Car Advice

A beginner’s guide to the Nurburgring Nordschleife

There are already several million words written about the Nurburgring, and there’ll be millions more. here’s our beginner’s guide to the Nurburgring.

YOU CANNONT over-prepare for this track… sorry, I’ll start again. The word “track” is not the appropriate, for that implies the ‘Ring is something similar to other loops of fast-driving bitumen.  It is not, which is why I’m writing this and others have written their pieces. But anyway, you cannot over-prepare for this….experience, and the more reports, opinions and advice you read the better.   I’m not qualified or here to offer the world’s greatest ‘Ring guide, just to give fellow enthusiasts an idea of what it’s like as a total newcomer with a mere 15 laps to my credit at half a track day, not even a tourist day.   You can, and should, read other guides written by ten-thousand-lap pros for their view.  And take note of everyone else in between.

So, the track.  You already know it’s legendary, tough, hallowed, Green Hell, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda etc etc. But it interested me to wonder why exactly is the ‘Ring so difficult, what makes it the Rubik’s Cube of tracks, the Everest of motorsport?  

The obvious starting point is the length.  Over 20km, and it’ll take over anywhere between eight and fifteen minutes. Compare that to your average track which takes less than two minutes, maybe three if it’s a long one. Then you have the number of corners.   Normal track – 7 to 10.  ‘Ring – 70 plus.  the difference is like trying to remember two new faces at a dinner party, or everyone at your new office.

So let’s put that in context. In a half-hour session of driving on a normal track you’re seeing each of, say, 8 corners maybe 10-15 times. On the ‘Ring in half an hour you’re seeing 70 corners, twice.   You see the first problem with learning the track. But, there’s more.

No corner on a racetrack is easy, otherwise there would be no fun.But some are easier than others, and the ‘Ring corners are difficult.   Firstly, 80% are blind, so you cannot see the exit from the entry. This means it is difficult to judge your entry speed and apex point. And by blind that’s really blind, as in trees and earth in the way, not just a slight rise which quickly opens up.  And many corners are tightening radius too, so you hook in too fast and it’s a question as to whether you regret your haste before you hit the barriers or just after. 

Then there’s the elevation changes, the like of which you’ve not seen since you built a Hot Wheels track in your bedroom. My ears popped. My heart dropped. It was, at times, like driving sand dunes except faster and on bitumen. On such downhill gradients the car’s balance is altered and braking takes longer, adding to the excitement of the blind, tightening corners and to be honest, corners aren’t the only things that tighten.

And then pretty much every corner blends into another corner. There’s no straights on which to yawn.  You are almost never driving with the steering wheel straight for more than about three seconds, so a mistake on one corner is paid for during the next two or so, and what appeared to be the right line wasn’t, really, considering the previous corner and the next two.   The track is also bumpy, which alters the line yet again, and you can leave the ground more than one place.  How many racetracks do you leave the ground even once?

Those are the just physical difficulties with the track.  The instructors said it becomes much more slippery than normal tracks in the wet due to the preponderance of graffiti and debris from trees (the debris, not the graffiti).   Nevertheless, even in the dry the description of difficulty is not complete as now we come to the psychological side of things.   

On a normal racetrack there is the track, a white line, nice low kerbing, then some bitumen runoff, then some sand, some grass, and then barrier.  Plenty of time to come to a stop.

On the ‘Ring there is a couple of feet of grass, then barriers and trees.   It is the 1920s idea of safety. So, any off is very likely to be a big one, for which you need to pay.  Firstly, to repair your own vehicle which even if a rental will have a hefty excess if it is a basic car, and a divorce-sized number if it is a more advanced vehicle.  Obviously, car repairs are not cheap but that’s just Cost Number 1.

Then you have to pay for recovery of the wreck.  And then more money for the track closure time.  You’ve probably damaged the barriers, and of course you need to find funds for those too.

So far – car, recovery, track closure, barriers.  Now we have to consider if you’ve caused trouble for anyone else.  How about repairing a written-off GT3?  Or two?  Or compensating the owners in other ways you’re now liable for?  And all this in a country which is probably foreign to you.  So for most people the cost of any crash is a consideration, and at the ‘Ring it’s a big consideration. Oh, and those kerbs are tall, and we were warned not to run them because of vehicle damage.

Still not finished with the difficulty description. Now we must talk about the traffic.

Imagine a list of every sportscar ever made. 

Next, imagine a list of say twenty different skill levels from “apex… you mean a type of predator, right?” to “apex, point when I reach maximum drift angle and countersteer in my tuned 911”.  

Now make a long list comprised of every combination of sportscar with every combination of experience.  Take a random 200 names from that list, and now you understand who you will share the ring with.   The drivers will vary from Sabine in her rocket to a Camry driver who’s taken a wrong turn thinking it was the fast way to the shopping at Koblenz.   My personal concern – Ferraris which go very fast in a straight line and unexpectedly slowly around the corners.   Hot tip – always leave a bit of extra braking room.

