Thursday, September 23, 2010

Respect the ‘Ring!

For nearly two weeks Margo and I had been driving around Europe on business and yet we still found time for some much-anticipated downtime. As chance would have it, we were able to spend a day and a half at Germany’s Grüne Hölle, the world famous Nordschleife, or North Loop, of the Nürburgring! The name Grüne Hölle, or Green Hell, is a reference to how it was once described by former F1 driver, Sir Jackie Stewart. Located within the Eifel forest that separates Germany from Belgium, the Nürburgring winds its way through dense woodlands for 21 kilometers, or 13 miles and, with elevation changes of almost a thousand feet, it’s an absolute must for anyone with an interest in cars. The picture at the top of the page is of our first evening in the township of Nürburg.

This adventure started at Frankfurt airport where we had landed ten days earlier. We rented a car, as I was to meet with business colleagues in Munich and Mainz, and wanted to visit Lake Garda and Lake Como in Northern Italy. Having crossed the Alps to get to these lakes, it seemed a simple step to then push on towards Nice and to spend the weekend on the French Riviera, the Côte d'Azur. While I had been a passenger many times in Germany this was the first time I actually occupied the seat behind the steering wheel.

Our first surprise on arriving at the car rental desk in Frankfurt was to find that the automatic Mercedes Benz C200 we had requested wasn’t available and that we had been “upgraded” to a 6-speed manual BMW 318 diesel. Little did we know at the time how beneficial this was going to be, but at the time, Margo was none too pleased. Our second surprise was how little of the much beloved German Autobahn remains unrestricted, where you can drive your car flat out. Much of the Autobahn these days is limited to 130 kilometers / hour and frequently we ran across limits as low as 100 kph – yes, this represents speeds of 90 mph on down to about 60 mph and a far cry from what we had been hoping for…

We hadn’t come to check out the Autobahns, or to see how fast we could drive on public roads. While the towns and villages we passed through had a certain charm and the early signs of autumn were clearly visible, sight-seeing wasn’t our priority either. What we did come to try however, was the Nürburgring and as we sat down to dinner each night the discussions quickly turned to what was yet to come – and with each passing day it was harder to hide our mounting excitement!

We had contracted with a local Nürburg company, Ron Simons Racing (RSR), that rents track-ready cars. RSR is more than just a race car rental company, however, as it develops complete programs and it really is the best place to start for any first-time visitors to the ‘Ring. Following numerous email exchanges with proprietor Ron Simons, he put together a program for us that would see us driving the Nürburgring in a Lotus Exige S 240. Pulling up outside the RSR premises, we could see the car already prepared and it was proving ever more difficult to mask our excitement. The picture above is of Margo and our friend, Jan Kenny, relaxing in the drivers lounge.

Starting with a two hour guided tour of the Nürburgring in the Lotus we would be driving, we were given our first opportunity to look at the track and to view a selection of critical corner sequences. Thomas Lennackers, a former BMW test driver and now an instructor with RSR, walked us through the racing lines and provided us with cues on braking areas and turn-in points and these tips were to prove very helpful. The following day we would be venturing onto the track and participate in a closed track-day session where we could drive as many laps as we liked. The Grüne Hölle would no longer be an image on our computer screens, but be right there, under our wheels! The more we talked with Thomas, the more we came to understand how the ‘Ring demands respect.

From the time we had landed in Frankfurt we had been watching the weather and as the afternoon progressed, we could see a system moving in from the northwest. The following morning we had to get to the RSR premises by 7:00 am and be ready for a drivers briefing at 8:00am but, as we departed our hotel, all we could see was rain! As we pulled into the RSR car park, our cars were already up on lifts and tire changes were being carried out at a rapid clip. Off came the slicks we drove on yesterday and on went the more heavily grooved rain tires.

We had missed catching Ron the day before as he had been on the other side of the Eifel Mountains with another group of drivers lapping the almost-as-famous Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps – the site of the F1 Belgium Grand Prix. This morning however, he was back at the facility and leading the driver briefing. About thirty drivers participated and as he went through the inventory of cars that would be heading to the track he paused and asked who would be driving the Lotus cars and upon seeing us, requested we stay behind for an additional briefing. “This track can kill you,” he started, “you will be better off if you delay your arrival and let the track dry out!” The picture above is of me tentatively driving the Lotus out of the RSR garage the previous afternoon.

Joining us for the event were our good friends from Simi Valley, Brian and Jan Kenny, fellow Corvette drivers with whom we have spent many weekends at tracks in California and Colorado. They had arrived in Germany a day ahead of us and had joined us for our weekend on the Côte d'Azur. They were much more experienced drivers and they weren’t in any hurry to get onto a wet track. An hour later, we gingerly stepped into the cars and carefully drove the short distance to the paddock that led onto the track.

After a little nervous banter and watching a couple of cars returning, a lot worse for wear on top of flat-bed recovery trucks, we ventured out through the staging area and onto the track. The circuit is entered about two-thirds down the main straight via a short “hot pit,” and we let Brian and Jan lead the way. Upon entry, this straight ends with a high-speed dog-leg turn to the left that opens onto a short straight before rounding a right hand turn, followed almost immediately by a tight left hand that then propels you into the flat right hand turn that leads to the start / finish line. Crossing the start / finish line for the first time, the full impact of trying to comprehend what 13 miles of track can throw at you finally hit home. The picture below is of both of us standing in front of a track map looking anxiously around as other cars begin to head out onto the track.

