It was finally time to go to the Nürburgring Nordschleife. We had done the tests and final preparation races with AMG and HTP Motorsport. We knew that we had a good chance to race for the win, even as this year's entry list was one of the strongest ever. On one hand, it is great but at the same time, it makes me very concerned because this race has become famous for the mix in the grid, especially for a lot of small teams with a very low budget. However, the number of small teams is shrinking more and more. In good years we've had around 200 to 210 cars; now we have 160.
Christian Hohenadel, Christian Vietoris, Renger van der Zande, and I were the lineup for the No. 29 AMG HTP Motorsport Mercedes. For motorsport fans who are not so much into endurance racing, we might not have been on their list for a podium, but some insiders gave us a fair chance from the very beginning. We had a good mix between experience and pure speed, which is so important, especially at the Green Hell.
I had very limited time in the car with just two laps in the night for qualifying, mostly to check the light adjustments. I was fine with it after all the preparation we did.
For the Top 30 Qualifying, AMG HTP Motorsport decided to send out Christian Hohenadel. He is a really good and had the most experience with the car since he belongs to the pool of AMG factory drivers. The Top 30 Qualifying was under less-than-perfect conditions. The racing line was nearly dried out but the rest was still damp or even still wet. So in case you push just slightly too hard, you will go off no matter what!
We decided not to risk too much because it simply made no sense at all. It is nice to be on pole but we all know that it isn't important for a 24-hour race. Christian did well, though, and qualified us on P9.
The team decided, like many others do, that the one who did qualifying starts the race. So it was Hohenadel in our case. He did very well because the conditions were as crazy as they could be. After six laps it started to rain and hail on most parts of the track. In my 10 years in a row on the Nordschleife, I never ever can remember a time that cars couldn't drive up the hill anymore toward Adenauer Forst because of hail. So many areas were flooded and some were simply covered in ice! It was chaotic. There was no other choice for race control other than to stop the race. They had to work first to repair some of the guardrails as well as to bring back a number of cars stranded on the track.
Luckily Christian came back on his own, without a scratch—not so for our sister car. The No. 30 had some contact with the barrier after Schwedenkreuz toward Aremberg. But the rule book on the Nordschleife allows you to do some repairs under red flag, very different than other series. The race was interrupted for more than three hours, so it was best to keep Hohenadel in the car since he knew the conditions when they stopped the race. But the restart was too early. Many of the drivers reported they were literally scared to drive. There was still too much water on the track and everybody who's driven one of the latest spec GT3 cars with a lot of aero and wide tires in the rain knows what I am talking about.
Hohenadel managed to be briefly in the lead before he had a spin. Luckily, there wasn't any contact and he could continue on without any problems. We dropped down to P10. When Renger took over, it was already under dark conditions at that time. My stint was to be the same.
The track was dry again, but we still had places where you couldn't leave the race line because it was damp. Not that easy in the night. The weather forecast was reporting some rain possibilities, and I was expecting it. Most of the time it starts in the section around Schwedenkreuz up to Mezgesfeld, but you can never be sure on that track. A big concern for most drivers are their lights. You always hope that you go through the first part of the race without any serious contact on the front end to protect your headlights and especially the adjustments. We all did well—the light pointing where it was supposed to. This isn't always a given. In my first stint at night I had a good time in the car driving with our sister car No. 30. We drove almost the whole stint bumper to bumper. At one time he overtook me and a little later I got him back again. It's great if you can race with somebody you know and can trust. It was very fair. The No. 30 was in a different pit rhythm than our No. 29 car. When I had my pit out from a full service, unfortunately, I saw the No. 30 car stranded. Maxi Buhk had a crash and we were the only car left on track for HTP Motorsport. So my second night stint had few fights for position but was still packed with a lot of overtaking. To me, this is one of the key factors of this race—how you make it through the traffic with safe moves and not losing time with it. I really enjoy it being out there at night. It is funny when you approach an area where you all think is, "OMG, now some fog comes up." But after you drive through the fog cloud, you realize by the smell "Dude, that smells like a medium rare steak." So you can get easily confused but in a convenient way. That smoke is from someone having a big party barbecue.
During the night we managed to come back with a solid run to be in the top four position.
Everything felt quite good in my morning session. Everything felt still quite good and we were up to being consistently in top three overall. I like the morning sessions a lot. Once you make it through the night it is a relief. Another reason is that the morning sessions are known for hammering down some good lap times. This is caused by the track picking up some more grip, less traffic of the stranded cars at night, and there is some fresh air filled with a lot of oxygen; it's just perfect. So I had a nice double stint at that period of the race, with an intense fight with the green Black Falcon AMG Mercedes. We had some slipstream fights on the long stretch called Doettinger Hoehe. But we fought on. From thereon, I felt the team was more and more focused with calculations for the end of the race. One of the key moments was when the Haribo AMG No.88 received a stop and go penalty; until then they had been leading. It cost them around 90 seconds, about the same we had lost at the beginning with the Christian's spin. It was time for our No. 29 to take over the lead. Renger drove around lunchtime. For the last one it was to be either me or Hohenadel. Hohenadel got the call for a last double, but just before he came to me and said, "Mate, be prepared when I finish my first stint that I hand over to you, in case I am exhausted," because he drove the most of us. I was ready but I also knew, as a driver when you can make it in such a race to the line, and we were in a position to win, then you go for it and so he did.
It turned out that our calculation was short by about one minute; to be precise, it was 38 seconds. We were short on fuel for one lap. So either we slow down to save fuel and lose the position or we go for a splash and dash and will leave the pit lane with just a few seconds in lead. In the meantime, Hohenadel reported a very spongy brake pedal and that he had to pump up the brake before every corner.
So we went for the splash. Then the drama started. After the refill the engine didn't fire up for some reason, but our mechanics were allowed to push the car to get it restarted. We lost some important seconds, although when he left the pit lane we were still in the lead. Then some AMG officials came to our pit garage and made the call "freeze." I thought, "OK, now they want to finish in a safe way and not risk anything to a top four result for AMG." But then some strange things started to happen. Hohenadel reported after they informed him to take it easy that he will keep the lead position, that Maro Engel is still attacking and is flashing and fighting for the position. Somehow it seemed that either Maro never got that call because his team didn't let him know or he ignored it, or we were the only ones who received it. When they crossed the line with 38 seconds left to go, they were nose to tail. Maro was attacking Christian on the GP Circuit. They had contact but luckily not any further issues—and Maro was by. To lose the 24-hour race at the green hell in the very last lap is a very big disappointment to me. We still had been in the lead when the timing showed 23 hours and 59 minutes. And then we finished second. And yes, I know how the Toyota drivers felt at Le Mans about that final lap.
So now I have to try again to get one step higher at that race. It was the second time I finished second overall—back in 2010, at that time with the 430 GT2 Hankook Ferrari.
The next event on my schedule was again at the Nürburgring, but this time with the Blancpain Sprint Series. It was the second time that we were using the 488 GT3 Ferrari. Rinaldi Racing as well as the drivers, Norbert Siedler, and I have to learn how to set up the car. We statically made improvements all along the weekend. We qualified 15th out of 37 cars. We finished 11th in the Qualification race and made it up to 5th position in the race. That was better than expected and keeps us very positive for the upcoming events. The season goes on.