Full of optimism, we boarded the ferry at Dover. We were as prepared as we possibly could be. After a full season driving the Peugeot 308 Racing Cup car with Nett Motorsport in 2017 and just a handful of problems during the year, we were now race hardened and experienced. Added to that, we had spent the winter improving the car and working on our branding and social media presence in order to make the most of what we assumed would be a strong start to the year at VLN1. What happened next was not part of the plan.
As I pulled on my brand new Euro Repar race suit and headed to Box 5 (our team’s pit garage at the Nürburgring) during practice for the first round I was already focussed on the task at hand. Hours of simulator work and fitness training during the off-season had kept me sharp, and I was itching to get back behind the wheel of our 308. My team mate Jürgen was testing a new type of brake disc and it would me my turn to sample it next.
Then came the radio call. The car had been involved in a huge accident at the start of its second lap. Something had broken and sent Jürgen into a violent spin, ending with heavy contact with the barrier. He would be checked over at the local hospital, but it was immediately clear that the car would be unable to start the race. Disappointed but undeterred, we stayed to watch the race the following day and supported some of our many friends in the paddock. Jürgen was OK, and the car would be rebuilt for Round 2. No problem.
As the second race of the season approached, we already knew we wouldn’t be leaving for Germany. So severe was the impact at Hatzenbach, that the car needed several more weeks of repair time. Frustrated, we stayed at home and watched the TV coverage. In VLN you are able to drop your two worst scores after the nine rounds have been completed. Our situation wasn’t ideal, but all was not lost – as long as we fought back strongly at Round 3.
With the car now repaired, we returned to the Nürburgring for VLN3. In practice, our running was limited by intermittent engine problems. The car seemed to lose power sporadically. The issue was difficult to trace, and it wasn’t clear if this was caused electrically or mechanically. After some ECU resets and throttle calibrations, the team were reasonably confident that the car was now ready for qualifying. However, as I rounded the first corner during my qualifying run, the gremlins crept back in. I returned immediately to the pits. The team worked under the bonnet for several minutes before sending me back out to try again. This time I didn’t make it to the exit of turn one.
A Porsche GT3 car beginning a flying lap was adamant the apex was his. The problem this caused us both was that my cold tyres were already at the limit of their braking ability as I arrived at the same corner. Left with nowhere to go, I was squashed against the inside kerb, with contact inevitable. Built like a Panzer, the Porsche spun and continued with minor wheel damage. For us, the impact proved terminal. Broken suspension and severe bodywork damage. There was no way to repair the car before the race. Another weekend with zero points. All of a sudden, the season was starting to look extremely difficult.
We did our best to put the emotions of VLN3 behind us, and returned to the Eifel mountains one month later, determined as ever. As it turned out, even without the accident in qualifying, the car wouldn’t have finished the race. The engine problems were traced to a broken sensor. With this resolved and the car once again in perfect condition, we banished the demons of the first three races by taking pole position for VLN4. The team was buoyed and spirits were high once again. We waited on the grid for Jürgen to take up his grid slot before the race start. He never arrived. Turbo failure on the way to the grid resigned us to watching from the pit box with sullen faces. The 2018 championship had turned into a nightmare.
Other teams would have thrown in the towel at this point. Far behind our main rivals on points and with no positives to take from the year whatsoever, we could have been forgiven for cutting our losses and focussing on 2019. But Team Euro Repar – Nett Motorsport are a family, and for everyone in the team, racing is life. Turbos can be rebuilt, and with enough grit and determination, you can make your own luck.
By VLN5 in July, the mission was simple: Pole position, fastest lap, race win. And finally – almost unbelievably after the season we had been having up to this point – that’s exactly what happened. It was a start, but the bleeding had just been stopped. Our wounded season still had a lot of healing to do before we could start thinking about the championship podium.
VLN6 rolled around in August and everyone in the team was noticeably more relaxed. At one point it had felt like our run of bad luck would never end. A poor race result stays with you not only during the weekend itself, but all the way until the next good result. We had been waiting since March for a win, so the positivity it had brought was palpable. With renewed confidence, we once again took victory – moving ourselves closer to our rivals in the points standings. A glimmer of hope had appeared. There was a mathematical possibility that with wins in each of the remaining three rounds, we could take a top three spot in the championship – perhaps even the title itself.
