Darren Turner has experienced a lot of firsts in his stellar career, but when he begins his 11th ADAC Total 24 Hours of the Nürburgring on 5-6 June, it will be in perhaps the most unique car he has ever raced – a Mercedes AMG GT3 fitted with revolutionary steer-by-wire technology.
Driving the W&S Motorsport-run machine – the first GT3 car to be fitted with the unique Schaeffler Paravan Space Drive system – Turner and his team-mates Phillip Ellis, Tim Scheerbarth and Dominik Farnbacher won the SP-X class in the six-hour Qualification Race on Sunday.
“The goal was to make sure we finished without problems,” said Turner, following the race on the daunting 13-mile Nordschleife circuit. “But we were very pleased with the pace we had [the car finished on the lead lap], and the amount of data we accumulated ahead of the 24 Hours.”
The car itself does not feature a steering column, instead it has an actuator motor fitted to the steering rack and a force feedback system to provide the driver with steering feel.
The technology, while pioneering and innovative, is at an advanced state and is used in various applications related to disability mobility and automated driving. It is estimated that vehicles using Space Drive have covered nearly a billion kilometres so far.
And while it has been raced in the N24 previously, it never been used at such a high level of performance as GT3 international endurance competition.
“This is another way of proving how advanced the system is,” explained Turner, who was invited to be part of the project by one of the team’s managers, Klaus Graf. “There are so many applications for this technology and as we move toward autonomous vehicles this is the kind of system that will be used if you choose to allow the car to drive itself.
“For manufacturers there are lots of packaging and weight-saving benefits. Taking the steering column out of the equation removes the technical headaches and makes things like right-hand and left-hand drive less of a design challenge.”
Turner admitted that the car felt different to drive than one with a mechanical steering system, but that it was also familiar to him given his experience in his simulator build and set-up work over the past 20 years.
“When you’ve been driving racing cars as long as I have,” said Turner, ‘it’s bound to feel different. And I must admit I was a bit apprehensive before I drove it; ‘Would I be able to trust it? Would I be able to feel the car?’, those kinds of feelings. But to be honest, after one lap of practice on the grand prix circuit that all just went away.
“It does feel a little like driving a simulator. Places like the Karussell are normally quite violent on the steering wheel, with lots of oscillation, and you don’t get that with the Space Drive. You don’t get the same impact with kerb-strikes either, which is nice.
“The areas for development are centred on feeling peak tyre performance and finding the absolute limit. Car balance, oversteer and understeer, are all just missing that last bit of fidelity, but these are the things we are here to develop. It’s about 98% of where it needs to be, and the last two percent is very challenging for the technical team. Once they have achieved that, then they have got an incredible piece of technology which has virtually endless applications in the world of automotive mobility.”
Turner settled into the team quickly and, as always attracted to a technical challenge. He was thoroughly absorbed throughout the Qualification Race weekend.
“I was flattered to be asked to join the project,’ said Turner. “They were looking for someone who could do the job but see the big picture and come at it with a fresh, uninfluenced perspective so they could see how quickly a driver can adapt to the system.
“It’s a unique challenge and something exciting and different. It’s also a super-interesting project and of course a chance for me to race in the N24, which has always been a favourite and one I didn’t expect to be doing this year!”
The class victory was Turner’s second of the 2021 season, and as a two-time class winner in the ADAC Total 24 Hours of the Nürburgring, the performance raises the prospect of another strong run in this year’s event.
“To be honest with you, I’m not thinking about that yet, today was all about testing, gathering information and making sure we eliminated any issues,” said the works Aston Martin Racing driver. “It feels good to be racing a GT3 at the Nürburgring again though, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend.
“And one of the nicest things about the event was seeing my AMR team-mates Nicki Thiim take pole position and Maxime Martin win the race. In terms of AMR drivers, we had a really successful weekend!”
Turner is next in action in the British GT Championship at Brands Hatch on the 22-23 May, when he makes his Aston Martin Vantage GT4 series debut alongside Matt Topham with Newbridge Motorsport.