Teamgeist—the German word for team spirit—has always been a significant factor in motorsports success. From the mechanics that prepare the car to the drivers who put it to use, it's the fluidity among team members in the pit and on track that's key to securing a win. Volkswagen as a whole is known for slow but fluid movement, "the people's car" being one of the best-selling brands in the world. For VW, one of the biggest names in automotive history and motorsports, adhering to the concept of Teamgeist isn't left at the track. That same idea of cooperation and knowledge transfer between street and racing operations has helped shape the company into what it is today.
In June of 1966, Volkswagen sought out talented drivers to participate in Formula-V, a fast-growing racing series that originated in the USA but quickly expanded around the world. Fostering the series was a first for the brand in many ways and would become a benchmark for future racing efforts. With the creation of what would later become Volkswagen Motorsports, the manufacturer was looking for new ways to promote its vehicles while push drivers—and the company's engineering—to the limits.
It was obvious that the Nurburgring Nordschleife, the notorious "Green Hell," had to be part of this journey. In 1969, the first Formula-V race was won by Helmut Marko behind the wheel, and Volkswagen—wanting to build onto this first success—started developing street-based as well as purpose-built race cars to participate in the annual 24-hour race. The first VW Golf participated in this race in 1997 and with its diesel engine left many competitors behind, finishing second in class. In 2007, the team achieved another milestone and crossed the finish line with the class win in the pocket. This year, Volkswagen Motorsport brought two Volkswagen Golf GTIs to use in the 24-hour race through the German Eifel region.
This was the first time the new Golf GTI TCRs were entered in the 24-hour-long test, but everyone was confident they would finish the long journey. Mathilda Racing came prepared and excited to compete in the relatively new TCR class against other manufacturers and teams, ready to prove its mettle against the world's best.
Benjamin "Benny" Leuchter, a member of the VW family since 2010 and one of its top factory drivers, believes the hidden racetrack in the mountains is both captivating and unpredictable. He adds, "The Nurburgring, the topography, and its surroundings are unique and unlike any other race rack in the world. Crazy weather changes as well as the raving atmosphere the fans create make this place a very special one."
Leuchter started his career as a BMW junior factory driver alongside Sebastian Vettel before moving to VW as a driving instructor. He has loads of experience handling these cars and drove the famous Nordschleife for the first time in 2008. After that first experience, he knew that one day he would be back. As is the case with most drivers, he was addicted after a single lap; it becomes an obsession you can't stop thinking about. For Leuchter, he wanted to return behind the wheel of a GTI.
Driver and teammate Andreas "Andy" Gulden doesn't hide his obsession with the famous racetrack. "This racetrack is basically my living room—a whole world full of exciting and emotional stories," he shares. "I'm very proud to be part of the history, part of the refinement of this long strip of asphalt."
Gulden discovered his love for cars at the age of 8, when he turned some laps in the VW bus of his former karting mechanic. This small but decisive event brought him into karting and, after winning several championships, he replaced the kart with a race car. After racing in Formula Sport, he switched to touring cars—a chance for Andy to conquer his favorite place in the world, the Nurburgring Nordschleife. He was finally able to not only drive the track but teach others how to handle the malice of the monster.
Finally, Andreas was introduced to the Mathilda Racing team. His daughter shared the same name and he saw this coincidence as a sign to open the door to a whole new chapter in his life as a driver for Mathilda.
Endurance racing is characterized by team spirit and cohesion. Every race is a joint success with each team member making his or her own contribution. Leuchter and Gulden, along with fellow drivers Dennis Wusthoff and Constantin Kletzer, came ready for the annual fight in the Nurburgring 24-hour race not only as Mathilda Racing team, but as friends.
"As a team, we always prepare intensely," Leuchter tells. "In my opinion, our team composition is decisive for the success we have. Learning things about the car is another important aspect; you want to know what the car does and how it reacts in certain situations."
The Nurburgring is unpredictable on its own, with sporadically increasing inclines and varied road surfaces among many other challenges. The sudden weather changes add a completely different level of difficulty drivers don't experience at other locations. Luckily, the Golf GTI has shown to be a near-perfect vehicle to confront the Green Hell and all its pitfalls.
For this year's race, there was no rain in the forecast, an unthinkable situation if you're familiar with the Nurburgring and the Eifel region in general. It seemed like the 45th annual Nurburgring 24-hour race could shape up to be a unique year. The 200,000 spectators camping in the woods next to the racetrack were certainly hoping for the driest version of the race ever.
On Friday, the Mathilda Racing team prepared for qualifying. They went out with the goal of achieving nothing less than pole position in the TCR class. When their black and gold Golf GTI turned an early lap of 09:07:309 minutes, a full 10 seconds faster than the second in its class, they let everyone know just how serious they were. With the pole position in their pockets, the team was happy to wait for the start of the race the next afternoon.
Starting in 59th overall, Gulden took the first stint in the long and exhausting race. His adept driving skills quickly moved Mathilda Racing closer to the front, an amazing achievement and a good motivator for the rest of the crew. Leuchter recalled, " Gulden did a fantastic job testing the car on track so that the setup was perfect for the race. We could already see it after the first stint."
Throughout the race, the four drivers switched seats according to plan and it seemed as though nothing could stop them from racing across the finish line in the lead. Unfortunately, their sister vehicle fought with several issues during the first hours. Small malfunctions caused several short pit stops, dropping it down important positions. Nevertheless, the Mathilda Racing team did everything to get the vehicle back on track, a true result of team spirit and the determination to finish the race.
"Benny and I share the same way of thinking; we have the same driving style and like the same vehicle setup. We both share a love for this place and push ourselves to the limits, but most importantly, we never lose sight of the fun we have racing here as a team and I think this is a key factor to our success. We are all part of a big family and this makes it special. You can compare it to a puzzle that perfectly fits together," Gulden explained.
After hours of flawless driving, the 175 Golf was still in the game. The sun started to sign off for the day and night fell across the racetrack. For the drivers, mechanics, and other team members, this wasn't an excuse to rest. On the contrary, the night stints, though exhausting, seem to be the most exciting throughout the whole race. Surrounded by cheering campers, fireworks, and blinding headlights in the dark, the drivers have to be even more aware of their surroundings. The pilots managed to race through the night and were rewarded by a beautiful sunrise. During a 24-hour race, the drivers barely have any chance to sleep, mostly due to the buzzing excitement and energy coursing through the whole location.
"I tried to be focused the whole time, so obviously I didn't think about sleeping at all. To me, it was important to follow the car, I wanted to be aware of any issues. The adrenaline just kicks in the moment the race starts and it is very hard to turn it off in order to rest," Leuchter explains. "On Sunday morning, I had to force myself to sleep for about two hours. I was supposed to drive the last two stints, and that's a lot of pressure. I wanted to be extra focused, and the nap showed its effects."
The sun rose welcoming the new day and final hours of the race, and after fighting their way toward the front through the night, everyone was tired. The dirt collected over the night started showing as the gleaming sunlight reflected on the paint. There were still many hours left to fight, but the car as well as drivers weren't thinking about giving up.
Leuchter was ready to take the wheel for the two final stints. Everyone who has experienced a Nurburgring 24-hour race knows that the track always holds something unknown in the cards. In this case, it was a sudden rain shower surprising drivers and teams that forced the pilots to find their way back to the pit boxes—20 minutes before the finish of the race. The team is forced to make an important decision, after reflecting on the events that happened last year, where a sudden hailstorm caused many cars to fly off the track.
The decision to switch to rain tires turned out to be the right move. Benny managed to pass a Porsche during the last lap and after 24 long hours, the Golf crossed the finish line. The team finished in an amazing 29th overall and P1 in class. Everyone agreed that this achievement wasn't just luck, that each team member involved contributed greatly and their Teamgeist was instrumental to their success. Along with the perfectly set up VW Golf GTI and the flawless driving of the pilots, Mathilda Racing once more conquered the Green Hell and brought home the victory. The success in the German Eifel region made the team stronger and they are now planning new challenges: Racing the two Golfs in Dubai and at COTA.
Volkswagen Motorsport proved once more that the brand is able to build extraordinary vehicles suitable to be driven on the street or compete in a 24-hour-long endurance race. Team Chief Michael Paatz as well as Mathilda Racing are sure two Golfs will return to the Nurburgring 24-Hours—racing around the famous Nordschleife ready to create another milestone for the German manufacturer.