I really enjoyed my first day exploring the Nürburgring, which had included a visit to the RingWerk Museum and touring the Formula 1 track facilities. My guide had mentioned that the Nordschleife, the Nürburgring’s spectacular and fearsome 21km circuit, was open for public driving that afternoon.
He reassured me that I could take my rental car, a tiny Fiat 500, out onto the famous circuit. Without hesitation I paid my 25 euros for a lap and was issued with a passcard.
‘Your ticket to the Green Hell… Bwah har har haaar!’
I had intended to drive the track later that afternoon, but persistent rain had me asking the staff if the Nordschleife was also open the following day. I figured the weather might not be any better, but it couldn’t be much worse. They told me it was indeed open, and my date with one of the world’s most famous, and infamous, racetracks was set.
The next day I spent some time exploring a few of the Eifel district’s many castles, and strolling a few km’s to see a waterfall. They were enjoyable outings in and of themselves, but they also helped to keep my mind from focusing too intently on my lap around the ‘Green Hell’ later that afternoon. After learning about the exciting and frightening history of the place, and watching cars on the track the day before, I have to admit I was nervous about driving the hallowed tarmac. At least the weather had stayed fine…
An hour before the Nordschleife opened for the public, I was parked near the circuit having a snack. Several groups of BMWs, part of an company promotion day I assume, were roaring past – through a steep dip in the track, a sharp rise, and a tight right-hander. I wondered how the tiny Fiat would handle the steep incline. It didn’t help my nerves. It made me need a wee.
I found the Nürburgring’s official site and checked out the rules for driving the Nordschleife. Rule 2/3 stated: ‘Vehicles…must drive on the right hand side. Overtaking is only allowed on the left. Drifting is not permitted‘. Considering I would be the slowest vehicle on the track, I would definitely be sticking to the right. Needless to say, the last two parts of the rule were irrelevant.
Rule 3/1 was: ‘On the Nürburgring the basic rules on driving speeds..must be observed‘, that is:
‘The driver of a vehicle may only drive at speeds at which they are capable of controlling the vehicle at all times. In particular, the driver must adapt their speed to the road, traffic, visibility and weather conditions as well as their personal driving skills and the characteristics of the vehicle and its load.’
In other words, you are free to drive the Nordschleife as fast as you possibly can. Presumably you will only identify how fast that is through a near death experience.
With about half an hour to go before track opening I drove to the small carpark near the entrance to the circuit. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and wanted time to have a look around. To my relief, it looked fairly quiet. Perhaps there wouldn’t be too many drivers out on a Tuesday evening?
There was a small office on site where you could purchase credit for a lap, a cafe, and a second carpark near the track which was obscured from sight by a dip in the terrain. I got out, wandered over, and my heart sank.
The carpark looked like a set from The Fast and The Furious. Parked up were high-performance Porsches, Audis and BMWs, many equipped with roll cages, racing seats and safety harnesses. Some had racecar paint jobs. People were milling around the vehicles, some with helmets, and some in race suits. What little confidence I had rapidly drained away.
I walked towards the track and saw boom gates and marshals. Earlier than specified, the track was opened, and cars started to queue up. Rumbling forward, the drivers paused at the gate, swiped their card, the barrier lifted, and through they went. A few seconds later, the engines howled as they took off for their lap. I thought about the card with one lap’s credit in my pocket. I thought about the Fiat 500. I thought I was way out of my depth. I thought about abandoning the idea.
As I watched the procession of cars, a small hatchback approached. I would definitely feel better if a few small cars headed out onto the Nordschleife. Instead of turning right and heading up to the boom gates, it went left into the cafe carpark. I wilted a little more.
After the ‘pros’ had left, and the race cars belonging to various companies offering to empty your wallet for a hot lap with one of their drivers, an assortment of smaller cars lined up for their chance. These were modified hatchbacks with over-sized exhausts, and young blokes at the wheel in their hoodies and helmets. A couple of standard-looking production sedans with drivers and passengers on board were in the mix too. Maybe if I just waited for a bit longer, until the queue had reduced, I could sneak around…
After all, with a car as underpowered as the Fiat, I was very unlikely to come to grief, even on a track as daunting as the Nordschleife. I mean, what was the worst that could happen? Well, I could have a German supercar come around a blind corner behind me at 240 km/h and punt me into outer space like a flaming meteorite. Or a driver come across my Fiat over a blind crest, lose control trying to get around me, and roll over and over before disintegrating completely amongst the Nordshleife’s dark forest. I regretted asking myself the question.
