Japanese motor racing has always carved its own path. While F3, Group C and Super Touring have all offered an international flavour, for many years its indigenous Super GT category has thrived without any intercontinental commonality. Recent moves to homogenise with DTM under the Class One moniker (a throwback to the DTM’s wild excesses of the mid-90s) means that finally Super GT has a playground away from its Asian homeland. When it was announced that the big three manufacturers in the top GT500 class were all sending cars to compete in the DTM finale at Hockenheim, I had to be there.
Such a trip into the German interior feels like a great excuse to exercise my 911 Turbo. Blessed with big lungs and long legs, the Turbo Panzer is the perfect companion for this kind of trip and has done depressingly few miles in 2019.
I drive straight from work to Hull on Thursday evening, boarding the ferry with minutes to spare after an emergency trip to Halfords for a first aid kit, GB sticker and headlight deflectors. Will I never learn to do this stuff in advance? It’s a sliver of comfort to find half of the other passengers desperately trying to align their headlamps on the vehicle deck as well.
Aside from some excellent late-evening banter with some boisterous Dutch chaps, it’s a mercifully uneventful crossing and it’s exciting to be disembarking at Rotterdam on Friday morning, though grey skies and rain don’t look promising.
I spend an enjoyable hour with a pint and my road maps on the ferry but the mix of domestic and European road numbers blur and, this trip being taken without a passenger, I’m at the mercy of Waze to guide me.
First stop is Autoworld in Brussels. A well-regarded museum fairly close to the Belgian capital’s centre, I was nervous at the prospect of losing half my day to traffic but I cruise relatively serenely straight to the Parc du Cinquantenaire. Unfortunately the museum car park is closed and I’m stuck with on-street parking using the few Euros in my pocket. I have 90 minutes to make the most of the museum. For that reason, I can reveal little of the Parc, nor the surrounding area. A brace of magnificent museums dedicated to the automobile and military history face one another, with a horseshoe formed by a grand archway. It’s certainly impressive and would warrant further exploration given sufficient time.
Autoworld is dominated as much by its magnificent home as its exhibits. It houses a vast collection of pre-war classics from the likes of Bugatti, Bentley, Rolls Royce and Peugeot. These are rather daunting to the uninitiated but the highlight of the museum is the fine visiting exhibition on Zagato. From perfect Alfa 8c of the 1930s through to the impossibly pretty FIAT 8V, it’s a whistlestop tour of the coachbuilder’s greatest hits – remarkably missing some of the recent monstrosities (I’m looking at you, Bentley Continental GTZ Zagato Special Edition).
Upstairs is an interesting mix of sports and racing cars, with a few critical oddities thrown in for good measure. I’ve never seen an Italdesign Aztec in the flesh before, while the unique Bugatti Type 57 Type Brown is upsettingly ungainly, yet fascinating in its obscurity. Perhaps the highlight is the unique and brutal Pegaso Z-102 ‘Pedralbes’. The only Pegaso to be fitted with twin superchargers, it oozes 1950s road racing machismo.
Autoworld is a fine museum and well worth a call if you are passing Brussels but it isn’t so grand as to make itself vital in the manner of the Schlumpf or the Louwman. The Pegaso and 8V make it worth the admission by themselves though.
I arrive back at the car with seconds to spare, deciding not to chance my luck against efficient Belgian parking enforcers. The 911 does a good job of blending relatively inconspicuously into its surroundings, even if its rattly flat-six prevents stealthy travel at a time when being a Brit in Brussels feels rather precarious.
My next stop is just a short hop due east: Zolder. Euro NASCAR is in town and features four practice sessions ahead of a busy weekend of racing. It’s still raining when I arrive, though not hard. Parking is in woodland and I pass an extraordinary BMX track on my way in. Opposite is a permanent radio controlled car layout. This is a place seriously dedicated to racing.
I’m pleased, though a little guilty, to discover that entry today is gratis so I squeeze into my walking boots and grab an umbrella. I’m extremely appreciative of both as the day wears on.
I realise as I approach that I know almost nothing about Zolder. It’s a circuit with a fine past, holding F1 grand prix through the 1970s and 80s while Spa-Francorchamps was out of action, and other big-ticket series like DTM and Champ Car in recent years. In spite of that, I am utterly unfamiliar with the layout in advance and the circuit itself was merely the place which claimed my hero, Gilles Villeneuve.
