Europe was in the grip of an unusually long winter, snow forcing constant closures of the Nürburgring during the Touristenfahrten (“Public Driving”) season. Driving the 20.8km circuit was something I’ve wanted to do since learning about it years ago: a one-way toll road open to the public – that also happens to be a racetrack – the Nürburgring has a fearsome reputation, having claimed many lives. Circling the medieval castle of Nürburg in the Eifel mountains of Germany, the Nürburgring is compromised of two circuits: the Nordschleife (“North Loop”), built in the 1920s as a place to show off German automotive prowess; and the Südschleife (“South Loop”), added in 1984 as a Grand Prix circuit. In recent years, the Nordschleife has become the ultimate proving ground (or ultimate marketing tool) for car makers to show their sporting pedigree. Unofficial lap times are the new performance benchmark and a number of manufacturers, including BMW, Porsche, Jaguar and Aston Martin, all have permanent bases in the area.
“The Nürburgring has a fearsome reputation, having claimed many lives.”
None of this information was of any use to me right now, however, I only cared about what the weather was doing. While planning a European holiday for early 2013, a visit to this motoring mecca was immediately put on the to-do list. My fiancée Meaghan and I planned to spend only one day here during our 70-day overseas adventure; we really needed Mother Nature to be on our side. I had made a booking to drive the ‘Ring for the 7th of April, months in advance. In late March, track management decided that due to the weather and ongoing repair-work, the Nürburgring would be closed until the 6th of April. Looking at the weather forecast, my nervous anticipation and excitement was quickly turning into disappointment and pessimism.
Saturday, April 6
“How in the hell was I going to survive driving one of the world’s most dangerous racetracks?”
The past few days were spent in a cold and wet, but otherwise fascinating Berlin. We flew to Cologne on the Saturday night and picked up our hire car for the drive to Nürburg. Being from Australia, this would be the first time either of us drove on the right, so driving a brand new BMW around the airport car park suddenly became a terrifying experience. We still had to negotiate the Autobahn in the middle of the night while not getting lost on the way to our hotel. Mercifully, our hire car had excellent satellite navigation. After setting the language to English and typing in “Nürburgring”, we set off into the night… by taking a wrong turn and ending up back in the car park. How in the hell was I going to survive driving one of the world’s most dangerous racetracks?
We managed to arrive safely at our hotel around midnight. The kind staff at the Hotel Am Tiergarten allowed us a late check-in, which we were very grateful for. The Tiergarten is run by the Schmitz family, and fans of the TV show Top Gear might recognise their youngest daughter, Sabine. Before bunking down for the night though, we got back in the car and drove down to a popular photo spot near a section of the track known as Brünnchen. Meaghan didn’t want to drive the track or be a passenger, so she was tasked with taking photos. Since we’d be apart for the day, we bought a cheap mobile phone (“mein handy”) in Berlin so we could talk to each other. Megs also got the chance to do some driving on the right, before the likely chaos of tomorrow morning, when hundreds of cars descend upon Nürburg for a full day of Touristenfahrten.
Sunday, April 7
When we awoke Sunday morning, the grey misery we had endured for nearly three weeks had disappeared and instead we were greeted with clear blue skies. A miracle! The temperature was still quite cold at around 3-6ºC, but the latest information from the track suggested that public driving was going ahead. After a great buffet breakfast at the hotel, it was off to to pick up my car for the day.
This was actually going to happen!
Picking up the car
While the Nürburgring is still used for racing, it is technically a one-way public toll road. However, most hire car companies don’t take too kindly to driving their cars on a road notorious for enthusiastic driving, so getting your insurance to cover any incidents may prove difficult. This is where companies like Rent4Ring step in, providing hire cars specifically for driving on the Nürburgring. I had previously been in contact with Dale Lomas at Rent4Ring, who also runs the excellent Bridge to Gantry website. He was very helpful in answering any questions I had, making my choice of which company to book with relatively easy.
But what car to choose? How many laps? For ‘Ring virgins like myself, booking one of several track prepared Suzuki Swifts is the recommended option. However, as a Volkswagen owner, the chance to drive a new Scirocco with a roll-cage and semi-slick tyres around one of the world’s most famous race tracks was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I booked a half-day all-inclusive package for six laps at around €750, which included lap tickets, fuel and insurance.
“You can start at around €1000 for three metres of Armco and work your way up from there.”
Once all the necessary paperwork was filled out at the Rent4Ring office, it was on to the safety briefing. Dale talked us through the rules of driving the Nürburgring, which are essentially the same as the regular road rules in Germany, including no speed limit. There were a few key take-aways:
- You are not fast. It doesn’t matter how fast you think you are, there will be faster cars, so keep an eye out for them. Overtaking on the right is not allowed, no matter what the racing line is. Slower cars should indicate and move out of the way for faster cars to go through. No one is going to set lap records on their first time out, especially on a track shared with any number of cars and drivers of varying performance capabilities and skill, so drive within your limits. The Nürburgring is also a very long circuit and conditions can vary from being dry and sunny in one section, to soaking wet in another.
- Stay off the curbs. The curbs are unusually high for a race track, so you risk losing a front bumper or damaging a wheel, or worse, flipping the car over.
- No video cameras. This is actually one of the few explicit rules at the Nürburgring, but it’s often ignored. The reasons are quite complicated, but you can read more at Bridge to Gantry.
- Crashing is very expensive. The maximum insurance excess for the car I booked is €6000 and any damage to crash barriers comes out of your pocket. You can start at around €1000 for three metres of Armco and work your way up from there.
“I was sure I was going to crash the car before I even set rubber on the racetrack.”
After a few video examples of correct driving behaviour and not-so-correct behaviour (i.e. crash videos, or pictures of flowers if you’d prefer not to look at twisted metal), it was time to get acquainted with the car and head down to the track. The first thing I noticed when sitting in the car was how low the racing seat was. The harness seatbelt made it quite difficult to look around, and all of a sudden the butterflies kicked in. Here I was, strapped low down into the wrong side of a car I can barely see out of, only about to take on the bloody Nürburgring! As I said goodbye to Megs, I was sure I was going to crash the car before I even set rubber on the racetrack. The car park at Rent4Ring exits via quite a steep ramp, meaning I couldn’t see anything in front of me except the sky as I pulled out on to the main road. It was at this point I forgot the very simple directions I was supposed to follow to get to the track entrance.
Delayed by a Dick
I pulled aside to let one of the Rent4Ring team past, then followed them down to the track. When I arrived, cars were being marshalled into the various car parks near the entrance. I parked my car as instructed, got out of the car and tried to work out what was happening. I bumped into a Canadian named Marc, another-first timer I had met back at the Rent4Ring office. We tried to work out what was going on, but neither of us understood any German. It appeared that very few people in the car park seemed to know what the hold up was.
I tried calling Meaghan, who should have been stationed at the photo spot by now. However, in typical Vodafone fashion, there was no reception. Had I been able to get in touch with Megs, she would have given me a better idea of what was causing the closure. At the exit of Brünnchen, Nürburgring staff were trying to clean up a large splotch of white paint across the track. I’d flown half-way around the world for a chance to drive the world’s most challenging race track, and the only thing stopping me now was a giant graffiti penis.
Some 90 minutes later than scheduled, the track was opened to the public. A flashing sign at the entrance showed that yellow cautionary flags were being waved through Brünnchen while the cock cleanup continued. Luckily, my car was parked near the track entrance and I was part of the first group allowed out. Driving through the boom gates and the chicane of witches hats, the temptation to nail it down the main straight grabs you immediately. However, I wanted savour the experience of my first lap, to take my time and keep an eye out for any hazards. The cold semi-slick tyres probably wouldn’t have offered much grip either. Right now, I didn’t care that car after car was flying past me, I was grinning from ear to ear.
“The first time I approached Karussell, I squealed like a little girl.”
