Every year Thomas Kiefer would drive from his home in Heidelberg to the Nürburgring 24 Hours. As he joined the fans around the Nordschleife, he dreamed of one day racing there himself, but he had no idea how to. Persistence and hard work, however, led to the 26-year-old finally making his debut in the Nürburgring 24 Hours last year.
Kiefer is back this weekend for his second ‘N24’ with the Four Motors Care For Climate Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport with co-drivers Andreas Patzelt, Denis Dupont and Hisanao K. Kurata.
A dream comes true
Thomas Kiefer recalls the days leading up to his first Nürburgring 24 Hours as a race car driver felt unique. No longer on the outside looking in, he was now a part of the show.
“I was passing Brünnchen and Schwalbenschwanz and I could see so many fans. Usually I would park the car somewhere and join them, but not this time, I first had to get to the paddock because I had to race!
“On Wednesday we did a shooting with all the Porsche drivers. All the professionals were there with their GT3 cars and I was right in the middle of it, being a part of it.
“The 24-hour race was a phenomenal experience. 2003 was the first time I was there, spectating. For so many years I was on the other side of the fence, dreaming to be part of it one day. Now being part of it in a GT4 is crazy! It was a great experience. I celebrated my birthday during that week – it was the best present I ever got!”
During the daunting night hours when a thunderstorm rained down on the Nordschleife, Kiefer was tasked with a double stint. While around him professionals and amateurs a like had their race come to an end in the barriers, Kiefer didn’t put a foot wrong. The #420 Four Motors Bioconcept-Car – a Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport running on biofuel, using reused motor oil and tailored with doors and wings made out of organic fibre all with the purpose of reducing its carbon footprint – finished 33rd overall and second only to its bigger Care For Climate Porsche 991 GT3 Cup sister car in the AT class for cars running on alternative fuels.
“I learned so much during the night, even though at some stages it was really crazy. I didn’t expect you wouldn’t be able to see anything at all in the darkness. You have to believe, trust, hope that nothing appears in front of you, and you just keep your foot down. It was an ‘interesting’ feeling – sometimes even scary. At Döttinger Höhe I couldn’t see anything, and I had to lift because I thought there was a car in front of me – I couldn’t see it at all and although I could pass it safely, I wasn’t sure. I could’ve pushed a bit more, but the target was to bring the car to the finish. There wasn’t much to win for us during the night, so I focused on keeping it on track and bring it back undamaged, which I was able to do, and I was happy with the result and everyone’s job. Our overall result was a great achievement.
“Last year was pretty good for me, it was a good way to learn how the team works and get some mileage and seat time in the car. Being the first time in a GT4 car on the Nordschleife and the 24-hour race with all the crazy things that can happen led to me becoming a better driver because you need to experience it to learn something. In the last race I was able to do similar laptimes as the quickest Cayman GT4 driver. I was in a good shape there.”
Fan to racer
Thomas Kiefer’s path to the Nürburgring 24 Hours has been a long one. Without any connections in the world of racing and without any budget to give it a proper go, he took a rather unconventional detour – often alongside his brother George Kiefer who currently works at Dunlop as a development engineer and who recently made his own first steps as a race car driver at the Nürburgring with the goal of entering VLN races in 2020.
“When I was 6 years old, my brother and I took part in a soap box race and our dad helped us built the car. My brother was old enough to be the driver – I wasn’t. It was only downhill, and our car was very fast because we had a non-working brake system! My brother was very quick but crashed at the end. He still finished third and won a voucher for a karting track.
“We went to the karting track and I fell in love from the first day I stepped into a kart. Then we started doing slalom races. I always wanted to race on a proper circuit, but we didn’t have the budget for that at the time. That’s where I started with sim racing and reached a professional level. I raced together with my brother and Philipp Eng – he’s racing in DTM now. For Philipp it was to stay sharp during the winter, but for us it was great to have a real pro-driver as a team-mate.
“Sim racing was important; you can have a real benefit from it. It was good and unique to have Philipp Eng as a team-mate as he was already a professional race car driver, and Stoffel Vandoorne for example was competing in some races as well. Race starts in the sim have helped me a lot for the starts in VLN. The feeling is the same: You’re nervous, you don’t know what is going to happen next, you have to anticipate which gap to go for. All those things are quite similar. I always try to see sim racing as real racing because there was a time when I didn’t have the chance to do it for real. My first start in VLN was quite similar – although also different because now it’s for real, there’s more pressure. The things you have to do when you’re in the car, I learned those in sim racing.”
His love for the Nürburgring reached a high when Kiefer took his mother’s 60-horsepower strong Volkswagen Polo for a lap around the Nordschleife.
“When I was 10, my dad allowed me to drive my mom’s Polo on a big parking lot. I still remember the feeling I had that day, my first time in a car! I stalled the engine all the time because I wasn’t tall enough to reach for the clutch. That was the first time I ever drove a car, and I still drive the same car nowadays.
“Three years ago, when I got my driving license, I asked my mom if I could lend the car to ‘visit a friend’. She wasn’t using the car that often because my brother had changed the suspension to a racing suspension which she didn’t like to drive with.
“I went to the Nürburgring instead.
“The week before I had used Gran Turismo to learn the Nordschleife in detail. I removed the passenger and back seats to save weight because the car had no power at all and bought two laps for the Touristenfahrten for my first laps on the Nürburgring. It’s still a great memory – and I was happy that the car was still in one piece when I drove back home!
“Of course, my parents figured out quickly that I wasn’t visiting a friend when they saw the seats in the garage. They weren’t really happy about it – but it wasn’t a big deal.
“Later I also began using the car for tourist drives at Hockenheim, Spa and Imola. The car had no power at all, but I used it to learn the tracks. My thinking was, if I get the chance to drive there one day in another car I’ve already been there and know the track.”
2015 was the year in which Kiefer made big strides in his journey to become a race car driver as he won a test at the Hockenheimring in a BMW M235i Racing Cup and entered the GT Academy Europe to made it all the way to the European final held in Abu Dhabi.
“My brother and I qualified for the GT Academy and reached the top 8. We were then invited to take part in the European final held at the Yas Marina Formula 1 track in Abu Dhabi. 3.5 million people all around Europe took part in it so to reach the final and for me to finish first in Germany and my brother second was very special for us – it was a great success.”
That same year, a chance-meeting with Porsche instructor and race car driver Jens Richter set a series of events in motion that would lead to where Kiefer is now: A Porsche instructor and race car driver.
“What may have been even more key was that during a track day in Hockenheim I saw a Formula Renault, crowded by people, and I asked the guy next to me if he could take a picture of me in the car. We started a conversation – it was Jens Richter. We kept in touch and with is help I got to visit the Porsche driving school event. My first time at the Nürburgring with Porsche he took me for a lap around the track but then had to leave so sent me to someone else: Lars Kern. Eventually I started working as a Porsche junior instructor before becoming a Porsche-certified instructor.
“It was my dream to become an instructor for Porsche – but I also had the dream of becoming a race car driver. In 2016 I was invited by Porsche to test a Porsche 991 GT3 Cup and see if I was able to drive the car on the limit and could be an instructor for customers in the Cup car. That was the first race car I ever drove; it was a great experience.
“It took a while, but I saved up some money and in 2016 started to race in RCN at the Nürburgring with an old Opel Astra of TJ Racing and get my International C License and Nordschleife Permit B to take part in VLN, followed by four VLN races in 2017 with the Opel Calibra and Walkenhorst Motorsport M235i Racing Cup to be allowed to race the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring.”
In his search of a team to race with, Kiefer asked his Porsche instructor colleagues and successful GT3 racers Felipe Fernández Laser and Lars Kern for advice.
“Felipe Fernández Laser – with whom I also did two RCN races in 2016 – and I discussed what I could possibly do in 2018, and then I got the ‘golden phone call’ from Lars who got me in touch with Tom von Löwis. He gave me the chance to drive the Cayman GT4 in 2018 as a junior driver for Four Motors Team Care For Climate. I was at the right place at the right time – Lars helped me to get into that position. With my background with Porsche and some good results in the past I got the chance to drive for them, which led me to my first Nürburgring 24 Hours race.”
It was the accumulations of believing in the dream. Despite being in his mid-20s, Kiefer persisted and is now on the way to become what he always wanted to be: A race car driver.
“It has been a long road to get from the one phase to the next. Already in slalom karting we were struggling to get the budget together. It took ages and I would’ve loved to have done it when I was younger, but I am proud of how far I’ve gotten already. I had no idea how to get into RCN, I did that all by myself, worked for it and pushed myself forward. You don’t get anything handed to you if you don’t do anything for it. I put myself into the position where others would notice me – and I got lucky at times. Even if I wasn’t driving, I always went to the races, show my face in the paddock, make sure people got to know me. Before I had my driving license, I took my bicycle and went to Hockenheim. Networking is very important. Not everyone will be helpful, but just as many people will be. There was a lot of effort I had to put in, but if you don’t try you won’t reach your goals. I keep pushing, give my best effort and see where I end up.”
Taste of the future
The likeable German already had a small taste of what the future might bring, testing a Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 in Istanbul in 2017 and last year getting the opportunity to drive a handful of laps around the Nürburgring Grand Prix course in Otto Klohs’ Manthey Racing-prepared Porsche 991 GT3R occasionally raced by Lars Kern.
Racing at the highest level and making a living from racing, is the ultimate goal, Thomas Kiefer says, although realising it’s a slim chance for anyone.
“During the years I figured out that it’s very difficult. My goal now is to get myself into the position to continue racing. There are a lot of people who want to race but can’t because they have no budget or don’t get a chance from a team. I’m lucky to have this chance which is why I perform as good as possible.
“You always dream to drive in the fastest cars and at the highest level. The highest level in VLN currently is GT3 so that’s a good goal to try to achieve. I know how crazy the GT3s are to drive and to drive these monsters around the Nordschleife must be incredible. I dream of driving a GT3 car, but I have no idea how to get there. Then again, right now I’m driving the GT4 and two years ago I had no idea how to get into a GT4. Sometimes things change faster than you think they could. I try to push and will see where I end up. The 24-hour race was a dream to compete in and I’ve checked that off, next is to live from racing, or keep on racing. You want to do that at the highest level, racing a GT3 at the Nürburgring is the ultimate goal.
“Before VLN9 last year I got the chance to do four laps around the Grand Prix track in Otto Klohs’ Porsche 991 GT3R during the Friday practice session. I was very happy to have the chance to experience the GT3R, one of the best cars around here at the Nürburgring. Especially for me, a Porsche guy, to jump into a Manthey car is very special.
“Right from the beginning you could feel that the car is working very well because the team knows what to do with the car – that was clear after two turns. The car ‘talks’ to you a lot; you already know what’s going to happen next. It felt good and gives you a lot of confidence. It’s a different world, everything is so much better.
“I was happy to have gotten the chance to drive the car and didn’t want to do anything stupid – just bring it back in one piece.
“Any driver in VLN dreams of racing in SP9 with a GT3. From the day I started racing I said I wanted to do the Nürburgring 24 Hours and race in the top class. This test happened out of the blue and I was really happy. It’s been a while now, but I still have a big smile just thinking about it! Luckily, I have some onboard footage from it.”
2019 Nürburgring 24 Hours
This weekend sees Kiefer get back behind the wheel of the Four Motors Care For Climate Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport for his second Nürburgring 24 Hours. With a season of racing with the Tom von Löwis-led team behind him, the driver of the #420 car hopes for another successful Eifel classic.
“Last year went really well and we wanted to continue in this formation.
“VLN3 was my first race this year due to the shortened VLN1 where my team-mates had to get their Nordschleife Permit. It’s a tough preparation because especially at the Nordschleife seat time is most important. The good thing is that I know the car from last year. Of course, I also know the track, but it’s always different with the changes over the winter. After some laps you’re back in the rhythm, but you need to drive, you’re not on your personal limit in the first laps.
“I hope the 24-hour race will be as good as last year – maybe a bit better. If you focus on yourself and the car is running well for the full 24 hours, you never know where you end up. I’m really looking forward to that.”