Regardless of what sort of cars you’re into, if you’re even the slightest bit interested in driving there’s a good chance that lapping the Nurburgring Nordschleiffe is up there on your bucket list. It was right up there on mine, and I simply couldn’t travel to Germany without driving the most dangerous, challenging and famous racing circuit in the world.
I’ve already discussed in a previous post how crazy/insane/incredible it is that anyone can turn up and drive the Nordschleiffe in a Touristenfahrten session, and in this post I will attempt to describe my experiences of both driving it myself in a modified Suzuki Swift Sport and going for a few significantly quicker taxi laps with a pair of vastly experienced ‘Ring Masters’.
You can drive your own car on the Nordschleiffe, but if you’re travelling from overseas you’ll need to rent a set of wheels. Unsurprisingly regular rental companies prohibit their vehicles from going on the Ring and are rumored to send spotters out to check, so luckily there are several companies located at the circuit offering cars specifically for track use. Your budget (and age, if you’re under 25) is the only limit when it comes to what you can rent, with the choice starting at cars like the Swift and RenaultSport Clio, rising through the Volkswagen Scirocco, Renault Megane R26.R, Toyota 86/BRZ, through to BMW M3’s and all the way up to cars like the Porsche GT3RS, Ferrari 458 and McLaren MP4-12C.
In the end my decision was a relatively easy one, and whilst I was seriously tempted by the Subaru BRZ, I ended up driving a Stage 2 Swift Sport from Rent 4 Ring. I’ve known for some time that the current generation Swift is a pretty good tool out of the box, and the Rent 4 Ring Swift’s have been further improved with a full roll cage, Recaro Pole Position seats with OMP 4 point harnesses, adjustable Ohlins suspension, free flowing exhaust system, Endless brake pads and Toyo R888 Semi Slicks. What’s more, the cheaper hire price compared to the BRZ (or M3!), meant that for my budget I could afford to do more laps, which for me was more important than driving a faster car.
The safety and neutral handling of the Swift was also a big factor in my decision, because you really don’t want to crash on the Nordschleiffe. Personal safety aside, even a minor accident can end up costing you a significant amount. Rent 4 Ring provide full insurance which covers the car you’re driving, the car you hit and any injuries you cause for a 2,500 euro excess on the Swift, which believe it or not is actually covered under most travel insurance policies providing rental car insurance excess cover.
What isn’t covered by any insurance is the damage you cause to the track. First is the barrier, which you’ll dent if you hit. It costs 240 euro a meter, and only comes in three meter sections. So that’s a minimum of 720 euro, and if you’re travelling at any speed you’re likely to take out a fair few meters. You also pay the machine operating costs of the tow truck to retrieve your car, the ambulance, and any machinery required to fix the track as well as the hourly rate of all staff involved. Oh, and you also pay 1300 euro for every hour you cause the track to be closed. The police attend all accidents and won’t release your damaged car until an immediate cash payment has been made to track staff and I’m told the record is 130,000 euro for a single accident. So in other words, don’t crash. Happy with my decision to rent the safe little Swift, I made a quiet pledge to drive very slowly and carefully.
The track is used by the manufacturers for testing during the day, and opens to the public from 5-730pm each evening and all day on weekends. I arrived on a Tuesday evening in the middle of the biggest thunderstorm I’ve seen, and fearing the same prediction for Wednesday I waited until Thursday to hopefully get a dry track. The Nurburgring experience begins at 430pm with a safety briefing, where Fredy outlines how the Touristenfahrten sessions operate and goes into detail about a few of the trickier parts of the circuit and how to handle them.
Fredy stresses that we are not on a racing circuit, rather a derestricted public road much like the famous Autobahn, and that German traffic law still applies. The track is divided into two imaginary lanes and legally you must keep to the right unless passing on the left. It’s generally acceptable to take the racing line through corners but when doing this you’re legally changing lanes, so if you cause an accident by cutting someone off passing you on the left, it will be your fault. This sounds stressful but it’s not – as long as you watch your mirrors like a hawk (good track day etiquette anyway), move right to allow faster cars to pass, and only pass others on the left, you won’t have any problems. It sounds hectic, but the system generally works well.