The phone rang as I was preparing to leave for the seventh race of the year. It was my friend, manager, and behind-the-scenes mastermind Luke Jones. He had bad news. My team mates’ mother had been taken seriously ill that day. The outlook was not good, and regardless of how important motor racing is to all of us, family has to take priority. We sent our best wishes to everyone in Mayen and spent the weekend focussing on fitness training. We watched the VLN race from my home in Bedford. Two to go.
At VLN8, the entire team was in top form. The car performed flawlessly throughout the weekend, and all three drivers were focused on a single goal: Win – and by the biggest margin possible. This race was a statement of intent. Despite only having an outside shot at the championship heading into this event, a dominant win coupled with bad results for our key competitors left us leading the standings by a miniscule 0.25 points with one round remaining. Somehow we had clawed our way back up the championship order. With just two weeks until the final race, an exciting four way title showdown had evolved. We mulled over the permutations and possibilities, VLN never far from our minds during that fortnight. It was now entirely in our hands.
‘Just beat the Clio.’ This was our unsaid mantra. We knew that finishing ahead of the Schrotti Motorsport car would give us enough points to win the championship, though we were also wary of the Racing4Emotion Mini Cooper which was close behind in the standings in third position. Qualifying went well, with setup changes helping the rear of the car to be more stable and allowing us to push even harder than usual. There was no more preparation to do. We could do nothing else to influence the outcome of this crazy season than drive fast and bring the car home in one piece.
Jürgen took the first stint. I squinted through my fingers at the TV screen as I saw one of the BMW M235i Racing Cup cars spin directly in front of him at the first corner. I needn’t have been worried. Jürgen is a vastly experienced driver at the Nordschleife, and one of the most successful class winners of all time. He sailed past the accident and began his ninety-minute mission. Without a scratch on the car, he handed me the reigns for the second stint.
The car felt fantastic, but despite its bright orange livery, I was convinced some of the drivers in the other classes couldn’t see us. We wanted to avoid drama and risk at all cost. We needed to finish this race. Several cars crashed immediately in front of me during the stint, and GT3 cars (the fastest class in the VLN series) seemed to be passing us in even closer proximity than usual. I tried to stay calm and focused on the job at hand. I drove our fastest lap of the race and handed the car over to Achim for the final hour.
In the past I would have been worried at this point. This championship meant the world to me and the team. Taking such an unlikely victory would be one of the best feelings I had ever experienced in motorsport. It would be natural to feel like a nervous wreck for the last sixty minutes. But my team mate Achim has proven himself to be a safe pair of hands over the past two seasons. I never had a doubt in my mind that he would bring the car home in first place. Which is exactly what he did.
In the end the race could not have worked out more perfectly for our championship aspirations. We had a sizeable pace advantage over the other cars in our class, and our team of mechanics in the pits didn’t miss a beat – conducting extremely fast pitstops throughout the race. Allied to this, both of our main rivals suffered problems of their own. The Mini retired early on with mechanical issues and the Clio ended its season in the worst way possible: in the barriers at Kallenhard.
It was finally time to let out a huge collective sigh of relief. We had done it. We were the 2018 VLN series SP2T champions.
We sprayed champagne. We collected our trophies. We drank beer. Good, German, post-race celebration beer. And we partied until the early hours of the next morning.
Our 2018 season was one of extremes. It was a demonstration of why you should never give up in motorsport, even when the situation looks beyond dire. But more than that, it was a perfect embodiment of why the Nett Motorsport team are so special. This group of hard working professionals have breathed the Eifel air for their entire lives. The Nordschleife is their track. This group of individuals are true team whom I am privileged to now call my racing family.
I can’t wait to return next season to do this all again. Before then, there will be thousands of messages exchanged online between our Facebook chat group – the ‘Mayen Cartel’- arranging the countless things which need to happen behind the scenes for a racing team to function. Then there will be an excited trip across Europe, before twenty or so manly ‘welcome back’ hugs. There may even be a brand new car for us to drive. And then finally after a seemingly endless winter, we will be racing once more.
I can’t wait.