The locals at the Nurburgring have a saying: if you can’t see the Nurburg Castle through the fog from the track, it’s going to rain. And that if it’s a clear day and you can see the castle in the distance, it’s still going to rain.
Put the words rain and ‘Ring together, and any petrolhead who has heard of the infamous Nordschleife will tell you it’s a recipe for disaster. And it was with this in the back of my mind that I tackled the 20.8 kilometres, and no less than 73 corners, that make up what many consider to be the most challenging race track on the planet. It’s certainly the longest, and probably the most traditional circuit still in use.
The Nordschleife, which means Northern Loop, hails back to 1927 and is the more famous of the two tracks at the ‘Ring. The second is the Grand Prix circuit opened in 1984 - and yes, it is possible to drive them in combination, making for a total distance of 26 kilometres. But this is unheard of, and it is the longer Nordschleife that car manufacturers use both for honing and lap-time claims of their faster machinery.
BMW, like several other carmakers, has a state-of-the-art testing facility within walking distance of the venue. Last week I attended BMW’s intensive two-day course called BMW M Fascination Nordschleife which, loosely translated, means strap yourself into an M3 and rediscover your religious side.
In typical German fashion the cousins from Munich explain under and oversteer, braking, entry and exit points - and how to find the best line through a corner. They warn you that hitting the nanny-off button is the same as speed-dialing Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, and they don’t even bother exploring some of the finer electronic touches to the M3’s gearbox and suspension.
Remember that anecdote about how to eat an elephant - one bite at a time? It’s the same approach here. The course itself comprises a clinical dissection of the 20.8 kilometres into ten chewable chunks, which you spend most of each day repeatedly driving, section by section.
FIVE TIMES LONGER THAN KYALAMI
That may sound monotonous, but remember we are dealing with a serpent five times longer than Kyalami here and, unless you have the memory of, well, an elephant, there’s simply no way you’ll remember the skullduggery behind every apex. The machinery at hand, the outgoing V8 M3, is just about stock standard. Only the brakes are modified to handle the numerous corners and the massive changes in elevation (around 300 metres at the highest crest).
The instructors do lighten up in the afternoons, letting you carve your destiny on the length and narrow breadth of the Nordschleife in its entirety. And let me tell you, a lap is more a journey than about setting a time. It snakes through the Eifel forest and offers some spectacular scenery (if you have the courage to take your eyes off the road); but at the same time the weather, light and surface conditions change constantly.
Your first complete lap makes it obvious why legendary racing driver Jackie Stewart nicknamed this the Green Hell. It’s merciless, demanding high-speed concentration and constant throttle balance over a distance longer than some drivers’ daily commute. Having said that, it’s an intense adrenalin rush – not to mention the absolute privilege of having the legendary Nordschleife, and 309 kilowatts of M Power, to yourself.
If you make a mistake you know it’s going to hurt, and this is probably why there’s always a pace car in the distance. He’s usually going hell-for-leather and will generally be much quicker than you, but he knows that even with a hundred laps on your Playstation behind you there’s simply no way you will remember all the apexes.
You start picking up on the lay of the land from the training though, and even start forming your favourites playlist. The instructors have little tell-tale signs to look for, like a “4” spray-painted by a fan on a corner which happens to mark a turn-in point, or a lone tree, or words scribbled on a barrier. And look carefully at those triple-steel barriers which line the length of the track – new barriers mean danger.
The fleet of M3s were bulletproof, and it felt like they were at home on the Nordschleife. They loved the environment, and were pushed harder than any M I’ve driven before. It’s hard to say what my Ringmeister lap time was as times are measured strictly from start bridge to end gantry, but around nine minutes from the in-car footage would be a safe estimate. Which makes me wonder how the current street-legal production car record of 6min57, set recently by a Porsche 918 Spyder, is even possible.
The bad news is that getting on the BMW course is difficult, as even at R40 000 a seat it’s sold out way in advance. The good news is that for R350 a lap you can undertake this petrolhead pilgrimage yourself.
But be warned, the ‘Ring ain’t for sissies. - Star Motoring
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