Now a multi-time class winner in both the 24H SERIES and the VLN, Nico Verdonck’s ascension to motorsport was a steep one. A dedicated go-karter from 1998 to 2002 (a tenure which included Cadet, Junior and Formula A titles in Belgium), the PROsport Racing team leader made his car racing debut in 2003. Incredibly, just one year later, Nico was plucked from Formula Renault 1.6 to compete in International Formula 3000, Formula 1’s-then premiere feeder series. That’s one hell of a learning curve!
Following Formula 3 spells in Germany, Italy and Spain though, Nico swapped single seaters for Prototype and GT racing in 2009 in commanding fashion by winning that year’s Formula Le Mans. He’s since added two class wins at the daunting Nürburgring 24 Hours among other GT4 credentials to his resume.
He’s also, fun fact, kept the largely the same helmet design since 1998!
“I’m Nico Verdonck.”
“34 years old.”
“It was in 2003, I must have been 16, and I drove in a Formula Renault 1600 [Belgium] race at Zolder for Team Astromega. It was new, big, challenging and a real eye-opener, but very nice because I was there with a good team and we were well-prepared, so this allowed us to lead and fight for the championship to the end of the year.
“Actually I won several races and we were leading going into the last race, but we had some issues and I became vice-champion that year.”*
*Interestingly, Nico was pipped to the crown by compatriot Jérôme d'Ambrosio, who would go on to become a GP2 and Formula E race winner, and start 20 Formula Grand Prix with Marussia and the Lotus F1 Team.
“Quite a few, fortunately! One of the nicest things was to set the [VLN] lap record on the Nordschleife in 2016 in a Ford GT [with Alzen Motorsport]. That lasted for two years but records are there to be broken.*
“Also, winning the Formula Le Mans championship in 2009 with DAMS. There are several others but I’ll try to keep this short!”
*Verdonck’s 7m 58.558s was eventually usurped by the 7m 56.259s posted by Klaus Bachler (also a 24H SERIES class winner!) aboard a Falken Motorsport Porsche 911 GT3 R in September 2018.
“Besides the world famous Nordschleife, for me the second best track is Bathurst. Firstly, it’s a really long trip but it’s a trip that’s really worth it! And second, the track itself is really demanding.
“It’s kind of like a small Nürburgring, especially when you go up Mount Panorama. The walls are very close to you and that gives you such a thrill to find the limit of the car and the track. You have little to no room for error because there are still gravel traps on the mountain. Then when you go down the hill, you are still in-between concrete walls. It gives you such a special feeling because you have to be on the limit everywhere to be quick.
“Once you’ve managed to survive that, you head down the hill on the Conrod Straight – so far I’ve only driven GT4 cars there, in 2016 and 2017 with PROsport [Performance]* – and you can reach speeds of 270kph. So yeah, for me Bathurst is really the most challenging circuit next to the Nordschleife. I hope to go back there soon.”
* On both occasions, Nico drove PROsport’s Porsche Cayman Pro 4 at the Bathurst 12 Hours, together with Fabian Hamprecht, Jörg Viebahn and Adam Christodoulou in 2016, and Viebahn (again), Max Braams and Marco Schelp in 2018. Unfortunately, the car retired from both races.
“Actually that happened last year [at the Nürburgring 24 Hours]. I was driving for Hyundai Motorsport in the TCR class [alongside Marc Basseng, Manuel Lauck and Moritz Oestreich]. I was coming out of the Karussell on the Nordschleife and the right front wheel ‘went away’, and I had to climb back up the hill with only three wheels. I managed to get as far as the Bilstein Bridge, and then the car stopped because there was no more drive. We lost a lot of time and it’s not the nicest feeling losing a wheel through the karousel, driving at 40kph with other cars passing you at 250kph!”
“The design came from one of my former team bosses, who I drove with in go-karts. His name is Guy De Nies, from the DNR Racing Team, and I was lucky enough to win the Belgian [Cadet] championship with him in 1998 & 1999. I just thought it was a really cool design with a lot of character. But mine also has the ‘V’ for Verdonck and I changed the colours. Since then I’ve always used it.”
“I never give up!”
“Tom Cruise, because I’m a fan of Days of Thunder.”
“Hopefully win more races and more championships. But I’ve also set up a coaching company called NV Academy, and that’s still growing. I’ve been involved in coaching for 15 / 20 years, starting with go-karts, and it’s something I love to do: sharing my knowledge and experience, and helping people to benefit from it. I’d love for NV Academy to continue growing, inside and outside Belgium. This takes time and I’m working on it, but it’s going the right way.
“People like Ridrigue Gillion” – another 24H SERIES fan favourite with whom Nico has competed in the PROsport Racing Aston Martin Vantage – “I’ve been working with for almost two years. He’s improving, he’s benefitting from the experience and he’s enjoying our collaboration. I see him getting more mature as a driver with every race, so that’s very satisfying.”
“In these kinds of races, you sweat a lot and you drink a lot. And I remember, after one stint at a 24H SERIES race, my mechanic said, ‘oh, your suit is really wet, you must have sweat a lot.’ Only it wasn’t sweat… [laughs].
“Hey, these things happen! You do whatever is necessary to be successful in a race!”
“It’s great that we get lots of track time, which the gentlemen drivers need. It’s a very friendly atmosphere. The people at CREVENTIC are very accessible. The tracks. The level of competition. I’m just a fan!”
Nico Verdonck was speaking with Quinten Kentie and James Gent at the 2020 Hankook 16H HOCKENHEIMRING. Images courtesy of Petr Frýba.