Action all the way

Action all the way

The racing machines are big, brutal and beastly. They make Formula One cars look like they should belong to sissies. Stand back Sebastian Vettel and co! CHARLEEN CLARKE gains first-hand insight into the wild and wonderful world of truck racing…

Germans are conservative. Dull. Boring. Staid. Right? Think again. It’s a glorious winter’s day and I am at the Nürburgring (the “Ring” to those in the know). And I am laughing out loud at four German truck drivers – because they’re taking a dip in a kiddies’ swimming pool.

What makes the vision before my eyes especially hilarious is their swimming attire. They are wearing bikinis. And quaffing beer at a copious rate – of course.

Like the thousands upon thousands of other Germans at the track, they are really getting into the spirit of things. It is the
25th Truck Grand Prix, and this event is all about fun, hilarity, drinking, partying… oh and some truck racing as well.

Ring connoisseurs arrive at the weekend event on the Thursday before the race. Just to get into the mood, you understand… That’s when the truckers first start rolling into the Eifel region, famous for its yummy red wine, gorgeous scenery (it’s postcard perfect) and unpredictable weather (regular racegoers know that they need to pack suntan lotion and also a raincoat).

But most of the fans who pour into the world’s biggest truck racing event generally arrive on the Friday… and that is when the party begins in earnest. Thousands of truck drivers from all corners of Germany (and some cross-border operators too) converge on the Ring, park their trucks for the weekend… and enjoy sensational pop concerts, fabulous fireworks, yummy food and damn fine German beer.

Of course, as mentioned, there is the truck racing too – and, in theory, that’s the real reason why 202 000 people flocked to the Ring this year.

Action all the wayImportantly, the racing drivers and team members are really approachable – the paddock is open to the public. And it’s par for the course to chat to the mechanics, drivers and team bosses; unlike their F1 counterparts, they don’t place themselves on a pedestal.

At this year’s race, for instance, I get to chat to Frans Burgl, chief mechanic at the Truck Sport Lutz Bernau team, who explains the ins and outs of the race trucks to me. According to Burgl, the majority of trucks in the series are MANs (TGS derivatives to be precise) and these trucks are powered by a modified 12-litre, six-cylinder common rail D26 engine, which pushes out 858 kW (1 150 hp) of power and 5 500 to 6 000 Nm of torque (in its standard guise, its output is half of that). “Although the engines optimised for racing develop power outputs that are obviously far higher than those of the series models, the main components of the racing engines – engine block, cylinder head and crankshaft – are parts from series production. In the MAN race trucks, even the axles come off the production line,” Burgl explains.

Thus, while the engines are tweaked – the pistons and conrods are replaced, for instance – the trucks cannot be modified ad infinitum. “We replace the fifth wheel with a plastic unit in order to save weight but around 95% of the components in the engine must be standard. Last year, we wanted to boost power via the use of a two-stage turbocharger, but we could not do it because there was no standard two-stage turbocharger in the MAN parts basket. That’s changed this year, so we can use it,” he tells FOCUS.

In principle, all race trucks must correspond with a model that is built in series production. “The rules specifically require that the cab, frame longitudinal members, and engine are identical with those in a model that anybody who is interested can order from a sales manual. The trucks must resemble series production trucks in some key areas. For instance, the chassis and axles are standard, as is the gearbox (a standard ZF 16-speed box),” he reveals. “We used to have auto boxes, but now we have gone back to manuals.” The racing drivers pull off the line in third gear, and the top speed of the trucks is limited to 160 km/h.

The D26 motors are supplied by MAN, and the manufacturer sends a support team to each race, which provides technical assistance to the many teams running MAN trucks. I wander over to the technical support team and the engineers all tell me that it’s good news that the company has chosen to be involved in truck racing. Truck racing is, after all, the harshest of test facilities… if the components can survive a season of truck racing; the company knows that those components will not fail in normal (far less extreme) operating conditions.

The engines are equipped with a filter to extract soot particles. Having said this, I notice a lot of black smoke during the race meeting. “Well that could be because the filter has failed,” Burgl explains. “If it fails during the race, that’s not really an issue – but you have to start the race with this component.”

The brakes are something really special – they are water cooled internally and the driver can manipulate the water pressure in order to regulate the temperature of the discs. Water is the lifeblood of the truck – if the water injection for the disc brakes fails, the brakes cannot survive a single lap! “We are very sensitive about the overall weight of the truck,” Burgl explains. “So we take on as little water as possible”. Speaking of weight, the truck must weigh 5 500 kg (the front axle clocks in at 3 300 kg, the rear at 2 200 kg). Each and every truck is weighed after the race – to ensure that the teams conform to the strict weight regulations.