In the weeks before our holiday, I spent hours playing Gran Turismo on PlayStation to help me learn the track. Of course, no video game can compare to the real thing, with all the bumps, varying levels of grip and elevation changes. There’s also real barriers to crash in to and no reset button. What it did help me with was understanding sections of the track, to anticipate what corners were coming next, even if I hadn’t memorised the entire course. The first time I approached Karussell – the famous steeply banked and bumpy hairpin corner – I squealed like a little girl. Traffic cones slowed and narrowed the cars to single file through Brünnchen, and I managed to spot Megs snapping away amongst the crowd gathered up on the hill.
Sighting lap done, it was time to have a little fun. Cars had formed queues at the exit and temporary toll gates at the end of the lap. Once I was through the boom gate and the cone chicane, it was time to go for it! At least a little bit, anyway. I was comfortable driving at 7/10ths, fast enough to really enjoy the car, seeing where the grip was, how the brakes felt and the surge of acceleration when exiting a corner. The Scirocco is certainly quick enough in the right hands, but the main thing I can remember about lap two was the howl of flat-six engines in Porsche 911s as they screamed past, and finding cars suddenly appearing in my mirrors, as if out of nowhere.
You are not fast.
At the end of lap two, all the cars were being siphoned off into the car parks. A young guy had forcefully parked his Nissan Skyline into a barrier and the track was closed again while debris was cleared. Thankfully, the driver himself suffered no more than a bruised ego, his damaged car arriving at the main entrance for all to see on the back of a tow truck.
By this point, I was out of the car and bouncing around on adrenalin. I’d done it, achievement unlocked! Two laps of the Nürburgring, what a rush! I bumped into Marc again and we walked around looking at the wide variety of cars that the Nürburgring attracts: the high-end exotics from Ferrari and Lamborghini; the brute force Nissan GT-Rs and the howling Porsche 911 GT3s; the hot hatches and super-saloons. A car enthusiast could happily spend a day just wandering the car park.
“Finding grip as as I unwound the steering and accelerated away was intoxicating.”
By the time the track re-opened, the car parks were a lot busier. No doubt those who lived within a few hours of Nürburg had noticed the good weather and driven down to join in the fun. After a lengthy queue, it was time to get back on track. Not being able to contact Megs, I decided to do the remaining four laps in one stint (barring any more closures). It would be unfair to leave her alone, standing in a field all day.
Sitting on the opposite side of the car from what I’m used to, it was often difficult to judge the position of the car. There was all this space to the right of me which I had to adjust to. This made simple tasks like driving through a series of cones just that little bit trickier; I don’t think I hit too many apexes through right-hand corners either! Changing gear with the opposite hand also seemed like a problem I could do without. My rental Scirocco was fitted with a double-clutch gearbox, so I could choose to change gears via paddles on the steering wheel, or let the car do it for me. I experimented with both options, but most of the time I was too busy concentrating on everything else around me. So like a big wuss, I generally left the transmission in “S” for sports-auto mode, allowing the engine to rev up to the redline before changing . Most of the interior trim had been removed to save weight, making the car noisier and more visceral than a standard Scirocco. The two-litre turbo engine was punchy and familiar, being the same unit found in my Golf GTI back home. The stiffer suspension and grippier tyres making an appreciable difference. Everything was more responsive, the car able to turn in easier without too much body roll or understeer. For a first-timer at the ‘Ring, I certainly couldn’t have wanted anything faster.
Gaining in confidence with each lap, I found myself passing a lot more cars than were passing me. Attacking harder, braking later, carrying a bit more speed through the corners and concentrating on getting the lines right. The technical Hatzenbach section is a lot more enjoyable in real life than it is in Gran Turismo. One of the more notorious sections of the Nordschleife, particularly for inexperienced drivers, is a series of corners known as Adenauer Forst. Many a driver has come unstuck here, suddenly running out of road as a left-hand turn tightens up over a slight crest. Taking a general slow-in, fast-out approach meant I didn’t get caught out through here, and the slingshot effect of the tyres finding grip as I unwound the steering and accelerated away was intoxicating.
“The Nürburgring is not so easily tamed.”