With the briefing finished and the car mine for the evening, I drive the 1km to the circuit entry, and just like that I’m sitting behind the wheel of a car, lining up behind a Porsche GT3 to pass through the famous entry gates to the most unforgiving track in the world. Suddenly every story I’ve heard about this place flashed through my mind at once. Every story read, every photograph seen and every YouTube video watched seemed to make a new kind of sense all of a sudden. Almost trembling, I concentrated hard to put all of that out of my mind and focus 100% on the job at hand – getting this little Swift around the track in one piece.
Accelerating out of the gate and onto the long Döttinger Höhe back straight, the Nordschleiffe instantly has the same sensation of slowing down speed as all racetracks do, the little Swift feeling slow despite hitting over 140km/h before the first proper corner. Wary of cold tyres and brakes I ignore the usual line onto the start/finish straight and move to the right to allow about four cars to pass before the sharp left that is to come.
Surprisingly it takes less than a kilometer before the nerves are gone, and I’m having so much of a good time that I can’t help but laugh. I didn’t find the Nordschleiffe scary or daunting at all; if you don’t treat it with a lot of respect you’ll have a bad day, but with some common sense it’s simply a fantastic piece of road – like a closed Gorge Road with no speed limits, on steroids. I was expecting to write here that Gran Turismo doesn’t prepare you for the real thing, but it does. No doubt my lines were very sloppy, but I actually knew roughly where the track went and what to expect ahead.
Well, it helps you learn the track to the point where you can drive it at a reasonable speed. It is completely useless for helping you to drive it flat out. This track is so complex in terms of minute camber changes, differing size of kerbs (some of which can be used, some can’t), changes in grip levels from different surfaces, bumps, dips and millions of little nuances over its 22km and 72 corners that there is no substitute for real word experience. The game also does a very poor job of representing elevation change and the severity of the bumps and dips, which are the two main reasons for most accidents. Once or twice I felt the Swift get a little jittery over an unexpected mid corner bump at about 130 and I was able to control it, but I don’t think I have the skill or reaction times required to drive a properly fast car on the limit around here.
After lecturing myself and everyone around me about the consequences of an accident, the red veil soon descended and I found myself driving the track as quickly as I felt safe. There were never any real ‘moments’ so I obviously didn’t push all that hard, but I was still driving a lot quicker than I planned to, and you will too. It was partly wet for my last two laps (on semi slicks, remember), and I managed to pass a 964 Carrera RS, an NSX and an Evo X in one lap, while being passed far more frequently by others. It felt like a VLN race at times, and those couple of laps dicing with other cars in the wet is a memory that will stay with me for a long time.
Given that you don’t do complete laps as you have to come back into the pits to swipe your lap card each time you go out, timing on the Touristenfahrten sessions (unofficial of course, it’s illegal to time or race on a public road) is usually measured from the Bridge just after you start until the Gantry as you finish, and is known as the Bridge to Gantry time. Under ten minutes is the aim for most people, and I managed a 10.32 on my second lap. Parts of my last two laps were wet and I refused to time myself for fear of doing something silly, but the dry parts of them felt considerably quicker and I’m reasonably confident I could get a comfortable sub ten minute lap if I had another shot at it.
The Rent 4 Ring Swift is hands down the perfect tool for your first time at the Ring. It’s slow enough that you can’t get yourself into too much trouble (although I still reached over 185km/h in places), and you’ve got more than enough braking and cornering ability in reserve should you need it. The Ohlins dampers work perfectly with the bumpy surface, and it really is a car that you can just get in and grab by the scruff of the neck. It’s a car that encourages you to push harder and harder as you become more familiar with the track, providing you with the tools to fully experience the Nordschleiffe, rather than just drive around it. I met another customer who rented an E92 M3 V8, and he said he spent more time being scared of how fast the M3 was and thinking about how much trouble he could get in to, and less time enjoying the circuit. He actually preferred the Swift over the M3, as did Jay Leno and the winner of the 2012 Daytona 24 Hours when they visited Rent 4 Ring and chose the Swift.
After my drive Ralph from Rent 4 Ring insisted on taking me out for a taxi lap in the Artega GT – a handmade German sports car (just 123 were built) fitted with a 330hp V6 from the Volkswagen Passat R36. The Swift is great if you’re new to the Ring, but Ralph has done over 3,000 laps and has the experience to properly explore a fast car here.
