Project24 – The little Swift that could

A while back I showed you a little car build by a team with ambitious plans. And by ambitious I mean very very ambitious. And finally, after all those months after hard work, it was the moment of truth. It was time to make those plans a reality.

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Transforming a car from a Ring tool to an endurance racer is one thing, but actually competing in a race is something different. And of course it’s not just a regular run-of-the-mill endurance race, the guys picked a 24H race for their baptism of fire. And to top it of it was on a track not one of us had ever been before.

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Not that anyone was even slightly worried. The car performed without a hitch the last five years and all the flaws were ironed out during the test sessions. And just to be sure, the mechanics brought all the tools they had at their disposal and crates full of spare parts filled all the available space in the cars and vans during the long drive to Motopark Arena Oschersleben in Germany.

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On Friday, just before the short free practice session, I just sensed the normal tension and excitement in the team I felt so many times before. Everybody was looking forward to the first laps on this track and just before they took off I hurried to a photo spot to shoot my first pictures.

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And then I waited and waited and waited. Many cars raced past, but not the Swift. Suddenly my phone buzzed with a disturbing message. The car never left the pits because while warming up a huge oil leak had developed. Immediately the mechanics went into action and started finding the source of the problem while I hurried back to the pit box.

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Apparently the crank seal at the distribution side of the engine decided it had enough. And remember those boxes and cases with spare parts? They contained almost anything, except a crank seal they needed. Oops… The team went into DEFCON1, full on red alert mode with all the bells and whistles. With a car parts store nearby two of the guys jumped in a car and hurried to it. Another one, who would arrive later and just left The Netherlands, turned around and drove to a store too.

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Fortunately the store in Germany had the spares and a sigh of relief sounded through the pit box. Quickly the car was bolted back together just in time for the qualification to be run in the dark. After warming up the car the first driver, Lars, strapped himself in and finally went out on the track. I was standing track side when the car roared past for the very first time, but my smile quickly faded when I saw it approaching again. The lights dimmed before my eyes and suddenly the car came to a halt. Crap!

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After the car was delivered to the pit box the guys quickly discovered the source of the problem. The main from the alternator broke loose and that made the car run out of juice. Of course it was just a quick fix, but by now the mood changed ever so slightly. I could tell the trust in the car was a bit shaken up. The reliable Swift that breaks down two times in a few hours, even before the race? That shouldn’t happen. And it wasn’t just this little problem, over the course of the two hour qualification session the car had to enter the pit a few more times.

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As soon as the qualification was over the mechanics quickly decided to perform some much needed surgery on the car. The fuel filler neck sprung a leak and Adri whipped out his welding machine to fix that. The other guys modified the ventilation for the driver and a few other bits and pieces were fixed or adapted.

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Meanwhile the drivers were analysing the onboard videos. The guys come from wildly varying backgrounds, racing wise, and with so little track time due to the problems talking about lines and braking points was very important. And they stayed out of the way of the mechanics of course, which made them very happy.

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The next day, Saturday, was D-Day. Normally I’m the only one who wakes up early since I’m just biologically incapable of sleeping in, but that day everybody arrived for breakfast just in time. Maybe the smell of fresh pancakes helped a bit? And of course our resident caffeine addict, William, brought coffee and that was in great demand too.

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The mood was remarkably relaxed after the botched qualification the night before. I guess by know everybody either knew all the final kinks were finally ironed out or they had faith in their ability to do quick repairs. And well, getting the angle grinders and welding torches out is always fun, right?

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Back at the Oschersleben race track the car was given a final check over and just before the start Lars got behind the wheel. By now the whole paddock and pits were buzzing with excitement. Even though almost everybody from the other teams had previous experience with endurance races you could see that everybody was just a tiny bit nervous. I have experienced so many race starts and I still get gripped by the moment.

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Not that I had any time to enjoy that feeling. Oschersleben is track were you walk about a billion miles as a photographer and I had to run the long trek to the tower at the end of the straight. I wanted to shoot the whole field when they were thundering towards me and that was the perfect spot for that. However, when I got there I discovered I wasn’t the only one with such a good idea and the very unstable tower was quickly overloaded with photographers. I don’t like heights, let’s just say it scared the hell out of me.

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Despite my slightly uneasy feeling on top of that tower I decided to stick around to see how the Swift performed. From there I could see about half the track so if anything should happen I could most likely see it. But nothing out of the ordinary happened, so I could just enjoy the sight of the Swift battling it out with its more powerful rivals.

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Did I say, nothing out of the ordinary? I lied. Although it wasn’t the Swift this time. At only the second lap a BMW blew up in spectacular fashion. A huge cloud of white and black smoke hundreds of metres long covered the track with cars scrambling left and right to avoid the suddenly slowing vehicle.

