I live in the land of the Autobahn. There is a lot you can do here in Germany to enjoy the performance of a MINI Cooper S. But what’s the point of going fast on a wide, flat straight with a MINI? Isn’t it made for narrow, twisty country roads?
Fortunately here in Germany we also have one of the worlds most demanding and famous twisty country roads: the Nürburgring Nordschleife. Ok, calling it a country road is quite a drastic understatement. Let’s make it clear from the beginning: The Nordschleife is a racetrack. A quite hazardous, tight, and very long track that goes up and down and left and right like a roller coaster all the time. Because of its location in the green and hilly mountains of the volcanic “Eifel” region and its reputation for danger, the Nordschleife is also known as the “Green Hell”. Jackie Stewart coined the term and I think he’s damn right.
Some quick facts, before I get into the details. The original Nürburgring track was built between 1925 and 1927 for automotive testing and racing. Today, there are two tracks, the new Grand Prix circuit where professional races like Formula 1 take place and the “old” Nordschleife.
The track through the green hell is about 13 miles long, has a difference in altitude of 985 feet and about 170 corners. In fact there is a lot of debate on how many corners there are. Whatever the actual number, there are simply too many to remember them all easily. It takes a lot of practice until you can claim to know the Ring. The Nordschleife is open to the public whenever it’s not booked for automotive testing or motor sport events, so there are quite a few bikers and drivers on the track on any given day.
No question: If you’re a motoring enthusiast you have to drive the Nordschleife some day. So here I am with my MCS thinking about how best to approach the beast that is the Nordschleife. I’ve heard all the stories. And I’ve been there a couple of times before with friends watching others go crazy on the track: Bikers and 3 series BMW’s passing other cars like mad men. Grandpas doing a slow round in their Mercedes. Coaches full of tourists suddenly appearing in one of the blind bends. Old VW Jettas with tires screaming as if they’d jump off the rims any second, as they drive through “Brünnchen”. Porsches barking from their exhausts with understatement as they roll by. And yes, I’ve seen the tow trucks, the ambulance and the emergency helicopter.
Is there a safe approach to doing a few rounds on the Nordschleife?
Yes! Participate in a motor sports event!
The best way to get started if you’re a rookie and you only have one car in the drive way is to enter the GLP. The GLP is a monthly event everyone can participate in with a street legal car. There are about 80 ‘ 100 cars at each event. All you need is a co-pilot, a helmet and a stopwatch. It’s not the fastest driver that wins but the one with the most consistent lap times as GLP stands for “Gleichm äßigkeitsprüfung”. You get to drive 12 laps, so it’s a long distance event as well. Ideal to play with the track and try out different brake and turn-in points. And it’s simply the greatest motoring experience you can think of.
Thanks to Traudl Klink there is even a sub section of the GLP, the Pirelli New MINI Trophy. Around 10 to 12 teams participate at each event so it’s more like a group of friends. We meet the night before for dinner and hangout after the event in a pub before leaving for home. The range of MINIs starts with basic Coopers and ends with tricked out CooperSs. One of the frequent participants even takes a MSC Cabrio around the track. I participated in four events this year. I drove three times myself and co-piloted once.
But enough for now. It’s track time!
Flash back to October 15th.
It’s eight in the morning and a beautiful day. The morning fog is still hanging in between the hills and it’s cold. But there was no rain last night. The chances are good for a nearly dry track. We’re parked at the technical acceptance procedure, which is at the parking area of the so-called Tourist Entrance to the Nordschleife. 11 MINIs are here today. Everyone is excited, including my co-pilot Darcy. He is fearless enough to do the GLP with me a second time this year and I’m very grateful. Especially as he had proven to be puke-proof when he was co-piloting the first time. He is also making sure I’m not going too fast and he takes our lap times. Remember, it’s all about consistent lap times!
We fasten the wheel bolts with a torque wrench. We put the stickers on and fix a transponder to the front of the car. The little red box will talk to the timing system which will take the official lap times. The towing hook has to be fitted as well ‘ just in case. A marshal checks every car and every helmet for compliance. At nine there is a drivers briefing and finally at 20 past nine we get rolling. There are 108 starters in total. Of course, it’s not only MINIs. There are Old-timers, Young-timers, quite a lot of BMW 3-series (E30) and brand new cars. We all line up on the “Döttinger Höhe”, the long straight just before the start and finish line. And slowly we are rolling into our first warm-up lap.
The sharp 90 degrees right just before the start and finish line is coming up. Second gear. The race director is waving with the German flag. Full throttle. Third gear. A sharp 90 degrees left downhill into the “Hatzenbach” section. We get into fourth gear before we have to shift back into third again as we approach a series of quick right and left downhill bends. The track is narrow with fir-trees standing on the left. A hill goes up on the right and with only 5 to 10 feet between tarmac and Armco, one mistake and you’ve had it.