According to Burgl, despite the enormous pressure under which the components are expected to perform, component failures are few and far between. “The most common failure would be that of clutches,” he tells FOCUS. “Also, we change the gearbox after every third or fourth race. We use one engine for six months or 2 500 km; then it’s overhauled and reused.” The engine and front and rear axle are also water cooled, and each truck will carry around 190 litres of water, just for cooling purposes.

Every race is 50 km long, and the MAN TGS uses 35 litres of fuel over the period, although it does have an 80-litre fuel tank.

I also meet Lutz Bernau, the team owner. He’s an interesting guy… his career kicked off in the field of off-road racing – he was runner-up in the Paris-Dakar rally. He subsequently swapped the deserts for the tarmacs of the truck racing circuits, and was runner-up in the 1999 European truck racing championship.

Today he owns the successful Truck Sport Lutz Bernau team, which fields two MANs – one driven by Spaniard Antonio Albacete, the other by former British rugby player, Chris Levett. Albacete, the most successful starter on the truck racing grid, began his career in touring cars, and he has won two European championships. Levett, on the other hand, followed his father, Andy, into truck racing, and he has also achieved several podium positions, since his 2007 truck racing debut.

In between chatting, we dash off to the grandstand to watch the actual races. Levett is fastest and Albacete qualifies third. The ham in the MAN sandwich is Markus Oestreich in his MKR Renault. After a ding-dong battle and much hair-raising action, which sees the panels on some of the trucks rearranged and a non-finish for Oestreich (he retires due to technical problems), Levett triumphs while Albacete comes second. The team is elated.

Things were different at the beginning of 2010; Bernau explains that he was apprehensive at the start of the season. “We were worried, not knowing how the recent economic turbulence would impact on our sport.  It’s not easy to find sponsors any more. As a result, we trimmed expenses. But the public support that we have received has been fantastic, and it bodes well for the future success of truck racing. This motorsport series attracts big crowds and I am pleased to see that teams have not dropped out; the number of teams has remained constant,” he comments.

Truck racing is only for those with deep pockets. “It costs about €300 000 to €400 000 to run the team per year,” Bernau reveals. “Of course, that doesn’t take into account the engines and the support that we receive from MAN.”

Action all the wayAs Bernau notes, the truck racing environment is quite unique. “Firstly there is the relationship between the teams and the members of the public – it is really good. The fans know that they are welcome to pop by for a chat any time. Secondly, there is the relationship between the teams. Of course we are competing against each other. But we have a very good relationship anyway; we never fight amongst each other or have big problems,” he says.

He builds his race trucks at a workshop near Munich, and then they are transported all over Europe to the individual race meetings. “There are normally 10 races in a season (this year there are nine) and we travel all over the region. This year we are even going to Russia,” he reports.

The truck racing circus could also head for China. “There is definitely interest in that market. A Chinese broadcaster has just been here; they have interest in securing television rights. So there is certainly interest from that region.”

All the teams run on Goodyear tyres. “That’s because it is the only company that can supply tyres to suit our requirements. The carcass must be very strong,” he explains. There are no rain tyres, but the teams are allowed to groove the rear axle tyres for use in the rain. The front tyres may not be grooved. Each truck uses eight to ten tyres per race… a substantial expense, at €400 (around R4 000) per tyre. The front rims are made out of aluminium but the rear rims have to be manufactured from steel for safety reasons. This is because the racing can be quite violent at times! The drivers certainly don’t take things easy and there is a considerable amount of contact between the vehicles!

I also get to chat to a third member of the team, namely the immensely talented Antonio Albacete. I am dying to know what it’s like to drive one of the trucks, and the diminutive Spaniard confirms that the vehicles are a real handful. “These trucks are much, much more difficult to drive than a touring car. You have to fight with the steering wheel all the time. The handling is a real challenge. Plus, during the race, I have to watch the temperature on the brakes all the time. For sure; it’s a huge challenge to drive a racing truck,” he notes with a smile. During the various races, this much is obvious.

To the utter delight of the crowd, many of the trucks spin off the circuit. Others collide and, at times, it resembles a demolition derby. One thing is certain: it’s anything but dull. The trucks are brutally powerful – Bernau tells me that the field collectively generates more horsepower than a Formula One field – and, man oh man, they just sound so good. Each race begins with a flying start (the trucks are doing 60 to 70 km/h) but it is incredible to see how they accelerate (the race trucks do zero to 100 km/h in just 3,8 seconds and 40 to 160 km/h in an almost incredible seven seconds!)

