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DA Drives The Nurburgring


Nurburgring Nordschleife Map
The Green Hell

You know those "100 things to do before you die" lists...the ones you see in the Sunday Papers colour supplement? Well, I don’t pay a lot of attention to them but I do have a list of roads and circuits to drive before I die and recently I’ve ticked off one of the biggies, the Nordschleife, the Nurburgring or Green Hell, whatever you want to call it.

The reason for the trip was to celebrate a friend and fellow Seven owner’s 40th so a plan was planned and it was decided to go for a mid-week Touristenfahrten (Public Session) in sunny September. We crossed the water from Hull to Rotterdam and drove the 233 miles to the ’Ring. I won’t bore you with the trip down as it was all motorway, other than to say the German Autobahns we used were of poor quality, subject to road works and were as over-crowded as the M1.

I have to confess, before my visit this piece of legendary tarmac had been annoying me a touch. Every car magazine contains news about another lowering of the "production" car lap-record or how this car maker or another has set up a testing base in the Eifel mountains to hone their latest creation. "How can a racing circuit be relevant to how your car performs on the road" I pontificated. No, it was wrong that so much R&D time was spent lapping this place.

Well, pass me the humble pie and make it a large one, I am going to have to eat the lot. I now know why the car manufacturers have bases round the Nurburgring. It’s not to improve the cars, because frankly it’s irrelevant, as no other road exists like it in the world. No, I believe it’s just so they can spend their days revelling in the joy of driving on the greatest piece of tarmac on the planet. Lucky buggers. The place is staggering. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can prepare you for the scale...it’s huge.

It all starts in the car park. That Tuesday evening was like some fantasy garage; Porsche GT, ten, yes ten, 430 Scuderia Ferraris, at least twelve 997 GT3 RS, a sprinkling of GT2s, a brace of Lamborghini Gallardos, not to mention lesser Porsches, Scubies, Evos, Elise etc...everywhere you looked was another little gem.

Nick's Seven at the 'RingPorsche GT3

As the clock ticked round to 5.30 and the opening of the Ring to Joe Public, the atmosphere changed from relaxed banter to a mixture of anticipation, fear and excitement. Everybody wanted to talk with you, to ask you about your car, whether it was your first trip, what other circuits you had driven. There were we with our Sevens and an MX5, and there were the wealthy Swedes with their Ferraris, the Italians with their Porsches and the locals with their M3. We all shared that same bond, drawn together by the lure of this legendary place.

We paid our 70 euros for 4 laps (21 each if you opt for a single) and joined the queue. By now I was sweating that cold clammy sweat of fear. I’d read loads on the ’net about this place, I’d watched the videos and knew the stories about what happened if you got it wrong. It didn’t help when one of the regulars in the car park told us that it had claimed another victim only two days before and left another in hospital following a 5 car pile up. I think my concerns were justified as the track was reported to be still damp in certain areas.

Well here goes...pop the ticket in the slot and up goes the barrier, the harness which I’d just pulled a little tighter was now just about holding my pounding heart inside my chest. A slow zig-zag through the cones, laid out to keep the noise down for the residents in the local village, Audi RS4 in front, GT3 RS behind and out on to the circuit. I floor the throttle and I am assailed not only by the noise from my own engine but by the V8 in front and the visceral wail of the flat six as the Porsche explodes past us on the left.

Climb up the hill to the first corner, the tyre wall that separates the old course from the new GP track is on the left. Turn right then left, bloody hell, the track falls away after the apex and you are tumbling downhill, the right hander arriving quickly and no idea what’s next. The remainder of the 13 miles passed in a blur. I hadn’t a clue where the road went or how fast I was going. I was stunned.

Don’t tell me you’ve driven it on the Playstation and know every corner because you’re likely to have trouble sitting down with your GT4 game shoved where the sun don’t shine...and woe betide you if you utter those words "I’ve beaten Stefan Belloff’s lap record" because I will beat you to death with your dual shock controller. It’s like saying you you could make Keira Knightley come over all unnecessary and call your name out loud because you’ve watched all her films.

The gradients, the cambers, the changes of tarmac, the variations in grip...it’s mind-blowing. You set yourself up for a left-hander and the road drops to the right. Your mirrors are full of bikes at angles of lean you’ve only ever seen on a Sunday afternoon at the Moto GP. You’re trying to get a sense of the place when an M3 passes you with its inside wheel waggling in the air saluting you as it peels in to another down hill right-hander, and at the same time it’s being passed in the same corner by two GT3s who would be appear to be joined nose to wing...wow!

