Twelve point nine three miles long. Seventy three official turns. Estimates put the fatality rate at twelve to eighteen a year. This massive stretch of asphalt that snakes through the Eifel Mountains in Germany is a Mecca to automotive enthusiasts; it is a proving ground that separates those who play with their cars, and those who drive them. It is the track by which all others are judged, and on which all cars are judged good or bad. Formula One drivers refused to race on the track. There are no restrictions to driving it: show up, pay your due, get baptized in the fire. Jackie Stewart called her The Green Hell. We call it the Nordschliefe. Everyone else calls it The Nurburgring.
She is a cold hearted thing...
While I would not call myself a huge fan of Tolkien’s Fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, I did enjoy the movies, and as such I will do my utmost to avoid making more than just the one pun about the world’s most recognized race track. That being said, one does not simply drive the Nurburgring (ok, only two, I promise). The Nurburgring, and more specifically the big track known as the Nordschliefe, is a race track unlike any other. Unlike the Formula One friendly GP track, the Nordschliefe is a beast that begs to be conquered. You can’t approach it like you would Laguna Seca or Silverstone or Suzuka. This is a track that is brutal on the driver, beating at you with a seemingly countless number of turns, banks, curves, kinks, and impossibly long straights. Even after the construction in 1983 added some run of space on some of the most technical turns, there is still almost no room for error and when you hit the armco that comes out of your pocket. Yes, it is an open track, and it isn’t too uncommon to even see a tour bus running a lap. You get your track card, head out, and you are on your own. There are no rules in the uncivilized wild, and the Nordschliefe is about as wild as you can get when it comes to tracks. Official estimates, as stated above, will put the yearly death toll at somewhere between twelve and eighteen, but what they don’t say is that as long as you don’t die on the track, they don’t count it as a death. More realistic numbers say about fifty a year.
She cares not for your racing heritage.
At Tsukuba, a competitive lap time is in the fifty second range. At The ‘Ring, records are made when you break into the seven minute mark. The unofficial “fast” time is anything under an eight minute flat, but I would say getting under the eight and a half mark is damned good. Jaws dropped when the Nissan GTR put rubber to road and finished a hot lap in seven minutes and twenty four (7:24.22 to be exact) minutes. Chevrolet came next with a front engined, rear wheel driven ZR1 and laid down a 7:19.63. Lexus answered with the LFA at 7:14.64. SRT put it to rest when they took an ACR out with OEM optional Pilot Sport Cups and crossed the line 7:12.13. None of these have yet even come close to touch the Radical SR8 and its mid six minute time, but we will still allow arguments that it is hardly a street car. But you are starting to see a pattern here. It is an obsession for manufacturers: anyone who is anyone tests on the ring.
She will remind you in the worst way to not lift.
And therein we see the problem. As manufacturers chase ‘Ring times, other areas of importance start to drop in focus. Yes, I want me GT3 RS to be Ring Whipped by the time it leave development and starts production. But when I leave the confines of my mostly track only P car and jump into, let’s say, the new Aston Martin Virage, I don’t want a car that has traversed the Karrusell a hundred times in search of a low eight minute lap; I want to have spent days being pedaled through Monaco in search of making it the best luxury GT car I can buy. I don’t mind it being a sporty, I don’t mind it having good handling and road manners on a Swiss mountain pass. I do mind, however, if it feels like I’m driving the aforementioned road car in name only GT3 RS. But that doesn’t stop anyone. Almost every manufacturer has, or is working on, a Nurburgring spec vehicle. Even the Opel Astra, sold here as a Saturn, has a Nurburgring spec edition. I have to ask why. Yes, the Nordschliefe was initially opened as a testing ground for new cars, but does the Ford Taurus have to set a decent lap time to make the grade?
Yet you still will want to tame her.
The way I see it, the new fad of comparing lap times at The Nurburgring is like comparing zero to sixty times. Those who don’t know about cars at all will think it a useless number. Those who know a bit will either dismiss it outright, or worship the number as the only one that matter. Those who know a lot more than “a bit” (and if you are reading this I count you amongst that number) will understand that there is much knowledge to be gained from that number, but much like zero to sixty times, it says much more about the driver than the car. The Nordschliefe is a beating for drivers. When you drive near as makes no difference thirteen miles for a single lap, you are beating on yourself. When you look at the track as a whole, there are few turns on the ‘Ring that require a great amount of technical skill. In fact, I’d be willing to put just about any turn on the Nordschliefe, including the famed Karrusell, up against Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew when it comes to teaching us how a given car will handle. When I see a good time at Laguna Seca, I say good car. When I see that good time at the ‘Ring, I say good driver.
So why the big focus on Stewart’s Green Hell? Simple. Unlike any other major race track in the world, the Nurburgring is the most like the roads we drive every day. What it takes to go fast in the forest won’t make you fast anywhere else. I’m reminded of the lap times being compared between the E9x M3 and the E87 1 M Coupe. On smaller, tighter, technical tracks like the Hockenhiemring and Laguna Seca, the 1 M was hot on the E9x, if not faster despite the horsepower difference. But once out on the Nordschliefe, the disparity was apparent. The E92 was a good ten seconds faster. The Nurburgring is a dyno with some good twists, and what is fast in the forest is fast on the street. I only wish some manufacturers would understand that we don’t always need to be fast in the forest.
Of course, no article on the 'Ring would be complete without Sabine.
*I wrote the majority of this article in the past week, only to awake to the news one day that The Nurburgring was essentially bankrupt. While I would love to think the sheer power of my brain saying “eh, it aint that important” was enough to bring the global economic shit storm upon this most revered race track, I am humble enough to know it wasn’t. Running a race track is a big expense, especially one like the ‘Ring. And it truly was a motorhead’s Mecca. An amusement park, mall, clubs, fine dining, all based around a race track. All of us at Cars and Cranks wish the best for all those that will be affected by this. The chances of it being shut down are slim to nill, and it will most likely wind up in the hands of a private owner. I can only hope it stays open long enough for me to get there. While I may share James May’s ideas on everything having to be tested at Nurburgring, item number one on my bucket list is one serious, perfect, hot lap.