Friday, October 12, 2007

15 July: Der Nürburgring, Take Three

In preparation for our third round at the Nürburgring – and our first in the SLK – we stayed up until nearly midnight last night watching videos from YouTube of people doing laps of the course and writing ourselves a set of detailed track notes. This was to be our first time venturing out on the track without Jürgen, our personal guide, so we were a bit freaked out. The co-driver (a.k.a. front passenger) is responsible for calling out information about upcoming turns and where to be on the track, rally style. Our carefully developed track notes thus consist of five pages of instructions that go something like this (the words in parentheses are names of turns):
  • Approaching BRIDGE – stay middle right
  • FAST LEFT; mid-apex; drift right to DIP, then left to curb
  • FAST LEFT
  • FAST RIGHT; mid-apex, drift left (TIERGARTEN)
  • Aim for crash barrier on left, then SLOW RIGHT, stay right (HOHENRAIN)
  • SLOW LEFT, mid-apex, to GP CIRCUIT, stay left
  • SLOW RIGHT, mid-apex, exit left, then drift right

And that’s just the first thirty seconds or so. We practiced it over and over again, fine-tuning the details and arguing over whether a slight bend in the road constituted a real turn or not. It’s hard to get it just right, because you want to call out the instructions well before you get to the turn so you can position the car properly on the track, but not so far in advance that you forget what’s coming up next. Some turns come up so quickly, you barely have time to call anything out before you are on to the next turn and the next instructions. We knew it was going to be a serious challenge.

We had planned to meet Jürgen and Gert (who came along for the ride in the E-Class last time and would be driving his new Mini Cooper for the first time today) at the track around 9:00 this morning. We got off to a late start, however, because I insisted that we get a reasonable night’s sleep, seeing as how we had a three-hour drive before we even got to the track, and then we would need all of our wits about us for the Ring itself. When we finally arrived around 10:30, we knew it was going to be a crazy day because traffic was backed up along the access road leading to the entrance. The main lots were already full, so we had to park in the big dirt overflow lot nearby. By the time we got there, Jürgen and Gert had gone ahead and done a couple of laps in the Mini. Gert had a big grin on his face. Unfortunately, as soon as we arrived, they announced over the broadcast system that the track was closed due to an accident. John bought us an 8-lap ticket and we all went into the Grüne Hölle café for a round of coffees (there’s nothing like a strong shot of caffeine to get you ready for the Ring) to wait for the track to reopen. Then we had to wait in yet another line to get from the parking lot to the entrance gate (photo, right; note Dutch BMW M3 in front of us and all the motorcycles cutting the line on the left).

We finally got out on the track and John did his first two laps. The SLK is a handful to say the least – woefully underpowered on the straightaways and climbs, but decent in tight corners and sweeping curves. Our track notes worked out pretty well, but it makes the experience rather miserable for the person serving as navigator. You have to focus all of your attention on the notes and you basically don’t get to experience the track at all. We noticed that there were very few “normal” cars on the course today, by which I mean your run-of-the-mill passenger cars and sport sedans. Nope, today it was all Porsche GT3s, BMW M3s, and Mitsubishi Evos (see photo of parking lot, above). In other words, today we were driving one of the lower-powered vehicles out there and we were getting passed right and left. We also saw an ancient beat-up VW bus that some guy had outfitted with a Porsche engine and brakes. He passed lots of people, including us.

When I took my turn at the wheel, it was all I could do to keep a halfway decent line while constantly watching in my rear-view mirror for overtaking traffic. It seemed like every last hot-headed Brit and Dutch guy possessing a reasonably fast car (with our without the experience necessary to drive it on a racetrack) had descended on the Ring today. It is extremely difficult to concentrate on technique when you are constantly having to pull over to let yet another Porsche or Evo pass. The fact that we have an Evo sitting at home in our garage in Michigan was never far from our minds. And as for my shifting…well, we just won’t talk about that. It was also miserably hot, and when I got out of the car after two laps, my back was completely soaked with sweat! I wouldn’t have cared except that all the other women were dressed in skimpy summer outfits and sandals and they gave me and my sweat-soaked shirt some odd looks. You can tell whether a woman is driving by the shoes she is wearing. Needless to say, I didn’t see any other women driving today.

We took a break for lunch around midday during yet another track closure. We went back to our usual lunch spot at Bike World for salads and pizzas on the terrace. It was Sunday, so sadly they didn’t have the shop open for the guys to salivate over the bikes. There was a bright orange Porsche GT3 with German plates in the parking lot, on which someone had scrawled in black (presumably washable) marker, among other things, this poignant thought: "To own a GT3 and never drive it on a track is like never f**k a supermodel."

Just as we arrived back at the track, we heard the telltale sound of the loudspeakers crackling – yes, it was closed again. John and I each managed to squeeze in one more lap, at which point I was starting to get more than a bit freaked out by the total insanity going on around us. I can manage my own driving just fine, it’s the lunatics passing me that I'm worried about. We drove over to one of the spectator areas to watch the madness for a while and got a couple of good video clips that might give a better picture than mere words can of the overall atmosphere on the track. It was getting on in the afternoon and the traffic was just getting crazier and crazier. The BMW M5 Ring Taxis were out in force and some of them were drifting around the turn in front of us, making for some pretty spectacular audiovisual effects.

Here's a video of a yellow Mitsubishi Evo and some other cars going by:

video

Here's a pretty crazy clip of a whole clump of cars coming around the turn together:

video

If you'd like to ride along for a lap of the Ring in a Mazda 3MPS, click here:

Lap of the Nürburgring

(You can also get this video off the Auto Express website and hear a bit of audio commentary from one of their reporters while watching the same lap. I can't get a direct link to the video to work, so you have to go to www.autoexpress.co.uk, type "Nurburgring" in the search box (without the umlaut or "ue") and it should come up with two videos, one of which is "Lap of the Nurburgring" from May 2007.)

Jürgen had squeezed in a few laps on his bike while Gert did a couple laps alone and even Jürgen admitted that it was pretty crazy out there today. I finally gave John a look and said, maybe we should save our last two laps for another day and just call it quits while we are ahead. Jürgen said, “That sounds like a very good idea,” so I knew it was a good idea, because if anyone knows a thing or two about taking risks, it’s Jürgen. John reluctantly agreed. We stayed to watch from the sidelines for a while longer and then packed up and headed out.

We had time on the way home to take the scenic route down the Rhine River. I have of course heard great things about the castles along the Rhine, but I had no idea there were so many of them! We got off the Autobahn near Boppard and headed down the west side of the river, through the picture-perfect villages of Sankt Goar, Oberwesel, and Bacharach. I know many people prefer the quiet serenity of the Mosel to the Rhine, but what the Rhine Valley lacks in scenic vineyards it makes up for in impressive fortresses and crumbling ruins. We must have passed close to a dozen castles in that stretch of no more than 50 km – Burg Sterrenberg, Burg Liebenstein, Burg Maus, Burg Katz, Burg Rheinfels, Burg Marksburg (photo, right), Alte Burg, Burg Schönburg (which I recognized as a highly-recommended castle hotel), Burg Gutenfels, Burg Pfalz (the famous castle on an island in the middle of the Rhine, from which river tolls were collected)it was unbelievable! We didn’t have time to stop, so I had to make do with snapping quick photos out the window and making John promise to come back sometime before we leave Germany. We took a pretty road over the hills back to Rheinböllen, where we hooked up with the Autobahn again and headed home.

We came away today with our Ring Fever somewhat satiated and, as always, in awe of the challenges of the Nürburgring, although with less respect for some of the idiots who choose to drive it!



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