Guest contributor: Ben Allen on surviving the Nürburgring Nordschleife
It’s 13 miles long and has 173 corners. Car enthusiasts flock to it like it’s an automotive Mecca. It’s been around since the 1920s and Scottish Formula One icon Jackie Stewart dubbed it “the Green Hell.” It’s claimed countless lives over the past decades. Yet people still go back. It’s the Nürburgring Nordschleife, and if you like cars or motorsport and haven’t visited, you probably should.
One of the world’s most renowned race venues, the Nürburgring gets its name from the medieval village and castle of Nürburg in Germany’s Eifel mountain range, where the circuit is located. Completely enveloped in thick forest, the legendary track rises and falls dramatically as it cuts its way between the local villages and surrounding mountains. It’s quite the spectacle.
But this is not your ordinary circuit. The Nürburgring, or ‘The Ring’ as it’s more commonly known, demands respect, and punishes those who make the slightest error whilst driving it.
The circuit is technically a speed limit-free public toll road. You buy your ticket at the machine, wait for the barrier to go up, and floor it. There are no mandatory pep talks or demonstrations here. Aside from a board next to the ticket machine explaining the rules of the road, it is assumed that you know the risks. And there are many.
The Nürburgring opened in 1927 and was originally intended for motorcycle racing. The narrow circuit was originally 28km long and had close to 200 turns. In the 1950s the track became a premier location for Formula One racing, and after endless flaming accidents and numerous brutal deaths it became infamous. Formula One there was stopped. A modern, safe, purpose-built circuit was constructed next to it, using the southerly parts of the original 28km track, but much of the old circuit remained.
Today, the 20.8km Nordschleife – meaning ‘North Loop’ – still stands, and strikes fear into many of those brave enough to visit. The Nürburgring is open to the public, and its tarmac is littered with murals paying homage to both the circuit itself, and those lost on it. It receives hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. I used to be one of them, making my annual pilgrimage with friends from a car owner’s club I belonged to when I lived in England.
It was always a great adventure. A dawn start from London would get you on an early morning ferry from Dover, and from France it was a four or five hour drive to the circuit, winding your way through Belgium and into Germany.
It’s a fairly simple highway drive, and always fun when going in convoy with a group of friends, making numerous stops for Bratwurst, bars of Milka chocolate, and toll toilets at German service stations. The closer you got to the circuit, the more interesting performance cars you started to see on the road until you entered the Eifel region. After that it was 90% ‘Ring traffic.
I remember one such trip. It was August 2006, and I was driving my beloved 1990 Cherry Red Peugeot 205 GTi. It had uprated brakes, suspension, and tyres, and by some miracle I’d managed to change the gearbox myself two days before the trip, as the old one was dying. Anyone who knows me will know that I was allergic to doing highly technical jobs, but this time I found the motivation. The Nürburgring was calling me.
Adam was my passenger for the trip. I knew him from my time at University in Southampton, and it was his first visit to the circuit. Our group arrived on a Friday evening: friends from the 205 GTi Drivers Forum; my buddy Dino Lazarides, owner of the Nürburgring Experience; and the folks from X Sport Racing, a local motorsport company located in the Southampton area. It was going to be a hell of a weekend.
As the Nürburgring is so large, changeable weather can prove extremely tricky. Half of the circuit can be bathed in golden sunshine, but the other half could be exposed to a torrential downpour. In the mountains the clouds can roll in at any time, and without warning.
We spent some time wandering around the parking lot at the circuit headquarters. A great place for car spotting. All kinds of weird and wonderful cars of all ages and eras are always out in force. Ferraris, Porsches, and Lamborghinis would be parked next to old, battered, stripped-down BMW E30s. A full race-spec Dodge Viper next to a VW Golf, and an AC Cobra being flanked by my 205 GTi. In short— sheer automotive wonder.