The gantry and cones signal the end of the lap and I greet them with the same sense of relief you get at the end of a theme park ride, "I’ve enjoyed it but can I get off now". I’m welcomed by friends wanting to know what its like. "’kin scary’ springs to mind! Let the Seven cool down for 5 mins, get my heart beat back to normal, strap a new passenger in then back out again.

A little more composure this time...carry more speed into the corners you can see, wish you had more grunt on the straights which are so long I had time to notice a large bird of prey circling above. I pointed this out to my passenger who commented that he would prefer it if I concentrated on the task in hand, which was a fast approaching blind crest which, judging by the line the ultra quick bikers were taking, was hiding a right-hander. Sure enough over the brow and the corner hove into view, the perfect line lit by a trail of sparks cascading from the foot pegs of the bikes.

By the third lap I was noticing things like the oil pressure was heading south on the right handers, that the Karussel (the famous banked corner) was over-rated and that you hadn’t got a chance of learning the corners in less than 50 laps, its just too big with too many variations to compute. I understood that just because on paper my Caterham was quicker than a Renault Clio, on this piece of tarmac knowledge of the place was worth much more than grip, grunt and words written by journalists.

By the 4th lap I was doing some over-taking and holding my own in the slower corners against M3s and the three RS6 Avants lapping line astern (4 up with luggage). I was actually enjoying myself, revelling in the stunning grip offered by my warm tyres, astonished at the amount of speed I could carry into and out of a corner. My brakes were fabulous, corner after corner they wiped of the requested amount of speed without fuss, without drama and without the smell that the brakes of the big fast uber saloons’ tortured stoppers were giving off.

I was taking time-out to appreciate two E36 M3s dancing through the fast corners in a synchronised four-wheel drift, it was almost balletic. Do you know how good a totally wrung out Ferrari 430 Scuderia sounds when it passes you, the noise contained within the pine forests that line the track? Let me tell you, it’s fantastic.

It was great to catch a local in his company Mondeo and follow him through a section, using his line which allowed more speed to be carried into the next corner. The feeling of euphoria when you string together the perfect line down into Breidscheid and get the power down early for the climb up the graffiti-scarred tarmac to Bergwerk will stay with me for life. This was driving in its purest form and I felt so alive...this was all my great driving moments rolled into one and then a little bit more. But all too soon the gantry came into view and that was the end of play.

I drove like a pratt on the way back to the hotel...missed gear changes, took a wrong turn, braked too hard for a corner...it was as though I left the driver in me back at the ’ring. Back at the hotel we all talked about the day, swapping stories and pictures. There were photos of the VW Passat, complete with roof-box and kids asleep in the back, lining up with the 575 Ferrari, the middle-aged woman in her Merc complete with shopping bags queuing up for a quick lap on the way back from the shops, tales of brilliantly driven supercars and humble hatchbacks. We were all looking forward to the promise of the next day’s laps and gaining a few precious grains of knowledge about the corners.

DA at the 'RingDA at the 'Ring

The morning brought rain and low cloud. Still, we had come all this way so off we set. We arrived at the ’ring to be greeted by the site of one of the driving school’s Alfa 75s on a flat bed, its sides splattered with mud and baring the scars of an off. A timely reminder that if it’s tricky in the dry it was going to be worse in the wet. One of the lads went out in his Seven on deep cut tyres more suited to the rain than my barely-legal Yoko’s and came back reporting very little grip and a number of heart stopping slides...didn’t stopping him going out again though. Call me chicken but I decided that I would live to drive another day and stayed off the track.

I am already planning the next fix as I know I’ll get more out of it on the second trip. I’ll go and spectate at Adeneau and explore some of the excellent back roads that criss-cross the area around the circuit. But most of all I want to revel in the challenge of driving that ribbon of tarmac that looks like it was draped over the hills and moulded to the contours of the landscape. I need to experience once again the sheer terror and excitement, that pure intense feeling of being alive that driving the Nordschleife brings.

Big thanks to Ben Lovejoys www.nurburgring.org.uk site, a must for all those wanting to visit the place, it’s a wealth of information and advice that I found invaluable and made the trip at lot more enjoyable.

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