Here's How VW Built a Nürburgring-Winning GTI TCR

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Here's How VW Built a Nürburgring-Winning GTI TCR picture alliance - Getty Images

The best and most successful motorsport endeavors are not always the result of carefully planned strategies executed over the course of several years. Sometimes, they come courtesy of a scrappy crew of engineers and drivers meeting after hours to build something truly special. In the case of Max Kruse Racing and its Nürburgring 24 Hours class-winning TCR prototype GTI brought back from the dead, what thrust the team to the podium was late-night, off-the-clock grit.

VW-branded racing programs under the Volkswagen Motorsport banner were having a heyday a decade ago, dominating the World Rally Championship year after year in the Polo R and racking up great success in the brutal Dakar Rally. But all of that came to an abrupt end in 2020. Citing cost cutting and a continuing vision of an electric-car-filled future, VW disbanded its motorsport division. People got reassigned across the Volkswagen Auto Group, and some engineers' work shifted from fire-spitting WRC cars to the silent ID.2 EV hatchback. Beyond the implications for rallying, production of VW's Touring Car Racing series Mk 7 GTI and the incoming Mk 8 iteration were both canceled.

One prototype version of the Mk 8.5, however, managed to slip through the cracks.

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Gruppe C Photography

The Mk 8.5 chassis lying underneath the purple-patchwork-liveried hatchback was originally a track demonstration car living in the U.S. You may have seen it still sporting black and white camo, having never graduated to a full racing effort.


The car was shipped across the pond and built up in proper TCR-series spec in four months. Working after hours with members of Volkswagen's former 169-member motorsport team and Max Kruse Racing, the engineers focused specifically on building up the race car for reliability above all else.

Operating jointly with folks from Volkswagen's disbanded motorsport division, Max Kruse Racing has historically raced Porsches, but a Volkswagen GTI is at least in the same conglomerate family, right? And this wasn't just any GTI either, as the racing group added two touring-car-style hot hatches to its mix for 2024 and came out on top in its respective class with the Golf GTI Clubsport 24h. After setting a new TCR-series lap record around the Nordschleife during qualifying, the No. 50 Golf GTI went on to win its class with Benny Leuchter, Johan Kristoffersson, Nico Otto, and Heiko Hammel behind the wheel.

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picture alliance - Getty Images

Racing against BMW M4s, Porsche 718 Caymans, and Toyota Supras in the AT3 alternative-fuels class, the Volkswagen bested its opponents thanks to careful tire strategy, immense mechanical grip, and a team focus on simply enduring through the 24 hours of racing. Speaking from the Max Kruse Racing paddock, Otto characterized Volkswagen's joint return to motorsport as a learning experience for all.

"We're here with a one-off prototype," Otto explained in a media roundtable before the race. "So our main thing is to carry the car through the race and finish the race. The main focus is finishing, and then in the last five hours, we can turn up the screw and just go for it."

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Gruppe C Photography

"Several former Volkswagen Motorsports engineers were involved in this project. They already had some kind of further development in mind," said Martin Hube, a global spokesperson for Volkswagen, in an interview with Road & Track. He emphasized that this was an after-hours effort: "They had team meetings and development meetings and idea meetings officially at 10 p.m."

Otto's vision of the race ahead sounds a bit naive following what actually happened across the 44 laps, but it wasn't just the potential for inclement weather that had the team in a reserved state. Notably, Otto explained that he became familiar with the car in a brief shakedown just one week before the daylong endurance race.

From a technical perspective, Max Kruse Racing and Volkswagen were working within the guidelines of TCR regulations. Beyond some light ECU tuning to match the E20 fuel, the EA888 EVO4-generation 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four remained stock, putting down 343 hp and 331 lb-ft of torque. Instead of the standard dual-clutch transmission, a TCR-approved six-speed sequential box with a "very hard, very racing clutch" has been swapped in.

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Gruppe C Photography

Braking hardware is also upgraded in the front with a set of six-piston calipers, while the stock calipers and rotor size remain out back. Braking bias was set at a ratio of 60 to 40 front to rear, specifically for maximizing braking pressure at the front wheels to aid in accumulating tire temperature. Anti-lock braking technology is adjustable on the TCR model too, through a button on the quick-release, flat-bottom steering wheel. Of course, the car features the standard fare of the TCR downforce kit (comprised of a front-end splitter and rear wing plus diffuser), but the main focus of the project was to create something consistent for the four drivers.

Equipped with Falken tires, an adjustable and more centered bucket seat from Max Kruse Racing's Porsche race cars, and a bit of luck, Otto hit the track and was pleasantly surprised at how sorted the car was. Coming from racing in a BMW M235i series before his debut with Max Kruse Racing, the German racing driver was also pleasantly surprised by the GTI's front-wheel-drive powertrain.

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Gruppe C Photography

"It felt not front-wheel driven. You could really smash it around the corner," Otto said. "And you can keep so much speed, like really so much speed. The car rotates perfectly."

Getting into the specifics of why the GTI drove so wonderfully, Otto cited the high level of mechanical grip, aided by effective aerodynamic and tire setups, as a key reason, though the TCR-style suspension tuning played a similarly important role. High loads of camber, less toe, and a gentle driving style make all the difference in having reliable laps, Otto said.

While Otto and the team succeeded in finishing the race and even winning their class, the road to the podium wasn't easy. Just three weeks before the race, officials said that the roll cage in the car wasn't up to code and had to be replaced. Additionally, the sequential gearbox had very little tolerance testing before the car hit the grid, so drivers monitored its temperature closely. Only days before the race, engineers realized that the wheel barrel wasn't strong enough to support the high level of mechanical grip on the GTI, and the team had to order new rally-style wheels to account for it.

Even so, the No. 50 Golf GTI Clubsport 24h was seen as a huge success for those inside Volkswagen too. Speaking at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring, Hube expressed that starting Volkswagen's return to motorsport with a win is a big deal. With a mere 7 hours and 23 minutes of racing in total, surviving the initial hour of slick-top racing was more of an achievement in the moment than most teams could realize, and Max Kruse Racing reaped the benefits of a prudent yet assertive strategy.

"Really, cheers to the team, they did an amazing job. And we have now, I would say, the fastest museum car ever made," Hube said in an interview with Road & Track.

This sort of museum-car-to-motorsport-victor story is not entirely new. In 1981, during development of the 944, Porsche needed a motorsport win and decided to grab its podium spot by pulling a 936 race car out of the museum, dusting it off, and dropping a 2.65-liter twin-turbo powerplant from an Indy Car inside. At Le Mans, the competition didn't look too fierce, and it ultimately wasn't, with Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell winning the French endurance race with a lead of 14 laps.

"We have a huge motivation now, because we expected it to be competitive, but we hadn't expected to come to the Ring and run a record lap time in qualifying," Hube said. "That shows the capabilities of this car, and the engineers have so many ideas for further development steps."

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