We’re taking the “Hocheichen” late and wide to use the inclining inner track side and keep as much speed as possible before we descend with full throttle over the first narrow bridge. Fourth and fifth gear before we shoot up “Quiddelbacher Höhe” ‘ the steepest climb of the Nordschleife. If you didn’t feel like being on a giant rollercoaster before, now you definitely do.
Back into fourth as we enter the “Flugplatz” section, a double right that should be taken in one radius. And right foot down again. The upcoming “Schwedenkreuz” section goes downhill again and is one of the very fast sections of the Nordschleife. Fifth gear. On the left you can see wide into the hilly Eifel mountains, and on the right somewhere is an ancient wayside memorial cross. But as you’re on a racetrack you tend to focus on the road or you may get your own memorial cross.
Suddenly the track goes left. Not hard, but enough. If you don’t know the track and you’re too fast here you’ll paint another pair of back stripes onto the tarmac. The red and white Armco with its many hit marks appears as witness. But we have the right speed and brake hard into fourth and third on the following straight before we try to accelerate as early as possible and turn into the 90 degrees right hand “Aremberg” corner. Underneath the bridge and we’re homing in on a small wooden guard-house while accelerating and shifting into fourth.
We’re now rushing downhill into the next rollercoaster section call the “Fuchsröhre”. Up into fifth gear and nearly straight through a couple of easy left and rights, the “Fuchsröhre” seduces you to go full speed but we’re only going at around 100 mph. We’re trying to set the car up early for the light left kink at the very bottom of “the tube” as full compression of the suspension doesn’t allow for any abrupt steering. You feel your stomach as you hit the following uphill section. And yes, it feels a bit like being sucked into a foxhole and spat out again. The approach to “Adenauer Forst” flies by with another left that can be taken nicely by going just a little bit over the inside curb. We’re braking down into fourth and third before we have to shift into second to be slow enough for the upcoming S shaped double corner at “Adenauer Forst”.
After the tight “Fuchsröhre” the surroundings are getting wider. But there is no time to enjoy the surroundings. Up into third gear. We need to make sure we’re passing the Audi ahead of us before we get into the next narrow sections. Fourth gear. Right after “Adenauer Forst” is one of the best places for overtaking. So we rush by and hit the brakes again. Staying in fourth gear we’re aiming for the telecom mast on top of the small hill right before the left corner at “Metzgesfeld”. The sections that we are now driving are quite tight again and there is virtually no safety zone between the track and the Armco. So we’re shifting into third before we go around “Kallenhard”. The tires are getting warm and scream a bit. It’s a great way of realising you’re going a bit too fast into the corner. Next we roll down towards “Wehrseifen” a very tight left hand downhill corner. Atop the corner is place for people to stand and watch the cars go by. So we shift into second as we don’t want to make things too spectacular.
And off we go into third gear again and further down to “Breidscheid” the Nordschleife’s deepest point. Here again people are standing at the security fence as we pass by. We cross the “Adenau” bridge and prepare ourselves for the “Ex-Mühle”, a steep ramp and 90 degrees right corner. Here you have to keep as much speed as possible. But it’s tricky as you are coming downhill and over the bridge and too much speed here is not good. Balance is key again as there is close to no safety zone if there is too much under steer at the end of the uphill right.
After the “Ex-Mühle” is the time to let the horse have its head. Fourth gear. We are going uphill for a long time now. There are drivers with very good knowledge of the track and there are drivers with high power cars. The latter get their chance to pass now. Fifth gear.
After the first 6.5 miles we are going past the harmless looking light left corner where Niki Lauda, the famous Austrian Formula 1 driver, had his serious accident in 1976. His Ferrari burst into flames and since then he has some bad burn scars and only one ear. Maybe that is why some refer to this corner as the “Grill Kurve” (Barbeque Corner). The accident ended Formula 1 racing on the Nordschleife. Later that day during the event a red 3 Series Compact (a three door hatchback version not sold in the US since the late 90’s) crashed at the very same corner -without any injuries to the driver and co-pilot.
My co-pilot says “Frau Schmidt” and I nod while I shift down to third gear. The “Bergwerk” corner is ahead. And because of the uphill speed rush I tend to forget about the “Bergwerk” right bend that is getting tighter at the end. But there is a little house just at the corner and I image an old lady with the name Schmidt living there. It’s my way of making sure we are not crashing trough the Armco and ending up in her garden. From here on there is only one place for your right foot. Fourth gear and fifth gear as we going full throttle uphill. All the way up “Kesselchen” through the “Mutkurve”. And no, I’m not courageous enough to keep the pedal mashed to the metal. There is also a fast VW GTI behind us and he is the perfect excuse for rolling towards the “Steilstrecke” right bend and letting him pass by. The “Steilstecke” is an old part of the track, a very steep short cut of the famous “Karusell” that is not longer used.