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The Swift however, drove perfectly in the rapidly fading light. It took me only a couple of laps to make out its weak and strong points. What it lacked in straight line speed was made up in the corners. And the upgraded brakes and light weight helped with braking. Sometimes the brake lights came on a full fifteen metres later than the faster but heavier car in front of it. This could be interesting. I thought.

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William and Stefan, the two team captains, had devised a scheme that offered each driver a daylight stint. With all the problems during practice and qualifications the drivers only had a few laps of track time each in the dark. A first stint in daylight offered them another opportunity to get acquainted with the track. Not that it was really necessary. Wiel quickly clocked a 1:58 and William had to get on the radio to tell him to slow down. After all keeping the car in one piece was far more important than blazing fast laps.

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Of course having a few driver changes with fueling up while it was still day helped the rest of the team too. We spent a whole evening practicing driver changes, but doing it in a busy pit lane during a race is a whole other thing. It offered a nice opportunity for the pit crews too, getting in the flow of dangerous tasks like fueling before everybody grew tired.

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Most events are over before sunset and while I have covered evening races in the past they were in the summer. But now I had the chance to actually shoot racing at sunset, and a beautiful sunset that is! I picked a spot were I could shoot multiple corners so I didn’t have to move around a lot. Walking would just waste valuable time, time I didn’t have with the sun quickly sinking beneath the horizon.

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All photographers are familiar with something called the Golden Hour. It’s that time during sunrise or sunset the whole sky turns yellow or orange. The beautiful, soft light creates amazing shadows and everything just soaks in the first or last light of the day.

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However, at this time of year the golden hour is never an hour, its only a few minutes. But I wasn’t disappointed. I knew that during the night I could take completely different pictures and it being a 24H race I could shoot at both sunset and sunrise.

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Unfortunately my good mood was thoroughly ruined when word reached me that the car had broken down again after only three hours. Jan had mentioned a weird feeling in the clutch and gearbox just two corners before entering the pits. As soon as he stopped in front or our pit box a sizable oil leak develop and the car was quickly pushed inside. The gearbox was removed and it was obvious were the oil came from. A cracked gearbox housing wasn’t something they could fix, so the spare one was fitted instead.

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As soon as the car rolled out of the pits again the two teams of mechanics swapped places. Stefan took over as team captain from William and the first team got a few hours of well deserved rest. With a whole night ahead of us a few of them decided to take a nap. Although it was very cold outside it didn’t take long before I heard the first snores.

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With Oschersleben being dark except for the small straight alongside the pit lane I ventured out again to some overviews of the track. With the long trails of the head- and tail lights illuminating the track and its surroundings it quickly becomes apparent how the track flows and which lines the cars are taking.

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On most of the cars recognition lights were fitted so the pit crews could make out their own cars on the track. Our Swift had a strip of green lights along the roof line, other cars had something like blue leds on the side of the front window. I was a bit sceptical at first, but even whole looking straight into the high beams of most cars I could recognise them.

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Shooting at night on a dark track is an exercise in patience too. Waiting and waiting until a chasing car lights up his opponent in just the right way. It was so cold I could hardly keep standing still, but I had to wait for over an hour to take a picture before the light was just how I wanted it.

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By now the Swift was racing for hours and hours without a hitch and the guys in the pit box cheered when the first twelve hours of the race were over. The drivers ran consistent lap times and although the replacement gearbox had an open diff the times weren’t very much off from the ones driven with the LSD. I guess the drivers were now fully adjusted to the track and the car and it just became routine to steer the car from corner to corner.

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At three in the morning even the pit stops, still serious business, now became the place for jokes and smiles. I guess everyone needed them to stay awake. Luckily Lars’ girlfriend, Lisette, took it upon herself to keep everyone fed. She made sure there was a constant supply of food and drinks for everybody and that did wonders keeping everyone awake and alert.

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However, faith just decided to ruin the night. Suddenly, when Adri just looked outside Wiel pulled in unexpectedly. With broken comms he couldn’t warn the team captain and pit crew and it appeared he had major issues. Adri shouted a warning, everybody looked up and I ducked for cover when seats were thrown through the pit box to make room for the Swift. Wiel informed us he had a complete loss of feeling in the throttle, and the cause was immediately clear. A broken throttle cable.

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With tension rising it was clear I would just walk in the way. I decided to pay a visit to the other pit boxes to see how the other teams were faring. And truth to be told, even more cars had to throw in the towel than I expected. Many cars were already loaded onto trailers and other teams were working frantically on theirs. And at the teams that had still running cars, everybody looked dead tired.

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After a quick nap I walked back to the track just before sunrise. It was cold, wet and I was incredibly tired. Everybody only sees the drivers and think how hard it must be for them, but I think it’s way more difficult for all the other people of a team. As a driver you’re actually doing something, but a mechanic for example just waits until there’s an emergency. He can’t go to sleep and he can’t go for a walk, he just has to wait.