The speed down the back straight was the first thing to assault my senses – we turned into the first corner, a small left into a hard right, at almost 100km/h faster than I was travelling in the Swift. In the Swift I was braking before the left, whereas Ralph held it flat through the left and then braked heavily in the short straight before the hard right. I knew this ride would put my laps in the Swift to shame, but I didn’t expect Ralph to shame them by as much as he did.
Ralph reckons you can learn the track in 200 laps, but it takes years of experience to drive with the commitment he does. Hopping every kerb you can but staying away from the ones you can’t, entering blind apex corners flatout knowing precisely where it goes, despite the apex residing somewhere over the crest. The difference between what I was doing in the Swift and what Ralph was making the Artega do was like night and day. I was speechless yet laughing with sheer joy at the same time.
And all through this Ralph was calm and relaxed, a sign of a true professional. I was a little nervous though when later that evening he laughed and said that if I thought the Artega was fast, I should go out with Fredy in the Caterham R300.
Unlike the Artega, it’s not as simple as just ‘jumping in’ the Caterham. Once it has been warmed up, you need to climb on top of the roll cage and lower yourself down into the car, before the belts and mirrors are then adjusted to suit. Whilst helmets aren’t mandatory on the track, the lack of windscreen means they’re necessary in the Caterham.
Fredy was my driver this time, and with a past career that took him as far as the Daytona 24 hours, he has a fair idea what he was doing behind the wheel. An unusually empty Nordschleiffe, in the perfect weather, with a professional driver in one of the world’s lightest, purest and fastest sports cars is an experience like no other. I’m really struggling to find adjectives that don’t begin with the letter ‘F’.
It all looks calm and serene in these photos, but I can assure you that 245km/h with no windscreen on the bumpy Nordschleiffe is anything but serene. Damn impressive is a more apt word. The thing that wowed me most was how Fredy actually used the bumps to his advantage; using them in places to actually skip the car to the exact spot on the track he wanted.
Every bump and dip was used to his advantage. There were some steep dips before uphill corners where he would actually charge into the dip flat out, and then as the suspension was compressed and the car ‘loaded up’, use the extra grip to help slow the car for the corner. If he was going slower, he would have to brake earlier, but the extra speed actually meant we could brake later.
And much like Ralph, Fredy was calm and relaxed the whole time. Here he was balancing this hardcore sportscar right on the edge of adhesion around the most challenging circuit in the world, and he looked as relaxed as if we were driving to the shops. That’s how you can spot someone who really knows what they’re doing as opposed to someone who is good at faking it. Fredy still had a lot of mental capacity and talent in reserve should anything have gone wrong; the imposer would have been in the wall.
The one thing I took away from these laps more than anything is that if you come to the Nordschleiffe, make sure you save some money in your budget to do at least one taxi lap with someone who really knows the Ring after you’ve driven it yourself. You’ve gotta drive it yourself and that’s an experience you simply must have, but the experience you get from riding with a professional is much deeper and richer. I probably wouldn’t have gone for a taxi lap were it not at the kind insistence of Ralph, but both laps were undoubtedly the highlight of my visit, and stick more in my memory than my own laps do. Even if it means driving less laps yourself to afford it, it’s worth it.
I’d also like to pass on a big thanks to Ralph, Fredy, Dale and the whole team at Rent 4 Ring for welcoming Any Given Reason with such kindness. Their enthusiasm for the Nurburgring and motorsport in general was infectious, and the importance they place on making sure your experience of the Ring is the best it can possibly be means that, for me at least, they are the only company to consider. They rent out these cars not to get rich but to fund their own racing on the Ring, which tells you all you need to know.
And the Ring itself? All of the words, videos, stories and photos in the world can only do so much. There is an intangible joy to be found in driving the Nordschleiffe, and the more you get to know it, the more you realize you have to learn. It’s the kind of track that causes people to move here and spend their lives and every last cent they have driving it as often as they can. I feel like I kind of understand now how a drug addict feels, because when I came in after my laps were finished I was willing to give anything to go back out again. And the worst part is that I don’t think I can ever go back to Germany. Because if I do, I just know I’ll end up back at the Ring, blowing all my money driving it again and again. It’s that kind of place.
A huge thanks to Rent 4 Ring for making this experience possible.