The grisly history, the reputation, the sheer difficulty. The Nordschleife’s reputation goes before it – the 14-mile route as stern a test as the world’s motorsport tracks can throw at the ambitious driver. A test of mettle, skill and concentration that brings with it a lingering reminder of mortality at every corner. It is perhaps the ultimate test.
Once a Grand Prix track, it was abandoned in the 80s following safety concerns – Niki Lauda’s horrendous accident as recently relayed in Rush being perhaps the most notable. Sir Jackie Stewart coined the term ‘Green Hell’ for the Nordschleife, a reference to the unending evergreens that surround the track on all sides of the lengthy, challenging, treacherous course. The utter lack of safety considerations in motorsport 50 years ago led Stewart to ponder whether he would ever see his family again, every time he left for the German GP. The three-time F1-title winner recently remarked that he never completed a lap of the Nordschleife he didn’t have to. “I was always afraid,” he said of racing on the track.
In light of this I am openly nervous, chainsmoking and seeking reassurance from the other drivers. Somehow, for reasons that are not clear, I am the only British journalist in a pack of European bloggers, vloggers and writers. Communication isn’t especially easy, but I soon realise that most are experienced trackday enthusiasts with significant experience of the Green Hell.
When asked about my driving experience and talent, I rated myself a Medium, by which I meant an improvement on the man on the street. I’ve had performance-car training and a fair bit of experience of trackday driving – from hot hatches to supercars and the odd thrash in a single-seater. But it’s clear that my Medium designation has been interpreted as mid-field in any given Formula series; the realisation that they think I’m much better than I am – and are sending me out on a track compared to a particularly leafy afterlife with an advanced group as a result of this self-classification – starts to dawn on me.
The risk of losing face as an auto journalist with poor driving skills is a frightening one, and it’s one that probably weighs on minds more than the prospect of injury, which always seems like a remote one. A well-known journo recently drove a Ferrari FF into a kerb on camera, while a member of the public recently drove a Volvo C30 Polestar into the hay bails at Goodwood (the latter was particularly galling to me given that I was supposed to driving it later that day and had to zoom up the hill in a sedentary S60 D3 instead).
Either possibility fills me with horror, but I’ve never perceived a genuine physical danger like the one I did at the Nürburgring. The briefings don’t help. All race track safety briefings contain warnings about the dangers of driving high-performance cars – and similar warnings about treacherous parts of tracks – but I’ve never heard anything like the warnings that precede a drive around the Nordschleife. CRUSH THE BRAKES, say the posters, in case you slide or get wheels on ‘the green’. The suggestion that if you get it wrong you might die is fairly explicit; if you survive then you’re going to get a heck of a bill. Armco might save your life, but it’s a lot more expensive than a tree.
The rumours about drivers who never return from the Ring – perhaps one a month according to gossip – are constantly at the back of my mind. Stewart’s Green Hell moniker has been gleefully adopted by the various merchandise outlets and hotels nearby, but it’s a rather unpleasant reminder that death can await the unwary driver in this briskly beautiful part of north-west Germany.
I’m driving the Renaultsport Megane 265 Trophy, a fearsome hot hatch channeling a lot of power and torque (265 horses and 265 imperial torques) through its front wheels. It’s good for 158mph and sprints to 62mph in six seconds flat. That morning it has set the track record for the fastest front-wheel drive car at a shade over eight minutes – faster than a KTM X-Bow. Oh, there’s traction control and limited-slip diffs but instead of the usual excitement and anticipation that comes with track driving there is only trepidation and a close inspection of brake callipers. All those warnings and innuendo have got to me and, as an Englishman abroad, I am slightly dazzled by voices I only partly understand in situations both unnerving and unfamiliar.
As we’re driving as part of a Renaultsport enthusiast’s day (many of the fans’ cars have decals defaming other marques, including one that has Calvin and Hobbes urinating on a VW logo) we got out in groups of six or seven; no overtaking, no slowing down to speed up. The RS group laugh and smoke as if they seen it all before. I attempt a little GCSE French and, though I probably sound like the Good Moaning man from ‘Allo ‘Allo they humour me with laughter.