The plan had been to run a series of two-lap sessions with myself behind the wheel for the first session and then Margo taking over for the next two-lap session. In this way, Margo would at least get her first view of the track from the passenger seat. Merging onto the straight for the very first time as we headed to the start / finish line we were immediately given a taste of reality as a number of Porsche’s passed us in a blur as they came to the end of the long straight, driven perhaps as much as 100 mph faster than what we were doing. And it just didn’t let up!

Mixing it up with us during that first session were groups of Porsche 911 Turbos and GT3s, as well as the occasional GT2. There were a handful of BMW M3s – far fewer than we had expected – but many more Ferraris including the new F458s and even a new 599 GTO. We sighted our first Aston Martin V12 Vantage and there was a Mercedes Benz SLS Gullwing and both were competing rather aggressively with the Porsches. The real surprise however was just how many Nissan GT-Rs there were circulating on the track, as well as a smattering of Corvettes and a lone Hennessey Viper. Rarely seen on the Autobahns, but watching them routinely pull away from us, these “imports” were certainly more than holding their own against their German and Italian brethren.

Ron had gone to great pains to let us know how dangerous the track would be and how costly any mishap would prove – particularly as this was a track day where there were no speed limits. Every apex would be aggressively attacked and holding the “race line” meant nothing whatsoever as the much faster race cars pushed past us on either side. Having a passenger proved to be an advantage as they could watch the mirrors and call out cars as they approached – “there’s two on the right and one on the left!” And perhaps much worse – “there’s a train of ten or more cars coming and they are hotly contesting positions all around us!” In time however, and as the nerves began to settle down, our speeds began to climb and the passing moves became a lot more predictable.

My goal for the first session was to see if I could build on the basics – look for the corner exits and then work backwards to pick up the apex and brake and turn-in accordingly. Thomas had given us a lot of advice the day before, but during the first lap, there was little time to even think about track position. However, as we started the second lap, the brain began to slow everything down and I was able to recognize some corner sequences and begin to drive more smoothly. Pulling off the track and into the paddock for a driver change, with the car undamaged, was a wonderful feeling!

Margo was quick to jump into the driver’s seat and wasted no time in pulling back onto the track. The picture above is of Margo heading out of the paddock for the first time and looking for the entrance into the hot pits. Having viewed the track for two laps, once out on the track she improved more quickly than I had been able to do, and seemed at ease behind the wheel. Driving the manual BMW rental car for a couple of days was proving to be beneficial as she smoothly executed gear changes. But once again, Margo set the ground rules when it came to no uninvited comments, and I had to bite my tongue and just let her drive. All the same this was hard on me as I wanted to give her a few pointers after my own time behind the wheel. Unfortunately, with all that was happening on the track, she let me know in no uncertain terms, that my input was proving to be anything but helpful!

Brian and Jan had asked to have their Lotus equipped with a multi-camera video set-up and, after lunch, we strapped ourselves into their “video car”. Grateful for the opportunity, we would each do a single lap and record it as evidence that we had survived the Grüne Hölle! I drove the first lap – but this time, having earlier completed a lap as a passenger with Brian, and getting a better perspective of the track, I upped my game and pulled onto the track carrying more speed and then I held the gas down hard through the dog leg before entering the turns that took us across the start / finish line.

Knowing that the video would be recording everything, I tried a little harder and I thought I was really motoring! That is, until the train of race cars blew past! The more aggressive racers would quickly disappear around a corner but every now and then, one of the cars that passed me wouldn’t be quite as fast and this allowed me to follow them for a couple of corners and observe their lines. Continuing to lap the circuit in this manner and looking for the cues Thomas had pointed out the previous afternoon, I began to develop more consistency and my confidence grew considerably. Margo was really impressed with my driving, and gave me a number of “thumbs up”. By the time I came onto the final long straight I really began to feel more at ease with the track and as we did the driver change, I was sure Margo would do well too! The picture below is of Margo anxious to get around to the driver’s side of the Lotus.

And doing well she did! With even more laps under her belt, Margo went after it, but this time, on a dry track, the other drivers were becoming even more aggressive and there was barely an unchallenged apex for her to work with. There were still many Porsches, Ferraris and Corvettes mixing it up on the track but from where I sat, it looked like Margo was taking it all in her stride. At one point she was determined to hold her line and claim the apex – so much so that she closed the door abruptly on a Porsche GT3 that forced the driver to stand on their brakes. Go Margo! It wouldn’t be until much later, after we viewed the video, that we would see the other cars lapping in the 8 to 9 minute range, perhaps some a little faster, as we cruised, relatively speaking, recording more leisurely times some 3 to 4 minutes off the pace.

In the final sessions of the afternoon and with the track completely dry, Margo did another two laps while I completed one more, before the gas needle began to hover on empty. Entertaining ourselves on the Grüne Hölle, as we had done, and concentrating as hard as we did the whole time - terrified about joining the scenery - left us with very little energy. Completely exhausted we elected to end the day at the local gas station picking up souvenirs. Will we return? Are there more laps still left in us?

Laguna Seca is a beautiful track and the circuits at Willow Springs and the Auto Club Speedway provide challenges. But all of them fade into the background when compared to the Nürburgring Nordschleife and so, perhaps yes, if the opportunity presents itself again, we will be back! About that, I have no doubt and the respect we developed for the ‘Ring will be with us for as long as we continue driving our cars!