Ronan McGrath on running the Nurburgring in a new M6

Via Autoweek comes this very nice writeup (a few years old, but none the worse for it) by a man who did what most of us only get to dream of doing: take European delivery of a brand new M series BMW, have tuning shop Hartge do some work on it, then run it at the Nurburgring for a few days (taking care to observe the requisite break-in period beforehand, which, rather amusingly, requires keeping the car to “only” 105 mph for the first 2,000 km). Long but well written. Read on…

The plane landed in Munich on a rainy May 29th, and as we taxied I reflected on a year’s preparation for the Nurburgring. The Nordschleife is arguably the most beautiful, difficult and dangerous track in the world. It is 14.9 miles of blind curves, negative camber and 1000-ft of elevation changes with tarmac stained by the tire marks of Fangio, Moss, Carraciola, Stewart and countless other motorsport legends.

Seemingly every performance car manufacturer uses it as a test track today. The town of Nurburg is surrounded by small industrial estates and anonymous garages containing the prototypes of tomorrow’s supercars.

I had always been a car guy even as a kid, dreaming of E-types and Aston Martins though we were poor. I had scraped together enough borrowed money to split a well-used, seven-year-old 911S when I was 25, and I’ve been hooked on fast cars since. I had watched the races on the ’Ring as a kid, and last year decided to pick up a new BMW M6 Individual at the BMW Euro delivery. Soon I would get my chance to run at the ’Ring.

During the year I bought a PlayStation2 and obsessively logged lap after lap to familiarize myself with the track. I also talked to dozens of people online and read everything I could. The best website I found about the track is Ben Lovejoy’s Nurburgring site. I also made sure I was aware of M6 quirks on the M6 Board. Picking up a car from BMW on Euro delivery is a fairly straightforward process. I ordered the car from my dealer in Toronto, filled out some paperwork and turned up the delivery center — a strangely anonymous, subdued building in Munich. Delivery of the car took about two hours. The waiting area has the air of a maternity room, with prospective owners pacing, luggage piled in corners and the occasional BMW drone calling out the name of the next father, er, owner.

Finally, my turn came and the BMW rep brought me down to the delivery room. There it was, my M6 — Ruby black, metallic with a custom cream leather and ash interior.

I had traded in my 645 for this car so I was familiar with iDrive, (nowhere near as complex as people tell you), after a brief review of the SMG transmission I was ready to go. First impressions of the car before driving: A vastly upgraded interior-everything leather including the dash and an Alcantra headliner. Seats felt smaller but were more supportive than the 645. Engine noise at idle was a bit truck-like.

Strangely, the ED center does not sell navigation discs so I had to make my way to a dealer to get an English-language Euro disc. I had a long drive ahead, as I had to break the car in for 2,000 kilometers and have some minor work done by the tuning firm Hartge along the way. The ’Ring was still a week away. It started to rain and only stopped briefly for the next week. The ’Ring is basically un-driveable for a novice in the wet, so it was not looking good… I decided to log the 2,000 kilometers by driving to Hartge in Beckingen, then to Berlin and down to Vienna via the Czech Republic and Slovakia. BMW requires the car run at its base 400-hp setting and at a speed of less than 105 mph during break in. I stopped at Hartge the next morning where there was a treasure trove of goodies to gawk at… Parked outside was the most incredible 3 Series I had ever seen… massaged V10, SMG gearbox, lightened panels and to rated top out at more than 200 mph. There was also a spectacular upgraded M5. I dropped the M6 off, and spied a 300SL Gullwing Benz in the back of the garage. What were they doing to it? Nobody would say.

Three hours later I had new pedals and no limiters on the car, along with a stern warning from Hartge to respect tire limits. From there, I headed for Berlin, cruising along at 100 mph while being passed by panel vans, trucks and elderly station wagons. I thought the 2000-kilometer inspection would never come.

I grew to love the heads-up display, which in base mode displays the nav system arrows and makes it infinitely more usable. I also love the bluetooth which was a simple synch with my Motorola Razr. My SMG-equipped car was a breeze to learn, still in its lowest setting, but I learned to shift smoothly with a microscopic lift of the left foot on up-shift and it worked well. I went back to automatic mode in heavy traffic in cities and found it to work fine, though it’s clearly inferior to a true automatic in my mind.

During the break in period it was difficult to evaluate the car. The steering was much better than the slightly numb experience of the 645, and the ride was much less harsh, as the M6 does not have runflat tires. But performance driving was still lurking in the near future – the ’Ring’s siren song was getting louder by the day.