There’s a warning about some frost and possible some wet leaves as we drive to the Nordschleife, crawling along in cars that feel like wild animals straining at the leash. A short wait and we’re accelerating very quickly onto the track then swing into the first corner with tyres squealing. Graffiti’d tarmac races towards and underneath us. A lead car sets the pace and, as I ride as a passenger, it seems like a good speed – fast enough to be enjoyable, not so quick that you need to push your speed, limits or luck in an unfamiliar car. But it’s a left-hand drive and I’ve never even sat in it before, let alone thrashed it around a track. I have, in the past, voiced the opinion that younger journalists with little experience behind them, shouldn’t be given access to powerful cars until they’ve proved themselves. Despite the relative lack of power and the array of safety aids in the Renault, I’m starting to wonder if I should apply that maxim to myself.
What strikes me is just how difficult it is to remember what’s coming next on the Nordschleife. Most tracks can be learned within a few laps: exit strategies, lines of approach, braking points, apexes, cambers, double apexes and so on. I’ve driven Estoril, Brands Hatch, Silverstone and more – there are visual clues everywhere to give you braking points and other signs of reference. Here there is only green. The Nordschleife is unknowable to me. Corners and crests are blind; it’s impossible to envisage the next corner because you can’t remember what it is or how tight, how steep, how fast it will be.
Many corners have double apexes that tighten just as they might unwind. Taking 270-degree banked turn, Karousel, at speed is reminiscent of the same feeling of leaving your brain behind that a sharp bend on a rollercoaster entails. You’ll get air at Flugplatz; get nervous and hit the brakes and, when you land, you’ll veer off the track at speed into the Armco unless your wheels are perfectly aligned.
Pflanzgarten is particularly dangerous: a long straight with a slight kink, a swift drop followed by a quick crest and tight right-hander. You can get air over the small rise, but you need to brake hard shortly afterwards to get your speed right for the turn. It is a trap for the unwary. At Foxhole – a long, swooping dip that ends in a steep left turn – you feel your body compress and force its way into the Megane’s Recaro sports seats. Schwedenkreuz is a fast, off-camber corner – the banking means that the car will slide away from the apex if you carry in too much speed; the tiny crest means the wheels can momentarily break traction and lose contact with the tarmac. Weight transfer and the danger of lifting off or braking means lift-off oversteer comes into play, in which case it’s an appointment with the Armco. There are a million ways to get it wrong here.
A pro driver takes us out to show us the ropes, which helps somewhat. The parts of the track that can be taken flat out are pointed out and the driver chats to us over the screeching tyres. I try to take it in, noting when he changes up and down and in relation to which corners. At several he goes out of his way to signify a particular danger. Suddenly the pro driver hits the brakes hard and loses all his speed. He’d misjudged a corner, he explains – a corner he’s driven hundreds of times. It’s an important reminder that the track can catch out even the experienced driver. I gulp and hope no-one notices.
I defer the first drive to Christian, who has his own helmet. “Christ,” I think. “He’s got his own helmet.” Not only that but he’s driven the track before – for real and on games such as Forza Motorsport. I later learn that most of the enthusiastic track-day drivers have learned the finer points on all the tracks they’ve visited, prior to physically driving them – much like the way football scouts use Champ Manager to assess possible talent – and make a mental note to adopt this strategy going forward.
Having watched Christian effortlessly keep up with the car in front – audibly willing it to go faster so he can explore the possibilities the car has to offer – I go out for my laps and the procession seems noticeably quicker. Presumably the lead driver assumes we’ve learned enough about the track from our briefings. Either that or he’s bored. Either way the RS enthusiasts seem familiar with the track and, presumably, much more in tune with their own Meganes, Clios and Twingos than I am with the Trophy.
Initially I struggle to keep up and my lack of familiarity with the car means I am somehow both cautious and clumsy. I misjudge the speed I take into corners and am constantly caught out by tightening bends and cambers that fight against the car. I am cautious to apply too much power but get the hurry-up from the car behind. The Armco beckons to me, the green run-off areas look absurdly small as I fling the Megane into corners and correct as required. The car strains to channel the power through the front wheels and the active safety aids – which we’ve been forbidden from disconnecting – bleep and light up the dashboard. Tyres squeal and the rev limiter beeps but I can also feel the diff pulling me into corners.
