Kang Byung Hwi is a professional race car driver. He is a former national motor sports champion and has competed in the 24-hour Nürburgring race every year since 2016, making 2019 his fourth consecutive year. In 2018, he raced with the Hyundai Motorsport Team in the ring, completing the 24-hour race with the i30 N TCR. He returned this year to the 24-hour endurance race with the i30N fastback N, the mass-production version of last year’s model. What was it like driving the Nürburg track through the night? We talked to Kang Byung Hwi about his 24 hours on the track.
Returning to the 24-hour endurance race for the fourth time
The i30 Fastback N entered the 2019 24 Hour Nürburgring endurance race under the V2T mass-production class
The 2019 24 Hour Nürburgring endurance race was held June 20-24, about a month later than past years. The race usually opens late May, but it was moved this year due to rain. Nürburg in mid-May is rainy season, so race teams and drivers have asked for adjusted dates for years. Pushing the dates back a month solved the rainy conditions, but the warmer conditions posed new challenges for drivers and race cars.
The Qualification Race for the 24 Hour Nürburgring provided a glimpse into the i30 Fastback N’s performance capability
The Nürburgring complex is transformed into a variety of forms for different competitions. The complex has a permanent 5km Grand Prix circuit for the German F1, and a 20km North Loop (Nordschleife) that winds through the Eifel Mountains. A track combining the two is also possible. The 24 Hour Nürburgring is on the longest combined track, with a lap distance of 25.3km, making it the longest lap on Earth, specifically designed for the 24-hour endurance race. As the lap course is designed specifically for the 24-hour endurance race, there is rarely a chance to test-drive the track or practice beforehand.
As such, the Qualification Race opens about a month before the Nürburgring 24-hour endurance race is held, allowing the drivers a chance to familiarize themselves to the track, which they call Quali-Race. It is the official practice run for participating teams and drivers. The Quali-Race is a pre-main simulation, because the 6-hour endurance race comes with official practice laps, preliminary races, and a qualifying final race. The Hyundai Team Engstler that I am part of this year, took on the challenge this year with the i30 Fastback N mass-production model. It was important that the team gain as much data about the lap course as possible on the May 19 Quali-Race.
Hyundai Team Engstler’s driver lineup. Franz Engstler, Luca Engstler, Guido Naumann, Byung-Hwi Kang, from left to right
The Hyundai Team Engstler lineup was organized starting early 2019, consisting of Engstler senior and junior (Franz is Luca’s father), Guido Naumann, and myself, for a total of 4 members. Most 24-Hour Nürburgring race teams have 4 drivers on rotation due to the physically taxing course. There are teams with 3 drivers, but that places greater burden on each individual.
Guido Nauman is a German car journalist and veteran of ten years on the 24-Hour Nürburgring endurance race. He raced with the Hyundai Motor Sports N Team last year, on the i30 N TCR.
The other two German drivers are the father-and-son Franz Engstler and Luca Engstler. Franz is a widely respected master of touring cars. He’s in his late 50s but remains a surprisingly agile driver with fast hands who has won the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) and the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC, the predecessor of the WTCR). His calm and jolly demeanor can be sometimes misleading to the masterful racing prowess he is capable of.
Four drivers alternate on the i30 Fastback N to finish the 24-Hour endurance race around the Nürburgring
Luca Ensler is only 19 years old, but he stormed the racing scene last year as champion of TCR Asia, and then returned this year to champion it once again, showing it was no luck. Several months ago at TCR Malaysia, I raced against Luca around the Sepang Circuit. Next to him on the tarmac, I recognized how bold and decisive he was, a character that often is lost with age. Luca took first on the podium and I came in second in that race. He was an opponent then, but today he was my teammate.
With the Quali-Race coming up, the four drivers met up at the Nürburgring. We started the day by carefully examining the inside and outside of the race car and adjusting the bucket seat to our individual positions. If each driver has a significantly different physique, the seat position is difficult to compromise, but fortunately all four of us were similar.
