Nick Catsburg, Nick Yelloly and Alexander Sims scored victory in their #99 ROWE Racing-run M6 GT3 in a heart-stopping finale in an event that was repeatedly turned on its head by unpredictable weather.
The 48th edition of the race, which was four months late due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was interrupted by a red flag for nine-and-a-half hours during the night because the drains could no longer carry off the rainwater. Only at 8 o'clock on Sunday morning was the race restarted, and the victory was also decided by the conditions.
After the restart the BMW was always in the leading group. It had been several minutes behind due to the heavy rain, but this was cancelled out by the interruption. The M6 GT3 did not work well in heavy rain, but in mixed conditions it was another story.
ROWE Racing also changed its driver lineup during the 9.5-hour break at night. Lucas Auer, who only had raced once at the Nordschleife in a BMW M6 GT3 for preparation, was removed from the #98 car. Philipp Eng, having been on double-duty at both ROWE-entered BMWs beforehand, completely focused on the #98.
A mistake-free race brought ROWE Racing the first victory in team’s history. "None of us made any mistakes, neither the drivers nor the team," said Catsburg. "That's how you win this race."
ROWE Racing quickly moved into second position behind the #3 Car Collection Motorsport Audi R8 LMS, putting heavy pressure on the leading car as the track dried. But the #3 car of Mirko Bortolotti, Christopher Haase and Markus Winkelhock made one strategic mistake that decided their fate.
Three Audi R8 LMS cars led the race at the restart – but the #1 Phoenix car of Nico Muller, Dries Vanthoor, Frederic Vervisch and Frank Stippler and the #29 Land entry (Mattia Drudi, Christopher Mies, Rene Rast and Kelvin van der Linde) lost ground under drying conditions and being further penalised for a pit stop infringement and non-respect of flag signals.
The favourite for the victory was therefore the #3 Car Collection Audi, which led the race until 90 minutes before the end, just ahead of the #99 ROWE BMW. But the team made a crucial mistake which cost the victory.
A few hours after the restart it seemed the race would end in dry conditions, but it suddenly started raining again shortly before 2pm. The heavy shower came out of nowhere and was also not shown on the official weather radar of the German Weather Service.
The track was completely flooded once again. ROWE and Phoenix reacted immediately and came to the pits to get rain tyres; the Car Collection Audi stayed out for another lap on slicks – this cost them 50 seconds.
But the team did not give up, and Haase made up about 10 seconds per lap on the BMW when it was completely wet. But the rain subsided and the track became drier again, causing the pendulum to swing back and forth.
Car Collection still had an ace up its sleeve: The last stop was to be 23 seconds shorter because it came in one lap later. But the team was unable to complete tyre changes and refuelling within the minimum standing time, so the BMW regained track position and the race was decided.
"The weather put a damper on our plans," said Haase, who drove the final stint. "In the penultimate stint it started to rain. We’d thought it was dry enough for slicks, but then the rain moved and flooded large parts of the track.”
So it was ROWE Racing left to take victory by 15.452 seconds from Car Collection. Phoenix Racing seemed to run safely in third with Dries Vanthoor pushing hard to get a shot at victory. This effort ended with Vanthoor making contact with the barrier at Klostertal with 40 minutes to go. His brush with the barrier led to tyre damage, dropping the car to fifth.
This promoted the #3 Schnitzer Motorsport BMW to third, which had all but lost its chances of victory due to a penalty for failing to comply with the minimum pitstop time before. The second ROWE entry took fourth with the unlucky Audis from Phoenix and Land in fifth and sixth respectively.
The best Porsche was only to be found in seventh position after a difficult race following the withdrawal of all their works drivers just a few days before the event. The suspected COVID-19-cases within the Manthey Racing squad, however, proved to be false alarm with all subsequent test during the weekend showing negative results, so quarantine was lifted on all its affected members.
The Frikadelli-entered #31 Porsche lost a possible podium position due to a penalty for a battle with the #98 BMW, which saw Mathieu Jaminet bumping into Philipp Eng several times.
The race proved disastrous for Mercedes with both their leading cars crashing out on Saturday evening. The best Mercedes-AMG GT3 was the #6 AutoArenA/Haupt Racing Team entry scoring 8th after losing a wheel during the second part of the race.
The all-new #704 Glickenhaus 004C lasted the distance and came home in 14th position in what is this car's only second-ever race.
The challenge of the #26 octane126-entered Ferrari for victory proved to be over almost with the race starting. Jonathan Hirschi took a brief lead into the first lap, but the Dunlop-shot Ferrari tumbled down the order almost immediately after losing the lead, finishing a distant 20th, just to be disqualified after the race.
There was no happy ending for the other Italian car as well, with the #21 Konrad Lamborghini dropping out of the race from third position already in the third hour of the race after losing fluids all over the place.