Driving the Nürburgring Nordschleife is the ultimate motoring pilgrimage
After nearly 25 years of lusting at the prospect of driving there, and vicariously experiencing the place through computer games, the dream finally came true recently when two friends and I alighted from a rental Opel Astra straight onto the tarmac of the most storied racetrack in the world, the 21.9km-long Nürburgring Nordschleife (North Loop) in Germany.
The track opened on June 18 1927 and the current layout is shorter than the original, which spanned an unbelievable 28km. Motorsport history is deeply engraved both on its graffiti-coated tarmac and its steel barriers.
Argentinian and five-time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio, who dominated the first decade of Formula 1 and is considered one of the sport’s best drivers, had his best race at this track in 1957.
The legend of the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows was birthed here in 1937 when the factory team had to quickly scrape the paint off its W25 race car to comply with a surprise change in weight rules. Then there was the Hunt–Lauda rivalry that simmered during the 1976 Formula One season, culminating in Niki Lauda’s fiery crash. His arch nemesis, Briton James Hunt, was the last person to win a Formula One race at the track.
Belgian champion Jacky Ickx is a legend there, as is Scotsman Sir Jackie Stewart and Michael Schumacher. Last, but certainly not least, Top Gear’s Sabine Schmitz grew up near the track.
Manufacturers use the facility to fine-tune handling characteristics of new sporting cars. It’s why the quaint village of Nürburg, with its medieval castle and nearby Eifel forest, is akin to an automotive “Area 51”, where new developments lurk behind big garage doors and camouflaged mules of new cars roam the streets.
A small tour of the village, with the newer 4.542km Nürburgring Grand Prix circuit’s buildings and grand stands dominating the view, saw us encounter restaurants, hotels and off-site offices belonging to some of the world’s performance car brands.
Not only this, but we also came across the new Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 and BMW’s M8 Gran Coupe and M235i still in camo long before their public debuts.
There are two ways to experience the ’Ring. German and other European citizens arrive in their droves to drive the track using all sorts of cars, from exotics to mainstream brands and even motorcycles.
You can also arrive, pay and drive yourself or you can hire one of three “Ring Taxis” available — a Jaguar X-Type Project 8, a Porsche GT3 or a BMW M5 Competition, which is the one we opted for, seeing there were three of us.
Within moments of our taxi rocketing off towards this lifetime experience, a few misconceptions about the track had already been corrected. First, the track is very narrow. The steel and tree-lined barriers are closer than those featured in the Sony and Microsoft digital versions.
It’s also not a smooth surface. The compressions and elevations of the track acted viciously on our insides and on the M5 Competition’s dampers at speeds that can easily exceed the 250km/h mark on the fast sections.
Also, no matter how masterful you have become at negotiating the track in the comfort of your lounge, fewer than five corners in and you completely lose your bearings, thanks to the warp speeds at which every corner approaches, which turns them into totally new features.
Our resident taxi driver is a ring animal. Deploying Herculean concentration and skill, he cut through the Nordschleife with stunning speed and skill. He mumbled into an earpiece, and we discovered during the drive that he used mental notes to recall entry speeds and ideal gears going into each of the track’s more than 50 corners.
Successful blitzing of the track is a certified mental burden, and it’s probably the reason Stewart christened it the “Green Hell”.
US race driver Phil Hill became the first driver to break the nine-minute barrier here in 1961, while German driver Stefan Bellof set the fastest historical time of 6 min 11.13 sec in 1983 using a Porsche 956C.
His record stood until 2019 when French national and multiple title winner Romain Dumas shaved 40 seconds off the record, posting a still unbeaten 6 min 5 sec time in the all-electric VW ID R sports racer.
Driving around the ’Ring is a terrifyingly intense, humbling but enjoyable one-of-kind experience.
To experience the Nordschliefe, book a slot online, fly to Frankfurt, hire a car to add the experience of driving on the Autobahn and put in your GPS: Grand Prix-Strecke, Nürburgring. It’s only 166km away.
When you get there, follow the signs to “Nordschleife” and check into the aptly named Devil’s Diner. A word of advice: do not try it if you suffer from serious motion sickness.