Breidscheid Revisited - May 2005 Trip

The Tale

If you're here for the photographs, they're at a separate page. They're not very good.

I have to apologise in advance for this report - I wrote half of it just after the event, and finished it much later whilst off work with a cold. It probably doesn't make a great deal of sense, and I think it's all a bit vague. Console yourself with the fact it's free of charge.

At the last trip earlier in the month, it was decided that we might fancy having a go at the 24h Rennen sometime. Also we'd drunk some beer.

We decided sensibly that a good first step would be to actually watch the 24h once, so here we were. In an effort to do marginally more than just spectate, we'd volunteered to help Christer and Ecurie-Europe with anything menial enough that we could manage. We booked flights, and then asked Christer when it would be handy for us to be there. Any time from the Wednesday onwards, he said, which made it marginally unfortunate that we'd booked flights to arrive at, erm, midnight on the Friday.

So, myself and a few of the usual suspects (Euan H, Fred, Marcroft) Easyjetted into Cologne comparatively late on Friday night and then followed a mixture of my misguided PDA and Euan's "gut-feeling" directions pretty much directly north from there for a while, before realising our mistake and trying south instead. After a brief stop to fill Fred with McDonalds and stock up on beer, we arrived at the campsite at about midnight.

I think as you get older you become less and less surprised by things. However, when we turned up at the Wehrseifen campsite I was surprised to discover that it wasn't ten blokes with a crate of beer as I'd expected, and was instead half the population of Germany with their entire houses, painstakingly recreated using scaffolding and bedsheets, and containing all of the amenities one might expect from a modern family home. In the middle of all this was Adrian Elkin and his German chums (names unfortunately forgotten, but they were very nice) with possibly one of the more lavish setups. Although my eye was initially drawn to their recreation of the great fire of London and three-floor viewing platform, my lasting memory will still be of the three full-size fridges that their unique brand of camping required. They gave us some very nice beer, and in the interests of being sociable toward our continental neighbours, we felt we ought to continue drinking until we fell over at 4am. As the night wore on, the facts that Adrian had put his car in his tent and that there was a truck full of go-go dancers parked on the Breidscheid bridge seemed almost normal.

It's always difficult to sleep in a tent, and it's even more difficult when the German rock music stops at five in the morning and starts again at seven. We spectated (there were some one-make pre-24h races going on) for a little while, and then eventually thought we'd perhaps best head towards the pits.

As we got towards the GP track, it became clear just how many people were at this event. There were helicopters everywhere and the roads were packed solid with traffic. Car parks had appeared in the most extraordinary places and the nearest we could get to the GP entrance was about ten minutes' walk away. Once up by the circuit we met Job, the team manager, who took us into an implausibly swanky-looking hospitality room and launched effortlessly into an interesting history of the Ring and the 24h race. I began to worry a little that he thought we were sponsors, but fortunately he disabused me of that idea by giving me a nice jacket with "pit crew" on it. I began to feel like something of an embarrassing sham, and worried about whether I was about to be asked to do things I couldn't do at all. "Clockwise is tighten", I muttered to myself a few times. Job showed us the scooters they'd hired specifically for the event in their team colours, which only made me more nervous. Clockwise is tighten... clockwise is tighten...

Job took us down to the pits and introduced us to the drivers - Christer (who I'd met before once whilst drunk, and managed to recognise), Stefan (who seemed quite serious) and Christian (who seemed so serious you could be forgiven for thinking he was at work). The 24h is a very big race, in every sense, and I don't think I'd quite realised it. Taking part involves a whole world of planning and organisation that I was completely oblivious to, and I was in the early stages of a somewhat steep appreciation curve.

We wandered around a little and tried to assess what our likely responsibilities would be. There was a jolly competent-looking team of mechanics; plenty drivers; a race director and even a nice lady making toasties. From the look of it, though, Job had made a few serious omissions in planning for the race team. Amongst the jobs which he seemed to have completely forgotten about were:

  • Someone to roll tyres around (four people, in the event)
  • Someone to wipe the headlights
  • Someone to deliver chocolate biscuits to the driver
  • Someone to open the pit garage door

These and many other similar tasks appeared to suit our skillsets almost perfectly and so, assured that our invaluable place on the team was now decided, we set to the important job of Pit Bitching.