Having put the Gilles connection out of my mind in advance of my visit, it’s thrust front-and-centre when his son, Jacques, is hammering past me in his Chevrolet. I’m stood staring at the spot where Gilles clipped Jochen Mass and barrel-rolled his Ferrari 126C2 into an unsurvivable accident. I suddenly – and totally unexpectedly – find myself welling up. I have one sole driver portrait in my house and it’s one of Gilles which has lived for many years next to my desk. He died 18 months before I was born and yet his spirit has always resonated far more deeply than any other driver. I’m glad Jacques is out there, giving it everything.
Thoughts of Gilles linger for the rest of the day and I pause to pay my respects at the tribute to him in the paddock.
Meanwhile, the rain is falling relentlessly but the NASCAR drivers appear unfazed. I somehow never imagined I’d watch NASCAR in the Belgian rain but it’s rather a fun spectacle. The cars are noisy and expressive, tyres deflecting over the rumble strips and adopting a gentle drift through the fast corners.
Zolder reveals itself to be a particularly interesting circuit – rather against my expectations. The first half of the lap sees the drivers skirt through a series of extremely fast corners out past a broad ship canal and industrial zone. The sight of cargo ships chugging past is incongruous. Equally incongruous is the second half of the lap which sees the circuit rise hard under a pedestrian bridge before dropping into the woods and searing swoops reminiscent of an American road course such as Mid Ohio. It’s wholly unexpected but there’s little run-off and the punters are seriously close to the action. This place is a real challenge and, being in Belgium, frites avec mayo is the universal food of choice.
The NASCAR sessions pass in a blur. While the rain varies from light and irritating to an uncomfortable deluge, the drivers keep pounding away. Zolder features a pleasing mix of really quick stuff and a couple of big braking zones where one can really get a feel for how awkward these big beasts are when shedding speed. While it may lack the sprawling majesty of Spa, this is a great circuit and I can’t wait to return – ideally in the sunshine next time though.
I elect to get on the road while the final Renault Clio session is closing out. Anaemic though they may be compared a NASCAR, the hot hatches are flying through the quick stuff out at the back of the circuit, a sensation heightened by one’s proximity. I drag myself away only because I have almost four hours of motoring to complete and even the prospect of derestricted autobahns isn’t enough to make that feel anything other than tiring after a long day.
It’s an uneventful drive south, with the roads drying and a few lunges into decent speeds possible. The 911 seems to enjoy sucking its way through 100-octane unleaded and we make easy progress though I’m glad to arrive at Arcadia Hotel in Schwetzingen, just a few miles from Hockenheim. A Chinese meal and a couple of local beers never slipped down so easily and it’s a minor badge of honour to find myself parked next to the BMW Motorsport team wagon.
It’s little surprise to find Saturday dawning wet and once more I find myself hugely grateful for my walking boots and, rather upsettingly, my thick coat and hat. It seems central Germany in the autumn is far from warm.
I have been to Hockenheim once before but only to pay my respects to Jim Clark and to visit the small museum. It’s my first time watching racing here and this feels like a real native event – the locals are out in force and I hear nothing but German for the entire weekend. This rather adds to the sense of general disorientation as I cannot fathom a word of the commentary from the moment the PA fires up. I won’t let a minor detail like absolute cerebral disarray ruin a race weekend for me though.
I arrive to find the Audi Sport Seyffarth R8 LMS Cup launching. The VAG has previously supported the DTM with VW Polos, Sciroccos and Audi TTs. The R8 is pretty serious by comparison – a grid packed with full-house GT4 race cars. The race is dominated by the only name already familiar to me: Rahel Frey, the Swiss veteran of Le Mans and DTM. One of the world’s best female racing drivers, she controls the race from the front, using a totally different line through the last corner from her competitors.
The Audis are fairly entertaining, with isolated battles throughout the field. They look well reined-in by their electronics, without the mishaps one might normally expect of a mixed grid in such challenging conditions. Being GT4-specification, the machines themselves are familiar and sound good but nothing about the race seriously quickens the pulse.
The same cannot be said of the DTM qualifying session which succeeds the R8s.
This latest breed of boosted four-cylinder Class One cars is properly impressive. They immediately look significantly quicker than their predecessors, though announce themselves with a similarly crackly soundtrack. Every driver looks to be struggling to tame 600bhp+ on a drying track. Most wayward of all is the Nissan GTR of Tsugio Matsuda which appears to be blessed with an almost binary response to the throttle and a vicious torque curve. It’s hugely entertaining to watch the Japanese wrestle his wayward mount though progress doesn’t look as swift as some of the domestic runners.