Race two on day one is yet another fabulously exciting event. Albacete comes second once again, being pipped at the post by a Freightliner, ably commandeered by Czech David Vrsecky. Lady luck does not smile on Levett this time; lying sixth in the fourth lap, the Brit crashes into a tyre barrier and is forced to retire.

The truck racing formula is an interesting one; in the second race of the day, the top eight finishers from race one, start in reverse order… and this really does make for terrific racing. (Forget about a Formula One type procession.) Even taking the reversal of race order out of the equation, truck racing really does offer non-stop action and lots of overtaking. Oestreich, who did not finish the previous race, has to start from the back of the grid. Within one lap, he passes 11 competitors! He goes on slicing his way through the pack in his Renault and eventually finishes in fifth position. The crowd is elated!

While the frenetic racing action continues out on the track, telematics experts keep an eager watch on the trucks, monitoring aspects such as the truck’s temperature, suspension, acceleration, braking and revs. The trucks are also fitted with cameras. “These are handy if we are accused of deliberately driving into another competitor,” Jean-Charles Huillier, team manager of the Bird’s Motorsport Team, explains in between heats. Bird’s Motorsport fields the MAN TGS driven by Chris Levett. “We are allowed to touch another competitor (this happens regularly!) but we are not allowed to deliberate bump each other.”

The telematics system that Huillier employs is quite remarkable; he can adjust all sorts of parameters – from the injection pressure to the oil pressure – remotely from his trailer. “Everything is carefully monitored – not only by the teams themselves but also by race officials. Via GPS monitoring, they check, for instance, that we are not exceeding the 160 km/h speed limit,” he tells FOCUS. There is a 2 km/h tolerance… one can only assume that all the teams fully utilise this tolerance!

Huillier also confirms that the sport is expensive. “Each diff costs €15 000, and we need three per race,” he reveals. The diff is always fully engaged.

Later I wander over to another pit and climb into a similar trailer, which – a chatty mechanic reveals – was purchased at a cost of €700 000. “We’re dead beat,” he tells me. “My driver crashed the truck yesterday… and we worked throughout the night, panel beating the cab.” He also announces proudly that he and his colleagues can swap an entire engine in just 25 minutes!

The last day of the race-weekend is a long one for many of the 200 000-plus visitors. That’s because the Saturday night is a huge, flat out, all-night party. The concert and fireworks in the Müllenbachschleife are terrific, the beer is plentiful and the hangovers the next day are evident. But the Germans are still there in their droves, dressed in weird hats and coats that look like they belong in a Matrix movie. The skimpily clad ladies are there too, which helps to distract them from the fact that they have the mother of all hangovers. All the fans are routing for their own personal heroes, and hoping for yet another day of action-packed racing.

They are not disappointed. In timed practice, Levett amazes his opponents; his blue MAN is six-tenths faster than Oestreich’s Renault, which clocks the second fastest time. Albacete is the starter of the SuperPole, held to determine starting positions for race one, while it’s evident that the racing should be as close as ever: the first four drivers are within six-tenths of each other. Albacete subsequently uses his pole position starting slot to good effect and takes the winning spot ahead of Oestreich and Levett. It’s as good a race as ever, with lots of trucks colliding and some disappearing off the track too.

Action all the wayRace two is even better. This time around, there is a Renault on pole (piloted by Anthony Janiec), and Russian Alex Lvov is alongside him in a MAN. Oestreich lines up besides Albacete in the fourth row.

Lvov is under enormous pressure… and, one by one, he is passed – first by Oestreich, and later by Vrsecky in his Freightliner, Markus Bösiger (Renault), Albacete and Levett. Naturally, they’re all eyeing Janiec, and his number one spot. Oestreich gets past and, in all the action, Albacete overtakes Bösiger. Driving almost nose to tail throughout, the chasing quartet try to reel in Oestreich, but the MKR Renault is too far ahead. The runner-up position is fiercely contested until the end of the race, and eventually Vrsecky, Albacete, Bösiger and Levett cross the finishing line… within a mere two seconds of each other!

At the end of the weekend, Albacete leaves the ring in a strong position – being the only driver to take a podium place in all four races. He leaves the Ring with a total of 184 points, followed by Bösiger (153), Hahn (142), Vrsecky (112), and Oestreich (94). The fans, on the other hand, depart with a hangover and some really good memories.

The next Truck Grand-Prix at the Ring takes place from 8 to 10 July 2011. See you there! (Don’t forget to pack your bikini.)

• Hats off to Albacete, who won the 2010 championship with 387 points. Runner-up Bösiger collected 335 points, followed by German Jochen Hahn (318) in a MAN, Oestreich (293), Vrsecky (226) and Levett (210). – Ed

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