All this you need to deal with the track as well as the traffic, and let me tell you that adds an extra dimension of difficulty.  At any given second I was either being overtaken, or overtaking, or preparing to overtake.  And when I wasn’t, that just meant I hadn’t been observant enough.

So there you have it – why the ‘Ring must be respected.  Now here’s what helped me survive it on my first visit.

You want to enjoy the ‘Ring, and you won’t enjoy it unless you have sufficient brain cycles left over from the act of driving to appreciate what you’re doing.  That means experience.  So, drive as many different tracks as you possibly can, so the act of track driving becomes almost second nature, subconscious.  If there’s one piece of advice I reckon is gold it’d be – don’t let the ‘Ring be the first racetrack on which you drive.  Not only will prior experience make you safer, but it’ll also magnify the difference between the other track and the Real Thing so you have more fun.   And get instruction, so any bad habits are ironed out.  In particular, the advice of Jackie Stewart to James May must be obeyed – “don’t start accelerating until you’re sure you won’t need to lift”.    Personally, and I’m hardly experienced, I reckon if you hit every apex and follow Sir J’s advice you’ll maximise your chances of survival.  Hook in too fast and, well, that Armco is only sold in 4m-long sections.  At least someone will have captured it on YouTube.  Speaking of which…

Watch.  YouTube is your friend.  Pore over plenty of crash videos and work out what went wrong, and the answer isn’t a simplistic “that guy is an idiot”.  Was it lack of observation?  Mistake on previous corners?  How could it have been avoided?  And remind yourself, from your comfortably sanctimonious armchair, with your cool beer in hand, your superior mindset, your typical performance driver view of your ability and invincibility, that in reality you’re probably no better than that poor mug fool in the video, and they’re now in heavy debt as a result of a momentary error of judgement.  And it will be driver error, very rarely car error despite the human tendency to blame the tools.  It is human nature to think you’ll never crash, but statistics are a better guide.

And play.  I found Gran Turismo 5 (now 6) to be a very useful preparation for the ‘Ring.  It will help you learn which corner is which, the sequence, and even to some degree how the car feels around the circuit, and the lines.   Also find some clean online races and race in traffic, get a feel of having to be situationally aware of other cars whilst track driving.   There is no question it helped me.  But that’s actually the problem.  Because games are useful, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking they are more useful than they actually are, and you don’t realise until it’s too late.  Here’s a quote from the ‘Ring Bible, aka Bridge to Gantry:

“YOU HAVE NOT LEARNT THE NORDSCHLEIFE THROUGH A COMPUTER GAME.

You have merely learnt a representation of the Nordschleife on a computer game.”

What this means is that real life will be different from the game, significantly so.  Lots of things add up to that big difference – the corners will be slightly tighter or wider, grip levels will vary, bumps will exist in real life that don’t in the game, the scenery, signs and graffiti will be different, weather will be different and you’ve got real-world physics, not simulation physics.  So, let me tell you all that adds up to quite a different experience.  It’s like using Google Streetview to check out a town main street then visiting it in real life.  Playing the ‘Ring is like getting to know someone via the Internet using email, chat, photos….then driving the ‘Ring is like meeting them in real life.  Except, to borrow the current phrasememe –  “The ‘Ring is way less impressive in real life” said no-one, ever.

It is also true that not all racing simulator are equal.  I can vouch for the fact that GT 5 and 6 are sufficiently accurate representations to be useful.  The rFactor version is less accurate both in terms of the track and the detailed scenery.  But anything is better than nothong, and even the best simulations will have missing or changed details compared to real life.  One tip – if you use Gran Turismo then turn off the flashing brake indicator.  It’s not there in real life, but don’t get too used to brake markers as what’s in the game isn’t necessarily exactly what’s on the track.!

More prep, and perhaps the easiest.  Read, read and read.  Read everything you can, staring with the links at the end of this post. 

Talk.  Find people that have done it and talk to them.  If you’re going to rent a car, listen to the words the rental people have to say.  In the case of RSR at least, they are enthusiast drivers and their focus is on your enjoyment.   Listen, and act on the advice.  Nothing they say is designed to hold you back, and if it is, then it’s for your own good. 

So that’s the preparation you can do months, even years before you arrive.  There’s also some advice I followed for the day itself, and I’m glad I did, so I’m passing it on here in turn.

It’s always a good idea to arrive the night before any big event, and driving the most dangerous and difficult racetrack in the world with 200 other people is, would you believe, no exception to this rule.  Fortunately, as the ‘Ring acts as economic powerhouse for most of the surrounding area there is no shortage of excellent accommodation which designed for petrolheads.

You then need to select a car.  If you’re renting there are myriad options to choose from, and I was advised to choose a front wheel drive hot hatch.  Now this sounds a bit tame; wouldn’t a fire-breathing M3, racy Exige or even a Ferrari be better?  At least something rear wheel drive. Don’t we all want to emulate the famous Yellowbird video, so a Porsche GT3 would be perfect, no? 

