It's been a pretty trying time here at the well-named Green Hell. Unless you've been locked away for the past week, you've most likely heard of Jann Mardenborough's horrific crash here at the Nordschleife during the opening round of the Nürburgring Endurance Series, otherwise known as the VLN.
Jann was driving the factory Nissan GT-R GT3 car. When going over the crest at Flugplatz, the front end got light and the car went vertical, crashed into the barriers at unabated speeds and then pinwheeled over the catch fencing and into the spectators beyond, killing one and injuring several more.
There has been a lot of speculation going around about this crash, the cause of it, the safety issues and the future of racing at the Nordschleife. I want to separate fact from fiction and give you the current situation.
Let's start with the facts and separate them from the speculation and innuendo that seems to be rampant in this story.
Fact #1: The Driver
The driver of the car, Jann Mardenborough, is a current factory driver for Nissan. He was discovered through their GT Academy program in 2011, where he beat out 90,000 other entrants to win the seat. He has had two starts at Le Mans and finished on the LMP2 class podium in his debut. He currently is competing in Formula 3 alongside his GT duties. Additionally, he was selected by Nissan to be a driver for their GT-R LMP1 Le Mans program. So not only was he experienced in racing, but he has been racing at that level for almost half a decade.
This was his first race at the Nürburgring and he had successfully completed the mandatory VLN school two weeks prior to the race to receive his Nordschleife "A" permit required to drive in the GT3 class (known as SP9 in the VLN).
Fact #2: The Car
Group GT3 is an FIA set of rules for production-based race cars. They share a chassis and some parts with their street car siblings. The category was started by SRO founder Stéphane Ratel in 2005 as a lower cost alternative to the factory GT1 cars. GT3 cars were originally intended to be cars for amateur or gentleman drivers. However, over the years heavy manufacturer involvement has made this the de facto form of GT racing worldwide.
The cars have evolved and developed so much that they are now actually faster than the GT1 cars of only a decade ago. Part of the reason for this improvement in speed is the increased focus on aerodynamics. Splitters, flicks, diffusers, flat floors and massive rear wings mean a current GT3 car weighing in at 1300 kg now could have close to 1000 kg of downforce. Combine that with 500 bhp and you can see how these speeds are achieved.
Manufacturers are free to develop their cars how they see fit. However, the cars are performance balanced by the FIA each year at a multi-day test and each car is given a balance of performance (BoP) so that they are all equally competitive with each other. This prevents any one manufacturer spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing a car that other manufacturers can't match. These are lessons learned over many years in motorsports where unchecked rampant spending by manufacturers caused many series to implode (see F1, GT1 and the BTCC's Super Touring Car era for examples). The parameters of the BoP include horsepower, weight, and aerodynamics.
The Nissans are known to have a rear aero bias, which means that the car is set up with a majority of its downforce generated in the rear. There are several reasons for this, but that would require a very long and boring engineering discussion. So, let's just leave this as saying that the Nissans have historically pulled the biggest wheelies at Flugplatz.
Fact #3: The Track
The Nürburgring is one of the most feared and respected tracks by all drivers, no matter what era you drove in. One of the reasons for this is its high average speed (180 kph over a lap) with multiple blind corners and little to no run off. It's a throwback.
In recent years, however, the track has seen many upgrades designed to improve driver and spectator safety without compromising the things that make the track so special. Guardrails now line the entire circuit and catch fencing has been erected in the popular spectator viewing spots.
That being said, the track itself is largely unchanged and there are still three spots on the circuit where cars get airborne. I'm not talking about a couple of inches every once in a while either. In some cases cars will get a couple of feet off the ground lap after lap after lap.
The area where Jann went off is called Flugplatz, or the airport. The name itself is not in reference to the fact that the cars actually take off here, but for a small glider airport that used to be in operation nearby. GT3s and other high powered cars that are usually in the top of fifth gear by the crest regularly get airborne. At the very least, the front end of these cars will wheelie over the crest of the hill. The cars usually settle back down before the high-speed right hand corner that follows.
There is a spectator area on the outside of this corner, which is where Jann's car ended up. There are several rows of tire barrier, an earth bluff that is about six feet high, and then eight to ten feet of catch fencing behind that. There have been statements made that the spectators in this viewing area were standing in an exclusion zone not meant for spectators to be. I will admit I was one of those who perpetuated this. It is now my understanding that the spectators were exactly were they were supposed to be. The fence behind the spectators is not to keep them out of the area near the fence but to keep them out of the private property behind the fence!