Track conditions are changeable though it’s pretty much completely dry by the end of the session. It has been decided not to performance balance the domestic runners with the tourists and the Japanese runners prop up the bottom of the timesheets – except for Jenson Button whose mastery of unpredictable grip shines through for a remarkable sixth on the grid. Were the title not sealed in Rene Rast’s favour, there might be concern that the Honda man could interfere with the championship.
The drivers are extremely well-behaved all weekend with few off-track excursions, though Timo Glock scuttles onto the drag strip, whereon he demonstrates its wicked lack of grip with a lazy spin. Only a few months previously, the same spot claimed the blushes of several F1 luminaries so the German was in good company.
With the grid for DTM race one sealed in the favour of Rast, the crowd is treated to qualifying for Tourenwagen Classics. Celebrating the history of saloon car racing in Germany, the championship brings together a wide range of evocative vehicles, with BMW E30 M3s the most numerous. Various Mercedes from the previous decade of DTM are highlights but Peter Mucke steals the show in his fire-breathing Zakspeed Ford Capri – a veteran of 1970s DRM in the hands of Klaus Ludwig.
A lunchtime paddock prowl is rewarding, with swathes of evocative machinery on display, charting the full history of tin-top racing in Germany. Many of the mega Group 5 machines are rarely seen in the UK so these are a real treat. Evidently the throngs of gathered punters share this thrill and the whole area is heaving. Meanwhile, the big manufacturers haven’t missed any chance to use the event as a platform for activation, especially Audi which trumpets its 2019 championship success with little modesty.
I return to my grandstand seat, bursting with currywurst (an absolute bargain at less than €5) ahead of the DTM’s opening stanza. It hasn’t rained for several hours and the track is bone dry by the time the teams clear the grid. Having travelled so far, it’s slightly heart breaking when Matsuda’s Nissan fails to get away – he’s pushed into the pitlane and returns later in the race.
The cars cross the line in phenomenally tight formation reminiscent of the Roman army on a charge – and blast off for an hour of intense competition. Rast heads into the stadium with a significant lead and looks unbeatable from the outset. He is stalked throughout by Marco Wittmann who actually manages to snatch the lead for a lap before Rast once again reasserts his authority. The two Germans have looked a class apart for several seasons.
It’s less simple behind the leading duo. Timo Glock’s tribulations continue as his door flaps open, requiring him to restrain it until his first pitstop. Jenson Button is running strongly in the top ten before a slow pitstop sees him back in 16th. He is helped by the safety car bunching up the field, but a typically classy drive enables him to cleanly ascend to ninth at the flag – a great result for a car struggling to acclimatise to Hankook control tyres and an unfamiliar circuit.
Having taken the flag, Rast returns his RS5 to the stadium for a series of noisy donuts. He brings his car to a halt and leaps out, running over to the crowd and hurling them his gloves and boots before splashing back through the puddles to his Audi in his socks. According to the merchandise on display and the crowd reaction, he seems to have risen to become the DTM’s biggest star. Given his universal success in everything he drives, one wonders what might be next.
The tin-top action continues with a DRM demonstration which includes much exotica. Jochen Mass is behind the wheel of Peter Mucke’s Broadspeed Capri which howls up the pit straight alongside a BMW 3.0 CSL in a moment which is one of the weekend’s high points.
The day’s action closes with Formula Renault Eurocup. This is a very different category to the one I last saw a season or two ago at Silverstone. Gone is the agile little car of the past and in its place is something rather larger – and featuring the controversial halo. This new breed of car appears more F3 than FRenault but it races well and clearly challenges the drivers – there is much opposite lock on display.
The early running is made by Ugo de Wilde ahead of a field of young drivers about whom I shamefully know nothing. De Wilde fades to fourth and his lead is assumed by Victor Martins who takes a fairly comfortable win ahead of R-ace runners Oscar Piastri and Caio Collett. It’s an entertaining race, aided when I see the name ‘Saucy Gregoire’ scrolling across the big screen. With German commentary rendering the PA indecipherable noise, it takes me some time to realise the drivers’ surnames precede their Christian names. Sorry for sniggering, Gregoire.
Day two follows a similar pattern to day one in terms of the categories in action, though today the rain is unrelenting. I’m greeted by a deluge at breakfast and it is still pouring down as I trudge back to my car at the end of the day. I’m hugely thankful for the vast canopy which covers the top third of our tribune and keeps the rain off for much of the day, though the temperature remains resolutely chilly.
