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How coronavirus halted Daniel Harper's long-awaited Nurburgring debut

 

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Better times: Daniel Harper (left) with team-mates Max Hesse and Neil Verhagen before being sent home

Better times: Daniel Harper (left) with team-mates Max Hesse and Neil Verhagen before being sent home

Better times: Daniel Harper (left) with team-mates Max Hesse and Neil Verhagen before being sent home

Daniel Harper was just 24 hours away from making his debut at the famed Nurburgring circuit in Germany, a debut he had been dreaming about for the past two months.

But then came a knock on the door of the apartment he was sharing with his BMW Junior Team members, American Neil Verhagen and German Max Hesse. They wouldn't be racing the next day. They were going home.

"It was one of our BMW mentors and he told us they were calling a halt in the face of the increasing Covid-19 threat. Our flights had been booked and we were going home immediately," explains 19-year-old Harper, winner of the Belfast Telegraph Young Sports of the Year award back in January.

"We had been so looking forward to finally getting on track after weeks of training and sim (simulated) racing but suddenly we had to pack our bags and get ready to leave. We were devastated but totally understood the situation. With flights being cancelled and airports shut down - especially for Neil going back to America - BMW didn't want us stuck away from home."

It all happened so fast. Daniel's dad, Stan, had flown out to see him race at the Nurburgring for the first time and was already on his way to the circuit when he got the news.

"We virtually passed in transit," says Stan, who had to stay on in Germany until his scheduled return flight four days later.

"It wasn't so bad. I was staying right beside the circuit and the racing went ahead - just without Daniel and his team-mates."

They are all home safely now but have no idea when their planned two-year scholarship will resume.

Harper dominated the GB Porsche Carrera Cup series last season, becoming the youngest champion, and was chosen by BMW to join Hesse and Verhagen as the German manufacturer attempts to revive their hugely successful junior team programme from the seventies and eighties.

And, after an initial eight-week training course at Italy's high performance Formula Medicine centre at Viareggio, they were to be based close to the Nurburgring for the next two years.

The Italian part of the schedule went as planned, the trio meeting up in Munich to be kitted out for the road trip to Viareggio where they shared an apartment while undergoing intense physical and mental training.

"The training was tough but enjoyable and we had to look after ourselves in the apartment, doing our own cooking and things like that," says Daniel. "I discovered I can make a mean stir fry. We usually had one day off to go the beach or look around the place."

They had a break when BMW flew them to Florida for the World Endurance Championship sportscar race at Daytona, where Daniel had a chance to catch up with his fellow Ulster drivers Charlie Eastwood and Andrew Watson, who were part of the Aston Martin and Porsche teams.

"It was a fantastic experience but a bit frustrating as well," he says. "I'm not used to just standing watching and not being able to be out on the track. Still, it was great to get up close, meet the drivers and see how the BMW teams work."

While the virus was taking hold in Italy, Daniel admits they were getting worried.

"We talked to BMW and it was decided we should cut our training short and head back to Germany," he says. "We settled into our new apartment there, keeping up our training and taking part in sim racing. We couldn't wait to be doing it for real on the incredible Nordschleife - Nurburgring circuit, all 21 kilometres of it.

"But then just the day before we were due to get into the cars, we were told we were going home. Dad was already in the air so I didn't get a chance to tell him not to come. We were devastated, of course, but fully understood the programme couldn't go ahead in the circumstances. We just had to pack up and go.

"We don't know if we will be returning to Germany later in the year but when you see what is happening with this virus around the world, having our plans put on hold for a while is of little importance. I just hope everyone stays safe."

Belfast Telegraph