We set out for our first lap of the circuit. Sections of the track were slightly greasy, but it was not too treacherous. I accelerated out of the start gate and over the crest at Tiergarten. The first dip before the track rises again for the section going into Hatzenbach gives the sensation of being on a Peugeot-powered rollercoaster. What a feeling. Powering out of Flügplatz we sped through the long, sweeping left of Schwedenkreuz, dropped down the gears for the harsh right-hander at Aremberg. Overtaking a couple of slower cars we powered downhill towards Breidscheid, over the bridge at Adenau village, and up the hill at Exmühle. Here, the 205 loses out. The 128bhp 1.9 8-valve engine struggles against the larger, more powerful engined machinery on offer, but the 205s cornering ability makes it a tough adversary. We sped through the high-speed Kesselchen section towards the iconic, high-octane corner that everybody knows: the Karussell.
This rugged, banked, hairpin bend, which is generally taken with the car at a 45 degree angle, goes hand-in-hand with the Nürburgring legend. Much pride is at stake here, with the easy option being to drive around the higher, flatter section of the corner. It was my first lap. I took it easy this time, and would go all out on the second (or so I thought).
The track next rises and falls through the corner-strewn section around Hohe Acht, the highest point of the circuit, and into Wippermann, Eschbach, Brünnchen and Pflanzgarten. A couple more corners, with the penultimate “mini-Karussell” of Schwalbenschwanz brings you to the end of the circuit. We made it. It took about 10 minutes to complete the lap. And what a lap it was. The adreneline rush, being on a never-ending rollercoaster that you control – at least as much as is possible at the Nürburgring – and the twinge of fear on every corner. What a feeling.
And then my second lap, twenty minutes later, showed how it can all go wrong. Having gained a great deal of confidence from a successful first lap I dropped the hammer for lap two. All was going well, and I distinctly remember Adam commenting that I was driving much more aggressively this lap. What could possibly go wrong? Breidscheid could. That’s what.
Panicking, I grabbed an armful of opposite lock and buried the throttle. It was too late.
Breidscheid is a high-speed, sweeping left-hander, and the entry straight is on a slight incline to boot. As I approached the corner I overtook a line of slow-moving VW Sciroccos. As I entered the turn my line was good, my speed – at least I thought – was right. Until my car’s back end stepped out. I tried to correct it. Too much. The back stepped out more – the other way this time. Panicking, I grabbed an armful of opposite lock and buried the throttle. It was too late. Physics took over and the car once again swung the other way. We started to spin – at high speed – towards the inside of the circuit.
At this point, I remembered how little run-off there is at the Nürburgring. Purpose-built tracks are often constructed at decommissioned airstrips, thus making them flat with plenty of room for error. Not so here – there is quite often little more than a couple of metres of grass before very hard, very nasty-looking corrugated Armco. I braced myself. BANG.
The next thing I remember is the car coming to a halt. “Are you alright?”, I asked Adam. He was. I felt no pain either. A track marshall was on the tarmac and was madly waving at approaching cars to slow down.
The car had obviously hit the Armco at great speed, but with just a glancing blow, pushing us away from oblivion. What luck.
As I got out of the car, now stranded on the grass next to the Armco and pointing the wrong way, I expected there to be nothing left of the back end. How wrong I was. No damage. Nothing. Just a scratch that had smoothed out the very corner of the rear bumper. The car had obviously hit the Armco at great speed, but with just a glancing blow, pushing us away from oblivion. What luck.
Someone must have been looking down on me that day.
And that wasn’t the only luck I had that day. The Nürburgring charges harshly for circuit closures, replacement of Armco, and recovery of cars from the circuit – unless you have specific insurance. You can’t get away with it. You’re a captive audience. Someone must have been looking down on me that day, because as well as having no damage, I’d crashed on the only corner where there was an escape road. We were stranded at the bridge over Adenau village, which was conveniently located right next to our hotel. The car wouldn’t start – something I’d later find to be a broken coil, which I managed to replace at a local scrapyard using my best high school German. Aside from that, and having a €90 bill for having the marshalls help Adam and me push the car down the exit road, I’d gotten away with it. I’d crashed at the Nürburgring and survived.
To get my driver’s license back I had to pay the bill at the desk located at the track’s headquarters. There I met another English guy. He’d totalled his Saab 9-3 Turbo at Brünnchen, taken out a whole section of Armco, and now had a bill on the nasty side of €2000 – and no car to take home.
Words and images: Ben Allen
Ben Allen is a freelance journalist from Northamptonshire, England, and currently based in Vancouver, Canada.
This article originally appeared on benallen.ca.