Dan Harper: Teenage racer returns to tackle the 170-turn 'Green Hell'

By Andy GrayBBC Sport NI
Junior BMW driver Dan Harper
Harper will race a BMW M240i until he gains his A permit

After months of silence, engines have begun to roar once again around the Eifel forests.

With its unique aura, the Nürburgring is a special place and for 19-year-old Dan Harper, it was definitely worth the wait.

After dominating the Porsche Carrera Cup GB in 2019, the Northern Irishman was snapped up by BMW for the revival of its famed Junior Team at the turn of the year.

The Covid-19 pandemic put his adventure with the German manufacturer on hold, but with restrictions starting to lift, life is now full-throttle for Harper.

Along with fellow Juniors Max Hesse and Neil Verhagen, he will learn his trade at the Nürburgring, working their way from a BMW M240i to more powerful GT4 and GT3 machines, with the ultimate goal of earning a full-factory contract.

Anywhere in motorsport, drivers need a racing licence to compete. However, no ordinary racing license will suffice at the Nürburgring, but then again, the Nordschleife is no ordinary track.

Spanning almost 16 miles with some 170 turns, it earns its reputation as the 'Green Hell' and you need a special permit to race.

"It's like doing your driving test again," said Harper.

"To get your 'B' permit, you have to complete four laps behind the safety car and then eight laps without it, not making any mistakes and dealing with traffic.

"To get the 'A' permit and race in GT4 and GT3, you have to complete 18 race laps in NLS, which is our next challenge."

While the 'B' permit was passed with flying colours, getting than 'A' permit is easier said than done.

Dan Harper
Germany's Max Hesse, Harper and Dutch driver Neil Verhagen make up the BMW Junior team

While the Nordschleife is a safer environment than it its infamous heyday - think Niki Lauda's near-fatal accident in 1976 - it is still a circuit which bites and punishes both driver and machine.

In the trio's first race as a team, the Nürburgring Endurance Series (NLS) opener at the end of June, their BMW M240i developed a technical fault early in the race with sent the car into the barriers. There were no second chances and with that, their day was over.

That's an issue which you may get away with at another track, but with the Armco barriers inches away, it is a reminder of how unforgiving the Nordschleife is.

Despite the disappointment, Harper, who was one of the first racers back in competitive action, says his maiden outing as a BMW Junior was still an invaluable experience.

"It's an unreal place and every lap you do is different," he said.

"Whether you're getting overtaken by a different car in every corner or you are overtaking someone else - you learn so much every single lap.

"You never know what is coming next, so you have to be so much more aware than you would be at Brands Hatch, or a smaller circuit like that. In the NLS, you range from a high-spec GT3 car to a road-going Renault Clio, so it's a completely new challenge.

"The surface changes 12 times during the lap and there are times when the track is half wet and half dry, so you have to expect the unexpected here."

'They live motorsport'

Away from the track, Harper, Hesse and Verhagen live in a house together at the side of the circuit. Training and learning together, it is like the ultimate, adrenaline-fuelled learning experience.

"Every day you wake up and you hear race cars from the house. They just live motorsport here," added Harper.

"If you're ever stuck for something to do you can just go to a different part of the track to watch what is going on.

"We've got our training, simulator work and there's a test centre, and the amount of laps we had to do until we knew what corner was next, and then learn the names of the corners, was pretty intense."

Initially moving to Germany in March, the coronavirus pandemic meant that Harper was able to spend some "valuable time" in his native County Down.

Back at the Nürburgring since the beginning of June, he is able to visit home if there is a gap between races and his girlfriend Georgia has been able to travel to Germany.

"BMW have been very good and let us be flexible, which has really helped the settling-in period," added Harper.

The mid-term goal for Harper is to gain his 'A' permit and compete in the rescheduled Nurburgring 24-hour race in September, and until then he will be racing in the NLS, formerly the VLN.

"Thankfully we haven't lost any races, everything is just condensed into a shorter period of time," he said.

"It's not been a bad thing having more time to prepare, but nothing beats being back out at the track again."

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