Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Nordschleife the Green Hell

It was late  January in 2011 I was sitting on the front deck talking to John on the Phone when I had a change of heart. I said something like “you know how I want to drive the Ring for my 50th well why don’t I do that for my 45th Birthday”.  Literally the wheels spun into motion, the budget was put together and so was a European holiday that eventually became known as Destintination Europe.

After a few weeks of planning it was set we would leave late April 2012 and return home late May 2012, this was timed to ensure the ring was open for the lower cost of the shoulder of the tourist season. This also meant about 18 months running on a tight budget so we had money saved for the trip .

There are a lot of stories from the European trip, but this one is purely about the Ring including the planning and the drive.

The first decision was to determine the choice of Track car hire company and the car. For this I had a number of criteria these included.
·         Must be right hand drive as I didn`t want to be confused about which hand I use to change gears at 180 km/h
·         Manual
·         Reasonably priced ( in terms of track car hire)
·         Similar behaving car to my road car that that time a VW Golf GTi, the meant Front wheel drive and at least 150kw

So after many searches and reading of reviews I decided to go with RSR  (http://www.rsrnurburg.com/)  and the car of choice was the Renault Megane R26.R
     This 4 cylinder Turbo charged Front wheel and right hand  drive car 171 kw track car seemed like the best choice.

So in December 2011a few emails where exchanged with RSR and Ron provided all the information required. In late January they were able to provide a date, it was the 24th April 2012 with the track opening at 5.30pm. I wasn`t sure about the time but I thought they know what they are doing. So the Megane was booked for four laps, for an all-inclusive 550 euros. The insurance excess was 10,000 euros but what the hell you only live once.

21st April 2012 we boarded the plane to Frankfurt via Singapore, we had a room booked in Frankfurt for the night of the 22nd. The next day (23rd) we picked up our hire car from the Frankfurt train station it was a left hand drive VW Passat wagon. John had to drive until after I had been to the track on the 24th, as I did not want confuse the whole left and right hand driving thing and associated mind set.

The night of the 23rd was spent in a castle on the Rhine is a small village called Oberwesel. The next day it was a short run of 120 kilometre to the Village  of Nurberg .

We arrived at the village at about lunch time. It`s  a typical small German village with the standard castle on a hill on one side and just over the hill on the other side was the F1 track. As we arrived on the shoulder season we found the F1 track, theme park and tourist style shops shut. We did a lap of the village, this took about 5 minutes, found the entrance to Nordschleife and RSR.  
We sat at the gate for a hour or so and watched a procession of cars scream past on the track, many manufacturers use this as test track and proving ground. The procession included; Ferrari's  countless BMW`s, Mercedes, Aston Martins, Range Rovers plus a few cars we could not identify in there black and white camo skins. One car stood out, it was BMX X1 and it was screaming and going past all other cars on this bit of the straight as though many of them were standing still. Later we found out, this was a test car running a tri-turbo inline six cylinder.

We did a few more laps of the town looked in the window of the BMW test facility/showroom and found a older racing BMW running the Golden Eye (Bond movie) livery. There where a few cars outside with a various bits of camo in strategic locations.

At 5.30pm we headed down to RSR, here we find a work shop crammed with cars and holding yard off to one side. The guys on the floor direct us up to the office on the mezzanine floor. I hand over the credit card pay 550 euro and sign the indemnity form. I am then asked if I am taking a passenger, this was unexpected as we did not know this was possible so John signed the form as well.

We were ushered into the next room to pick a helmet and watch the 10 minute briefing video and given our four lap tickets (Swipe Cards). After the video we had a brief chat and went outside to the car, a white Megane. John would take the girls and the Passat to the track and I would meet them there. I hopped in the car, adjusted the seat, strapped on the four point harness had a quick briefing on the car. A quick look around highlighted this was a track car, no radio, red roll cage, two racing seats with harness, rear windows and rear panels on this three door car are plastic.

Started the car selected first and headed off the track some 500 metres away, first thought nice exhaust note. Now remember I hired a right hand drive car and I am in a left hand drive country. So I am driving next to the gutter, this is a very strange feeling especially at the roundabout.

I park in the lot with the other 10 or so cars destined for the track, John and the girls are already there. John straps his helmet on and takes his place in the passenger seat. At this point I am sure there is a bit of oh shit what am I doing thoughts in his head. I struggle to find reverse, eventually I work it out, wave goodbye to the girls.

At this point John has my gopro camera in his pocket as we found out at the briefing we are not allowed to film with our own camera.

Drive up to the boom gate, swipe the card and follow the marked path out through the witches hats.

Clear of the hats I start to get a feel for the car, slowly accelerate, push it closer to floor the engine comes alive the exhaust screams. John pulls the camera out and starts to video by hand. I am starting push the car a little bit harder, the clutch is easy to use, the engine has some go, the semi slick tyres are starting grip and I am slowly getting used to the feel of the Megane. As I start to feel like I can go harder we come up to a RSR Porsche.

Road rules apply on the track as it is a public road, so I cannot over take until he indicates to the right and pulls over to the right. I am can only pass him when has done this and on the left hand side. After what feels like forever he indicates and pulls over. The go pedal is now to the floor, the engine is screaming, hits the limiter and I change up.

