Conquering the Nordschleife

It feels pretty awesome to sit here and reflect on having won the 2020 ADAC TOTAL 24H race at the Nürburgring. Together, my team-mates Nicky Catsburg, Nick Yelloly and I were able to hang on in there through the terrible weather conditions and execute a great strategy to bring home the win for Rowe Racing in the #99 BMW M6 GT3 – the first Nürburgring 24 hours win for the team, and the 20th for BMW.

And the weather really was atrocious! During my last stint on Saturday night the track conditions were at their worst. There was heavy rain and the wet tyres were struggling, but we were still driving at a pretty sensible pace. However, the fog was the biggest issue. It was misty for near enough the whole lap, so you could just about see but not very well. When you were coming up behind other cars, the combination of mist and spray made visibility very difficult. On the whole, it was just about bearable, but pretty sketchy!

Then, in a few places came very dense fog. You just couldn’t see anything. None of the straights on the Nordschleife – aside from Döttinger Höhe – are actually straight; they are curved straights. There are many places that are flat out under normal circumstances and would cause no issue whatsoever, but with the fog it was very easy to misjudge the radius of the gentle curves and not give quite the right amount of steering. Two laps in a row I had to lift, brake slightly and turn in more in the section after Bergwerk, coming into Kesselchen before you head up to Mutkurve. I’d miscalculated the little kink – it was a pretty dodgy feeling!

In those conditions, it was no longer about skill level and being able to deal with it – you literally couldn’t see the track ahead. You needed to be extremely brave – or stupid perhaps – to keep your foot down, and so it was absolutely the right call to red flag the race at that point.

We were actually pretty quick in the lap before the red flag, but that was irrelevant. The priority was to make it through the night and be safe, so it was the right decision. The call was made when I was about a third of the way into a lap. It was a long drive round on the limiter at 80kmph – it took forever to get back to the pits!

Once there, I stayed in the pits with Tom Blomqvist, who was in the 98 sister BMW, as we were both due to do the next stint if the race was resumed. But shortly after they announced that the next update would be at 7am, so we were both able to go back to the hotel and get some proper rest. 

It was a shame that the weather conditions meant it wasn’t possible to run all night, but I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to run in those conditions. The beauty of a 24-hour race is doing the night laps then having the heightened feeling of emotion when you’re running in the morning while fatigued. Night-time running on the Nordschleife when the weather’s dry, the air’s cold and the track’s grippy is really quite special. Your senses are elevated, you’re going fast but the fact that you can’t see as well makes it feel even faster. It’s a unique feeling.

After five hours sleep, you’re operating pretty much as normal, so we didn’t get quite the same feeling, but we were all safe and the cars were in once piece – that was the important thing.

In my first morning stint, it was still really wet. On full wet tyres we weren’t competitive enough and were dropping back. We pitted and I got up to pace during my second stint and started our comeback. It was good fun to climb through the field. I felt I was recuperating the time lost in the first run and would hopefully recover the situation enough to fight for a podium – at that point I didn’t think we were in contention to actually win. It was a great progression in emotions to go from thinking we might fight for third to realising that we could realistically win the race.

 

When the racing line started to dry out, we could really push, and it was great to see the lap times fall. Then we had to go about making sure we didn’t lose what could be a win. It was a nerve-wracking final few hours, but we kept our heads down and stuck to the plan. We didn’t put a foot wrong strategy wise, making the right calls at the right time, and it paid off! After 85 extremely demanding laps and a race distance of 2,157.13 kilometres, Nicky was leading and took the win by 15.4 seconds.

It was fantastic to cross the line first for Rowe Racing and BMW, and to share it with Nicky Catsburg and Nick Yelloly. It’s brilliant how well we all got on. I’ve been racing with Nicky for years, and I’d been team-mates with Nick when I did some stand-in GP3 races with Carlin back in 2013. Of the three of us, Nick probably had the most recent experience in the M6 and he was super comfortable with it being on the absolute limit all weekend. I wanted the car setup to be a little calmer, so I’m very thankful to him for being open to working with me on that, and we ended up with a fairly sensible car in terms of balance and pace. That’s part of the absolute beauty of GT racing – you work as part of a team, supporting the other drivers and genuinely caring about their performance. You are friends and working together, not trying to beat each other. And that extends to the team’s sister car, too. You get a bigger team feeling; it’s not every car or man for himself.

It’s a fantastic feeling to sit here and think that I’ve won the Nürburgring and Spa 24-hour races, and Petit Le Mans, too. Obviously, there are some other big races out there – Le Mans, Bathurst, Sebring, Daytona – and it would be great to be part of them, but I just enjoy racing and trying to win. Whether I’m racing in Formula E, IMSA at Lime Rock, or at an Italian GT or British GT round, I enjoy them all. I hope there’s an opportunity in the future to do more of the big races – there’s certainly something special about the night driving at a 24-hour race – but I’m very happy and content with what was achieved this year at the Nordschleife and I’m thankful and excited for the opportunities to get back out on track, wherever that might be.

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