Monday, May 14, 2007

13 May: Return of the Ring Fever!

We were up bright and early to prepare for our departure for the Nürburgring. Gert drove up in his new dark silver convertible Mini at seven o’clock sharp and we all piled into the E-Class for the three-hour drive. I took the backseat and caught a few minutes of shuteye en route while John and Gert talked about Chrysler rumors and the thrills of working at Mercedes.

When we were about an hour away I turned on my cell phone to call Jürgen and found that he had already called me and left a text message. I called him back and told him we were 70 km away. He was staying with his family about 45 minutes from the track, so he said he would meet us at the Grüne Hölle (the restaurant at the entrance gate) at 10:00. We had to backtrack to find gas on the Autobahn so we arrived a few minutes late. (John insisted on finding a gas station where he could use his DaimlerChrysler credit card, as he wants to milk Mercedes for every penny!) I simply had to take this picture at the gas station (right) of a McDonald's, a strip club (the sign below "Erotic" says Erdbeermund, or "Strawberry Mouth") and a 24-hour casino, just to prove that the global decline in moral values is evident even in Germany.The weather was looking good – cool with some patchy clouds. The parking lot was not as busy as last time and we found a parking space easily, then located Jürgen socializing with some other bikers outside the restaurant. He was wearing a black leather one-piece Alpinestars suit, which he had to wear all day because he didn’t bring a change of clothes. He was riding his slightly battered blue-and-orange Yamaha, as he subscribes to the philosophy that one should not spend a fortune on one’s motorcycles, especially when one frequents the Nürburgring. (Remember, this is the guy who couldn’t tell me how many times he has crashed on the track!) Needless to say, despite the old bike, I would not be surprised if he was one of the faster guys out there today.

John was going to buy a 4-lap ticket at first but Jürgen convinced him to buy an 8-lap ticket since it is more economical and Jürgen could always use any laps that we had left over on another day. The photo at right shows the booth where you buy your tickets. If you want to pay cash you can use the Kassenautomat out front. John drove first, of course, with Jürgen as his trusty co-pilot. The next photo shows the entrace gate, with emergency workers and an ambulance waiting on the sidelines. Less than two minutes into our first lap we saw our first crash of the day – a dark green Lexus SC that some guy had slammed up against the wall only moments before. (We ended up seeing fewer crashes today than last time – a BMW Z3 that spun out and scraped the wall and a minor motorcycle accident, and two more that I will discuss later.) Jürgen must have been a little tired this morning because he kept mixing up right and left. Fortunately his hand signals are always on the mark and his most useful guidance is whether the next turn is “fast” (meaning you can coast through it without breaking or even accelerate a little) or “less fast” (meaning you need to tap the brakes), or “ very tight” (meaning you’d better slow down or you are going to end up slammed up against the wall just like that BMW!).

John did his laps with the traction control off and used the paddle shifters to manually override the automatic transmission. This can be tricky because once you have shifted manually, you have to hold the “up” paddle for a couple seconds before it switches back to fully automatic mode. The E-Class performed surprisingly well with four people in it – the tires had excellent grip, and the suspension, while a bit softer than we would prefer, held up to the rough-and-tumble nature of the track and was not so squishy that we were being thrown around too much in the back. The photo at right is a John's-eye-view of the final straightaway. After two laps, we decided to take a break and let the brakes cool off. John, Gert and I had coffee in the restaurant while Jürgen did a lap on his bike. He was back in no time at all, and then we watched some of the paddock action for a while. The BMW M5 “Ring Taxis” were out today but there was no sign of Sabine Schmidt, the "Queen of the 'Ring." There was also a bright red Viper taking individuals out for the tidy sum of 270 Euro per lap! We went out for two more laps as a light rain began to fall. I never looked at my watch once today, so I have no idea what kind of times we were doing - which is for the best. On one lap John came up on a bright orange PT Cruiser with flames painted on its sides; he went to pass on the left in a curvy section and we had our only real scare of the day – the PT Cruiser started drifting towards us and we barely made it, John had to cut the corner really tight, and we barely made it through cleanly.