Fact #4: GT3 Cars Banned
In the wake of the accident, the DMSB (German motorsports authority) led by Hans-Joachim Stuck (look him up if you want to check his motorsports cred) banned the following car categories from competing at the Nürburgring until further notice: SP7, SP8, SP8T, SP9, SP-Pro, SP-X, Cup-2, H4, E1-XP1, E1-XP2 and E1-XP. Basically, any car that can turn quicker than around an 8:20 lap of the combined VLN circuit (Nordschleife and GP circuit) is out for the time being.
There has been an announcement of a meeting on Tuesday between the DMSV, manufacturers, top team managers, and top drivers to discuss what the next steps could be.
Fact #5: Racing Stopped
There was a rumor that all racing would cease at the Nürburgring until a solution could be found. However, a Thursday announcement by the promoters of next weekend's 24 Hours of Nürburgring Qualification race (and promoters of the 24 Hour race as well) have categorically stated the race will go on as scheduled.
Fact #6: Asshole
Taki Inoue is an asshole. Yes, he apologized for his insanely offensive and asinine tweet, but not after doubling down first with a second tweet challenging people to come up with words other than asshole to describe him. In fact, the word asshole actually covered it quite nicely.
Those are the facts.
Here's what we don't know or valid questions that have been raised.
Question #1: The Driver
Was he trying to go flat over Flugplatz? Or did his lack of experience at the Nürburgring cause this crash?
Question #2: The Weather
Did gusting winds from a storm that moved through the area just shortly after the race was stopped have an effect on the flat floor of the Nissan?
Question #3: The Car
Did the rear aero balance of the Nissan contribute to the cars instability?
Question #4: The Spectator Areas
Was the spectator viewing area safe and well designed? Are they well located?
What will happen now? What should happen now?
Those are the facts and questions as they stand, so now for my opinion. For those of you who haven't read some of my posts here and don't know my background, I am a pro driver who has been coming to the Nürburgring for almost 10 years and have lived there part-time for the past three years. I was racing in VLN the day of the crash.
I don't think Jann would have attempted to take Flugplatz flat. If he did, it means that he felt that the car was capable of it. Drivers aren't the massive risk takers that many of you think. Everything we do in a car is calculated. We don't (most of us anyways) just decide to take a 150 mph corner flat unless we've been working up towards it lap after lap. Jann has experience and is not known as a guy who makes bad decisions.
However, even if he did try to go flat through Flugplatz, I don't think that condemns him. There was no way for him to know that a modern GT3 car could or would flip. This is not like Mark Webber's Le Mans prototype flip. Prototypes are several hundred kilos lighter and have most of their weight centered in the car. GT3 cars have a big heavy engine stuffed in the nose of the car. Additionally, the car weighs in at close to 1400 kgs. It takes a lot to flip a car like that. It is not something that we've ever seen before, other than this Lamborghini at Slovakia Ring last year:
Moreover, if you look at the video from the crash, the car goes in to the crash barrier standing on its rear bumper. When it hit the barrier, it then pinwheeled up and over the crash fencing. I have never seen a car do this in all my years of racing. If the car had completely flipped and gone in on its roof, the car would have most likely just bounced off the tire barrier and we'd just be talking about how strong modern race cars are, as Jann would have most likely been okay.
After years of racing, I've developed a working theory that it never is just one thing that happens that leads to an accident—it's always the convergence of several things. Regardless of what the German police and the DMSB discover, I do not believe there was any one factor that will be to blame.
What will and should happen is best left to smarter people than me, but my preference in the long run, would be to slow the GT3 cars down to a manageable pace, with lap times around 8:10 - 8:15. This could be managed by restrictors and tested at the BoP test in the spring. Recognize that the pace that the GT3 cars are currently on is only a dozen or so seconds off the outright lap record set by Stefan Bellof which is widely regraded as one of the most insane laps of all time in anything, anywhere. Bellof did it in a 1000 hp Porsche prototype, not a 550 hp car based on a street car!
For those who are calling to change the track, stop it. Just stop. This is the last bastion of the great race tracks in the world. I believe in personal responsibility. If you think the track is too dangerous, then don't drive here or spectate. Obviously, we want to do whatever possible to protect both drivers and the people who come to watch us but we should balance that out with also what makes racing at the Nürburgring what it is. Move the spectators out of the impact zones, put up HD big screens everywhere so that spectators still get a good view for the action from safer locations, increase the fencing and get technical support from NASCAR. Yes, say what you will about them, but NASCAR has safety standards that are equal to Formula One, and in some areas better. All of these things can be implemented without changing the nature of the layout of this amazing track.
My thoughts go out to the family of the spectator killed and to Jann.
Photo credit: Newspress