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My first drive on the Nurburgring was in an utterly pedestrian Mercedes-Benz E240.
It was perfect for the occasion, as two of us wandered away from a press preview drive in Germany for a couple of quiet, reflective laps on a ribbon of road that is probably the most famous in the world, and certainly among the most challenging.
It’s a marvellous place in brilliantly beautiful mountain countryside, and being at the wheel of the boring Benz meant there was no temptation to play at racing.
There was no real speed, no tyre squeal and no locked brakes as we joined a cavalcade of cross-country tourists that included a couple of giant coaches and a gaggle of leather-clad motorcyclists.
The thing about The ‘Ring
Our trip host was not happy. We received a bollocking when we arrived at our hotel, for breaking from a regimented press drive to make an unapproved visit to “The ‘Ring”. Despite the dressing-down, we could not stop smiling. That’s the thing about the Nurburgring.
Anyone who has the remotest interest in motoring, motorsport or automotive history will find something to like at The ‘Ring. It’s well worth the two-hour trip up the motorway from Frankfurt Airport and spending at least €25 Euros (A$42), the cost of a single mid-week lap, for a unique driving experience.
Plenty of people are prepared to spend big to hire a race-prepped car for their visit, or invest in taking a ‘taxi ride’ with an experienced driver like Sabine Schmidt, who became a Top Gear television favourite off the back of several guest appearances driving vehicles as varied as a Ford Transit delivery van.
Build up the pace
Regardless of what you spend, or drive, it can be a dangerous place. The track and terrain are challenging, there are huge speed differentials between the various vehicles, your car is unlikely to be covered by insurance, and the track owners will send you a bill for car recovery and any damage to barriers if you have a shunt.
It’s a place explore gently, building up the pace and always staying well inside your personal limit. But you don’t have to go flat-out to have fun. Plenty of people take their family car or a rental, and mid-week traffic on the track can include everything from buses and campervans to top-end supercars and sports bikes.
Spellbound by the challenge
My second driving visit to the track was, if you can believe it, in a stately Lexus LS. For some reason, including close ties to the rally team of parent company Toyota at nearby Cologne, the brand’s Australian management had decided to go all-out for the press preview of the second-generation Lexus flagship.
A group of journalists were shipped to Europe and plugged into cars on a day when the temperature barely ticked above zero. But the course was closed just for us, and Lexus brought along Alan Jones and fellow former F1 racer Tim Schenken, now the top official with Supercars, to chauffeur us around and tell us stories.
My laps were much quicker than my previous visit, and I was spellbound by the challenge – especially after Jones went hot-dogging past at one stage with a full load of passengers grimly hanging on, and then Schenken showed me the places where his friends and rivals had raced, and crashed, and been killed.
The track was built in the 1920s as a proving ground for the motor industry, and to boost employment after the Great Depression. It has changed a few times since then, with parts of the original course removed and the injection of the F1-safe GP short course. But the famous Nordschleife – or north course – has 154 corners over 20.8 kilometres of the most extreme driving imaginable.
It was called ’The Green Hell’ by grand prix legend Jackie Stewart because of the forest that surrounds the track, and the number of drivers killed or injured there in the 1960s and 1970s. Niki Lauda was one of the latter, lucky to survive a Ferrari fireball that left him scarred for life, but could not prevent him claiming two more world titles.
Visiting the Nurburgring 24-Hour Race, as I have done a number of times, is a reminder of what the track is about. It’s a contest for production-based cars and more than 150 line up each year, some to race for victory but most for the glory of just finishing such an extreme challenge.
Nothing else like it
That’s why so many carmakers perform testing and development work on the Nordschleife during closed track laps, then brag about their best lap times. There is simply no other track like it anywhere in the world, and few sterner road-going tests of man and machine.
My own best time was set in a prototype of the howling, V10-engined Lexus LF-A supercar. It was another marvellous, memorable day; the flip-side to my Benz experience.
I was allowed to drive at my own pace, so I wound up past 250km/h and really hustled through the corners while chasing a professionally-driven pace car. I thought I was quick but he was cruising, adjusting his speed to keep just ahead and show me the perfect driving line and braking points.
Risk-taking is discouraged
Driving the Nurburgring, you feel alive and connected to your car; both awed and inspired by the people who have driven and mastered the course for close to 100 years. But you don’t have to race to experience this unique place. Or go fast. Or take risks. Or even wear a crash helmet.
In fact, risk-taking is positively discouraged through the whole Nurburgring experience. It's a very good idea to do plenty of internet research on the kind of experience you want, and then watch some in-car laps so you know what to expect as you head out for the first time.