Negotiating this unfamiliar, intimidating track in a left-hand drive hot hatch is testing my limited ability to its, well, limits. Normally I’d give anything for a stick shifter on a track – today I’d kill for an autobox. For a fraction of a second, approaching a rising, blind corner at speed, my mind zones out and goes for a bit of a lie down. The fact that the gearstick is on my right flummoxes me. Third? Fourth? Brake now? Christian make a noise that suggests he’d like to walk back to the start, some three or four miles away. You’re on your own, says my brain.
Reflexes kick in. I brake, change down, turn in, ease off slightly as the Megane understeers for the first time, unable to convey the speed I’ve taken into the corner with the steering inputs I’m latterly attempting, but manage to maintain my speed as the Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tyres regain traction. I accelerate away from the corner as I laugh and Christian does not. There is no let up as I’m struggling to remember what comes next while maintaining distance to the car in front and the car behind.
The train of cars essentially makes me feel like I’ve climbed aboard a rollercoaster and there’s no way off. I don’t manage to get all the corners right, but I don’t overcook or underestimate any on the remainder of my first lap. Essentially, I survive my first lap of the Nordschleife and fling the little car down the back straight, throttle open and engine roaring as I approach 150mph.
The second lap feels easier and I’m coming to terms with what the car can do and which parts of the track to treat with more caution. I ace Karousel, finding my entry and exit points exactly as the pro driver described, and leave at speed. I get noticeable air at Flugplatz and I start hitting apexes. At no point do I really feel, as I usually do, that I’m having fun. I don’t like it, I don’t dislike it – I’m consumed with the demands of simply driving as well as I can and finding some measure of satisfaction in that.
Tootling back to the car-park afterwards I realise that I haven’t spoken in over 20 minutes, apart from a couple of bouts of slightly manic laughter as the Megane squirmed under my clumsy hooning. I am dripping with sweat and have the wheel in a steely grip. I forgot everything I’ve learned about driving quickly, relearned it and slowly remembered, bit by bit, what I should and should not be doing. I drove by instinct – brain making a thousand tiny adjustments every second as it balanced inputs from steering, transmission, traction control, centrifugal forces, tyre squeal and my own fear. We’re at a point where a computer could conceivably drive a car in a similar manner to what I managed. But not on its first try. My own clumsy inputs, at speeds of up to 250kph on perhaps the most dangerous track in the world, kept us alive. I’ve tackled the same tarmac as Lauda, Hunt, Stewart, Moss and Hill. That’s a phenomenal feeling.
But I’ve never found driving such a challenge. The experience was exhausting and the task of driving the unknown Nordschleife in an unfamiliar car with an alien set-up more demanding than anything I’ve done before or since. It was an exhilarating, adrenaline-bursting and exciting experience. But the experience unsettled me too: the grisly history, the reputation, the sheer concentration required. 14 miles of bends and hills and pavement graffiti. Its length realistically means that you might as well drive down a one-way road you’ve never traveled before, as fast as you can. You don’t ever feel confident enough to remember what’s next, so you feel like you’re driving slightly blind.
I don’t expect the pace was especially quick and conditions were favourable but driving the Nordschleife felt more difficult than any other track day experience by a long way. For once the prospect of injury outweighed the potential calamity of looking stupid in front of other journalists. We learn later that one of the RS Clios went up in a shower of steam, smoke, engine oil and flame. It’s a theme park with a potentially lethal sting; if you want to play, the track takes its toll.
The Nürburgring spooked me. Its reputation got the better of me. Driving away from the pretty village of Nürburg we catch occasional, unexpected glances of the ring, swooping down under the road; a flash of colour as a car disappears into a bend. The snaking track feels as if it has a life of its own, reaching out to us even as we leave it behind. I was always afraid.
Hours later I’m still flushed with adrenaline, thrilled and vaguely haunted; replaying those 20 minutes again and again. Again.