5X Racing visits the Nurburgring: Part 1
As racecar drivers and sports car enthusiasts, we probably can agree that we all share a common dream - which is to someday drive the Nürburgring Nordschleife (if you don’t, then I question your addiction…). Well… I did it. So without a doubt, I've accomplished a feat many dream about but never actually do and drove the Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit in Northwestern Germany. And despite the danger associated with the Nürburgring and what Jeremy Clarkson says (that “over 200 people have died on the Nürburgring over the years”), survived to tell you about it! What an amazing, “ultimate bucket list” experience this was, and I’m going to provide an insider’s look and even a travel guide to those who are interested in hearing about the famed Nordschleife experience, or “Green Hell” (Grüne Hölle if you’re looking for authenticity) and who someday would like to tackle the ‘ring on their own. So grab a seat, a coffee or bier (preferably of a German variety as to set the mood) and make sure you have some time to read, cause like the track itself, there is A LOT to this story, which is precisely why I am going to break up the entire tale into segments - as it far exceeds the attention span of the average blog reader! I hope you enjoy my research, experiences, and thoughts about the world’s most famous, most intriguing, and without question most extreme road courses. If you have specific questions, thoughts, corrections, or simply want to know more, please sign into our site and use the comment section below, or if you’d like to get a more personalized and detailed response, feel free to email me at my personal email address: firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to talk more about our visit to the ‘ring in more detail.
So, I see it befitting to begin with a little history about the Nürburgring and what it means to people, as well as try to explain some of the lore surrounding it and why this place is like a light to a moth for car enthusiasts and race car drivers around the world. To anyone who's not a motorsports or racing enthusiast, the Nürburgring means nothing. When explained to people in my life (except my family, who are all racers or involved in racing via my father and I, and actually all accompanied me to the Nürburgring!), the most common response is: "Why go all the way to Germany to drive on a racetrack? You do that almost every month here in the US?” While the Nürburgring means nothing to the uninitiated and to those who have no idea what it's about, it's seen as a downright silly reason to spend thousands of dollars on a European trip to drive a few laps on a racetrack. To anyone that is a race driver and motorsports or racing enthusiast, the talk of driving the Nürburgring is most commonly followed by: “Man, I sure would love to drive it one day” So after having "Ring fever" for a number of years, and even more so after having been so geographically close to it in two previous vacations to Germany but never visiting, we decided to bite the bullet and throw financial reasoning to the curb for the sake of conquering the ‘ring! Plus, with all the chatter in the last few years about the Nürburgring being bankrupt, bailed out by the government, too "dangerous" to be kept open by the government, and most currently on the auction block, there was even more incentive to make our pilgrimage sooner than later as there is always that looming chance of this facility not being open to the public in its current form much longer.
The allure of the Nordschleife, or more affectionately known to motorsport insiders over the years as "The Green Hell" (a nickname given to the circuit by famed F1 racer Jackie Stewart back in its Formula One heyday), is very easy to understand to a specific group of people. Those who race or drive sportscars of all makes and models, people who follow international motorsport such as Formula One, read Road & Track, Car & Driver, frequent Jalopnik, watch Top Gear from the UK, and even people who play racing simulators - as the Nürburgring appeared on every relevant console racing simulator since Gran Turismo 4 and Forza Motorsport. As a gamer through my high school years and beyond, I must have put in over 1000 virtual laps at the Nordschleife (with at least 75% of those 1000 being only the first ¼ of the track due to guard rail incidents and subsequently restarting the race!), every time wondering if what I experienced on the screen was actually a racing circuit in the real world and not some extreme fantasy world created by the games designers. It wasn't until I started researching destinations in Germany for European vacations that I discovered driving on this mystical track was not only a possibility, but also a very easy thing to make a reality! In fact, not only is it a reality, it's a tourist destination for thousands of the diseased race car drivers and motorsports enthusiasts of the world!
