SPORT-AUTO GERMAN TUNER GRAND PRIX
John Thorne of Thorney Motorsport takes his VX220 Turbo to compete in the German Tuning GP
Thorney Motorsport's Vauxhall VX220 Turbo
Every year the German car tuning industry gets together and the best tuning firms compete against each other and against the clock. The best lap time wins.
Held at the famous Hockenheim circuit, home of the German GP, the event (now in its twelfth year) has become the main event for the tuning industry to show off its wares. In part as preparation for our own UK version of this event (the Milltek Sport Car Tuner Grand Prix) we hit the circuit to see how our race-prepped VX220 Turbo would fare against the German tuners.
A serious event
Friday arrival greeted us with a paddock which would shame BTCC; they took this event very seriously. All the larger teams (Cargraphic, Gemballa, AMG, Techart) had enormous race transporters and hoards of people. We’ve been before as spectators, but never really appreciated the sheer scale of the event until we to the paddock in an X5 with a marquee in it and a diminutive Vauxhall on a trailer.
We were met lots of very friendly German people. As they were all speaking German, typical Brits abroad, we stumbled our way through another people's language with wild arm gestures and empty expressions, only to be met with the first of the trip's issues: no German TUV. This meant no entry into our designated class -- the fact our class was called the ‘Fun’ class should’ve prepared us for the world we entered).
German TUV -- think UK MOT then multiplied by 1,000 for technical inspection -- also covers car tuning so all the entrants had to be TUV approved to enter into the categories. We did know this was likely to be an issue but we didn’t quite realise what this would mean to our group, so we were bumped into the ‘Offene Klasse’ – open category.
Offene Klasse we soon learnt meant anything goes so our list of competitors read thus:
- BMWE30 325
- Donkervoort D8R5
- Gemballa GTR EVO
- Impreza WRX Sti
- Lamborghini Murcielago
- Mitusbishi Evo 8 MR
- Nissan Skyline GT8
- Opel Speedster
- Porsche 996 Turbo Type FAZ600 GT
- Porsche GT2 R
- Porsche GT2-R
- Porsche GT3 RS
- Porsche GT3 RSC 3.8
- Vauxhall VX220 Turbo
- VW Golf 3 VR6
- VW Golf bi-turbo
- VW Golf Turbo
As it turned out most of these cars were full FIA spec race cars of some kind. The German TUV is so tight that, when the tuners choose to ignore it, they go all-out on race car preparation. We were competing with full race cars.
We started to sweat.
First day -- preparation and a blow-up
Friday was setup day. We had an hour of free practice, where I was keen to drive the circuit and see how the our times compared to last year's winner. I competed here before but four years earlier in an Audi RS4, so to say I didn’t know it well was an understatement.
Three laps in and disaster. Mid-way through the chicane, a fast left/right leading to hard braking for a tight right hander, the top radiator hose blew off, covering the windscreen with coolant. After avoiding the wall, I nursed it back to the pits and we set about sorting it.
The good news was that it was a simple fix but time-consuming enough that I missed all of the rest of practice. The bad news was that it may have caused or been caused by a head gasket failure. We had oil blowing out of the top cap so our heads dropped.
This attitude lasted about five seconds until we adopted the classic “sod it, we’ll run it until/if it blows” mentality so we set about preparation for the next day's event -- drinking beer.
Second day -- rain
The following morning we opened the curtains to be met with torrential rain. On the one hand, this meant some of the power differential would be absorbed but Hockenheim's short circuit is not one you want to come off at speed so my nervousness levels shot up. Add to that a new adjustable anti-roll bar (ARB) and front splitter, neither of which had been tested in the wet, and the weather was bound to confuse.
The day's schedule included 45 minutes of free practice at 9am followed by all classes competing in 30 minute stints on the track, with the Open Class the finale before the drift challenge. By the time the first classes were racing at 10am, there was a crowd of 20,000. The total crowd when we went out to race was almost 40,000 people.