Now back to the real world, where crashes cost money and lives.  The hatch in question was a race-spec Megane from ‘Ring specialist company renter RSR.  It had, at the very least, semi-slick tyres, upgraded suspension, rollcage, 5-point harness and upgraded brakes.  And it handled beautifully.

Power?  Don’t know, but let’s say “sufficient”.  It was a thrill through Flugplatz and and down through to Aremberg, the Foxhole is just amazing – I reached 220km/h but the car would have gone quicker – and the fast section after Brunnchen didn’t feel too slow for me.   So, the Megane was quick enough for me as a first-timer, and many other newcomers say the same.   And I am talking here of first-timers like me with perhaps years of high performance driving, track days and much driver training under their belt, and usually also some racing or motorsport experience. I don’t mean people who think trail braking is a kind of extreme hiking or who think of “ring” as in Lord Of. 

Of course, you may be more experienced and/or talented, an actual race driver, and be able to fully hustle the likes of an Exige around the ‘Ring on your first try, but your call.   But for many of us mortals, a hot hatch is nimble, quick, forgiving and fun.  Yes, you will get passed by Ferraris, McLarens and Porsches.   But if you’re the sort of person bothered by that then you wouldn’t have read this far into this guide, you’d know it all.  The flip side is that in such a car you will also pass Ferraris, McLarens and Porsches. But passing others is primary your goal then your attitude needs some adjustment, or maybe best do it at your local racetrack.

I also took a right-hand drive Megane, as I’m coming from a RHD country.   This was despite the fact I’ve spent several years driving LHD cars in LHD countries, but that was some time ago.  The reason I opted for RHD was so I had one less new thing to get used to.  And obviously all the usual performance-driving kit applies – decent shoes, loose but not too loose clothing, sunglasses and the like.

One last point on the car.  If you take a car from the likes of Hertz or Avis onto the ‘Ring you’ll be uninsured and also blacklisted.  And on that note, standard cars don’t do well on the ‘Ring because of the usual track problem, brakes. Anyone who’s tracked a standard car (with exceptions like Porsches and Lotuses) knows that after 3-4 laps the brakes are cactus.  On the ‘Ring the situation is no differenent except that one lap of the ‘Ring is equivalent to about 4-5 laps of a normal track.  So it is possible to melt your brakepads and fry your brake fluid in a single lap.  The lesson here is that renting a car job is a good idea, otherwise you spend a lot of time cooling brakes and watching your precious and expensive track time tick away.

The other useful bit of kit I took was an instructor.   Despite having done lots of training before, the ‘Ring is special and I wanted some assistance, and having my driving critiqued by an expert is never a bad idea.  The instructor was also useful with where to go in the carpark, finding the fuel and generally knowing what was where, when and how, removing little stresses like that which left me more time for focusing on the driving.  He was also useful for limit finding, telling me where I could push harder and where I was already close enough.  Sure, good drivers can find that out for themselves…but only given enough laps of incremental improvement (or fewer laps punctuated by repair bills), so I looked on his advice as a shortcut to maximise the little time I had.

So that’s my little ‘Ring guide, and I hope it helps someone, somewhere.  There’s one more question that needs answering, and that’s whether it’s worth it or not.   For many of us, a ‘Ring visit means a big investment and often time that is hard-won from work, friends or family.  I hate to use the term pilgrimage, but it kind of is, certainly a sacrifice.  So should you bother?

I could blithely answer “yes”, but that’d be too easy.  I think some perspective is better.  I’ve driven maybe only 15 or so racetracks, but among them Spa, Silverstone and Philip Island which are world-famous for being driver’s tracks.  So if the average racetrack is maybe a 5, then those three are maybe 10s.  But the ‘Ring..on that same scale it’s a 15.  It really is a significant level beyond everything else, and so yes, that makes sacrifices to drive it worthwhile.  Imagine living your entire life only ever driving Camrys and Colloras, then finding out Toyota make Supras and 86s.   It’s a freefall solo skydive compared to a bungy jump.  It’s black-run skiing compared to the beginner slopes next to the lifts.  It’s rough outdoor sex compared to indoor pornography (apparently).  It really is that sort of level above.  I’ve also done all sorts of other exciting motory and aeroplaney things, and I’m putting the ‘Ring right up there on my ‘really glad I’ve done it’ list.

 So while the term “bucket list” is overused these days, the ‘Ring should high on every petrolhead’s do-before-die mission objectives.   I advise all my friends visiting Europe to do the ‘Ring – actually, I strongly encourage – but for other tracks only to bother visit if they have time.  Because other tracks are fun, but the ‘Ring is an experience.

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1 Comment

  1. […] A beginner’s guide to the Nurburgring Nordschleife – There are already several million words written about the Nurburgring … even if a rental will have a hefty excess if it is a basic car, and a divorce-sized number if it is a more advanced vehicle. Obviously, car repairs are not cheap but that … […]

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper