VLN 3 and 4 - getting my Nordschleife Permit


Pic : Frozenspeed

In order to race a GT3 car on the Nurburgring Nordschleife, you first need to get a permit. This involves doing 8 laps in a low powered road car (in my case a Suzuki Swift!) after sitting through some theory and following an instructor round which takes you through the various safety measures peculiar to the VLN (
Veranstaltergemeinschaft Langstreckenpokal Nürburgring). Once this has been done you can race a low powered car with a 'B' Permit where you have to complete 18 racing laps (this doesn't sound like much but at over 9 minutes a lap, it takes a while). The car is shared with other drivers and I had to do my laps over a minimum of 2 races, normally 4 hours each. For the laps to count, the car has to finish the race and also needs to be in the top 75% in class. The quickest car that you're allowed to use is the BMW 235i Cup which is a very different machine to what I’ve been used to; no downforce, not much power; basically a modified road car with slick tyres! It moves around more than a GT3/GTE car so was something different to adapt to, but perfect for learning the Nurburgring. The car was run by the crack Walkenhorst Motorsport team who did a great job. You can pretty much race anything in VLN, from GT3 cars to Renault Clios and fan favourites like the Opel Ascona "Foxtail" which has a fox's tail attached to the aerial!

My first experience of racing at the Nordschleife was at VLN 3 in June. Before I went there, I had a feeling it would be a different type of race weekend to normal as I’ve heard stories about it being slightly crazy! It was certainly true; testing on Friday consisted of taxi laps, which means taking passengers out for laps of the Nordschleife… unlike anywhere else in the world! Luckily they didn't realise they were my first laps at speed on the Nordschleife. The pitlane is massively crowded during this session too, it’s really cool. I think more places should do it! I managed 2 laps before a red flag came out for an incident, so my session got cut slightly short.

It was an early start for qualifying on Saturday morning (8:30!), and I had to get in my one qualifying lap to be eligible to start the race. As the main objective for doing this is to get my A Permit for the Nordschleife, I just did the minimum amount required. My lap was spoilt by many Code 60s (maximum speed 60 km/h) which was frustrating, but that’s what happens round this track; you’re very lucky if you do get a clear lap!

As my co drivers (Ace Robey from the US and William Paul from the UK) didn't need many laps to qualify for their permits, they kindly let me to the balance of the race once they had their requisite laps in the bag. The decision was made for me to take the final stint as this would allow me to get the maximum amount of laps in. I managed to get 11 laps, which was fantastic. This meant I only had to get another 7 in at the next round. There were a few Code 60s when I was out, and a couple of very dramatic looking accidents, but I managed to stay out of trouble, and got to know this place better and better. There’s nowhere else like it in the world, and was looking forward to coming back again. The track’s just incredible!

I was back for my second VLN round just 2 weeks after the first! And it was going to be another dry weekend. This time though, instead of it feeling a bit like the Arctic as it did at the first, it definitely felt like the middle of summer. It was going to be hot in the car, but this is what we train for! It was good to be sharing the car with last minute sub Rory Butcher and William Paul. The weekend’s track action started as normal with some ‘taxi laps’ on the Friday. I completed 3 laps (complete with passenger ballast!) just to get my eye in for the Saturday. Everything felt good, and I was ready for the early start the next day for qualifying (another 8:30 start!). However, unfortunately for a couple of cars that wouldn’t be possible as there were a couple of big crashes during the Friday afternoon session, which just reminds you of the dangers of the Nordschleife and how it can go wrong very quickly… that’s part of the appeal of the place though, you have to keep your concentration!

In qualifying I just did the minimum 1 qualifying lap required to qualify for the race. My lap was devoid of any Code 60s though, which was a nice surprise, just the usual traffic!

As was the case at VLN 3, I would be the last person to get in the car during the race, so I had quite a bit of time to wait after qualifying. I got in with around 1 and a half hours left, and got into a car that felt like a sauna for the rest of the race! The stint went well, only slightly scary bit came when a Ferrari that had just overtaken me out braked itself and almost went off, but it was all OK in the end. The car felt very different to the previous round, the extra heat taking it's toll on the tyres and very lap round the ‘Ring you learn something new; there are so many different cambers and bumps, you’re constantly taking in information. You can’t help but have a smile on your face every time you’re out there though, the track is completely different to anywhere else in the world!

As the race was on Saturday, I headed for the airport that night to make it back to Silverstone for Sunday and the F1 Grand Prix… quite a manic weekend!!

I have sent off the paperwork for my 'A" Permit and I can’t wait to be back at the Nordschleife in a quicker car.

European Le Mans Series GTE Champion 2017


2017 European Le Mans Series GTE Drivers Champion with Rob Smith and JMW Motorsport.

ELMS Portimao


It was a frantic last round but together with Rob Smith and JMW Motorsport we secured the ELMS GTE title. We went into the last round of the championship just one point behind the leading TF Sport Aston Martin, and with the number 55 Spirit of Race Ferrari also in contention, it wasn't going to be easy as the GTE class is so competitive with factory drivers in all of the other cars.

We spent the free practice sessions tweaking the setup of the car and Will Stevens did a great job to put the car second on the grid in class. Unfortunately, three LMP3 cars qualified between our Ferrari and the number 55 Ferrari in pole position which would make for an interesting twisty opening half of the lap at Portimao. I started the race and, after getting alongside the pole sitting Ferrari into turn one and then again on the uphill turn four, a spinning LMP3 car split the pack. I was inside Aaron Scott's Ferrari when an LMP3 car spun immediately in front of us at the top of the blind left hand turn four - Aaron went right and I dived left of it but the nose of the spinning car made contact with my right rear. It was quite an impact and after gathering it all up I had dropped to the back of the field. After taking time to check that all was OK with the car, I headed off after the field and was quickly ahead of the Beechdean Aston Martin then crucially, passed the championship leading Aston on lap five.

After five laps I caught the number 51 Ferrari and although I was quicker, I didn't want to take any chances and was looking for a clean pass. After following closely and moving around in his mirrors, on lap 19, the pressure took its toll and he spun directly in front of me - I jinked left and just managed to miss him! This incident led to a full course yellow during which the JMW guys installed Rob Smith for the second stint. He rejoined in third behind the class leading Porsche and number 55 Spirit of Race car and did a fantastic job to close down the second place Ferrari so that at the end of his stint the two cars entered the pitlane line astern for the handover to Will Stevens. The JMW guys showed their class and turned the car around so that it exited the pits in front of the green number 55 Ferrari.

The two Ferraris ran nose to tail, moving past the leading Porsche to occupy the top two spots until a full course yellow intervened once more. The Spirit of Race team took the opportunity to top up with fuel but shortly afterwards slowed and pitted with a technical issue resulting in retirement. Our mission was now to finish ahead of the number 90 TF Sport Aston Martin to take the championship. I was back in the car with just over an hour to go to bring it to the finish. I didn't feel the job was done yet when I got in the car and with what happened to JMW last year, we needed to finish ahead of the Aston at all costs. With a healthy lead over the TF Sport car, I adopted cruise mode and concentrated on keeping well within track limits and gave the prototypes plenty of room! I let the Proton Porsche by into the lead and was so pleased and relieved to cross the line and clinch the championship for JMW. It's been a real team effort this year and it's an honour to be part of JMW Motorsport.


Photo Copyright JMW Motorsport

A second place at a chaotic Spa round of the European Le Mans Series means that we are just one point off the championship lead in the GTE class.

We worked hard on setup during Friday's FP1 and still had work to do, so changes were made overnight which transformed the car for Saturday's FP2. The car felt good on longer runs and race pace was good so we were looking forward to Sunday. Will Stevens has joined us for the last two rounds of the ELMS and he did a good job to qualify in P3 on Saturday afternoon.

I started the race and got as far as the first corner where I had contact to the right hand side and was pushed wide, so ended the first lap last of the GT cars. Luckily there was only minor damage to the car although the impact felt big! Midway through lap two, the TF Sport Aston Martin was damaged in contact with an LMP3 car and while it was wounded and struggling for pace was defending its position, so by the time I got past, I was over 4 seconds behind the GT pack. The first of a number of full course yellows intervened at the end of lap 7 and after 2 laps under yellow it went green again and I set off after the other GT cars in front. I chipped away at the gap and closed them down over my stint and handed over to Rob on the hour mark on the tail of the third place battle.

Rob's hour in the car was punctuated by full course yellows and safety cars, one which saw the no 77 Porsche taken out by an LMP3 car and by the time the chaos had subsided and Rob handed back to me, we were in third position behind the Beechdean Aston Martin and no 51 Spirit of Race Ferrari. During one of the many full course yellows the Beechdean car exited the pits not far in front of me in second place and after a couple of laps of green looking for a way past, another full course yellow meant I had to follow him closely waiting to pounce as soon as I could after it went green again. Andrew was defending so I decided to go around the outside and got passed him through the Fagne Chicane then concentrated on putting a gap between us. The leading no 51 Ferrari had managed a stop under full course yellow so had a big lead and barring a problem would be difficult to catch and we now had a healthy gap to the Beechdean Aston Martin in third place.

I handed over to Will Stevens with 55 minutes to go and he brought it home in a clear second place meaning a championship gap of just one point to the TF Sport Aston Martin with one round to go in Portimao on 22 October.

ELMS Paul Ricard


Photo Copyright JMW Motorsport

A third place finish less than a second behind championship rivals TF Sport after a 10 second penalty due to a pit stop infringement was a frustrating end to a hot race at Paul Ricard.
Very high temperatures and an abrasive surface meant tyre management was going to be a major factor during the 4 hours at Le Castellet. The two free practice sessions on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning were spent fine tuning setup and there was a big difference in the car between FP1 and the end of FP2.
Jonny Cocker qualified in P4 on the GTE grid on Saturday afternoon but an LMP3 car had managed to slot itself between us and the Proton Competition Porsche in P3. As at the Red Bull Ring, the P3's would get in the way on a number of occasions and with a very similar top speed to the GTE cars make our lives very difficult. I started the race and held station in fourth place until lap 9 when I passed the no 77 Porsche at the double right after Signes Curve. Up until this point I had to navigate a couple of LMP3 cars which were embroiled in the GTE battle but was now clear to chase after the Beechdean Aston Martin in second. I looked after my tyres at the beginning of the race and once I was clear of the P3 cars and Porsche, I was able to chip away at the Beechdean Aston's gap towards the end of my stint before handing over to Rob.
Rob Smith was next up and he moved up to second place, passing Andrew Howard before handing over to Jonny Cocker for the third stint. Jonny maintained second, although the TF Sport Aston Martin was closing with Nicki Thiim at the wheel. The next pit stop unfortunately included a 10 second penalty for an  infringement during the previous pit stop, so when I went back on track, a comfortable margin had been reduced to under 5 seconds. I took it easy for the first few laps, staying off the kerbs, not wanting to take too much out of the tyres, so that I had something left at the end of the race but it meant that the Aston was closing and he had caught me with 35 minutes to go. The Aston got by into the chicane on the Mistral and after catching a LMP3 car at an unfortunate part of the circuit the gap grew to a couple of seconds when a full course yellow interrupted proceedings. I was confident that I would have the pace to catch the TF car in the second half of the stint but there was nothing I could do sitting on the limiter watching the Aston a little way up the road.  As soon as it went green I began to close the gap before yet another full course yellow slowed proceedings where I was held up by the LMP2 race leader whose limiter was well below the 80 kph limit, so I had to keep backing off the throttle to stay behind it! The race was finally green with 14 minutes to go and the gap to second was over 3 seconds. I was determined to get P2 back, but ran out of laps and was just a second behind at the flag - the two full course yellow periods were frustrating but that's the way it goes sometimes. We're still second in the championship with some work to do in the last two rounds.
The battle continues at the next round of the ELMS at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium on 24 September.