Much like driving on the Autobahn, overtaking etiquette is generally well respected. Faster cars indicate to pass and slower cars move out of the way. Although there was one particularly funny exception: catching up to a convoy of 911s and GT-Rs, stuck behind a family of four in a Mercedes station wagon – complete with baby seat – that refused to move over to the right. This long chain of finely tuned performance machines worth hundreds and thousands of dollars being held back for a couple of kilometres as dad took mum and the kids for a nice Sunday drive around the Nürburgring. There was definitely an air of National Lampoon’s European Vacation about it.
I purposely didn’t time my laps – what purpose would it serve? I was inexperienced, there was a lot of traffic and sections of the track were yellow flagged. I drove as fast as I felt safe doing so, and that was enough… that being said… a look at the clock on the start and finish of a couple of laps suggested bridge-to-gantry times of well under ten minutes. If there’s anything at all to gain from that information, it’s that I’m faster than Jeremy Clarkson in a diesel Jaguar.
There were a couple of moments where I slightly overestimated my skills though, running wide while the tyres screamed underneath me through Kallenhard and Bergwerk, but that was the worst of it. As I made my way around to finish my final lap, just past the male anatomy lesson, a couple of rental cars had found the Armco. Both looked like fairly heavy (and no doubt expensive) incidents. Video footage from the day shows that even after the cautions were removed from Brünnchen, the track surface was still quite slippery causing quite a few cars to lose control. It was a timely reminder that the Nürburgring is not so easily tamed.
Time to Unwind
“Driving 200+ km/h down Kottenborn while the sun shone overhead – the Nürburgring is something I will never forget.”
Sitting in the car back at Rent4Ring was actually one of the more stressful moments of the day. I was sure I had brought the car back in one piece and kept off the curbs as instructed. Despite that, when a team of Rent4Ring staff came over to inspect my car and started shouting at each other in German (or just talking, it’s hard to tell with the German language!), suddenly I wasn’t so sure. Mercifully, I was given the all clear and popped inside to say a quick thanks before trying to find Meaghan. As I walked back to the hotel, I saw Megs drive right past. Perfect timing! She had counted each one of my laps, and after six she figured I was done and drove back to meet me. It was still only early afternoon, so we went back to Rent4Ring for some victory photos with the car, before heading back to the track itself for some lunch and a wander around the car park to photograph the local exotica.
Swapping ‘Ring stories with Marc over dinner and a few well-earned beers at the Pistenklause Restaurant capped off an amazing day. I also got to meet Jochen (aka Frozenspeed), who took some amazing photos throughout the day, making the perfect personalised souvenir. The steak on a hot stone might have been one of the best meals I’ve ever had too; the circumstances, environment and sense of relief for having done what I’d set out of achieve months ago no doubt adding to the experience. What an experience it was too, from the uncertainty of the weather and the delays caused by a graffiti gentleman’s sausage, to the thrill of driving 200+ km/h down Kottenborn while the sun shone overhead – the Nürburgring is something I will never forget.
There are several people to which I owe a big thanks, either for help in organising the trip, or for assistance throughout the day:
- Dale Lomas and all the staff at Rent4Ring for their help and advice, and providing the service that they do.
- Liam Camilleri, who runs AUSmotive and AUSringers: great resources for Australians wishing to visit the Nürburgring.
- Marc See, for being yet another friendly Canadian.
- Jochen Cauwenberge, Marius Graf and Martin Stollenwork for the great photos.
- My fiancée Meaghan, who planned most of our holiday and patiently stood in a snowy field all morning snapping photos, while I drove around in rather large circles.
Save the Ring
There is nowhere else on earth like the Nürburgring. In many respects it feels like a time-warp, a place that shouldn’t exist in a modern health-and-safety conscious society. Like countless others who have driven the ‘Ring, I am so glad it does. However, thanks to a giant and expensive cock-up by people who thought it could be turned into a theme park (mockingly referred to as NüroDisney), the future of the Nürburging is uncertain. The Save the Ring campaign is an attempt to right those wrongs, so lend your support and ensure a place steeped in such history also has a future.