I’ve just finished my first race in a GT3 car on the awesome 25-kilometre Nurburgring Nordschleife, sharing a BMW M6 GT3 with Antonio Felix da Costa, and we finished eighth. That’s not bad for a couple of circuit rookies, and I’m really happy that it puts us in good shape heading into next month’s Nurburgring 24 Hours.
This was the Qualification Race for the 24 Hours, and I joined the famous Schnitzer Motorsport team, who are legendary among BMW fans and who I’ll be doing the 24 Hours with. Antonio had already done the first two four-hour VLN rounds of the season on the Nordschleife in an M6, whereas I’d done them in a much-slower M235i in order to get my licence to race a GT3 car on the circuit, so Antonio came to the race much more up-to-speed than I was.
Those VLN races have about 200 cars whereas this Qualification Race was ‘only’ about 100, and quite a lot of those 100 are the quick GT3 and GT4 cars. To be honest, the act of qualifying for the 24 Hours was a formality, but a top-30 position does give you the right to have a blue light for the big race itself, which alerts all the slower cars that the big boys are coming. Apart from that it’s more of a test race, getting some experience, with about half the cars on track that you’ll get in the 24 Hours.
Testing and practice went well, and we had a long qualifying session that went into the night, which was quite important for me and Antonio. Then Antonio did the qualifying for grid positions and put the car 12th on the grid. From my side, it was my first run around the Nordschleife in the GT3 car and the first time I was able to attack it without having to worry about getting my licence. There was a lot of learning, but I was pretty happy with what I achieved.
Antonio did the first stint and had a fantastic start to go from 12th into the top five on the first lap – typical Antonio! He did quite a short stint and then I got in. I was on old tyres so I lost some places, but when I got new tyres at the next stop it was much better, and things carried on improving. It’s mental – new tyres give you 10 seconds a lap without you even feeling as though you’re driving any faster! In the end I drove for four of the six hours, because the team wanted me to get as much experience in the car as possible as preparation for the 24 Hours.
It was just an amazing experience, and I’m really enjoying the family atmosphere not only at the Schnitzer team but within BMW as a whole. All my team-mates have been very supportive, and those with experience have gone out of their way to be helpful. When you’ve got people like Marco Wittmann and Martin Tomczyk around you, both of whom are legends in German racing, you can’t really go wrong – they’re the kinds of guys you draw a lot from. Also, Timo Scheider and Augusto Farfus will be joining Antonio and I in our car for the 24 Hours, so that will also be a massive boost.
As far as the driving was concerned, I thought this after night qualifying, and it was reiterated in the race, after spending a lot of time in big gaggles of GT3 cars fighting it out while we lapped slower machinery: you think you’re a racing driver, but you’re not a proper racing driver until you’ve done this. The Nordschleife is a very humbling track. You think you’ve got skills until you come up against these guys, and you start getting passed. But then one stint later you’re up to speed and you’re being as aggressive as they are.
My last two stints were a big step for me. I think we should have finished sixth, but we lost out on strategy and that put me at the bottom of the top 10 when I climbed back in to bring the car to the finish. But I made up time, and did a lap in 8m18s, which was only one second off the fastest BMW time of the race. On the last lap I grabbed eighth by diving down the inside of a Porsche at the Dunlop Kurve – there was a light bit of contact but it was cool: my first-ever proper GT move!
I nearly caught the BMW in front of me for seventh but that’s not the important thing. We went there, learned, and now I’m keeping my fingers crossed as I write this, but I don’t see any reason why we don’t have a good chance for the 24 Hours.