Return to the Green Hell

The 24 Hours of the Nürburgring is a race not to be missed—even if you don’t like racing.

Photo: Return to the Green Hell 1
August 31, 2017

Petrolheads know this place by name even if they haven’t visited in person: the Nürburgring Nordschleife, the biggest racetrack in the world, located in Germany’s Eifel mountains. In 1927, the circuit opened its doors for the first time, a grand event that created the foundation for a new era of motor racing. Rudolf Caracciola who won the first motor-car race at the Nürburgring, and was honored by having one of the most famous corners named after him: the Caracciola-Karussell.

Some nine decades later, the annual ADAC Zürich 24-hour race is part of the extraordinary Nürburgring story, a story written anew every year. Around the end of May, the Nürburgring becomes a destination for car enthusiasts from across the world, as well as race-car drivers, journalists, and me—a motorsports photographer who fell in love years ago with the nearly 14 miles of paved road hidden in the forest. Having visited many racetracks worldwide, I think the Nürburgring has something magical.

I’m far from alone in that view. Formula 1 legend Jackie Stewart was so impressed by the demanding circuit he respectfully baptized it with the name “Green Hell.” The elevation changes as well as the unpredictable weather make this course seem like a many-armed monster, begging to be defeated. This is exactly why I return year after year; I can’t resist photographing the amazing cars roaring through the mountains and trees.

Photo: Return to the Green Hell 2

Finding the right place to watch or photograph at the Nordschleife isn’t an easy task. If you’re lucky, you’ll get handed a map with about 73 strange-sounding German names that displays the corners of this incredibly long racetrack. But before you even notice the track itself, you’ll hear the engines of the GT3 machines begin to roar. Filled with excitement and curiosity, I was instantly ready to hike up one of many hills to follow the cars around the circuit.

Many people ask me if the experience of the Nürburgring ever gets old. The answer is no. Like a child anxiously awaiting Christmas, I was eager to start my own 24-hour journey around the Nordschleife. This journey would also include meeting new and old friends who share the same excitement.

For the 2017 race, small privateer team Rinaldi Racing accepted the challenge to race against the big names, with a lot of Italian passion and German driving skills. As the only Ferrari in the race, Rinaldi’s 488 GT3 received a lot of attention, not just because of its singular role but also due to the beauty of its Italian design.

Photo: Return to the Green Hell 3

Anyone who initially underestimated the significance of a single Ferrari was quickly disabused of that notion. In the first session, the 488, whimsically wrapped in old copies of the German newspaper Wochenspiegel, showed the other participants how to drive the fastest lap.

Inspecting the extraordinary car in the pits prior to the race, a few lines from the newspaper caught my eye: “Spacious, functional, for daily use—these attributes make a car an ideal family vehicle.” The team assured me the placement was coincidental, but it’s nonetheless appropriate, at least if your family is quite small.

The Ferrari’s family for the weekend consisted of drivers Georg Weiss, Oliver Kainz, Jochen Krumbach, and Daniel Keilwitz. After achieving a solid fifth place in the first qualifying session and running fastest in the second, the team was in clear contention for the overall pole. Krumbach drove an outstanding lap to claim fourth-place overall, first place in the Pro-Am class. At 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, the lights turned green, heralding the start of the 24-hour competition.

Photo: Return to the Green Hell 4

As the field roared off on its first lap, I set off to explore the track, motivated to capture special moments with my camera. From Brünnchen over Hohe Acht all the way up to the famous Karussell, the Nordschleife offers lots of great opportunities for photography. It’s sometimes not easy trying to find all these places; it feels a bit like a treasure hunt, armed with a treasure map and lots of faith, but the search is rewarded with real satisfaction the moment you reach your destination.

Rinaldi’s start was also challenging. Just a few moments into the race, the Ferrari was hit by a Porsche and spun. While the 488 was able to continue, it fell from fourth place all the way back to 30th, and so began the unexpected fight to regain its position at the front of the pack.

Even if you’re not interested in racing, the beauty of the Eifel mountains is worth a visit to the track. For example, the Karussell sits in a hidden spot that’s only accessible in good weather, but once you get there you immediately know why it was worth all the effort.

Photo: Return to the Green Hell 5

After hiking up hills next to the track for hours, it was time to find the right spot to watch the sun disappear behind the mountains. Fortunately, the weather gods were grateful and pushed the clouds aside. At Hatzenbach, I finally caught the last sunlight for the day. Every couple of minutes I saw the Ferrari racing by; it was still in the game. Then night fell.

Photographing at night is a real challenge, but animated by the numerous campers and fans cheering lustily, thanks to German beer and barbecue and lots of passion. Even if you’re tired, it’s worth sticking around to experience the atmosphere. After catching headlights in the dark for a while, I decided to make my last stop for the night and return to pit lane. There, I can see the damage wrought by a day of racing, as well as the effort the crews put into their cars. As I watched, the Ferrari rushed back onto track after refueling and a driver change.

After a few hours of rest, I headed out again to catch the sunrise. At about 5:30 a.m., as I arrived at Adenauer Forst, the tiredness finally hit me. I pushed it aside to keep photographing. Surrounded by wakening campers who were fighting the after-effects of the night before, I eventually moved on to my next spot. After its own long and sleepless night, the 488 GT3 was still circulating in a good position.

Photo: Return to the Green Hell 6

In the early afternoon, I headed back to the pit lane. The Rinaldi crew still had its fighting spirit intact, and just an hour before the finish the car and its pilots were racing toward the class victory.

It wouldn’t be the Nürburgring if there wasn’t a surprise in store, however. Everybody who has been there knows that the weather is one of the factors that makes the Green Hell one of the most dangerous racetracks on the planet, and about 20 minutes before the finish the sun disappeared and a sudden rain shower struck. This downpour surprised the teams, which had to make a quick decision; everyone remembered last year’s race, where rain and hail caused many cars to fly off track.

In the Ferrari, Krumbach quickly pitted for rain tires. For the final two laps, I was surrounded by frozen faces staring at the television monitor in one of the pit boxes. Finally, after 24 long hours, the checkered flag was waved. The 488 GT3 finished a strong seventh-place overall, first in the Pro-Am class.

Photo: Return to the Green Hell 7

Team owner Michele Rinaldi was visibly happy. “What a race and what a week for our team!” he said. “A Top 10 position as a customer team in the middle of all the factory teams, that is a great result. We are proud to have accomplished this as a real customer project. The Ferrari is really suitable as a customer racing car, where the customer is supported and put forward. With the combination of the Ferrari as customer racing car and the good product of Michelin [tires], it is a reliable and solid complete package for Bronze [rated] drivers. There, they can live out their terrific passion for motorsport.”

This was certainly a nearly perfect race for Rinaldi, and for me another 24-hour race was in the books. Happy and sad at the same time, I finished this long, sleepless journey with one last photo. Even though I was very tired, I had already started reflecting on this incredible experience, knowing I’ll be back for the next 24-hour race.

Also from Issue 161

  • 812 Superfast first drive
  • Raffaele de Simone interview
  • 250 Europa
  • Goodwood Festival of Speed
  • 225 Sport
  • F1: Strength and weakness
  • FORZA Tifosi Challenge: Mosport
Connect with Forza:   Facebook icon Twitter icon Instagram icon