Following endurance racing over the internet: an anatomy

This weekend is the Nürburgring 24 Hours, an endurance race that proceeds exactly as you would expect. One whole day and one whole night of flat-out racing round arguably the world’s most challenging and notorious racing circuits. It’s not as slick or high-profile as the Le Mans race of similar length, with fewer full-blown manufacturer teams and more super-professional garage outfits making up the grid. But the Nürburgring 24 Hours more than makes up for this lower public profile with the diversity and commitment of its participants. After all, anyone who is willing to drive flat-out – at night – round the course known as the ‘Green Hell’ has to be worth watching.

If this sounds like hard work for the drivers, though, spare a thought for hardcore race fans. As I type, a chorus of John Hindhaughs are singing out of laptop speakers the length and breadth of the country. Computer screens across the land are beaming out blocky, jerky feeds of Audis and BMWs negotiating bends with unpronounceable names. And jars of Nescafé are getting emptied teaspoon by teaspoon, cup by cup.

Following an endurance race from your own house is a surreal experience. The fun and games start at about three o’clock on race day, when you open up your browser and make a beeline for radiolemans.com. At this time of day the sun may well be shining outside, and you might still have some things you want to do. You are also likely to have a prior arrangement to meet a mate at the pub, one you made a few weeks previously in a moment of absent-mindedness. Not to worry, the race always goes into a lull around 9pm, so you won’t miss anything at the pub other than the Audis putting another lap on the field. In fact, you think to yourself, Audi are going to win again, so why am I even bothering to follow this? I could cut the grass, do some shopping, read a book. You mutter ‘sod it’ under your breath, move the cursor over to the ‘close window’ button…

…and are immediately grabbed back in by the sound of John Hindhaugh’s voice. As the soundwaves carrying the anchorman’s Mackem tones fly into your eardrums like GT class cars attacking Masion Blanche, it all comes flying back. The unexpected mechanical problems, the 2am driver changes, the unscheduled pitstops, the tense whodunit as you wait to find out what happened to the number 76 Porsche. Suddenly this isn’t just about Audi cakewalking it again. Within three minutes you are sucked into all the class battles, routing for the crews who have spent the entire night before rebuilding their car, impulsively deciding to support a driver or team you’ve never heard of before because they have a cool-sounding name.

Darkness, a video feed and a timing screen: your life for a day

Darkness, a video feed and a timing screen: your life for a day

The race starts, and for the first five laps it’s like a grand prix. People block, overtake, slipstream, harry. The really unlucky ones pick up damage and limp back to the pit lane for some embarrassingly early repairs. Then lap by lap the distance between cars increases as everyone settles down to play the long game. The first round of pit-stops happen, when it really sinks in this isn’t like Formula 1 – with a driver change, limited mechanics and a windscreen wash, think four minutes rather than four seconds. The Audis have their first pitstop without incident and return to the track with a thirty second lead. ‘Bo-ring!’ you yell to nobody in particular.

And yet you can’t leave the computer. A Ferrari and Aston are fighting it out somewhere on track and it’s for position. The inside info from the paddock says it looks like the number 1 Audi is having trouble keeping the exhausts cool, and that could become a problem if it dries out and the track temperature rises. Paul Truswell is down in the pit lane doing his best to find out what’s happening with that Nissan that’s needing its gearbox changed, and it would be rude to leave before he’s finished talking.

Around you, stuff needs done. Unable to get away from the tear yourself away from the live feed, you take the laptop with you. First to the kitchen to make a brew, where you turn the volume right up so the pit lane reporter isn’t drowned out by the kettle. Then to the bedroom to put the laundry away. And finally, after wrestling with your conscience and telling yourself that nobody need ever know that you’ve done what you’re about to do, you take the laptop into the loo and do your business whilst craning forward to listen to the hourly update. I cannot tell you the relief I felt when I read someone on an internet forum once publicly admit they had done the same.

Darkness descends and your lifeworld descends into a caffeine and sugar-induced haze punctuated only by words like ‘double-stint’, ‘Marc VDS’ and ‘whole-course yellow while they clean up that accident’. That pint with the mate has long since been cancelled, and instead you undertake tasks that can be accomplished from the safety and comfort of your own home. It is the only time the papers under your coffee table will be tidy and in order Time becomes immaterial, only the playing of The Cult’s She Sells Sanctuary telling you another hour has passed. For the uninitiated, the 80s soft rock classic provides the backing track for Radio Le Mans hourly update, where Hindhaugh gives you a rundown of events in his north-eastern tones. The backing track duly fades out, the rasp of racing engines comes back in, and your time-less existence continues.

Eventually it comes to bed time, because you’re either too knackered to last any longer or because you have to work the next day. There are two key signs that this time has come. The first is that you know all the adverts word-for-word. The second is that even Hindhaugh has gone for a lie down and someone else has taken over for a few hours. I once did the whole night for Le Mans and felt dreadful for the next week. I can wholeheartedly vouch for taking that lie down.

Coffee and muffins: critical endurance racing sustenance

Coffee and muffins: critical endurance racing sustenance

The sleep and wake-up on race night are like some kind of exceptionally geeky big night and morning after. You wake up in a blind panic some time around 3am and nudge the computer to check the timing screens. No change, back to sleep. You then return to the land of the living around 7am or 8am, this time turning the radio back on to find someone spun off and had an accident at five o’clock. Someone always crashes at five o’clock in the morning. Used coffee cups and biscuit wrappers congregate round the sink in the place normal people would find beer bottles on a Sunday morning. Having already breached the bathroom taboo, there is no shame in dragging the laptop into the shower with you.

Things have usually settled down by mid-morning. Each of the teams is set in its pace, and if something was going to break it would have done so by now. You decide to live on the edge for a bit and stray out of earshot of the laptop, maybe even going outside to the garden. Within thirty seconds, panic of course sets in and you rush back to the timing screens – to discover nothing of any consequence has happened. The last couple of hours are fun as teams who have had problems pull out all the stops – and rolls of duct tape – to get their cars fixed and back out on track to take the chequered flag. This is a good time to get the video feed back up and admire the fiberglass-and-Sellotape Frankenstein creations hobbling their way to the finish line.

Before you know it, the race is over. Audi won, of course, taking all the podium places in the process. The exhaust problem failed to materialise, and the closest contender crashed out of contention some time during the night. That was a real disappointment, you tell yourself as you shut the computer down and venture outside, shutting the front door behind you with just a hint of anger. Never again, you tell yourself as the rays of sun hit your face and the guilt at missing a full day of beautiful weather sets in. Never again.

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