Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tackling the Nurburging

It’s 7am on a crisp September morning and I’m about to catch a lift to Germany, because tomorrow I have an appointment with a Porsche 968 and one of the most famous stretches of tarmac on earth. My transport for today is a grey Seat Leon FR Tdi driven by Dan; an old friend and self-confessed speed freak. Beneath its standard exterior a Revo ECU remap and a few other choice tweaks lie in wait to silence the diesel critics.

With the roads mercifully clear of weekend-traffic we make good time down to the Channel Tunnel, where even the previous weekend’s fire fails to disrupt our progress significantly and we soon emerge into the sunlight at the other end. We head up onto the familiar tarmac of the A16 and, free of the British road system, the pace starts to rise rapidly. There’s a very marked improvement in observation and lane discipline on continental roads, which means speeds that would be reckless in Britain are comparatively relaxed. We cut across the flat plains of Northern Europe with the speedo rarely dropping below three figures. The Seat’s modified powerplant remains impressively civilised despite a GPS-recorded peak of 143mph and a cruising speed of around 120mph. Even driven with such enthusiasm it returns an indicated 31mpg.

As we head off the autobahn onto the B257, the landscape changes dramatically. Within a matter of miles it goes from wide-open farmland to the soaring foothills of the Eiffel Mountains. There’s also an increased feeling of Germanness. Steep roofs and gothic architecture start to lend the villages a Bavarian feel – none more so than our penultimate waypoint of Adenau – and yet it’s the road beyond here that really captures the petrolhead’s imagination. The L92 has a series of fast-flowing, well-sighted bends separated by alpine switchbacks. It’s almost hard to imagine a better driving road. A few miles ahead lies our hotel, The Altes Forsthaus. It was adopted as a local base for the Mercedes Benz racing team shortly after it opened in 1924. Since then, it’s seen the mammoth vintage SSKs, the breathtaking Silver Arrow grand prix cars and the graceful sports racers of the 1950s. And now… us.

Sometime before 6am the light is turned on and I find Dan standing by the switch already fully dressed. Like a kid at Christmas it turns out he’s been up for hours and got tired of waiting. And so, after hauling myself out of bed, we go out to check the oil in the Leon and then wander down to the circuit entrance. It’s barely dawn, but already a RUF 9ff and Nissan GT-R are burbling into the paddock. This just seems to typify the Nurburgring - a place that oozes petrol from every orifice.

After breakfast we head down to Haus Marvin – a small family run guesthouse, which just happens to own a fleet of high performance hire cars. My choice, the Porsche 968, looks pristine sat outside on the street and with a 10,000 Euro excess on the insurance policy I intend to keep it that way.

As we head back and queue to join the circuit, my pulse starts to quicken. I drive out as the barrier rises and almost immediately face the challenge of simultaneously trying to find my way round and keeping out the way of those who already have. My first impressions are that the circuit actually seems strangely unintimidating in real life. It’s much narrower and twistier than it appears on a computer screen, so driving a standard road car with some degree of self-preservation keeps the speeds reasonably sane in most places. Not that anyone seems to have told the supercar drivers that - various modified 911s buzz past, punctuated by the occasional BMW M5 or Weismann Roadster.

However, within a few laps it ceases to be a source of terror and just a point of mild annoyance. Normal autobahn rules apply and you’re obliged to pull over for faster traffic. Once you’ve slowed down to take a tighter line hugging the right hand curb this can easily spoil several corners. Even worse is overtaking slower traffic, where you have to go past on the left, which (on a clockwise circuit) is more often than not the outside. You also can’t take any of the risks you would do in competitive racing, so teetering around the dirty side of the track can be a nerve-wracking experience.

Fortunately the car isn’t a concern. It feels distinctly similar to my old Porsche 924S, with a few of the flaws ironed out. More to the point, the driving experience is nearly identical to the later 16-valve 944s. It leaves me even more baffled as to why 968 owners don’t just spend half the money on a good 944 S2. That’s not to say it’s a bad car. In fact it’s very good indeed. The free-spinning 3.0-litre four-cylinder engine, although barely powerful enough for a hot hatch by today’s standards, feels eager and responsive. The steering is direct and brilliantly precise with reasonable levels of feedback. Meanwhile the comparatively soft, but brilliantly damped suspension gives the 968 an almost supernatural ability to maintain complete composure; irrespective of what bumps, cambers or crests the Nordschleife chooses to throw at it.