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Just before the sun started peaking over the horizon I looked at all the cars to see how they fared through the night. After all, racing at night is something completely different. Having the dark track in front of you and the bright light of high beams behind you can seriously mess up the way you see things. Luckily, many of them just looked like the day before, albeit a bit dirtier.

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Others, not so much. Quite a few cars wore evidence of running into each other. Luckily most of those cars were running just fine, although they scraped some dangling bodywork over the curbs or air whistled through gaps in body panels that shouldn’t be there.

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More importantly though, the Swift was back out there, sounding and looking as good as ever. With only 8 hours to go the car already survived two-thirds of the race. That was something many other competitors never expected and I felt a spark of excitement. Could it really be that my friends would do what so many people thought was impossible?

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Sixteen hours of bumping over curbs, braking hard and accelerating corner after corner. Pushing the engine all the way to the red line, again and again. It had some battle damage, but that was mainly cosmetic. A few scratches were it brushed another car. A burn on the rear bumper were it hit the exhaust. One of the side skirts needed a lot of tape to stay attached to the car. But mechanically, it ran beautifully.

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Everybody was dead tired now. Breakfast and a large cup of coffee gave everyone a much needed energy boost. But even more so, the clock that was steadily counting down. Every minute it came closer to zero I felt the tension rise again.

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We celebrated our 500th lap with a loud cheer. Hugely inappropriate of course, since the team we shared our pit box with were just working frantically on their car which had come in with a blown head gasket. We didn’t mind, it was another milestone.

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Before we knew it we had only a bit over two hours to go. Both team captains went to work to determine the final driver change schedule. The race regulations stipulated that a team should make at least 23 driver changes and the captains didn’t want to do anymore than that. But they had to work in the fuel consumption and tyres too, so it’s a lot harder than it looks.

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At the other teams it was clear that they started to feel the pressure too. Everyone had their minds set on finishing before the race started, but now even more so. Drivers were anxiously waiting to get in the cars, mechanics checked their gear just a bit more closely and family and friends started arriving at the various pit boxes.

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With less than an hour to go we started cheering at the little Swift every time it crossed the finish line. As soon as it disappeared around the corner we waited anxiously for it to return. And when we saw it again we cheered and screamed. Every time we just got a little bit louder.

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As it turned out the final driver, the one who would bring it over the finish, would be Jan. He bought the car five years ago and raced it ever since. Him being the one who would drive the final stint was a perfect “thank you” from the team.

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After all those years I know Jan I’ve never seen him so nervous. The Swift held up beautifully all those hours, but I think Jan was afraid it would break down with less than half an hour to go. William just told him to go out, enjoy those laps and take it easy. And please, keep it whole of course.

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With so little time to go every team came out to the pit wall and together we waved and cheered at every car. The Project24 guys were by far the loudest and most cheerful, with yelling and even a megaphone to support Jan.

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And then, almost suddenly, the clock reached zero after a very loud countdown. Just for a moment everybody stayed silent, like they couldn’t believe what happened. And then the whole pit lane erupted in thunderous roar. Everybody joined in celebrating that they, in fact, completed a 24 hour endurance race.

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The checkered flag at the finish line and the marshals waving around their coloured flags only made it more real. For the drivers it signaled that yes, they did it. Looking through my lens I saw the joy on their faces when they realized it was over.

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For the final time the Swift crossed the finish line, with a very happy Jan behind the wheel. The whole team was celebrating right now, with hugs and handshakes and kisses and lots of noise. I could almost feel the relief and joy. They succeeded were many people thought they would fail and the whole world had to hear that.

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With all the cars coming to a stop on the grid Jan stepped out and thanked his little Swift. That little old Swift that raced a 24H endurance race. That little Swift that could. It’s a sight I’ll never forget.

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Suddenly one of they guys had a champagne bottle to spray around. Who cares they didn’t win? Finishing in itself is like winning a world championship in Formula 1! Where teams with far larger budgets and well-oiled teams of mechanics dropped out of the race, these bunch of friends belonged to the select few that made it through.

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Nine months of hard work, of assembling and building a team, working countless hours on the car and spending an enormous amount of money out of their own pockets, it was rewarded with reaching their goal. There were a few downs but many many more ups along the way, but none of it matters anymore. That moment, when everybody realised they actually did it, that’s something they’ll fondly remember for the rest of their lives.

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And let’s not forget that they proved that you don’t need an enormous amount of money to go racing. You don’t have to buy a seat for an arrive-and-drive arrangement. You don’t need loads of sponsor money. All you need is a group of supporting friends, a car and the dedication and willingness to make your wish come true. And yes, it won’t be cheap nor easy. But, I think I speak for everyone involved when I say that this weekend made it all worth it.

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Since its genesis I followed this project very closely. I spent hours and hours during the weekends and evenings with the guys while they were building the car of testing it on the track. Although I was just the photographer during the race, I call a large part of the team my friends and just having the privilege of watching them live and suffer through the weekend was amazing. I salute you guys, well done.

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