As a petrolhead/part-time racer/motorsport enthusiast, I am a firm believer that every car enthusiast should drive a racetrack at least once in their lives.
Whether it’s your local circuit or something more famous, such as Kyalami in the South African context, anyone who appreciates driving fast or loves motorsport should perform this rite of passage.
The bucket list
Of course, those who race or have driven a few tracks locally no doubt have a list of circuits they would like to drive before they kick the bucket.
I am willing to bet that in the top ten, if not top five, of virtually all those lists are: Laguna Seca (in California), Spa-Francorchamps (in Belgium) and probably heading up the lot, the Nurburgring Nordschleife (North Loop) in Germany.
Iconic and dangerous
The 20,8 km of twisting tarmac in the Eifel mountains near the town of Nurburg is well known to car enthusiasts the world over.
Dating back to the mid-1920s, the treacherous track has played host to countless races over the decades, including Formula One, not least of all one infamous race in 1976 that nearly cost triple world champion Niki Lauda his life.
The track is still used for racing today, though Formula One has not visited the longer and more dangerous North Loop for some time. Endurance events usually use the entire 20,8 km Nordschleife as well as the more modern Grand Prix circuit, for a total of over 25 km.
Testing and tolls
As much as the track is used for local racing, it is also employed by motor manufacturers as a test arena. The old circuit has over 150 corners, or up to 190, depending on what you consider a corner.
Each possesses varying radii, camber and surfaces, making it ideal for testing suspension setups on new models, particularly on performance cars. There’s also the 2,8 km Döttinger Höhe straight that is ideal for top-speed runs. Add to that an elevation change of 300 metres and you get the idea that this isn’t a Sunday drive.
When automakers aren’t making use of the track for the Industry Pool days, the circuit is treated as a toll road. On these Touristenfahrten (TF) sessions, members of the public are allowed to drive on, arguably, the world’s most famous racetrack for a fee of a few Euros per lap.
Two out of three
The three tracks that I named above are at the very top of my list and I was fortunate enough to drive two of those three in the recent past, but the granddaddy of racetracks has eluded me to date.
For years I have been trying to arrange a visit the Nurburgring. I started discussions with a driving academy based very close to the track, called RSR Nurburg. Owned by former Porsche and Ferrari driver, Ron Simons, RSR is regarded as one of the top operators offering driving experiences at the ‘Ring.
For various reasons over the years, I could not make my international travel schedule coincide with a driving course hosted by RSR and the opportunity seemed to slip through my fingers. Until…
Nissan GT-R at Spa
A few weeks ago, I attended the Nissan GT-R launch at Spa-Francorchamps. With the Nurburgring a relatively short drive from Spa, I made contact with the chaps from RSR to enquire about driving the circuit.
RSR owns over 100 cars, ranging from road-going Renault Clios to full-on race-prepped Porsches and even a McLaren. You simply choose the car that your bank manager/significant other approves and off you go.
Thanks to the weak state of the Rand and the need for track insurance, things hadn’t quite conspired as I’d hoped. By the time I left SA for Europe, there were a few loose ends and my trip to the Nordschleife wasn’t confirmed.
At the Nissan GT-R launch, purely by coincidence, Ron Simons was my instructor at Spa. It seemed fate was playing a hand.
Mr Simons seemed pretty positive about me attending the open day that was to take place later that week and promised that I’d get to drive something if I pitched up at his workshop near the entrance to the Nurburgring.
I needed no further invitation and made my way to Germany from Belgium (mostly thanks to a very obliging friend who was hosting me in the latter country).
Road and track
Not only does RSR offer track driving experiences, but guided road tours of the area as well. This is an ideal way to learn about the vicinity and the track. You get to drive a car of your choice (within your budget) from their fleet. I was given a RHD Renault Megane RS, the same car that I would use later on the track.
During the road tour, you are shown some of the sights of the area, including the lesser-known Sudschleife, and have the chance to take in many spectator stops along the way to view the track at Hatzenbach, Hocheichen, Wehrseifen, Bergwerk, Hohe Acht, Brünnchen and Pflanzgarten.
If your budget doesn’t extend to a full on-track driving experience, then this is a great way to experience the motoring mecca that is the Nurburgring.
Time to drive
After a hearty meal at Hotel am Tiergarten owned by none other than Ursula Schmitz, mum of the famous Sabine, we headed back to RSR’s workshop/HQ to prepare for an afternoon of driving.
Until this point in the day, the weather had been some of the nicest I have experienced in Europe. There were fluffy white clouds dotted over an azure sky while temperatures hovered in the mid-20s. It was ideal track driving conditions.
I spoke too soon
It seemed that the weather had other ideas though, as those unthreatening clouds kept gathering until they were dark and menacing.
With that in mind and the need for some photography, the media team at RSR, led by South African lad Ray Shepherdson and the kooky Kostas Sidiras (a fellow MX-5 owner), sprung into action to get me on track as soon as possible.
As close as you can get
Mounted aboard the Megane RS with an instructor alongside for the exploratory laps, we headed for the gate of the Nurburgring. My excitement levels and trepidation increased as I was about to drive the most famous and most dangerous circuit in the world.
As we approached, the access boom fell across our bow, stopping our progress. A car had crashed somewhere on track and it needed to be recovered, so the circuit was closed. We were foiled, as you can see in the first video at the bottom of this page.
Not all was lost, though. The open, TF session was scheduled to start in a short while and we were always aiming for me to spend time on track during that time.
As we waited for the TF session to start the clouds grew ever more menacing and minutes before the long-awaited moment, the heavens opened, depositing a monstrous thunderstorm over the entire Nurburg area.
The optimistic chaps from RSR thought that we should try to get on track anyway, if just to have a look from the driver’s seat. At the gate we were foiled, again. You can see the severity of the storm in the second video below.
End of play
After a prolonged wait, word eventually came that the TF session was abandoned and that only official ‘Ring Taxis were allowed to complete laps. RSR happens to run the Nissan GT-R ‘Ring Taxi and not wanting me to leave without having been on the track, I was sent out with one of their pro drivers at the wheel.
If you want, you can see the rather pedestrian lap in the final video below. It was extremely slick with the racing driver working throughout the lap to keep the car pointing forward and at no point did we exceed 200 km/h.
One day is one day
I left the Nurburgring with a heavy heart. Having been that close and denied driving the circuit was heartbreaking (not as heartbreaking as finishing just 23 hr 56 min of a 24-hour race, though).
The plan had been building for over four years and just as it seemed to come to fruition, I was denied. I still plan to drive the Green Hell, as dubbed by F1 champ Jackie Stewart, but when that will take place is anyone’s guess…