Ringside Seat: giant killers

The mission is clear, the team orders still echoing in my helmet. If you want to win a trophy just try and stick with him for the next eight laps.

Easy to look steely with a full-face lid on...
Easy to look steely with a full-face lid on...
Eight laps of the Nurburgring VLN course. A little less than 120 miles. And all in a little over one hour and 20 minutes.

Warming the tyres for the rolling start along Dottinger Hohe I get a good look at our main rival for the 2.0-litre class win. The #519 car is a new Toyota GT86, prepared by the factory race shop TMG in the red/white national livery of Toyota Suisse Racing. Behind is another in the same spec, #517, piloted by celebrity hot-shoe Tim Schrick. That is actually the ‘works’ car, bearing TMG livery, both pulled from a single-make series and into the popular 2.0-litre class.

As we accelerate down the straight it’s obvious the next few laps won’t be easy. There’s a brief delusional moment where the quick-to-warm Yokohama tyres fool me into thinking I can overtake the Swiss GT86. But as we head out on to the Nordschleife I get my first taste of racing a 160hp MX-5 in a grid of 200hp cars. As the circuit opens out it feels like we just brought a knife to a gun fight.

The GT86 ahead pulls a gap, slipstreams the six-cylinder BMW ahead and moves to overtake. My heart drops. The little Mazda is flat out already and everybody is pulling away.

Little Mazda feels outpaced on the Nordschleife
Little Mazda feels outpaced on the Nordschleife
Through direction changes like Wipperman I can make up some ground. Taking chances with traffic, hoping the big GT3s don’t tap me out of the way, I make up some more ground. But on a clear lap, the faster Toyota pulls out 10 seconds on me. I don’t know where the other GT86 is, but I’m desperate to cling onto this second place.

After about 30 minutes of racing the GT86 is actually out of sight on all but the longest of straights,

the goal of pacing him seeming hopelessly optimistic.

But then some luck.

There’s a breakdown on the 1.6-mile long Dottinger Hohe straight and the double yellow flags are waved just as the Toyota arrives. We all file patiently through the 60km/h limit and close back up nicely. I’ve seen some pretty crazy things over these eight laps, from locked-up BMWs hitting the wall, to a Porsche Cayman being punted by a VW Scirocco. But presented with the GT86 slowing down, and imagining the driver seeing that pesky Mazda back in his mirrors? Well, that makes me all warm inside.

It's almost more tense out of the car than in
It's almost more tense out of the car than in
Over the next laps I do my best, barely aware of my hands or feet actually moving. Minimum effort, maximum speed. Using every trick in the book to stay within touching distance of the Toyota. I have a small heart attack when oil smoke streams momentarily into the cockpit. I call it in on the radio and watch the gauges like a hawk.

When the Toyota ahead finally pits I’m ecstatic. Knowing he’d have to pit earlier now’s my chance to really push but it’s a messy lap, with 60km/h speed limits and accidents to avoid. And lingering doubts about the steering – on the video you’ll see more power steering fluid going in, this being the source of the smoke.

My boss Ralph Beck takes over and emerges in front of the Toyota. Over the middle stint of the race changes places again with the GT86 several times. But with that extra economy and smart driving we enter the final stint still ahead of both the Toyotas, the official TMG car having caught up.

Fredy battles on through the final stint
Fredy battles on through the final stint
The final pitstop is neat, and again we don’t need to change tyres. Ralph mentions heavy steering and a few more drops of Motul’s finest go into the reservoir.

Fredy Lienhard is the final driver and, as the most experienced of the three-man team, the only worry is whether the little Mazda will make it, knowing the Toyotas would need to pit again and we already have a minute in hand.

The lap times look good. But in the final few minutes Fredy confirms the power steering is now completely dead. In my mind’s eye I picture the belt wrapping around the power steering pump and also the alternator. Then the Mazda would have only battery power to complete the race.

Team chief Tom Lennackers and Fredy decide to turn off the radio. All accessories that could drain the battery are off.

Outgunned but triumphant; the team celebrate
Outgunned but triumphant; the team celebrate
The last lap, in radio silence, is tense. We line the pit wall like the ground crew looking for Memphis Belle. When Fredy arrives over the line nearly three minutes ahead of the nearest GT86, I scream like a total idiot.

And now, sitting here with my laptop on my knee, I can relive any moment of that day and the world is better. Plus we all have a trophy. And that’s awesome.

Special thanks to the hundreds of fans and supporters who helped me get into this race. It really wouldn’t have been possible without you!

Video here.


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Comments (17) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Alex@POD 25 Oct 2013

    Great report, that sounds like the plot of a film!

  • RenesisEvo 25 Oct 2013

    Congratulations, that must have been very rewarding! A great read too, this only serves to increase my enthusiasm towards VLN. And just how great does that MX-5 look?

  • HustleRussell 25 Oct 2013

    Wow. A little bit Apollo 13!

    Makes me wonder why I'm packing in racing, it's the unexpected challenges along the way which absolutely make it.. It's a relentless pursuit for success against all kinds of different adversity.

  • williredale 25 Oct 2013

    Cracking write up. Bet the radio silence was tense!

  • thepook 25 Oct 2013

    Fantastic effort, and a great read!

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