post-Le Mans. This had a further knock-on effect, as the withdrawal of all Porsche’s Le Mans factory drivers (as a result) left Falken and KCMG with last minute decisions to make; both were due to compete with drivers that will now not make the trip.
Falken has opted to reduce its driver crew from eight to six, while KCMG has drafted in the likes of Earl Bamber, Timo Bernhard and Jorg Bergmiester to make up the numbers.
Which teams will be in the mix from the other marques?
Audi Sport has entered three factory R8 LMS GT3s all packed with factory drivers. Phoenix Racing also has a pair of R8s to add to the attack. None should be counted out here, especially considering Audi’s form at the N24 which has seen it claim five of the last eight overall wins with the R8 platform.
Mercedes meanwhile has seven AMG GT3s in the race, headlined by debuting team Haupt Racing’s trio of entries, all featuring experienced peddlers. HRT effectively replaces Black Falcon in Mercedes’ line-up of factory supported teams, the longtime German outfit stepping back to compete in the lower ranks going forward. But Mercedes hopes this change won’t affect its hopes of a win. The NLS season so far has been encouraging, HRT delivering a maiden victory as a Mercedes customer team in just its second appearence.
Then there’s BMW, which is desperate to end its win-less drought that dates back to 2010. The GT3-era hasn’t been kind to the Bavarian brand which has been unable to score wins with either the Z4 or M6 models.
BMW has come close numerous times in recent years, but no matter how much firepower it throws at this race it always seems to end in bitter disappointment. This is a far cry from the pre-GT3 era of the N24 when it regularly dominated proceedings
ROWE Racing (above), Schnitzer and Walkenhorst have been tasked with putting an M6 GT3 on the top step this year, and all three are capable of doing so. Will they deliver?
Glickenhaus’ 004C put to the test
It wouldn’t be an N24 without odd-ball entries or one-off specials in the field. While there is no Opel Manta this year (for the first time in almost two decades), there are still some fan-favourites set to take part outside of the SP9 field.
The most high profile is Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus’ new 004C which will run on its own in the SPX category. Now, this isn’t SCG’s attempt at taking a trophy by default, as usual the team has its heart set on overall glory. As was the case in the past, the 004C is set to be able to remain competitive alongside the SP9 cars in the race; it just doesn’t fit in the category by regulation as it isn’t an FIA-homolgated GT3 car.
The 004C takes over the reins from the 003C which SCG has fielded in the race over the past few years. And it has a lot to live up to. The 003C may not have won this race overall, but it did storm to pole position back in 2017 and prove time and time again to be fast enough to keep up with the best of the best in the SP9 ranks.
Franck Mailleux, Felipe Laser and Thomas Mutsch have been entrusted with the new car for what will be an incredibly important weekend for Glickenhaus.
This race will see the 004C put to the test properly for the first time. Following its initial test programme, the team did manage to get the 004C to the finish in its debut NLS race ahead of this weekend, despite an exhaust fire which saw the team work overtime to rebuild much of the car using spares loaned from Black Falcon.
This latest chapter in Jim Glickenhaus’ N24 programme will be well worth tracking. Lest we forget that this serves nicely as a precursor to his forthcoming FIA WEC Le Mans Hypercar programme next year.
Interestingly its main rival in the 2020 FIA WEC season, Toyota Gazoo Racing, also features in the race this year with a pair of SP3-class Carolla Altis’!
Will the SP8s provide the most entertaining race within the race?
Further down the order the most interesting racing beyond the SP9 may come in the SP 8 (normally aspirated) and SP 8T (turbo-charged) categories which predominantly feature GT4 cars. The numbers in the two categories aren’t huge, but there are some rather interesting drivers and teams involved.
In SP 8T there are four cars representing three marques. The only Aston Martin in the race is included in this bunch, former Blancpain Endurance champion Garage 59 (above) making its N24 debut with factory driver Darren Turner, former McLaren test driver Chris Goodwin and Alex West.
The team has high hopes after successes in NLS races prior to this weekend. Aston Martin may not have a history of winning this race overall, but it has a track record of customer and factory efforts taking regular wins in the lower classes with the Vantage platform in recent years.
“This is the biggest test yet of the Garage 59 team,” says Goodwin. “We entered two NLS races to tune our Vantage to the particular requirements of the Nordschleife but also to prepare the team itself.
“The 24-hour race is a massive challenge but this team has great experience in other forms of GT endurance racing so we knew they were up to the challenge. Second place at the six-hour race here last month confirms that.”
Garage 59’s competition will be hot, up against an M4 GT4 from N24 stalwart Walkenhorst Motorsport, a Mercedes AMG GT4 from multiple former overall winner Black Falcon and a Keeevin Sports & Racing BMW M2 CS for added variety.
SP8 meanwhile, is a two-horse race between two aspirant tire brands: a Giti Tire Motorsport Audi R8 LMS GT4 and Lexus RCF fielded by Toyo Tire Ring Racing. Dominik Farnbacher.
As usual, if you love tyre wars, then there’s plenty to look out for in this race. In SP9 alone, Michelin, Yokohama, Goodyear and Falken are represented. Beyond the top class, Toyo, Hankook, Pirelli, Nexen and Giti are also supplying tyres to teams. And with heavy rain forecast for the race, it will fascinating to see which tyres are the ones to have as the conditions change and evolve…
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Photos courtesy of Garage 59/Aston Martin and N24/ADAC