Another race for Audi R8s produces a similar result, with Rahel Frey the victor, though this time she has to work hard for it, only snatching the decisive lead towards the end of the race. The DRM demonstration still takes place, in spite of the awful conditions. None of the drivers looks to be trying too hard but it’s a credit to the owners that they are prepared to risk valuable and historic vehicles under the circumstances. The evergreen Jochen Mass is back out – this time at the wheel of a Martini liveried Porsche 911 RSR.
The DTM’s curtain closer takes place entirely under heavy skies. The deluge continues, with the vast grid entourage huddling under umbrellas, including double F1 world champion Emerson Fittipaldi, still looking super cool in support of grandson Pietro. Even the spectators look resigned; curled up to minimise their exposure to the elements. With the championships tied up and the weather so gloomy, the atmosphere isn’t quite so electric as one might hope for a seasonal finale but things hot up as soon as the lights go out.
Daniel Juncadella’s Aston Martin bursts into flames on lap one, this following Paul di Resta’s similar car expiring on the formation lap; a poor weekend closing out a testing first season in the DTM for R-Motorsport and its quartet of Vantages.
Meanwhile, Nick Cassidy – the 2017 Super GT champion – has hit the wall after gentle contact with Jonathan Aberdein. Certainly, the punishment does not fit the crime for this was just a little wheel rubbing on the opening tour.
Amid the chaos, Nico Muller, who has inherited pole after fastest qualifier Mike Rockenfeller has been demoted as a result of a Saturday indiscretion, keeps a cool head to lead. He is briefly headed by Rast but the Swiss looks supreme in the sodden conditions and nudges ahead to take a commanding win, with Rockenfeller eventually clawing past the 2019 champion for a crushing Audi podium. Timo Glock is the leading BMW driver, some 12 second in arrears while Jake Dennis upholds Aston Martin honour with eighth.
The poor conditions are not kind to the Japanese visitors. Jenson Button is unable to replicate his Saturday heroics and can only manage a disappointing 16th, one place ahead of Ronnie Quintarelli’s wayward Nissan. Button would comment over the weekend that the tourists have struggled with traction compared to the DTM regulars – an observation reasonably apparent from the trackside as the mighty boosted Super GTs launch sideways under power at every opportunity.
It is disappointing that we aren’t treated to a slightly fairer scrap. While the Super GT cars feature even more power and more advanced aero than the Germans, the locals’ superior traction, DRS and ‘push to pass’ seem to have conferred them quite an advantage over the weekend. This is exacerbated further by the Hankook control tyre, about which Honda, Nissan and Lexus have no knowledge.
In spite of the one-sided battle, it’s a huge thrill to see (and hear) these semi-mythical beasts in a proper competitive environment. It remains one of the highlights of watching racing abroad to experience machinery in three dimensions – and with all one’s senses – when they have previously existed solely as images on a screen or in the magazines. It is a massive credit to the hard work of all concerned that there is now sufficient regulatory parity for such an event to take place. This would be Jenson Button’s only European outing in his mighty title-winning NSX. What a treat to see it in person.
Russian Alexander Smolyar takes the spoils in the weekend’s second Formula Renault Eurocup battle, grabbing the lead with a robust move on Victor Martins in conditions so awful they necessitate a safety car start. Caio Collet rounds out the podium for the second time.
The weekend’s track action closes with a mini-enduro for Tourenwagen Classics. Having been teased with practice and qualifying – not to mention the superb DRM demos – finally these old monsters are racing. Among the drivers are several veterans of tin-top racing at home and abroad. Bernd Schneider is the obvious superstar but Kris Nissen, Prinz Leopold von Bayern and Roland Asch also start – reliving their glory days, as well as those of the cars.
Schneider’s heroics in qualifying suggest he’s the form man but Yannik Trautwein makes the right strategic call to take a commanding win in his ex-Albers CLK DTM. While it remains somewhat bizarre to find such recent machinery in ‘historics’, to see a man of Schneider’s talents pushing his C-Class – and to hear that wailing V8 again – is an absolute highlight of a mega weekend. Behind these guys, it’s hard to pick a favourite, but Daniel Schrey’s Porsche 935 with its glowing exhausts raises a smile every lap.
It’s been a tremendous weekend. While the weather has hardly been kind, it has allowed the best to shine. There is a slight sense of general disorientation when one finds oneself abroad with scarcely any native language and yet I’ve muddled though. One can only imagine what it must have felt like for the Japanese teams arriving in the heartland of the German automotive industry with Audi loudly boasting of its considerable successes at every opportunity. This may become an annual tradition but I’m proud to have been there for the first ever competitive outing for works Super GT teams in Europe. Next: to plan a trip to Japan to see them on home turf.
