Rightly described as the world’s most famous race, the annual Le Mans 24 Hours needs no introduction. However, the lesser-known Nürburgring 24 Hours is arguably motorsport’s toughest endurance event.
First held in 1970, Germany’s round-the-clock classic uses a 15.7-mile combined lap of the modern Grand Prix track and the legendary Nordschleife. This year, we were in the driving seat for an inside look at this incredible race.
I joined ex-Formula One and Le Mans star Stefan Johansson, Nordschleife veteran Wolfgang Kaufmann and Japanese racer Teruaki Kato in a near- standard Mazda MX-5. Run by Kent-based Jota Sport, it was entered by Mazda to mark the 25th anniversary of the world’s best-selling roadster.
It’s this ability to enter an almost standard road car that marks out the Nürburgring 24 Hours. With entries from 10 manufacturers, the pure race cars in the GT3 class monopolise the front of the field, but we’re contesting the V3 category that caters for up to 2.0-litre production cars. It’s dominated by Toyota GT 86s, which have a 30bhp advantage over our little Mazda.
Still, after taking victory in a six-hour qualification race earlier in the year, we felt confident and qualified fourth in class. Yet a practice crash for one of my team-mates reminded us of the risks ahead around the unforgiving course.
With 205,000 spectators camped out in the forest having a festival-like party, the sense of anticipation is huge as the vast 173-car field prepares for the off. Stefan starts, and before the end of the first lap, he already has GT3 class cars lapping him. Dealing with huge closing speeds on a narrow course with over 300 metres of elevation change is a defining element of this race. Shortly before 5pm, Stefan radios to say he’s been hit by a faster car and the Mazda’s steering has been bent.
Incredibly, another knock while Teruaki is at the wheel straightens the steering and the car feels really good as I get my first stint at around 7pm. With a standard 167bhp engine and six-speed box, the only modifications allowed – aside from safety kit – are racing dampers and springs, plus slick tyres and racing brake pads.
With so little power, it’s crucial to maintain momentum and carry speed, yet the neutral handling and high grip of the MX-5 mean it’s perfect for the job.
No other track on the planet demands so much commitment, knowledge and skill from drivers, and with the need to constantly keep an eye on the mirrors, to say I’m busy is an understatement – but every lap is a magical experience.
Impressively, the Mazda can cover the 15.7 miles in around 10 minutes 40 seconds on a clear lap – with over six minutes of this at full throttle! By the end of my stint, we’re running 124th overall and fifth in class.
Sadly, Wolfgang is hit by a Mercedes SLS GT3 and the resulting damage loses us just over an hour, but the team does an amazing job of rebuilding the rear suspension, getting the battered car back on track at around 11pm. Due back at the wheel at 3.30am, I get ready for the unique challenge of the ’Ring at night, but as I wait in the pitlane, worried glances from the team confirm that the car is overdue for its stop.
With no answer on the radio, there’s relief as word comes from race control that Teruaki has crashed but is unhurt. As I take my helmet off, the realisation that our race has ended sinks in and the whole team is hugely deflated.
Watching the sun coming up the next morning while listening to the cars roar round is heartbreaking, but it’s the challenge of this race that makes it so special, and when the surviving 110 cars cross the finish line at 4pm on Sunday, the whole team is already dreaming of returning next year to
face the world’s toughest race again.
See loads more incredible pictures of the race in our huge gallery above.