I walked back to the Fiat, which now looked even smaller. I clambered in, still unsure what to do. Then it started raining. It hadn’t rained all day, and the moment I am trying to figure out whether I should pedal out onto one of the world’s most legendary and legendarily dangerous racing circuits it bloody well starts. Dark grey clouds and gusty winds bore down on the Nürburgring. As the showers swept over, I thought about Nikki Lauda and his near-death crash during the wet 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nordschleife. The whole situation was intimidating enough with adding a slippery track, spray from other cars and a foggy windscreen. Then as quick as it arrived, the rain was gone. The sky brightened. ‘Fuck it,’ I thought. ‘I’m gonna do it’. I was hoping that once I actually got out onto the circuit my nerves would disappear. I suddenly needed another wee.
I decided to wait for twenty minutes to give the track a chance to drain, hoping that the fat tyres on the supercars would create a dry line. I started up the tiny car, exited the car park, and headed down towards the track. A little crowd had gathered to watch the cars enter the circuit, and I kept my eyes straight ahead as I passed them. The last thing my fragile confidence needed was to see the looks of disbelief and bemusement from the peanut gallery as I beatled by. Without acknowledging the marshall, I scanned my card, the gate opened, and away I went.
After the boom was a tight lane of witches hats which ended in a sharp turn, then I was out onto the end of the wide straight. I booted the 500 and we were away. At the end of the straight is the connecting road to the new Formula 1 circuit, and a speed limit, tyre barriers and arrows guides the driver through a short, confusing section then back onto the Nordschleife. With no-one in the rear vision mirror, I was clear to go, driving the racing line through the twists and turns. It seemed like the track was just turn after turn, with very little straight road at all.
Suddenly the marshalls (who, along with emergency services, are on hand during any public day on the circuit) were waving yellow flags: danger ahead! There must have been an incident, so I backed off to the mandated 50km/h, hoping not to come across a serious accident. Rounding a bend, there were witches hats on the track, and a marshall sweeping gravel from the tarmac. Tyre marks in the gravel trap showed where someone had overshot the corner, then recovered to get back onto the circuit. Relieved, I floored the little Fiat and continued.
I was leaning into a long right hander when I saw the first car behind me. I flicked on my indicator to let the driver know I had seen them, and they came around me. A hatchback, it was definitely quicker than me, but not ballistically so. Although it was pulling away, it was fun to follow another car through the next few turns.
Signs beside the track let you know where you are on the 21km circuit, and before I knew it the 7km marker flew by. A third of the lap gone already! Not that I was breaking any records; it was more that I was so fully focused on what I was doing, and having a huge amount of fun, that the time was flashing by. A couple more cars past me, but I saw them early and made sure I got out of the way.
Suddenly I was at the 13km mark, approaching the 180 degree corner know as The Carousel. Being undoubtedly the slowest car on the circuit, I kept to the right, unable to ride the legendery slingshot of the banked inside line. Spectators were watching from the car park, and I wondered what they were thinking as the little Noddy Car took the famous corner.
The elevation change across the Nordschleife is 300m (that’s just shy of 1000 feet, race fans), and at one stage my ears popped with the pressure change.
It was somewhere in the back half of the circuit that I got my first, and thankfully only, fright during my lap of the Nordschleife. I was taking a right-hand corner, on a rise from memory, when a car appeared so fast that it was behind, then around me, then gone, before I could react. It certainly quickened my pulse, and I reckon the driver’s eyes would have been like dinner plates when he first saw me.
I came up the section I had been watching an hour or so before, and had to pop the Fiat into third to keep my momentum up the hill. I reckon I gave the red line a bit of a nudge, and not for the first time during my lap.
My time on the Nordschleife seemed to have gone in a flash as I took the last right hander before the circuit’s main (and pretty much only) straight. I had my foot flat to the boards, hoping to discover the top speed of the 500, but with its ponderous acceleration I ran out of road. I had just reached 130km/h when I passed the 130km/h speed limit sign, then successive signs followed, slowing me down for the exit from the circuit.
I braked to the designated 30km/h and turned off the straight, following the witches hats and marshals’ directions. As I drove triumphantly past the small crowd outside the cafe, there were a few smiles and laughs, and I was hooting and grinning from ear to ear. I had completed a lap of the Nordschleife.
My route home passed one of the spectator areas for the circuit, and I turned into the large carpark and pulled up near the edge of the track. There were quite a few people there watching the cars circulate in the fading afternoon light. I got out of the Fiat, looked around, nodded, and with a smug expression on my face, thought: ‘That was me you saw out there. Yeah that’s right, in the Fiat 500. Ooooohh yeah’.
Driving the legendary Nordschleife (and coming away unscathed) was one of the most enjoyable and memorable things I have done since starting my odyssey. If you ever visit the Nürburgring, make sure you take the opportunity to drive a lap of the Green Hell. You (probably) won’t regret it.
Visit the Nurburgring official site here
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