Ten years ago I visited the Nurburgring in Germany for the first time. The occasion was a high school friend’s bachelor party and as an enthusiast for the history of motorsport, visiting the Nurburgring was a priority. I was able to feel the place out, and the visit proved to be thoroughly enjoyable, so when my buddy wanted to go back and relive the experience as a “ten-years-later” tour, I was keen and knew my second visit would be about proving that I had grown as a driver.
The ring has become a bucket-list item for many motorsport enthusiasts like myself, and it’s as hard on the wallet as it was on tires. We stayed in a small very cheap Bnb. It didn’t have things like shampoo, and you could pick the lock with the heel of a fork or spoon, but it had 30 cent beers, and four Italian bikers to chat to who have come every year since 2009. The view of the castle on top of the hill was pretty spectacular too. Email me if you would like the contact details.
When you make your way to Nordshliff, come expecting rain, and you won’t be disappointed if it is wet. The circuit is so long it might be raining at one part of the track, but is dry in another. A corner may be dry the first time around but wet the next time. The weather is unpredictable, and a damp track must just be factored in as another part of the challenge, albeit an enormous and frightening one. Even if you know the course and the weather is fine, the track is still high-speed and lacks a run-off. Nordschleife is daunting even if you are used to Laguna Seca or Buttonwillow. It was dry for my visit despite the forecast showing rain, and I accumulated mist on the windshield during my last lap.
Some things to know about Nordschilff:
The Nurburgring was built in 1926 as an attempt to improve the economy of a remote and rural region of Germany. Arguably, it is still serving that function today.
Since Chevy began tuning it’s hot Corvettes and Camaros in Porsche’s backyard, many stateside have had a hankering to go to the Nurburgring. Globally, millions more developed that desire when they encountered it’s 190 turns on Grand Turismo. A fast lap around here shows the skill of the driver, engine builder, and chassis tuner alike.
The fourteen-mile circuit surrounds an 11th-century castle. The track is the same today as it was 90 years ago, although the surface is smoother and the road is a bit wider. What sets Nurburgring apart is its sheer length in addition to the extreme elevation changes, and the complex and recurring bends, twists, and turns.
When not occupied by racers, the Nurburgring functions as a one-way toll road which happens to be void of a speed limit. You can buy a certain number of laps in a booth by the entrance, the barrier rises, and the race track is yours. Like the autobahn, you may pass on the left.
The “one-way toll road” nature of the track means you can piece together your own track day. Drive one lap or twenty? Bring a car or a bike? Come late or leave early? Stop when it rains? It is all up to you. One thing to note is that it is not is cheap: each lap is 30 Euro, or about $35. Facilities at the circuit are casual restaurants, decent toilets and plenty of space to park and watch others taking to the course.
The fantastic one-way toll road experience comes with the added bonus of circuit closures due to frequent accidents and the addition of yellow flag sections. The road doesn’t go anywhere, so there isn’t any regular traffic, but due to the notoriety of it people are driving the ring with no idea of how to drive on a track and are behind the wheel of utterly inappropriate machinery.
In two visits and a dozen laps, I have never completed a lap without seeing a yellow, although once a marshall flagged me to mount the curb to drive around a BRZ which had hit the barrier and bounced back into the middle of the road.
If you’re US-based, you’re likely to fly into a nearby Euro airport. You will need a rental car, and experience suggests it is best to do a semi-decent one to get your head in the game on the drive to the circuit. Germans respect the speed limits, but when there is no limit or the posted limit is 130ks, you can expect to have BMWs, Mercedes, and Audis cruising at 120 or 130 mph.
My rental for the trip was a Renault Kadjar, the Renault version of a Nissan Rogue/Murano. The small SUV packs a rather feeble turbo gas motor and an unmemorable 6-speed manual. While underpowered in extreme use on the autobahn, like so many modern cars, it is difficult to fault in everyday use. I compliment its efficiency and design but its so boring to drive.
Driving on the autobahn requires more concentration than driving on the freeway because a car will look like a speck on your rearview mirror 100 yards back but will be on your bumper in a few seconds. On busy two-lane roads, to avoid getting stuck behind slow trucks in the right lane, it is natural to try to keep up with the 130 mph cars in the left lane, and for that, concentration really is needed. Most rental cars will need to be worked like a racing car and passing trucks and slower cars at more than double their speed takes some getting used to also. Certainly, there is no room for fiddling with your cell phone.
If you have done that, the beginning of the Nurburgring will seem less intimidating. Otherwise, you will be overwhelmed by the shock of entering onto the track where everyone is driving like its a half-mile drag race to the first complex of bends. It’s downright frightening.
I recommend a ride in a Ringtaxi before you attempt the ring on your own.
Ten years ago, BMW had a “Ringtaxi” service, the premise was simple: go for a ride with an experienced pro driver in a BMW. Our lap was in a white E60 M5 driven by a former DTM driver. Since then a broad range of Ringtaxi services have developed which offer hot-laps aboard GT3s and race prepped SLS’. Usually, these taxis are the fastest thing on track.
We opted for the Bridge to Gantry race taxi. We dealt with Dale and Marie and rode in the blue XJR.
Our driver, Dale, delivered an impressive drive. However, between the corners and elevation changes, the Ringtaxi felt rapid, and it made me physically sick. Dale noticed me looking a bit green and suggested a place to stop, but thankfully, my limited breakfast saved its reappearance until after I had exited the back seat of the Jag.
