The course breaks the track up into six sections and the participants into six groups. You spend 75 minutes learning each section, then string together some complete laps before the timed assessment.
My car for the course is a Vauxhall Astra VXR. It should be perfect for a ’Ring rookie like me, the pair of us sharing similar limits. The VXR’s tractable turbocharged engine, pointy front end and reluctance to understeer thanks to its clever race-derived differential should all come in handy, too.
And so it proves on the first section we are to learn, starting at Klostertal, two-thirds of the way around, and ending at Brünnchen. Near the start of this section, however, is the circuit’s most famous corner, the Karussell.
It’s quite a baptism. You drop into the Karussell’s banking at its second concrete plate, braking from 95mph to 50mph, and then hang on, keeping a consistent lock and hoping you don’t get spat out too early. “I’ve seen people come out earlier, fly into the air, clear the barrier and end up in the forest,” says our instructor, Bernd. It’s also much bumpier than the last carousel I enjoyed, in Great Yarmouth.
‘Hanging on’ is a theme that continues for the rest of the section. A relentless series of left-right combinations taken at around 70mph in third follows, with some of the few kerbs on the track you can actually attack on the run up and then down to Brünnchen. Deep breath time.
Section two for us is the last part of the lap. The ascents and descents are steep, there are a couple of places to get airborne (one of which has ‘AVE IT’ graffitied onto the track to goad you before take-off) and there’s even another mini-Karussell, as if there isn’t enough to think about.
Then it’s on to the long, long main straight, where you really can take a breath. Or a drink; you really need to take on a lot of water to keep your concentration up.
Refreshed, it’s time for our third section, the first of the lap, a fast series of left-right complexes and chicanes at Hatzenbach before the run up the hill to the ludicrously fast Flugplatz right-hander. Your lap in this part of the section can be over before it starts; I particularly struggled with too fast an entry speed into the slow left-hander at the start of the Hatzenbach section.
After some currywurst and the German equivalent of Lucozade at lunch, it’s off to try to set some quick laps in the free practice session. What a waste of time. While I can drive quickly and confidently for half a lap, I might as well drive straight to the repair garage via a hospital and cut out the middle man of the accident by trying to match that pace on the half of the lap I don’t know.
I survive (just) but have definitely lost any remaining cockiness, and I’m more attentive than ever for the afternoon learning the other half of the circuit – the really bloomin’ fast bit. From the exit of Flugplatz to the Karussell, only the Aremberg and Bergwerk hairpins, plus the Kallenhard, Wehrseifen and Ex-Mühle complexes, slow you down.
So fast is the back half of the track that getting a corner wrong and scrubbing off too much speed can slow you down for the next mile or two. At this point, instructor Bernd takes me under his wing for some extra tuition.
After declaring I needed to be “a man with big balls”, he gets down to some of the finer stuff. Mainly, I’m turning in too early for right-handers (not good, when 40 of the ’Ring’s 73 corners are right-handers), and subsequently getting the line wrong. I also need to brake more before turning in; as it is, I’m losing too much speed to understeer. Noted. Thanks, Bernd.
With that invaluable advice fresh in my mind, it’s time to put it all together in free practice ahead of the big day tomorrow. At least, that’s the idea, but the Nürburgring’s infamous micro-climate gets involved instead. Being spread over several postcodes and with a 300-metre difference in altitude, the ’Ring can be bright and sunny in the pits but soaking wet at the other side of the circuit. And so it proves at the end of our first day. An early night it is, then.
The next morning, we follow Bernd as he gradually ups the pace over several laps. Then it’s time for more free practice, followed by our final assessment. I’m feeling confident, having already set a lap (according to my Casio) of 9min 3sec, at an average speed of 85.5mph, albeit some way short of the Renaultsport Mégane 265’s front-drive lap record of 8min 5sec.
But the assessment is all about consistency over two laps, not one quick one. In the end, I post a 9:18.5 lap first time around and 9:15.8 on my second lap, so a gap of 2.69sec between them. This puts me 20th out of the 74 participants who completed the course (there were casualties; more than 100 started on day one), but some way shy of the winner, whose laps in a Porsche 911 GT3 are just 0.07sec apart.
In my defence, traffic was an issue, particularly so on the first lap as we were set off at just five-second intervals. I’m pretty sure I could have lapped faster and been more consistent. See? I’m starting to sound like a proper racing driver, with all that moaning and false promise.
So did I learn the Nürburgring? Enough to do a quick lap safely, yes, but that’s about it. I found my concentration would drop off after three and a half laps or so and mistakes would creep in, at which point I’d have to pit in order to avoid an accident. I now have a new-found respect for those driving long stints in the Nürburgring 24-hour race.
It’s also worth noting that I learned the track in an Astra VXR, which is flattering to drive and offers about as much performance as a ’Ring rookie could cope with before things would get scary. Just to put me in my place, I finished the course off with a few laps in a Corsa VXR, a smaller car and one with less power than the Astra VXR.
Easy, I thought. Er, no. Cue another big moment (survived, thankfully) that triggered cold sweats and brought me back to the pits with my tail between my legs.
Maybe I don’t really know this place at all. I sure as hell respect it, though.