Falken team boss Sven Schnabl went through it all at this year's N24 – and he's already looking forward to next year
Sven Schnabl is a tired man when we speak to him after the Nürburgring 24 Hour race. Not as tired as he was a few days ago, mind. “It took me a week to get back to normal – our race weekend started at 3am on the Thursday morning, we were working throughout each night and then of course 24 hours of racing.” Something of a comedown to go from pulling all-nights at one of the world’s most iconic racetracks to falling asleep on the sofa at home.
And a mixed race for Schnabel’s race team that finished in fourth position last year running 911 GT3 cars on Falken tyres. Its 44 car was punted off by a backmarker and the 33 car was hobbled by punctures from on-track debris. “Finishing in P9 was OK,” says Sven unenthusiastically. “Sure, we were the best Porsche and in the top 10, but I was hoping for better. Maybe we could have been in fifth or sixth place at the end if we hadn’t had any issues.”
We’d spoken before the race – it had been a tough run-up to the N24. The team had tried to get some running around the Nordschleife by taking part in the NLS endurance series, a championship that exclusively takes place at the Nürburgring. Both cars only managed nine laps between them at the opening race, the second event was cancelled because of snow and they couldn’t run in the third event because their tyres were stuck at customs. “Luck isn’t on our side at the moment,” said Sven. “But it can surely only get better.”
His luck wasn’t changing too quickly – one of Sven’s drivers, Lars Kern, was taken away by Porsche on the morning we spoke because he was needed in the Huber Motorsport car. “Huber needs another driver,” Sven told me. I misheard the German accent, thought that poor Lars had been demoted to running a minicab in Stuttgart. Still, I offered my services if they were required, I’d only be standing around watching the race. “Do you have a permit?” asks Sven. This sounds promising, but I don’t. “Well, that makes it easier to say no.”
When we speak the team is hard at work prepping the cars after the weekend of qualifying races ahead of the N24 proper. Important work, but there’s no advantage to be gained there, explained Sven. “Preparation of the car doesn’t make any difference – everyone works on the car as much as they can. You need to make sure that your parts can last the race, you’ve got different tyres and you need good drivers.” One strong point for Schnabl’s team is that they’re the only top level team running the Falken tyres, which has its positive and negative points. “If the tyre works then that’s good, because we’re the only ones who have it. If it doesn’t work, then that’s not good because we’re the only ones who have it!”
Sven praises the efforts of his team during the 2022 24 Hour race. “Strategy-wise we did nothing wrong. The partially wet track towards the end of the race caused us some issues.” It’s a 15-mile track, and one of the big challenges that teams can face is having portions of the track that are soaked in rain while the rest of the circuit is bone dry. Then by the time you get your driver to the pits everything has changed even more.
The next big challenge is keeping your nose clean. “Twenty-four hours is a long time. The main priority is not making mistakes. You have to run a clean race – don’t touch anyone, respect the Code 60s [instead of safety cars the N24 has localised areas of slower running after incidents]. The 33 car finished without a scratch, which was important. The 44 car’s race wasn’t so clean.”
In GT racing they have so-called BOP rules (balance of performance) where the race organisers have the power to restrict engine power, change fuel tank sizes and various other measures to ensure performance parity across the field. It’s confusing to watch, a strange notion that anyone who gets an advantage will have it swiftly taken away. There are tweaks being made right up to the start of the race, and sometimes the effects can be negative – in this year’s N24 the Porsches were uncompetitive, but Sven is sanguine about the state of affairs: “It’s the only way to have a race where everyone has the chance to win it.”
But how can you win at the N24 if the organisers are doing their best to stop you? “It’s the whole package that wins the race,” explains Sven. “The car, the drivers, the tyres. You have to run a clean race and push from the start.”
One of the notable aspects of this year’s N24 was how the entire field was pushing hard right from the off, with 10 of the frontrunners MIA even before sunset. At Schwedenkreuz heading into Aremberg you can witness the sheer speed of the cars in the early part of the Nordschleife running as they then try to scrub off the speed into a tight right-hander. At Ex-Mühle they swoop right through the middle of the village of Adenau at rooftop level, more high-speed running and into the iconic section of Karussell, Hohe Acht and Brünnchen.
It’s worth the trip alone to see the cars at night, scraping over the banked concrete at the famous Karussell hairpin and fighting the urge to whack on the power too early. The 911s have a curious screaming pitch, the Aston Martins are rough and ready, but the Merc-AMG cars are downright dirty. It’s a world away from the sanitised view on the television.
And different again from the intense experience in the pits. “Sure, it’s stressful for the team, but we enjoy the challenge, trying to reach our limits. Everyone is always enthusiastic going into the race, but then very happy when it’s over.”
Sven’s already thinking about next year’s race – rule changes will mean double-stinting tyres and making them last longer, and the team will have an all-new car, a Porsche 992 GT3 R. He’s got his eye on making it to the top step of the podium. “The 24 Hours is the big race, the one we aim for all year. You can win other races, but you always want to win the big one. I always put it like this – if you do WEC, you can win at Spa, Fuji or wherever, but if you don’t win at Le Mans it’s for nothing at the end of the day.”