When you do reach the limit it initially gives way to mild, well-telegraphed understeer. Push further and the 968 will tighten its line into a sort of four-wheel drift, but with ‘only’ 220hp combined with chunky aftermarket alloys and no limited-slip differential you can rarely provoke any serious oversteer. Which, on an unfamiliar track, suits me fine.

As the day progresses I start to gain a vague idea of where I’m going. I also start to notice a few stereotypes amongst my fellow ‘ringers. Most of the local drivers are humblingly competent – they hustle their BMWs and Porsches around at great speed and deal courteously with any traffic in front or behind them. But every so often you get one who appears to be out of control. They go past in a flurry of flailing hands and opposite lock, missing you by inches. Occasionally somebody gets it wrong in a big way and the traffic is either yellow flagged or stopped completely as the marshals scoop them up with typically Teutonic efficiency. On one such occasion I drive past a man who is walking away from the remains of his 997 GT3 RS. Going past slowly I can just make out the expression on his face – it’s exactly how I’d look too if I’d just written off a £100,000 supercar.

After this sobering experience I return to the paddock and let the 968 cool down while I ride shotgun with Dan. His Leon continues to impress out here on the track as it did on the autobahn. There’s somewhat more body roll than in the Porsche, but outright grip is very similar and the brakes are noticeably sharper. Even more impressive is the engine, which pulls like a train and responds with the sort of eagerness you wouldn’t usually associate with a diesel. It even sounds quite nice. Yet the soundtrack seems to be the last thing on Dan’s mind as he pilots the Leon with total commitment and considerable skill. I’m enjoying the roller coaster ride and waxing lyrical to this effect until politely reminded that it’s my job to keep quiet and hold the stopwatch. Dan, it seems, is on a mission.

At the end of the lap we head back to sit out another lengthy stoppage, at which point I spot an opportunity. As soon as the announcement comes over the tannoy that the track will soon be reopening I head towards the barrier. With the benefit of an empty road things finally start to come together. Apex follows apex and I feel at one with the 968. After around nine minutes I’m approaching the start line again, but, being on a roll, I decide to queue for the track side barrier instead of pulling into the pits. Once again someone else’s misfortune turns to my advantage. I’m a couple of cars away from the barrier as another stoppage is called and after fifteen minutes lounging in the late summer sunshine the session restarts in a carbon copy of the previous lap.

Immediately behind me a bright red 968 is joining the track and we set off down the straight. The other car seems to have somewhat more straight-line urge, so I pull over and signal to let him past. Going round the first set of real corners at the Hohenrain chicane I find myself catching up slightly. Building on my confidence from the previous lap I’m now able to judge the corner speeds better and the car is on its limit of adhesion virtually from the point I turn in.

Corner after corner, we concertina our way around the ‘Ring. A trio of bikes constitute just about the only traffic up ahead. Here, unlike a conventional road, the greater cornering speeds that cars can achieve hand them an advantage over all but the bravest of bikers. Conversely, the only people to catch us are a handful of the usual banzai 911s that blast past quickly, creating no real little distraction. It’s another perfect lap which sees our two 968s still separated by only a couple of hundred yards as it draws to a close.

Unfortunately my tank is virtually empty and my twelve lap ticket is about to expire, so I peel off towards the paddock. The other driver, meanwhile, gives a friendly wave and continues on to the track side barrier. I can’t deny I’m slightly jealous, but the day is rapidly drawing to a close, I’m completely knackered and the 15 year old Porsche is also starting to feel like it could do with a rest. It has, however, proved the ideal tool for learning the ‘Ring and it is with slight regret that I give the 968 back to its owners at Haus Marvin. I would highly recommend either to anyone contemplating a similar trip.

The journey home the following morning begins well with an enthusiastic crossing of the German B-roads in Dan’s Leon. However, as we join the autobahn the traffic thickens and it’s a trend that continues through into Holland and Belgium until we eventually grind to a halt on the Brussels Ring Road. In total, the journey back takes nearly three hours longer than the outbound trip. We’re not complaining though – it’s more than worth it for those fifteen miles of tarmac in the Eiffel mountains and one thing’s for sure – we’ll be back.

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