Race cars entering the tuning car class generally have large rear wings and a sequential transmission that makes shifting gears easier.
The Nürburgring 24-hour endurance race is largely divided into mass-produced cars and tuning cars. The mass-production cars undergo minimal tuning for the race. Additional lights are mounted for night driving. The tuned cars undergo a fair amount of changes. A simple way to tell is the presence of a high rear wing.
Personally, I had been focused mostly on the TCR class, and was only just returning to the mass-production class. Race cars are easier to handle as you move up the class. Higher class race cars are often more forgiving in terms of tolerance and performance, so the driver can concentrate more on the race. However, mass-produced models require a lot of attention just going over the bumpy road conditions of the Nürburgring. The aerodynamic performance is not improved, and the constant clutching and shifting means that the driver is constantly engaged with movement. That is the greatest difference between last year’s i30 N TCR and this year’s i30 Fastback N.
It is actually fortunate if you run into unexpected before the final race. A 24-hour endurance race requires extensive planning and preparation
The 6-hour qualification finals was driven in order of Luca-Guido-Franz-me-Guido-me. The purpose of the Quali-Race is to identify the race car’s performance capabilities as well as any issues during the race. The race started off smoothly, but when Guido got behind the wheel as the second driver, the car came to a stop about 1km out from the pit entrance. We towed it in and checked, finding the fuel tank empty. The fuel tank valve was defective, and the tank had not been properly filled. It was a standard component provided by the competition organizer, but I think we were just unlucky. We could not replace the defective valve mid-race, so we changed the pit-in strategy to complete the race.
The silver lining was that the problem was brought to light before the 24-hour endurance race, so we could seek a solution. I drove 2 hours and 30 minutes of the total 6-hour endurance race and crossed the finish line. We were impressed that the factory-standard powertrain completed the endurance race without any issues.
Green Hell, where human courage and mechanical limits are put to the test
The Nürburgring 24-hour endurance race attracts massive crowds of fans to the stadium complex
The 24-hour endurance race is about to begin. I came to Germany 5 days early to adjust to the time zone and set myself up for optimal conditions. It is Tuesday and the stadium is already crowded. The local population is less than 200, but the event attracts more than 200,000, an impressive sight in itself. I take a close look at the i30 Fastback N and find a new N button on the steering wheel. It wasn’t there at the Quali-Race. A driver-hydration device was also added to prevent driver dehydration and discomfort in the heat of the driver’s seat.
On Wednesday, June 19, we completed driver equipment inspection and driver registration. More than 500 drivers from around the world came to the 2019 24 Hour Nürburgring endurance race. The next morning, official practice laps allowed our team a final chance to check for issues, but I did not get to take the car for a lap. I was designated as the fourth driver, but one of the race cars had an accident and all test lap sessions were canceled with a red flag. This meant that I would not get a test lap and would be sitting behind the wheel for the first time in a month.
The Nürburgring’s unpredictable weather causes issues big and small. The i30 Fastback N suffered a major accident in the first qualifying round but repaired it overnight to finish first in the second qualifying round.
The road conditions were dry and wet as if it had rained overnight, while the air was colder than expected, causing a delayed tire warmup. Just over the Schwedenkreuz corner, the fastest on the North Loop (Nordschleife), I saw that the road was wet. The car spun counterclockwise, hydroplaning and sliding. The back of the car slammed the right-side fence, then the other side, before sliding over 200m before coming to a stop. There was a sense of despair. I viscerally understood why the circuit was labeled ‘The Green Hell’.
I had spun out of control while driving nearly at 200kph and was unsure if we could return to qualify. I radioed the team about the crash, then got on an ambulance that had come. I was fortunate to be without a major injury, but the team mechanics were on double-time. Many of my teammates come from different countries, but they all pulled together to find solutions and repaired the vehicle straight through the night into the next day. I felt in great debt of them and was also extremely grateful.