I was treated to a country tour of the Czech Republic thanks to nav system, which decided to take me through some rutted back roads. I drove slowly through tiny villages where I was stared at by suspicious locals and a surprising number of ladies of easy virtue. Eventually, I managed to find the highway. You need road permits for each country and there are very big fines if you forget. One of my permits was not as prominent as it should have been and I was stopped by Czech police who gave me and the car a very thorough inspection. A quick trip down through Slovakia and into Vienna got me to my 2,000 kilometer break in limit, and the next morning I had BMW service the car. Now I was ready to get serious.

The rain got worse and worse, and I began to think that I should have bought a boat. Great black clouds, lightning, rain-soaked autobahns, and only a few days left to go to the ’Ring.

I got a dry road south of Salzburg next day… and hit the M button. Holy Smoke!!! The car was transformed. The formerly lazy effortless touring coupe had become a monster. I had programmed it for the second most aggressive gear setting, hard suspension and minimum stability control.

The previous summer I had the pleasure to talk with Mark Webber (the BMW F1 driver), who said to me to watch the M6 because you are always going faster than you think. When I hit the M button, the heads up display suddenly shifted and showed me a gear number, and color coded revs with shift indicators. Very cool. I hit the accelerator and a neck-snapping moment later was doing 143 mph with two gears left. As the day rolled by I hit a few quick blasts to 155 — the car felt as if it had been carved out of a single piece of metal. I did a stopover in Stuttgart to see the new Mercedes Museum. The brand new facility is the finest of its kind in the world in my opinion. They handpicked 160 of the most important Benzes ever and put them into magnificent, surprisingly accessible displays.

The achingly beautiful 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupe, The Stirling Moss Mille Miglia car, the pre-war racers were all there and all creatively displayed. After a quick trip to the grubby little Porsche museum (very important cars like the very first Porsche and a couple of Le Mans winners parked in what looked like a used car dealership) I turned in early. As I did, the skies darkened and the rain intensified.

The next day Nurburg beckoned…

It was still wet as I trudged out to get the car and head for the ’Ring… and then it happened. Sun! YES!!! There is a God after all. For the rest of the week there was no more rain.

By this point I had 3,500 kilometers on the car and was gradually increasing speeds, so cruising at 145-155 mph was the norm. It became clear how enormously capable the car is. The steering felt very different from the 645 I previously owned and over long distances the seats remained completely comfortable. I still had not turned on the radio, instead listening to the hum of the V10 continuously. The car was very popular with Germans and I got a lot of thumbs up in the late afternoon. Then I saw the sign I had been waiting for — the Nurburgring exit.

I knew the track was closed that day, but wanted to get a feel for the place. This is a village that lives in a bubble, where people dream, live and breathe cars. Racing workshops are everywhere and the track is omnipresent in every little corner of town. The Hotel am Tiergarten, where I stayed, is owned by the mother of Sabine Schmitz, a BMW ’Ring taxi driver and accomplished sports car racer. The restaurant is full of racing memorabilia and the walls are signed everywhere by the famous and not so famous. The clientele is almost exclusively male, and the drinks are served by… Sabine Schmitz. When not competing she likes to work in the restaurant and is immensely outgoing and enormously popular. I met up with Ed Healey who is a regular ’Ringer and very experienced, and he agreed to come out with me the next afternoon. I also spent some time during the day poking through some of the local racing shops. The cars are incredible: a Martini Porsche, a Ferrari 750. A lightweight E-Type and dozens of other super Porsches were parked in one corner of Manthey Racing. FIA-spec Aston Martins were being assembled in another part of the shop and dozens of race-ready vehicles were also being prepped.

As the track day finally arrived, I was feeling a little nervous. We wandered down in the morning (the track entrance was a five minute drive from the hotel) and watched as everyone prepared to hit the circuit.

Then it was time. Ed took me for a few laps first. God it was fast. We took off and ran hard to T13, a sharp right hander that winds to down into Hatzenbach. The sensation of the brutality of the track was palpable — a lot of it is blind and if you don’t know what’s next you will most surely go off. The track’s rises and drops are huge and as you head up a steep hill flat out, suddenly it’s time to brake yet again for another right hander. Then you run flat out down the Flugplatz, where you can easily hit 150 mph, followed by a benign-looking but deadly sweeper called Schwedenkreuz.

Ed mentioned that if you miss the brake point and hit Schedenkreuz too fast the car will go into a barrel roll, and many have been injured or killed there. After that you brake very hard for a very slow right hander and aim right down the center of a sharp drop (Fuchsrohre) with its undulating curves that dip at the bottom – word of advice, don’t brake until you are out of the dip. Suddenly, you’re faced with a fourth gear blind right hander into a blind hairpin…

The sense of speed is enormous and the lack of runoff space is somewhat frightening. Bikers use the track at the same time as cars — with a staggering accident rate. In the really fast Kesselchen area it’s possible to go flat out. There are bike accidents all over the place. Then we reach the most famous corner of all — the Karrussel. It is unbelievably rough and the car bottoms out. If you hit it too fast or are on the wrong line, the car pops out of the angled segment and slides uncontrollably into the guardrail. Then we head up to the highest point on the track and into huge dips and areas where massive braking is required. This is clearly going to be one heck of a brake test. At the end of the lap there is an enormous straight and in race conditions Sabine normally gets up to 185 mph coming off of it.

Now it’s my turn. I slide into the M6 driver’s seat with Ed riding shotgun and take off. The car is very, very quick, but feels heavy to me. As I run my first tentative lap Ed tells me I’m looking in my mirrors too much, but I’m worried about being punted by one of the really fast Porsches. Ferraris seem to be uniformly slow and after a few laps I can overtake them. Ed tells me I’m turning in too early, under braking and coming into corners too hot. There are dots on the track for turn-in and apex and I start to use them. By the end of the day (about 15 laps) I have made some non-fatal mistakes (almost hitting the wall twice from under braking) but all is OK.

My first day is over, the car is in one piece, and we retire to the restaurant. We meet a number of owners and racers and one of them introduces me to Marcus, the chief instructor for BMW’s M School, who cordially invites me to go out with him next day. As with the whole experience people are interested in why I am here. They have been helpful, incredibly accommodating and generous. I get an invite from another guy, Gary, who owns a McLaren F1, Carrera GT (which he has with him) and an Enzo to come out with him the next day. Whatever stereotypes there might be about Germans being stiff and formal, it’s sure not true in the Nurburg bubble.

After en excellent meal at the Pistenklause Restaurant, I hit the sack.

I will be faster tomorrow.

The second day out was another beautiful one. I get a run in a full race BMW 1 Series, and then a storming couple of laps in a Porsche GT3 RS. Now I know why you wear a crash helmet — at racing speed your head is continually knocked on the roll cage. The Porsche had race tires and stuck to the track like glue. The Kerrussel is unbelievably rough and the G-force pulls your head sideways.

As is usually the case, the mid-week sessions are fairly quiet, so I jump in the M6 and put in ten laps. With each successive lap, I’m slowly but surely getting a feel for the track. Ed says I’m still too interested in my mirrors, but I’m getting faster and have no trouble keeping up with an F430 in front of me. I begin to develop a rhythm for the ’Ring. As each sunny day melts into a new one, I spend mornings wandering the race shops, afternoons running every lap I can and evenings at the Pistenklause. On the track, I’m making fewer mistakes but realize I still I have a lot to learn.

By Wednesday evening, the brake pads are shot after about 25 laps, and we have them replaced the next morning. I debate race pads, but instead go stock. Like everyone I met in Germany, the BMW dealers are very helpful. Despite no appointment, Hanko BMW changes the pads in two hours while we take a rental BMW 320d down the Rhine valley to get some wine.

As the week wears on it becomes apparent how especially dangerous this track is for bikes. I see dozens of accidents. The M6 shows no vices beyond its evident weight, but Ed thinks it’s too fast a car for a first timer. And I am getting faster.

Saturday comes and the whole ’Ring changes. The weekenders are here and this causes crowding and multiple accidents. I had to thread my way though four accidents at one stage. A 3 Series with its front ripped off at Breidscheid, another 3 on its roof on the middle of the track near Wehersefen, a bike and rider over the guardrail and another off at Brunnchen. The marshalling is very good and people all obey yellows or oil flags, but eventually the wrecks are too much and the track closes as I’m just about through my second pair of brake pads. No beer tonight. We turn in early as my buddy Phil and I are on the road at 2 a.m. for a dawn meet on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn, the fastest stretch of all. We are meeting Sven Herold, another M6 owner who I ran into on the M6 Board, and we are going to try for 200 mph on the Autobahn. There are no trucks on the Autobahn on Sunday and very light traffic at 4 a.m. I remember the warnings from the Hartge guys about the tires.