PRO TIP: Make sure you call “Shotgun” ahead of your riding buddies and take the front seat.
I thoroughly recommend Bridge to Gentry.
Track Car Rental
It is incredibly tempting to take your rental car out on the track. After all, for the inexperienced driver, narrow tires along with front-wheel drive, understeer, and low-power are the best way to learn the circuit – not to mention putting all that wear and tear on someone else’s car. For a time it was possible to get away with this – contracts had “no motorsports or track use” clauses, but because the Nurburgring is a one-way toll road, it could be argued it was not a track.
However, rental companies caught on, and about ten years ago began to include specifically-anti Nurburgring clauses in their contracts. Stories had circulated on forums about rental company spies at the track looking for their cars, some people suggested flying into somewhere far from the track – Spain, or Italy – where you might get a contract without a Nurburgring clause that way. Some have been tempted to fix a fake plate on the rental, but in the event of a colossal wreck, the last thing your injured self and worried family need are to be told you weren’t covered by insurance. It would be even worse if the German police were mad at you for having fake number plates.
The catastrophic cost of an off-track excursion sharpens the mind considerably! The circuit charges 10,000 euro for every 10 meters of armco they need to replace – even if the car is 100-percent covered – and more to tow your rental off the track.
So, we opted to rent cars specifically for use at the track. Similar to the Ring taxi, there are many options available to do this. We used Ringfreaks, located in a small town inside the circuit. Ringfreaks rent a range of cars from E36 325s to E90 325s and 330s in addition to the Clio we used. These cars feel like racing cars – loud, crude, roll cages, they are road legal, and you drive them to and from the track.
Given our limited skill, we chose a Clio RS200 – a french Fiesta ST – so we could concentrate on predictable understeer rather than battling oversteer on an already dangerous circuit unaware of where the road goes when you reach that next crest or around the bend.
Ringfreaks Renault Clio RS200 Specifications:
|Car options||V3 / RS3||2018||2.0L, 4-inline, 200 hp||6 speed manual||1020 kg|
The ringfreaks.de process included a warm-up video with the usual “don’t over rev the cars, please. Please stay right.”
Ringfreaks also prep and store cars for out of town clients, so a potter around the warehouse was impressive, yielding a Skyline GTR, an Evo 10, a Radical amongst the M3s and 911s.
They also supply onboard film of your laps inclusive of the experience, but it’s not much of a bonus if, like me, you watch your video wincing at your horrible lines and timid use of the throttle and brakes.
Driving the Clio on the road was memorable, in a driving-a-trashed-Geo-Metro-without-AC -in-100 degree-weather kind of way. You felt like a racecar driver in the caged car, and of course, on the track, it provides massive reassurance. But tootling around town to get some gas, it is uncomfortable and restrictive. All the touch points were worn and broken, like the worst Crown Victoria cab you have ever sat in.
But all the flaws disappeared when you got out on the track, I can’t emphasize that enough. With all those race bits – semi-slick tires, race brakes, the stiffening provided by the cage – it had all the cornering potential I needed to improve my skills. Although we had manual transmission cars, automatics actually allow for improved concentration and more speed. But you knew that from playing computer games, right?
I would recommend this Ringfreaks without hesitation.
Full disclosure: We paid full price, only mentioning we were writing about the experience as we returned the car at the end of the day.
The way to time laps is from “Bridge to Gantry.” We did not time our laps, we just tried to survive. At least that’s what we told ourselves and our spouses. In reality, I had a personal challenge: to drive to the best of my ability, to do better than last time. I didn’t realize how important that was to me until I had done four or five laps: my first lap was with an instructor, and the next two were so “feeling my way” I emerged from the Clio frustrated. But the last two, I found a zone, drove well, and felt terrific about the experience.
My instructor was a racing driver who Ringfreaks contracts occasionally. He was in his late twenties, slightly overweight, and a cigarette smoker with a laconic manner and excellent English. The advice he offered was very much aimed at improving your existing skills and keeping everyone safe. The first thing he had for me was a gem: “In this car, learning like you are, you only really need 4th and 5th gears.” He also hammered the “stay right” message.
The key to the Ring is knowing the course. I found I began to learn certain sections which could then be “attacked.” The bits where you’re thinking “OK, that bad right-hander is coming up soon, but I dunno when….” then you need to be going consciously slowly, well within yourself. You MUST remember which section you’re on, and it is easy to forget.
Practice on the Playstation helps in that it tells you where the track goes, but parts which are flat in the game, are not in real life. Even sections where the car can be flat, you might not want to be. Many sections are designed to catch you out – a left-hand kink can be taken at 100mph, but you’ll never get it stopped for the hard right following, so you need to shed some speed before the curve. The section immediately proceeding it allows any car to get close to its maximum speed, despite being curving and undulating.
If it sounds a bit wild, it should: there is nowhere else in the world quite like this.
While the track is scary fast, a slow car makes it accessible, and so can be more fun than a fast car, where any mistakes you make will take place at higher speed with less time for you to react.
The speed at the Nurburgring is not about the car you have, but about the lines you use, and how long you hold the throttle open for. You will pass people in Porsches and M3s, and be passed by people in 3 cylinder Fiestas. There is no room for pride, only a crystal clear understanding of your skills or lack thereof.