There is nothing like the 24 hours of the Nürburgring. Some say Le Mans is the world's top endurance race, but for me it's the madness in the Eifel mountains known as the "Green Hell." I love this race because it's only for production cars and companies are free to develop whatever is needed to win.
This is especially true for tire companies. Almost every major manufacturer competes in this race and they do so without restrictions normally found in series like F1, DTM or ALMS.
Yes there are rules, and restrictor plates on engines, but you'll see custom wide bodied M3's with massive wings and diffusers racing alongside tiny hatch's like a VW. Then there are the Audi R8's, Mercedes SLS, 911 RSRs, and even strange things like a super cool, old school Opel Manta!
What you may not notice is the incredibly awesome tire technology. It's hidden away under the wide bodies and fenders of cars like this Mercedes SLS that Black Falcon used to win the race outright. But you will hear about it if you talk to the right guys.
Ask any racer the most important part of his car. The smart one will say it's the driver, but at this level, the drivers are actually quite similar. It's the tires that change the race. They are the only thing connecting you with over 15 miles of madness.
(Full Disclosure: We ended up as "guests" of Dunlop because I have the best luck! And partially because I raced on Dunlop's Direzza ZII at my last tarmac rally and finished 2nd on the Direzza ZI at Targa Newfoundland last fall and sent them a nice email saying I was going to the 'Ring. The really cool thing is that Dunlop won the race and also finished 3rd. Two of the three cars on the podium were rocking Dunlops. I think their tires are awesome. It's why I've raced on them numerous times in the past year or so. So yes, I'm biased.)
But if you don’t believe me, try Former F1 and DTM driver Bernd Schneider:
"I have won almost everything I wanted to win in my career, but I’d never finished this race before. The Dunlop tyres were great, especially in the rain, we did everything right. I could set super fast lap times and we pull a gap."
And as we all know, there is nothing better than pulling a gap...
Lap times are lap times, but there is something very special about the Nürburgring. It's not your normal road course… it's over 15 miles around and confidence is key. Especially in the rain.
And the rain at the Nurburgring is monstrous. Even the AWD Subaru was running Dunlops.
We talked with the man who designed the race tires. (Caswell side note: SO AWESOME TO TALK THE GUY THAT ENGINEERED THE TIRES! and yes I asked him all sorts of questions totally unrelated to the tires in this race!) But what I found out was awesome. Dunlop loves this race. Maybe more so than any other single race on the planet because they are free to use everything they know to build the best tire possible. And that's exactly what they did.
This tire was specially designed less than two weeks before the race at the teams final test session. Things change in racing, particularly the weather forecasts. So Dunlop knocked out the a new set of tires and sent them by truck to the Nürburgring. They arrived the day before the race and there was even a guy waiting at the gate for the special delivery.
I love racing stories like this. Could you imagine driving those tires to the race? Knowing that you need to arrive on time, without crashing, and that it might be the key to your team winning the 24hrs of the Nurburgring? Someone should buy that truck driver a beer!
The race started off pretty normal. You could see some teams getting after it in the first few hours like the number 18 Porsche that was just hammering traffic. But the Mercedes SLS cars were playing it smart. They knew the rain was coming. They knew their cars would be better in the wet. The cool thing was listening to the guys from Dunlop explain the strategy to us real time.
I was sure it was to cover up the slightly conservative lap times and even made a very loud comment about it. All they said was "just wait till it rains..." and smiled.
And rain it did! Almost immediately the Dunlop cars were 20 to 40 seconds a lap faster. But the rain was so was ridiculous that the race was stopped nearly 5 hrs after it was started. We had to wait to the morning to see the restart.
The outcome put two Dunlop equipped Mercedes SLS cars on the podium! They battled all day against the BMW Z4, that 911 RSR that was going nuts at the beginning of the race, and a few others, but in the end the Dunlop equipped teams won. I can tell you first hand that it was cool to watch.
Here's a cool quote from Jean-Felix Bazelin, the General Manager of Dunlop Motorsport Europe:
"Last year we showed our pace, leading in the wet with ROWE, and we have continued to focus on developing our wet and cold weather performance with new compounds and constructions being tested extensively over the winter. To see fastest laps from the front running SLS cars, often 20 seconds quicker than the competition at critical stages of the race, is evidence of our focus on providing the wet grip and braking performance that gives drivers the confidence to push"
A nice way of saying Dunlop's kick ass.
You have to love Germany. It's the only time I've ever seen the machines on the podium. Usually it's a bunch of drivers, but at the Nürburgring, they raise the equipment into the air too!
The drivers still celebrate with champagne, but its the equipment that sparkles at the Nurburgring.
Photos by Clement Marin