So what exactly comprises the name “Nürburgring” we so often hear referenced when comparing supercars, or as a benchmark for even subtle brands such as Cadillac? While the Nürburgring is more than just a name of a racetrack these days, the actual term “Nürburgring” is a combination of two words: “Nürburg” and “Ring”. The first word, “Nürburg” is referencing the small village of Nürburg that lies within the southeastern corner of Nordschleife circuit itself, just past the Einfahrt Nordschleife, or “Nordschleife Entrance” (literally the point at where you merge onto the track surface and begin your lap). This town is very small and would otherwise not be known to many people without “ring” on the end. Even a German resident that does not live in the vicinity of the Nürburgring is unfamiliar with the village, as it is no different or more significant than any other small village in Germany (and there are A LOT of them!). The only distinguishing feature of Nürburg is that it is overlooked by the ominous and looming Nürburg Castle on the hilltop above. The hill and castle itself is claimed to be one of the most significant castles in the Eifel region of Germany, however little is known about it and it is probably safe to say that its existence is easily overshadowed by the focus on the Nürburgring winding below and around it. Other than the castle, Nürburg is probably one of the coolest places to live in the world if you’re a racing enthusiast, as you essentially live and breathe the Nürburgring and all its glory in your daily life. The “ring” part of “Nürburgring” is really easy, and it’s basically a term the Germans (and Europeans in general) use for a road that circles or “rings” around a town or landmark. So, simply “Nürburgring” is “a road around Nürburg!” In relevant terms though, it is a racetrack, so we would be more apt to call it “The racetrack around Nürburg”
The “Nürburgring”is usually the name people use for everything associated with the racetrack when referencing it, but there are multiple layers of the Nürburgring complex that can easily be misinterpreted. Historically, the “Nürburgring” is the name of the entire complex comprising of both the Nordschleife (North Loop) and Südschleife (South Loop). Other small loops existed in the original configuration, but were eliminated in 1982 to allow for the creation of the GP-Strecke (Grand Prix Track). Also, the GP-Strecke has many supporting structures and facilities such as grandstands, hotels, welcome centers, a shopping mall, parking garages, amusement attractions, etc… All of which can be considered “the Nürburgring”. (Phew, I think I can stop parenthesizing it now!). Although the GP-Strecke holds most of the high-profile events, such as the Formula One German Grand Prix, it’s the Nordschleife that is the real attraction at the Nürburgring. The Nordschleife is the part of the complex that is most commonly referenced when enthusiasts or publications talk about the Nürburgring. When supercar manufacturers duel for lap records at the Nürburgring, they’re looking at the time it takes them to get around the Nordschleife, not the GP-Strecke. Through the years the Nordschleife has remained the “status quo” for auto manufacturers to test and develop their newest high performance or “über” cars (keeping in theme with our German based story). Porsche, Ferrari, Nissan, Ford, General Motors, Dodge, and Lexus are just some of the more popular manufacturers to have used the Nordschleife as their proving ground due to the variety of road and environmental elements experienced during a lap around the ‘ring. There are countless media participants – such as auto publications and television shows, such as Top Gear - who have also tested and featured high-performance vehicles on the Nordschleife, but one thing remains consistent no matter who is running the tests - the lap time.
There are several different methods to performing a flying lap on the Nordschleife -three to be exact - but there are no official rules that govern the measurement of a lap. So, for a manufacturer to “prove” their lap time around the Nordschleife, they customarily include a video of the lap along with mention of what tires where used for comparisons sake. Manufacturers always conduct their own private tests and use the “Sport Auto” method of timing their laps, which only covers a distance of 20,600m compared to 20,800m distance of a full racing lap as used in a professional racing event such as the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring. The Sport Auto lap averages about 7 seconds faster than a full lap, and is the most common distance used by manufacturers and media alike when proving their lap times. All of the lap records/times for street-legal production vehicles are listed using this method for comparison and proving purposes. The funny thing is though, being there is no official organization to govern or certify the lap times, it is very easy for anyone to embellish their claims and not be proved otherwise. Since testing by manufacturers is typically a closed track affair, only a video of the lap will really prove the claim of a ‘ring record. Several manufacturers - most notably Porsche and Ferrari - are constantly battling for the fastest production car record around the Nordschleife. Currently, the Radical SR8LM holds the production car (hardly a car anyone would actually drive on the road however…) record at 6 minutes 48 seconds. At the time of writing, the Porsche 918 Spyder is the “real” record holder at 6 minutes 57 seconds, as the Radical is basically omitted from the times being it is a racecar that somehow was deemed street legal and inked a time. The next closest is the Nissan GT-R Nismo at 7 minutes 8 seconds, and other notable entries on the upper end of the list are the Chevy Corvette C6 ZR1, Lexus LFA, and Dodge Viper ACR. All within the 7-8 minute range. One can basically say the “magic number” for the record is a sub 7 minute lap for a production vehicle, and the only one to crack that so far is Porsche with their 918 Spyder (although, Ferrari is at 6:58 with their 599XX that is not a production vehicle itself, but a variant of the 599 production vehicle. Close enough…). A lap around the ‘ring in the 8-9 minute range is considered phenomenal and usually only achieved by a high-performance or special edition vehicle with a professional driver, such as a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Lotus Exige, BMW M3, or Ford Focus RS and Mazdaspeed 3 for a relevant United States example. A commoner in a non-high performance vehicle would use the “Bridge to Gantry” method of timing, which controversially is a method of timing a ‘ring lap during open public times on the track, and despite the danger, an amateur ring attacker can be proud of a lap in the in the 9-10 minute range using this method. Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear comes to mind when striving to get into the 9 minute range in his Jaguar S-Type Diesel in a 2007 episode of Top Gear. He just cracked 10 minutes with a 9 minute 59 second lap before local pro Sabine Schmitz took over the car and blasted out a 9 minute 12 second lap proving that track knowledge is everything. All of this is dwarfed by the fact that the standing all-time, fastest ever lap around the Nordschleife in any configuration is the 6 minute 11 second lap performed by Stefan Bellof in 1983 driving a Porsche 956 race car in qualifying. This is also on the full circuit lap that is 200 meters longer… I feel that this record will be safe for some time – like it has been for the last 30 years - as the safety standards and lack thereof in that period of racing were a factor in letting cars go that fast. It is also worth noting that the 1000km race the car and driver were participating in was prematurely ended due to an accident. An indication of how dangerous racing was in that time on the Nordschleife. It is also worth noting that the most capable cars in the world – Formula 1 cars – were last raced on the Nordschleife in 1976 when Niki Lauda nearly lost his life (but did lose his ear) when he crashed and his car burst into flames through the Bergwerk section of the old, “pre-safe” barrierless Nordschleife circuit. In an eerie shade of foreshadowing, Lauda attempted to boycott the race a week prior due to safety concerns, but ultimately the race went on and his accident happened. Recognizing the danger of Formula One cars on the Nordschleife after Lauda’s accident, the cars would never race on the circuit again. Who knows what a modern day F1 car could do on the Nordschleife today? It would presumably obliterate the 6 minute mark though considering today’s advancements in technology and speed.
The Nürburgringcircuit was originally carved out of the Eifel Mountain roads surrounding three small German towns of Nürburg, Quiddelbach, and Herschbroich – and saw initial completion in 1927. The philosophy in building the circuit was to create a safer, dedicated race course for the motorsports events being held along the public roads of the Eifel region of Germany in that era. The track was also composed with the idea of showcasing top German auto manufacturing and driving talent, comprising of a vast array of design elements and challenges to test both car and driver. The finished product consisted of a 174 turn, 17.563 mile long mountain circuit full of bends, dips, jumps, blindingly fast straights, and to our standards today, very little in terms of safety. Over the span of 56 years, the course has gone through a plethora of changes and additions almost entirely in the name of modern day safety features, but along with keeping the characteristics that make it so unique physically, the one thing that has not changed since its opening is the special times throughout the year when the track is opened to the general public for a few hours on weekdays and for longer periods during the weekends, when it is turned into a one-way public toll road for a few hours a day or more. This is what sets the Nürburgring Nordschleife apart from every other race course in the world - ANYONE can drive on it no matter what skill level or car is passing through the gates onto the famed pavement. In comparison, here in the US, to drive on a racetrack, one would have to meet a demanding list of criteria such as: joining and being a part of a special club which hosts and sanctions driving events (ie: NASA, SCCA, Chin Motorsports, etc...), having a track capable car which must pass rigorous inspections before being allowed on track, plunking down hundreds of dollars for a weekend of track time with your club, and not to mention very limited and specific times in which to participate because all race tracks in America are privately owned and are usually pre-booked for events or race events. In other words - it's not that easy, nor is it cheap by any means! In comparison, when planning an attack on the ‘ring, the only thing one must be aware of is the opening dates, or "Touristenfahrten" (tourist drives) dates which allow the general public to access the Nordschleife. These can vary, but normally the Nordscheife is open for tourist rides all day on the weekends, and if not booked for a private test or race event (which are common), oftentimes for two hours in the morning and two hours before sunset throughout the week. As easy as it sounds to just drive on in and hoon, the ‘ring is as volatile on availability as it is on car and driver. The Nordschleife can easily - and oftentimes is several times throughout the week - be blocked in short-term due to "unforeseeable circumstances", which can range from: manufacturers booking it to test their latest supercar (or nowadays for just about any flagship vehicle in a manufacturers lineup), track/facility repairs, road work (it still is considered a government road), race events, and the worst of all, weather. There are however two times throughout the year that the ‘ring is guaranteed to be open for tourist rides for four full days of consecutive ‘ring mayhem. From May 9th-12th and from October 4th-7th, the Nürburgring explodes in an all-out fanboy ‘ring hero assault called "Green Hell Driving Days"! So when we decided to make the trip to the ‘ring, October 4th, the opening day of Green Hell Driving Days, was our target date as we knew the track would be available for us to drive for at least a 4-day block if we ran into any "unforeseeable circumstances".
In the next part of my Nürburgring series, I will cover our trip to participate in Green Hell Driving Days and how our time on the track and time in the area went.