The race has a rolling start, which was no minor feat given the size of the grid (don't quote me, but I believe it was around 200 cars). Once the starting grid had been cleared of spectators, it was actually rather tricky to work out whether the rolling start was starting or people were just moving into their grid positions. The weather was true Nurburg - brief bouts of heavy rain followed by short dry spells that looked like they'd last anywhere between thirty seconds and a week. A lot of debate went on in every pit about whether to run wet or dry tryes - the grid was assembled in a fairly steady dry period, but just as the rolling start began, the heavens opened. You really had to feel somewhat sorry for the people sitting on slicks.

Once the race was underway, we settled into a routine. Our car was going to pit somewhere around once every ninety minutes so Fred, Euan, Paul and I decided how to keep two Pit Bitches on hand throughout the race. We agreed that we'd work in pairs and do two short stints each, followed by two much longer ones (during which the other pair would sleep) and then two more fairly short ones. I forget the actual times involved; I'm writing this two months late due to bone idleness. Sue me.

Marcroft and I had the first stint, and nothing too exciting happened. We chatted with Job and the non-driving drivers, and watched the start of the race on television (almost every pit had at least one television with the race coverage showing). Each pit was large enough to contain one Formula One car or, erm, EIGHT 24h competitors. This worked out reasonably well if only one car was under repair at any one time, but it became a little cramped if more arrived. We shared a pit with a Mini which I think must have spent approximately 12hrs in the pit. Within about two hours of the race starting they had the cylinder head off and the rest of the race continued in much the same vein. We got quite used to the faimiliar cry of "MIIINIIII" echoing from the pit lane as it whizzed in again.

After the two short Pit Bitch stints (during which Euan and Fred had a pit stop, but Marcroft and I didn't have anything important to do), we prepared for the longer night stints. Euan and Fred were first - Marcroft and I went and ate some free food in the hospitality suite (which seemed just plain wrong, as so far we'd done nothing for the team other than take two of their nice jackets and occupy the team manager for half an hour) and then headed off to sleep. I slept fairly well despite the racket, and we headed back to the pits at what must have been about 3am. After a couple of pit stops (one to weld a hole in some part of the turbo), the car began to overheat constantly. I can't really comment very much as I don't know what was wrong with it (as the mechanics peered into the engine compartment, Marcroft and I were happily cleaning the whole car with paper towels), but I believe the impromptu turbo repair had in some way interfered with the plumbing. After a few pit stops in quick succession and a few pauses to let the car cool off, Job pronounced that we now had a head gasket failure and we were out of the race. It was somewhere around six or seven in the morning at this point, and in the early morning light it seemed such a terrible shame. We called Euan and Fred who were delighted (okay, I lied) to turn up and pick us up. We ate some breakfast and then I fell asleep, only to wake up sometime later in time to see the end of the race. We packed up, headed back to Cologne and were all back home somewhere around midnight.

So what have I learned? From my rolling tyres around, I've learned that the German words for "front" and "rear" start with the letters "v" and "r". I've learned that twenty four hours is a very long time - it's not like "one day" at all, it's like three days at work one after the other. I've learned that Germans don't do things by halves when it comes to spectating. Most of all, though, I've learned that the 24h is a truly international race covering an absolutely huge breadth of motorsport. I can't think of any other races in which works BMWs and numerous big-budget Porsche teams will compete with a flotilla of Minis and a Mercedes 500SE, and it was a joy to watch.

I must say I had a great time - I can't pretend I was very lively at work on the Monday, but it was a small price to pay. Adrian's German Friends were gloriously hospitable, and Ecurie Europe's generosity to a bunch of useless duffers who were clearly unlikely to be any use at all was almost embarassingly gracious. I did rather spent the whole time feeling I was sponging off people, but I like to imagine that my gregarious wit and charm and dashing good looks made up for it...