We take it out for the first run and the power and stability of the car is simply unbelievable. We have two mounted cams to record this. First run we hit roughly 200 mph and we are only doing 7000 rpm. I slap it into 7th gear at 155. We hit 203 mph when Sven’s limiter kicks in. I want to stay behind him so I lift off.

With higher-speed tires there is no doubt I could have hit about 211 mph, perhaps slightly more. You do not need to brake very much at top speeds as the wind resistance pulls you down fast. The M6 is more stable at 200 mph than my old 645 was at 155 mph and lacks the feeling of lightness I had on the 645. We record some dramatic video, and after a coffee break we race the 170 kilometers back to the ’Ring.

After breakfast at the hotel, we decide not to sleep but to go back to the ’Ring. This is the first time we have run in the morning and it looks completely different. What was sunlit is now in deep shadow, and the descent onto Fuchsrohre is a gloomy cave where you can barely see the curbs. I have a terrible first lap trying to re-familiarize myself wit the track.

It’s also crowded and the driving skills are not as consistent as during the week. There are many bikers and the accidents begin almost immediately. I come in, a bit shaken after my first lap, but I go out again and run five or six more laps. Then the brake pad warning light comes on, and I decide to do one more.

Big mistake. Coming round a corner called miss-hit-miss I simply fail to recognize the corner, clip the curb and immediately get up on the grass, brush the guardrail and shoot across to the other side of the track and hit the left curb. There is no room for mistakes here and when I hit second curb, the airbag deploys. Within seconds a marshal on a motorcycle motions for me to continue on, so I roll down Wehersefen to the exit. I am sure the bodywork is destroyed. Amazingly, the only damage is some scrape marks on the flares with not a single dent. All four wheels have taken some big hits, however. We have to flatbed the stricken M6 out. As always, a helpful German with an M3 comes over and offers to translate, drives me down to the garage and back to the track. Once again, there are auto people to help you everywhere.

Shortly after my accident there is a huge one in the Fuchsrohre dip — two bikes come together in the dip, one rider hits the guardrail and dies, while the other flies off the track, his bike sliding under a Porsche. Then a brand new 997 behind him brakes and is immediately hit by another bike at very high speed, burying itself into the Porsche halfway. With the track filled with police, helicopters and trackside medical aid, it closes for six hours. After viewing the carnage I’m thankful I had nothing more than some bruised pride and banged-up rims.

The next morning the tow truck operator turns up promptly at Kainz BMW with the M6. They examine it and we confer with BMW assist and the insurance company. The ’Ring is technically a public road, and all is cleared right away. I love BMW assist. Kainz reckons it will be about three days work to fix the car and it will be like new. Oliver Kainz, the owner, comes over and wants to know where on the track I lost it. He is running in the Le Mans 24 Hours in an M3. It’s tough enough to run in the day, unimaginable in the night. He says he will send me photos. Is there anyone in the area who doesn’t race?

Would I do it again? Emphatically yes. I am enrolling in the BMW M training at the ’Ring next year, where they section off corners and you run them till you get them right.

Maybe I will buy a car and keep it there. I will only buy cars for Euro delivery in future, but probably will rent a track car for ’Ring use. Living inside the bubble is addictive and people return again and again like migratory birds. I have caught the bug. I know that this is a dangerous unforgiving place. Jackie Stewart once said: “People who say they like the Nurburgring are either lying or they’re not going fast enough.”

Maybe I will never be fast enough to find out, and I am clearly no Jackie Stewart, but this monster is beautiful and unforgettable and I will be back. Next time I vow to do fewer back-to-back laps and never when tired. Probably avoid Sundays which are so accident prone. I have a plate for my M6 when it arrives back home. It says NRBRGRNG. We say goodbye to the car and the ’Ring and head for Munich in the 320d. I get one last surprise. Heading out to dinner that night I stop at the little BMW pavilion in downtown Munich. They are showing the new M Roadster. I wander downstairs and there, sitting quietly in the corner, is the gorgeous, special-bodied 1940 Mille Miglia-winning 328. This is the most beautiful BMW of all to me, the car that inspired the XK120 ten years later. In its time it was the fastest of them all. Just two nights before I had driven one of the fastest BMW’s on the road today. The circle closed.

If you ever decide to do this, get yourself trained; get to know people on the Web others who know what they are doing. A unique experience awaits you. There is simply nowhere else on Earth where this could exist, and no sense of history, fear, shout-out-loud exhilaration and feeling of community like this.

Next year’s not too long to wait.

This article originally appeared in Autoweek.

~ by velofinds on November 3, 2009.

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