No pressure then.
The first bit of sad news was that the other Opel Speedster competing (Klasen Motors 300bhp Speedster Turbo) got half a lap into practice, lost it on the exit of the final turn and slammed it into the wall on the pit straight. I didn’t get a good look at it but it looked nasty. The driver was fine though which was good. It would’ve been nice to see how they compared on track.
On-track slip and slide
The conditions were treacherous: pools of water everywhere and grip at a premium. In preparation for the conditions we decided to stick with the Yokohama tyres -- I actually find them quite predictable in the wet. We ran the car on full soft settings -- we use Nitron three-way remote reservoir suspension -- lowered the tyre pressures and completely disconnected the front ARB.
It seemed to work. Braking was predictable and the car would happily drift through corners with all four tyres breaking grip predictably and in unison, so I was pretty happy. The hard bit was actually using the power as the conditions meant second gear was spinning up the rears and third was not quite geared enough to get good exit speed.
Every corner I cursed myself for not chasing up the six-speed close-ratio box the car is overdue to have installed. It felt like I was pushing hard going into corners, a fact reflected in the video against the Porsches, but let it all slip away by not being able to exploit this mid-corner speed to due lack of available power – pretty frustrating.
It rained on and off all day; at one point a dry line was appearing when the heavens opened again. A conversation with the eventual GT class winners Cargraphic showed just how important this was in their preparation – they had spent at least four days' testing at the track in the weeks previously to perfect both wet and dry setups for the cars. Hockenheim is known to many for being very changeable, depending on the weather. Now we know it too.
I’ve driven track days for 10 years but have never raced before (a fact I’m changing in the Milltek Sport BMW Challenge this year) and had certainly never driven in front of a crowd. So the sight of coming round into the Motodrom and facing an amphitheatre containing 25,000 people is something I shall never forget.
Once I’d got over the spectacle of it all, I set about seeing what we could do. It transpired that half my time was spent avoiding being run over by 700bhp Porsches, with the rest trying to piece together a decent racing line on a track on which I’d only driven 20 laps. The rain had stopped by now and a dry line was starting to appear, especially in the braking zones.
This made the setup a bit of a lottery. No front ARB as we disconnected it for the wet makes for interesting cornering, and full wet suspension helped grip but dropped the mid-corner speed.
How did we do? Well we came 12th out of 17 with a lap time of 1:18.391. Considering the make-up of our competitors and the level of expenditure they committed to the event -- some of the cars were valued over £300k a piece -- along with their extensive testing and circuit knowledge, I think we did very well. Almost all the drivers in the open Class were professionals hired for the event, which included some DTM drivers who knew and had competed on the circuit for years, so our lack of local knowledge alone would’ve hampered us.
Conditions between our Fun class and the open category we drove in were a little different, in that our best times were on the drying line at the very end of our session, but we would in theory have won our class by six seconds had we been allowed to enter. So we felt good about that.
What about next year?
Will we enter next year? Yes, I think so, the event is so large and frankly such a laugh that we’d be daft not to. However next time we’ll be going with a bit more support and a whole lot more knowledge of what to expect. A 1:18 lap time in the wet of the Hockenheim short circuit was something we were quite proud of and the placing something of an achievement considering the competition.
In the meantime we have the UK Tuner Grand Prix to organise so that should be as much fun. As usual we couldn’t have done this without the support of our sponsors, Grand Prix Racewear supplied the suits and equipment, Pi supplied and supported us with their new Pi Express datalogger/dash display and of course our usual partners on the development of the car; Vauxhall, Nitron, Speedline, AP Racing and Milltek Sport, with final thanks going to Keith for translating all the entry forms and Ian Rush who acted as chief language consultant and mechanic.
We had an ulterior motive for attending the event too: to test our new software and mechanical upgrades that we’re now planning to introduce to owners; we’ll keep you posted.