 Some where in the last few minutes John has commented “make sure both of us get back in one piece

The confidence in the car grew very quickly, within 5 minutes I was comfortable with the handling, brakes and power delivery. However at this point I was not familiar with the track.

No matter how many times you run the track on a simulator it does not prepare you for the real thing. However the track really flows well for the most part so I felt at ease on nearly all of the corners bar two, we will come back to these later. So during the first lap we have reached speeds in excess of 180 kmh.

 The back half of the track is great fun, there is more graffiti on the road the you can ever imagine. There are no real run off areas and the Armco barriers are less than a meter from the road in some areas. You get it wrong it will probably hurt, then you are up for 10,000 euro excess, plus track damage costs, towing, medical but who cares this is fun.
The blind crests and blind corners add another element of excitement, so by the end of the lap I am pushing the car harder and harder the tyre are starting squeal on some corner but at no point did I loose or feel like I would loose grip. 

We come on the main straight, a gradually reducing speed limit applies as you must slow down to enter the gates and swipe the lap card. At this point John had planned to get out but I told him to put the camera in his pocket and just enjoy a lap while not trying to video.

We enter the gate area where there are a number of boom gates, we use the one on the left as it is set up for right and left hand drive cars, There is slight hiccup but eventually work out of the two lap cards we had been given. One had three laps and the other had one. Swipe the three lap card gate opens we do 40 through the witches hats and then the pedal hits the floor and  off we go with lots of grip, lots of noise and the occasional reminder from the rev limiter I need to shift up a gear.

On this lap the first of the two corners that don’t flow gives us a little moment, we are going up the hill in 4th flat out, lift, brake, down to 3rd to find out we are not slow enough, harder on the brakes ride up the kerb , into 2nd and we a back on the racing line. This corner has a double apex and was high lighted in the briefing video. It is damm hard to get right and I struggled with it on every lap. Even playing on the PlayStation in GT5 I still get it wrong.

Back to second lap, I have just indicated to right, moved over and let a BMW through then I put the boot in to the go pedal. A few kilometres down the road I see some headlights blazing in my rear vision mirror, the car is about 500 metres behind and coming quick. I am doing 160 through a sweeping left hander moved over the right with my indicator on and this Aston Martin DB9 flies past me like I am standing still.

Not long after this I come to the second corner that I struggle with the “ Carousel “ it’s a banked left handed hairpin. The surface on the banked part is the roughest concrete I have ever driven on, the car shakes very badly. I went high on to the tarmac.  I avoid the concrete surface on the remaining laps.

The rest of the lap I push harder with more tyre squeal but never did I look like loosing traction in the corners. Blind Corners and crests are being attacked faster. Then back onto the main straight and into the gated area. At this point I drop John off, he has had two laps now it is time for me to push even harder.

Once again through the gate I taking note of the time on the dashboard clock, I push harder on faster on the straights and harder through all the corners faster. The tyres are now very warm, the brakes are great with no sign of fade, the engine screams and I have a grin for ear to ear. On a crest leading to blind corner I pushing to 180 I get a bit of lift off but the car comes back planted and controlled 160 plus through the corner. I scream for joy this was the fastest and most fun I have ever had on a track. The lap is a lot faster and comes to end quickly as I drive back through the gates. I look at the clock I have just been around in 10 minutes. In the photo my ear to ear grin is very obvious, this is better than sex.

Swipe the card and I am off on my final lap ready to push harder until I encounter an issue, just pass the grand prix track it is raining lightly and I am on semi slicks (read as no grip) the car squirms under brakes. I back right off in the corner as I don’t want to handing over 10,000 plus euros but I do boot it along the straights with a fair amount of wheel spin. The good news is that the track is over 20 kilometres long so I am soon out of the rain after about 5 kilometres, the tyres are back to full grip and the go pedal is on the floor again.

The lap flies by it feels very comfortable now and I am still shouting for joy as I squeal through the corners, sadly I pass under the Audi R8 bridge for the last time and have to slow down. Into the parking area out onto the roundabout and up the road for a few hundred metres turn left and drive down to RSR. Parked the car and walked inside. The handed back process was simple they had a look at the car parked it, we returned the two helmets and picked up a few stickers as souvenirs.

When we had arrived we were asked what we are doing for diner at the stage we had no idea they recommend a hidden restaurant called the Pistenklause. While we had been on the track they had booked a table for us. This turned out to be the best way to finish the day. The food was great, the place was full of people who had been on the track and the wall covered in motorsport memorabilia.

The memorabilia include photos around and on the track over the last 20 or 30 years, bits of cars that had been damaged like the bumper bar labelled BMW 40,000 kilometre test. This was the perfect end to a great day of driving.

What I learnt from the experience.
  • RSR delivered the goods.
  • The Megane was similar to my golf but better, 50% more grip, 25% more power and 25% more brakes and it sounded great. It might be ugly but I now really want one.
  • The track is exceptional it has a elevation difference of 900 metres from its lowest point to the highest, it is not flat at all and it has lots and lots of fun corners.
  • At 7.30 pm when I returned the car the sun was still up for another hour, great time of the day.
  • The afternoon weeknight session was great as there were probably less than 30 cars on the track

This is like taking the best winding mountain road making it into to a loop and letting you go as fast as you want. If you have ever just thought about it don’t hesitate put and on your bucket list