Welcome to the Green Hell
The last week of May saw me take a huge leap into the unknown. After almost nine years on the bank in the UK, I was about to marshal abroad for the first time. Not only that but at the most iconic and fearsome circuit in the world, the Nurburgring Nordschleife, and for a 24 hour race as well.
Boarding the ferry very early on a Tuesday.
I was lucky enough to be given the invite to attend several weeks before the event, and as soon as my attendance was confirmed preparations began. Firstly by speaking with others who have been there and done that previously about what to take and what to expect, but also thinking back to the previous 24 hour races I had done at Anglesey; the list of items began to grow. Marshalling gear, cooker, cooking implements, food, water, passport and documents – check; tent – erm… check? A desperate search through the attic unearthed my old 2-man tent that served me well wild camping in Norway 14 years previously and with the car strategically packed, by Monday evening I was ready to set off to the ferry port for my early Tuesday voyage across the channel.
Having made it to the continent, the real challenge began, not getting lost! In spite of a few unintended diversions around Liege airport I largely succeeded, but with the opportunity to do so a planned diversion to Spa Francorchamps for lunch was in order and I was greeted with the echo of engines, not from any ordinary cars, but FIA WEC LMP2 and GTE cars.
Mid-afternoon saw my arrival in the Eifel mountains, and following signing on just outside the main Grand Prix circuit buildings, I was escorted to the Oulton Park marshals camp in the woods near the Hohe Acht by my orange brethren. With camp set up, it then began to hit me exactly where I was, and judging by the noise coming from the spectator campsites nearby, the party was well underway.
I took time to hunt down the infamous Karussell!
Once settled, we took a walk up to the main post, which acts as a link between all the marshals posts in the sector, and race control. We then took a trip down the Steilstrecke – a very steep section of paved track that gets gradually steeper, that was originally used for vehicle testing. We made our way through the campsite located on the inside of the infamous Karussell, with the more experienced members of our party introducing us to the locals, other marshals and conveying tales of years gone by.
Wednesday was an opportunity to go to the Grand Prix circuit; to take in the sights and sounds of the paddock and pit lane as garages were set up, cars prepared, and scrutineering checks taking place, and giving us marshals the opportunity to get a closer look at the machinery that would be blasting past us over the next four days. A vast array of cars would grace the circuit with the finest GT3 cars, the unique SCG 003, BMW 235i cup cars, Renault Clios, Opel Astras, and the popular ‘Foxtail’ Opel Manta.
The eventual race winning Audi R8
Thursday came, the on-track action began, and the first opportunity to get to grips with the marshalling at post 153 along with fellow Nurburgring rookie Andrew Wycherley (aka Gravel Monkey), and a local couple who had done a Nurburgring 24 hours the previous year. The day began with a field of cars in a three hour session, dubbed Germany’s Time Attack. This session was not without incident and we had one car contact the
Blind-sighted, this is all the drivers would see of Post 153.
barrier as it exited Hohe Acht. The session gave us new marshals the chance to get to grips with the complexities and differences of flagging at the Nordschleife.
Code 60 flags are utilised between posts, not circuit wide, where intervention teams and marshals are working trackside. The white flag is possibly the most important one that was used as S-cars – used for recovering cars – and intervention cars circulate while race cars are proceeding at racing speed, though if they are towing they are to be covered by a yellow flag whilst in your sector.
The day also gave me the opportunity to gauge the amount of time I had to determine when to blue flag, and between the fastest GT3 cars and the slowest cars in the field; about one or two seconds at most. The day also gave a taste of the conditions I would be faced with from the weather, which was hot and sunny, and from the spectators and their fires, barbecues and competing sound systems – anyone for a fusion of metal, euro pop, and trance? Some had set up their spectating area with some of the most astonishing structures made from scaffolding, wood and anything else they can build out of. It is something that was nothing like anything I had seen and experienced before and I cannot adequately convey here.
Race day. Preceding the main race, WTCC cars had two races and once over I made my way down Steilstrecke to assist with the cordon there to be made for the white flag lap, before race start, where spectators are allowed beside the track and high five drivers as they make their way around on their rolling start. An amazing experience that will stay with me for a long time, and like nothing else I’ve ever experienced in the UK.
Spectators await the cars on the white flag lap.
A brisk and sweaty walk back to post for the first four hours, and the fastest cars are lapping on the second lap. From the very start it is a blue flag fest as 160+ cars race for 24 hours around the most challenging circuit in the world. The end of my first four-hour stint gave a me a four hour period of down time, and I took the opportunity to see how long it would take to walk back to camp, on the other side of the circuit, and without a tunnel or footbridge. The only way to cross was at post 142, just before the Karussell, where the best view can be gained of oncoming cars.
Camping is close to the track, and with views like this you can understand why the race is popular.
The race continued largely incident free and the weather was spectacular. That was until the last 20 minutes when the heavens opened and soaked some sections of the circuit, whilst others remained dry. Our makeshift shelter protecting us from the sun, now protected us from the rain. The competitors slithered their way past us very gingerly not wanting to end 23 and a half hours of racing in the barrier. Then the third placed Audi stormed past us evidently on wet weather tyres, and we knew instantly that that car would win the race as first and second crawled past at relative walking pace on slick tyres only a few moments earlier. The chequered flag dropped and there came the end of a spectacular race at a spectacular circuit; now was time to decamp and make our way to the hotel for the night.
As first experiences of marshalling abroad go, this was astonishing, and challenged the usual way I went marshalling in the UK. It was an assault on the senses and one I look forward to experiencing again if I am invited next year.
Written by – Andrew Roberts (@Roberts_AW)