Hyundai Team manager Andreas Klinge explained that they “received a lot of help from the Hyundai Motor Test Center at Nürburgring as well as the Hyundai Motor Europe Technical Center in Russelsheim”. The repairs were completed two hours before the second qualifying round on Friday 2pm. Our team picked up a good pace and finished at the top of the class. It was truly a miraculous day. It was a day of emotional roller coaster rides.
The i30 Fastback N took the lead for the first five hours to a smooth start to the finals.
The endurance race begins 3:30pm on Saturday and continues for 24 hours until 3:30pm on Sunday, when the car crosses the finish line. For the first 2 hours, the i30 Fastback N went back and forth between first and second position. It even passed two-dozen cars in a higher class, keeping up an impressive position. Luca started us off, then handed off the wheel to Guido, then later I took the wheel for night driving. Franz took the wheel after me, as the fourth driver.
About 7 hours into the final race, Franz made an urgent pit stop. The car’s Controller Area Network(CAN) failed and the new race display was unresponsive. The braking force distributed over the four wheels also changed, and Franz found cornering difficult due to the balance being off. Continuing the race without fixing it remained an option, but with gauges no longer providing important status information, repair was highly desired.
The cause of malfunctions in electrical component are often difficult to identify. Team engineers focused on solutions
The race engineer brought scanners and inspection devices to check car status and began checking all the electrical wiring inside the car. As the sun set, other teams could also be seen scrambling in their pits to address and correct their own issues. 24-hour endurance races are rarely without some sort of issue. to be fair, the competition includes effectively finding and correcting issues on the go while going the distance.
It felt like we were one again back in Green Hell. If the issue had been a purely mechanical problem, then the diagnosis and remedy would have been straight forward, but being an electrical component malfunction, the repair took longer than optimal. There were countless N-fans out on the bleachers, and I became anxious thinking about the possibility of letting them down.
The i30 Fastback N back on the tarmac. We threw in everything we had, to make up for lost time.
Before the night was over, the i30 Fastback N’s signature engine roar and pop came to life, 4 hours and 30 minutes after an electrical component had brought it to the pit. I shook hands firmly with my teammates who had burned the midnight candle the fix the issue, got back in the car with newfound determination and courage. With the sun coming up over the horizon, each of our drivers took the pace up a notch, improving their best lap times over and over. I would shave a couple seconds from Franz, then Luca would shave some off of my best lap. In the last 8 hours of the race, we overtook many of the other teams. However, we had lost a lot of time that we could not recover.
As we crossed the finish line and closed the 24-hour endurance race, the N-fans cheered for us, and it brought flashbacks of the past several hours and days.
Sunday 3:00pm, my fourth turn behind the wheel was done, and Franz took over for the last 30 minutes. Thirty minutes later, our i30 Fastback N crossed the finish line 3rd place in the V2T mass-production class and 97th overall. We were met with a thunderous eruption of applause and cheers from the stands. Hundreds of people waved flags with the N-logo clearly visible, cheering us on. I looked at the i30 Fastback N which had endured the 24 hours, and then to the ecstatic teammates who had barely slept in the past three days.
In the past four years of 24 Hour Nürburgring in Germany, the N’s status has improved immeasurably. The driver’s position at the Hyundai Motor Team is coveted by countless professional drivers around Europe. Visitors and fans wear the N jacket and hats with great pride, and it is common to see N owners acknowledging each other on open streets. N is gradually maturing as a brand that does not fear failure, a brand that is willing to challenge new horizons, and there is a sense of purity to that.
Written by Kang Byung-hui
Kang is a former Porsche instructor, PR manager, and FCA product planning and training manager. He is currently an active freelance auto columnist. He is widely experienced in motor sports. He was the champion of the Korean season champion for 2013 KSF Genesis Coupe, champion of 2018 TCR Korea, and runner up at the 2019 TCR Malaysia. He has completed 24 Hour Nürburgring every year since 2016, with 2019 being his 4th.
◆ The opinions in this column are the author’s subjective opinions, and may not represent the editorial direction of HMG Journal.