So we shift in to third and go through the nice long right bend called “Klostertal”. And we’re lucky that the “Steilstrecke” is long closed as we shift back into second gear and drop into the “Karusell” – a 270 degree banked curve. We get shaken because of the concrete blocks the “Karusell” is made of. You can of course drive on the nice, smooth outside tarmac of the curve. But hey, what are we here for?? So we follow the footsteps of Rudolf Caracciola, the famous German pre-war race driver who was the first to use the banked inside of the “Karusell” ‘ back in the days when it was intended only as drainage.
Our brains still rotate left as we exit the ride, but there is no time to relax. Third gear. Speed is key again for the upcoming “Hohe Acht” a left uphill and right combination that is good fun with a bit of oomph. Forth gear. That track gets narrow again and darker as we enter the tree lined sections “Hedwigs Höhe”, “Wipperman” and “Eschbach”. These are the section I have to admit I’m still very curious on how best to approach them. So I shift down into third and stay there. I use the golden rule of entering corners rather slowly, trying to exit them as fast as possible ‘ a rule that works very well with the MINI’s front wheel drive.
Now comes the famous “Brünnchen”, one of the best spots for spectators to watch cars and their drivers taking on the ring. The area above “Brünnchen” is a big muddy car park, with hot-dog and barbeque stands to serve the audience.For the egomaniac drivers “Brünnchen” is by far the best place to show off. You enter the section through a downhill right, pass through a short valley with the spectators to your left and head up through an uphill right towards “Eiskurve”.
As you come downhill through the “Brünnchen’s” first right you can create some attention by letting the car drift a little too much to the left curb where rumble strips create a dramatic drumming sound. If you’re too fast on the next uphill right, the tires will scream again. This is dangerous especially during changing weather conditions or when the track is not entirely dry. The “Brünnchen’s” exit and the so called “Eiskurve” is covered by the trees’ shadow so it stays wet for a very long time and is the first section to get very slippery when it’s really cold.
What follows now are the two “Pflanzgarten” sections and so we shift into fourth and enjoy the first downhill section of “Pflanzgarten”. The track goes down in waves and if you’re really fast there is chance for a short lift-off. So you better make sure you have the right speed for the next long right uphill bend as breaking on the last knoll before the bend is not a good idea. What follows is one of my favourite rollercoaster like sections: “Pflanzgarten II”. After leaving “Pflanzgarten I” and shooting uphill there is an abrupt deep dip. Heading down and up again you can gain some speed. Now is the time to shift in to fifth. You don’t see much of the track as you leave the dip so it’s only fun if you know you can go nearly in a straight line through the upcoming left and right kinks.
We are scrubbing off speed as we enter “Schwalbenschwanz” after a long right. Fourth gear and back in to third as we take the “Schwalbenschwanz” left and approach the “Kleines Karusell” another banked section with concrete blocks, but not as long and tight as its big brother. Having the right speed is again important if you don’t want to slingshot off at the end of it. We are gaining speed again for the grand finale. Fourth gear. Only “Galgenkopf”, a long right bend is separating us from the very long straight called “Döttinger Höhe”. As we exit “Galgenkopf” we stay in fourth and push the revs. We go downhill and the “Döttinger Höhe” stretches in front of us. Fifth gear. During races top speeds of over 180 mph can be achieved here.
During the GLP event, there is a waiting zone set up on the right side of the track. There you can drive very slowly or even stop the car. Why would you want to do this? Well, remember the GLP is all about consistent lap times. On a 13 miles long track like the Nordschleife it’s close to impossible to even get the minutes right as you may have to slow down due to overtaking or getting overtaken. And the less you have to rush yourself, the safer you are. We always set a quite high time around 13 min per lap. So yes, we stop too on “Döttinger Höhe”, open the windows, relax for a few seconds, gaze over to the Nürburg castle, wave at other MINIs passing by and stare at our stop watch. Darcy starts to count down and I look into the mirror to make sure I don’t hit anyone when accelerating again.
We pass underneath the bridge at “Antoniusbuche” and go downhill into the “Tiergarten” section in fifth gear. What follows now are “Hohenrain” and the “Schikane” two tight sections we take in 3rd gear. To the right we pass by the entrance to the old pit lane. In round six we will exit here to refuel the car and stretch our legs before we approach round 7 to 12. But now concentration is needed as we turn around the sharp 90 degrees corner at “T13”, the grandstand at the finish line. And off we go for another round of adrenaline and motoring fun!
(Pictures courtesy of Darcy Schott and Thomas Heiringhoff.)
[ Nürburgring and Nordschleife quick facts ] Wikipedia
[ Ben Lovejoy’s comprehensive Nordschleife Website ] Nurburgring.org.uk
[ The history of the Nordschleife ] Olivier Jacquet