Monday is my final day and I have around 350 miles back to the ferry terminal. I had planned to move more quickly but my Sunday evening is made more entertaining when I befriend the hotel barman who insists we go out drinking and chat about motorcycle racing. I begrudgingly oblige – but only in the interests of solidifying Anglo-German relations. A fine breakfast of sausage and mustard ensures I’m full of enthusiasm, especially as I locate a petrol station selling 102-octane rocket fuel.
With both car and driver suitably replenished, I hit the autobahn network, with Waze set for the Nurburgring. The weather has cleared substantially and much of the journey takes place in dry conditions which makes for a pleasant change. Being a Monday morning, opportunities for serious speed are limited. By good fortune though, the road clears and I’m permitted one long run into triple digits. I run out of nerve at 175mph but the Turbo feels right at home – I actually long for more power.
The glorious, sinuous roads surrounding the Nurburgring are as tempting as derestricted autobahn and it’s all I can do to stay roughly within the posted limits. It’s a cool, misty day and I’m pleased not to have the temptation of a tourist lap as lines of BMWs are flying in tight formation around the Nordschleife.
Any visit to the Nurburgring is worthwhile but today I want to finally see the museum. I’ve never previously had the time to spare. It’s a worthwhile hour which celebrates much which is good about German motorsport and the ‘Ring in particular. Our British domestic race scene is so different that it’s a treat to see DTM, DRM and VLN warriors from generations past. It all feels very serious until a British VW Passat dressed up as an aeroplane appears outside the facility. There must be a back story but I dread to think what it is.
I just have time to squeeze in one final automotive diversion. I feel slightly guilty that I am spearing past so much beautiful countryside and so many fascinating places; only to pass them by in favour of yet another bloody car museum. This time I’m skirting historic Cologne in order to hit Motorworld. This is a car hub based around an old airfield with hangars hosting a variety of industry businesses. Of special interest, though, is the huge display of Michael Schumacher’s private collection. For many years, much of the collection was on display at the family kart track in Kerpen but moved last year to Cologne where it now takes pride of place in an unusual facility.
Being the pious type, I save the Schumacher collection for last and explore the rest of Motorworld. There’s a mixture of complementary commerce, large and small. There’s even an automotive-themed hotel. The highlight is a Bitter GT1, displayed outside Roock’s studio. Roock was a prolific 911 entrant during the mid-90s and I saw its cars several times when GT racing was at its peak in Europe.
The Bitter is a legacy of that period and exists as a tiny, though, fascinating footnote. Two Bitter GT1s were created from redundant Lotus Elise GT1 chassis. Clothed in long-tail bodywork and with vast Chrysler V10s substituting for the Elise’s V8, they achieved nothing before disappearing into obscurity. By the time I saw the FIA GT Championship at Donington Park in 1998, they were long gone. Having never seen one of these unicorns in the flesh previously, it’s an unexpected treat.
I finally permit myself to fully indulge in the Schumacher collection. While the great man’s current condition remains unknown, his legacy remains intact. The collection encompasses significant cars, helmets, race suits and trophies. It tracks his entire racing career from karts into Formula Ford, F3, sports cars with Mercedes-Benz and his incredible F1 achievements.
The ubiquitous red Ferraris proliferate and immediately transport one back to the early 2000s when he steamrollered his way to five consecutive championships. It felt like nobody would ever approach his records and yet his old team, Mercedes-Benz, and Lewis Hamilton are on their way. Records are there to be broken, so it is said.
There are some truly fascinating trinkets among the exhibits: the helmet he wore at Silverstone in 1999 when he broke his leg, his Suzuka 2000 trophy, his wailing Sauber C291 atmo Group C car…
It’s a credit to all involved that the exhibition is free to enter. I’d advocate anyone with petrol in their veins to visit; hubs like Motorworld will only thrive with our support.
I resign myself to the final leg of the trip: a short blast up into Holland and to Rotterdam where my ferry awaits. 12 hours later I am alighting into Hull rush hour traffic before the short trip deep into Yorkshire and a normal Tuesday at my desk. The ferry makes this kind of trip into continental Europe almost a triviality. The opportunities for totally indulging oneself in our amazing sport are anything but trivial though. A plan for 2020 is crystalising…the Norisring DTM round is due to be supported not just by Tourenwagen Classics, but also a Group C / DRM revival race, reliving the 1970s and 1980s glory days. I’m certain I can find a couple of diversions en route.