We stopped again just after noon, and drove over to the Bike World shop where we had lunch last year. I had my favorite “death by schnitzel” – breaded pork smothered in mushroom cream sauce, with a pile of salty french fries and a side salad. Jürgen insisted on buying our lunch since he used one of our laps. After lunch we returned to the paddock area, I visited the restroom one last time (how could I forget Jürgen’s warning from last year about not getting into an accident with a full bladder?), and then hopped into the driver’s seat for my first turn around the ‘Ring. The rain had disappeared and the track was pretty clear. I must say I had butterflies in my stomach as I stuck the card into the reader, but as soon as that gate opens you are fully committed! I had already decided not to worry about shifting and just focus on my line. I also left the traction control on, which did wonders – I could barely tell I was driving a rear-wheel drive car; in fact, it felt uncannily similar to my old Audi A4, only, well, a bit bigger.

As usual, Jürgen’s calm instructions made the experience much more enjoyable than it would be without a guide. By this time I knew I could trust him when he said a turn was “fast,” but it is still hard to let yourself plough full-speed into a turn when you can’t see through to the other side (or over the crest of the next hill). I agreed with John that the 20.8-km track didn’t feel quite as endless as it did on our first visit, and driving an automatic was much easier.

After two laps we stopped for another break and were chatting in the paddock when we heard them announce over the loudspeakers that the track had to be closed due to an accident (we later found out that it involved two cars and no injuries). Not knowing how long it would take to clean up, we decided to drive over to the Formula 1 track to take a look around. Unfortunately the café there was closed so we didn’t get to look out at the track, but we wandered around a bit and visited the fan shop (where John and I bought a hat and three posters). On the way back we drove up the hill to Burg Nürburg, a very atmospheric castle with pointy turrets, where Gert bought a postcard and stole a piece of the castle (he collects both).

We could hear cars running from the castle, so we knew the track was open again. We drove back to the paddock and I headed out for my third and final lap of the day. Gert says he thought I was as fast as John on that last lap. It was exhilarating (even if I did get passed by about six motorcycles that made me feel like I was standing still)! When we got back to the paddock we saw a silver E-Class wagon come limping into the carpark with a smashed-up front fender. The car was packed with people and a trunk-load of luggage. It looked like some family had decided to take a spin around the Ring on their vacation and gotten into a spot of trouble. We also saw an S-Class and a couple of C-Classes in the parking lot but I don’t think we saw a single SLK today. There seemed to be a lot of BMWs and Audis, the usual garishly colored Porsche GT3s, a couple of Evos, a couple of Lotuses, and quite a few Ford Foci, but not quite the level of exotica that we had seen on our last visit. We did pass a tour bus on the track again, but the prize for slowest passenger car of the day must go to the slate blue Citröen 2CV!

Jürgen was itching to take another lap or two on his bike, and he wanted us to get some pictures of him, but he hesitated because he felt that he would be trying to impress us and might do something stupid. I pointed out that if he was going slower I would get better pictures of him. Finally his Ring fever got the best of him and we followed him over to one of the spectator viewing areas, where he left us, promising to come back after “one lap, maybe two.” We were at the 16 km point on the course so we had to try to estimate how long it would take him to ride back to the paddock, buy a ticket, and get to our point on the track. We watched anxiously with eyes peeled, hoping we would recognize his bright red helmet coming over the crest of the hill. As it turns out he was pretty easy to spot and I got a good sequence of photos while John took a video. (Note how ridiculously far he leans over in the turn; yes, that is his knee brushing the track in the second photo.) Unfortunately I didn’t have my zoom with me – if we manage to come back one more time with Jürgen, I will be sure to bring it. We weren't surprised at all when he came around again about eight minutes later, and when he returned to our viewing spot he was grinning from ear to ear. We hung out there for a while longer so he could cool off and then decided to call it a day, as it was approaching 5:00. We said our goodbyes to Jürgen and he extended an open invitation for us to come to his house and “drive” the Nürburgring on his Playstation setup, complete with an old Mercedes R-Class seat, steering wheel, and pedals. (All kidding aside, this is actually a great way to get to know the track safely and practice at the same time!)

The drive home was uneventful. Frau Dörr walked Cody for us today but he was still quite happy to see us when we got home just after 8:00.

No comments: