True driving enthusiasts interested in pushing cars to their limits know that a high-speed lap around the notorious Nurburgring Nordschleife is about as close to motoring’s Holy Grail as it’s going to get.
Itself built at a lightening pace between 1925 and 1927, the Ring was designed as both a race circuit and test track to allow Europe’s top motoring badges to test prototypes on a quick and uncompromising course.
When not used for either purpose, the general public was permitted onto the hallowed tarmac to enjoy a rare opportunity to push their privately owned vehicles to performance peaks.
Thankfully, that practice continues today because the Ring is, quite simply, the ultimate driving experience.
Just under twenty-one kilometres and boasting150 corners – the majority of them blind with little or no run off – the Nürburgring adds up to the most challenging circuit in the world, bar none.
It’s a fact that’s been widely acknowledged by top racing drivers from all eras.
Former three-time Formula One world champion Jackie Stewart famously dubbed it ‘The Green Hell’ after his victory there at the 1968 German Grand Prix in atrocious conditions.
Belgian driver Jacky Ickx described driving at Nurburgring as the highest possible challenge and a symbol of pure driving.
But ultimately, the Ring’s notorious temperament excluded it as the venue for the German Grand Prix in 1976 following Niki Lauda’s fiery crash in 1976.
It’s not just the extraordinary distance you need to cover in a single lap or the 41 different compositions that make up the tarmac which make this course so tough. It’s more the fact that on any given day, the weather can play havoc with one’s ability to negotiate this place safely.
It’s quite possible for the sun to be shining on the circuit at the starting point, just for it to become wet and greasy in the middle and snowing further on.
It’s these varying and unpredictable conditions that test even the best racing drivers in the world.
People perish here all the time, mostly during the public sessions. By last count, it was an average of one fatality each week the track was open.
That’s most days after 5:00pm in the warmer months.
You can’t learn it in a day, either. As mentioned, around 80 per cent of the corners are blind and you don’t know how sharp they are or where the critical braking points are until you’ve driven hundreds of real-world laps around this place with plenty of professional instruction.
While video games such as Grand Turismo and Forza can go some way in familiarising you with the track layout, they simply don’t give you a real feeling for the multiple elevation changes.
The track descends 300 metres in 8 kilometres and climbs back up in less than 5 kilometres. And you best keep off the kerbs no matter how tempting they might be – they have been known to flip a car.
Yes, several are safe to ride but the trick is to know which ones, especially in the wet.
I’ve driven here several times before, clocking up around 30-40 laps (placing me firmly in the novice club); the previous occasion in a fast-moving Hyundai Veloster Turbo during a torrential downpour.
It’s not something I’d recommend for first-time drivers here, unless you’ve got an accomplished Ringmiester such as the well-known ring queen Sabine Schmitz or Belgian racer Dirk Shoysman riding shotgun and talking you through each and every metre of the Nordschliefe, as I was lucky enough to experience previously.
Sabine is famous for piloting a Ford Transit van around the Nordschleife at breakneck speed with Top Gear’s Richard Hammond in the passenger’s seat, as well as notching up over 18,000 laps here.
If you don’t want to drive, then Sabine will take you around the Ring on a hot lap in her very own Porsche GT3 RS.
Failing that, your best bet is to sign up with a specialised Ring school such as RSR Nurburb (as we chose to do on our most recent visit here), which can not only provide a broad range of properly-prepared performance cars from a Renault Sport Clio Cup through to a full blown Porsche GT3 Cup racer, but also offer valuable instruction on how best to tackle this daunting track.
You best pay special attention to RSR’s video presentation, which shows in graphic detail what can happen when things go horribly wrong. Tragedy happens here with alarming regularity.
But it’s not just self-preservation that’s at stake. Any altercation with another vehicle or the ubiquitous Armco is likely to hit your wallet hard.
RSR is quick to point out that everything here has a price. The Armco is charged out at about 1000 Euro per three-metre section. It’s another couple of thousand to have your car towed from the track, and even more for the clean-up cost.
Then there’s the requirement by the Nurburgring management to make up for lost revenue due to track closure during the recovery process.
For much of the time, the Nordschleife still acts as the ultimate proving ground for many of the world’s most successful car manufacturers such as BMW, Jaguar Land Rover and even Hyundai, who have established multimillion dollar test centres trackside.
More importantly, the public sessions are alive and well at the Ring and that means anyone and everyone who can afford the 26 Euro for a lap has the same right to drive here.
Take it from me, one lap won’t be nearly enough to satisfy so save time and load up your Ring card with at least six (that’s almost 125kms) – even then, you’ll want more.
Its legal status during these open sessions is that of a one-way public toll-road with absolutely no speed limit, though standard German road traffic laws apply. That means staying to the right unless being overtaken.
Indeed, the RSR video also spells out what to do if you have fast-moving traffic closing in: move to the right and indicate right, which lets the overtaking vehicle know that you’ve seen them.
However, don’t be surprised to see the odd Winnebago or classic VW Kombi tootling around the Nurburgring, either. Full-size tourist coaches are also fair game on this revered circuit.
But Germany’s enlightened road rules mean that even our commute from Germany’s financial centre, Frankfurt to the Ring was a highlight.
The distance is about 175km, but in our base model Mercedes-Benz C-Class 180, the journey proved to be a relatively short sprint at a perfectly legal 200km/h cruising speed
Our weapon of choice for the Ring was a personal favourite – the Renault Megane RS265.
Armed with a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission, this superbly engineered hot hatch produces a 195kW and 360Nm of torque.
Sure, there are plenty of quicker cars on offer, but with the semi-wet conditions across at least half the circuit, accomplished Ring driver and RSR boss Ron Symons agrees the Renault offers a brilliant driving experience for the conditions.
You’ll need a helmet, and RSR strongly advises that the electronic stability control system remains on in the wet.
Any intentions you might have had of taking it easy for the first lap or two vanish the very moment the boom gate rises and you’re flatfooting on the Ring proper.
It’s a busy evening on the Ring, but right from the get-go we have our crosshairs firmly on a race-prepped 3-Series up ahead.
It’s always good to try and get clean road before you hit the ultrafast Hatzenbach curve, as it’s no fun being held up here.
The Megane’s six-speed manual box is superb – short, sharp shifts matched to a beautifully set pedal box making heal and toe downshifts a cinch.
The brakes though can take a serious pounding around here, so just make sure the car is standing as straight as possible, particularly as you approach those nasty off-camber turns.
Suddenly, that 3 series appears again out of nowhere, but still well behind and the high-speed Flugplatz section is looming and we make the decision to let it pass.
There’s the possibility of puddles on the exit, as well as our fear of pushing too hard and becoming completely unstuck.
These are tricky conditions, with perfectly dry tarmac in one corner and wet and slippery wet on the next. We almost lose it in one of the slowest corners – just a fraction too much lock on turn in – and to make matters worse, it’s raining again.
Mind, while we’re not going for lap times, the Megane carries plenty of speed through the notorious left-hand bend before Bergwerk – made famous as the spot where Lauda crashed his Ferrari.
It’s also the spot where we encounter a slower-moving Ferrari 430, which we dismissed with unusual ease – we’ll put that down to the extra slippery surface today.
There’s more rain falling and the Ring is getting even more slippery. Thank god for ESP, after several close calls in succession.
You’ll really need to watch the right-hand hairpin before the legendary and very narrow Steilstrecke section. It’s a very late turn in and you can’t see the exit or the slight left, which is all but hidden.
The 180-degree Karussell bend is probably the most famous section of the Nordscleife, and particularly dangerous if taken too fast, especially on the exit.
More than a few over-zealous drivers carrying too much speed have been catapulted into the Armco here.
It’s also hard to find the perfect approach and entry, and the rough surface can play havoc with stability control systems, which in our case is flashing like a strobe light.
I’ve already forgotten which kerbs are safe to ride and which aren’t – but whatever you do, keep well away from the cobblestones and kerbs after the Pflanzgarten as they are way too aggressive to be useful.
Special attention is also required at the Galgenkopf (‘Gallows Head’). Although it can be taken quickly, you’ll need a good sense of speed, especially in the wet. The lack of grip here is scary.
It’s almost flat out in the Megane RS265 from Galgenkopf to Hohenrain, but you’ll need to watch your approach speed at the left-hand bend at Antoniusbuche in anything less than ideal conditions.
It’s another full-tilt sprint up to the boom gates on the widest part of the Nurburgring, though there are no flying laps allowed during these public sessions, so you’ll need to ease off and take the short exit on the right before joining the queue for your next 20.8 km lap!
Thankfully, our Nurburgring experience hadn’t ended with our six laps of the Nordschleife.
Ron Simons had invited my colleague and I to dinner with Sabine Schmitz and her partner Klaus Abbelen at the couple’s brand new place called Longhorn, just minutes from the Ring.
It’s a spectacular log cabin-style place (built in Canada and shipped out – log by log) with around six rooms and some great German food – lovingly prepared by the wonderfully friendly Sabine herself.
The problem with driving at the Nurburgring is that its over far too quickly, but at least we had our 200km/h commute back to Frankfurt in the C-Class Merc to come.