Racetracks are a type of road. A decade ago I had my one and probably only racetrack experience, a drive on the Nurburgring Nordschleife.
What do I remember? What really stands out are that if I had been driving the car myself I would not have survived the first corner. The facilities suffer a want of quality and style. And, finally the other people there are not really people I have much in common with.
I’ll start with the last one. A friend at work wanted to celebrate his 30th birthday. At the time he had a Ford Fiesta ST180, a car of which I approve even if it’s not my kind of car. He wished to mark the day by having a few laps of the ‘Ring followed up by a lunch at a hostelry with us lot. We turned up in our cars (shamefully my car was unexpectedly getting mechanical help that weekend) and I was at once struck by the clientele of the ‘Ring as well as the lack of parking. There were boisterous guys in their brand new 911s, guys with Kiton shirts and expensive driving shoes. Japanese muscle car
drivers also featured: people mad about their 1990 Nissan 300 SX, for example, people who only wear jeans and polo-shirts. The guys who lower and tune their 1995 Corsas and 1994 3-series cars also had a presence. Baseball hats on backwards. I didn’t expect that group: I thought those cars never actually raced, just blatted at traffic lights in town on Friday nights.
All of these people had a sincere interest in driving very fast which is a bit different than my interest in virtually every other aspect of cars but that one. And that made us incompatible sorts of people. I can get excited about a Mk 1 Opel Vectra or a Kia Pride estate. Really. They can’t. The ‘Ring crowd rate cars for the 0-60 times and the general capacity to corner as fast as bloody possible.
Luckily the cars we turned up in were just racey enough: the ST, a 1999 Renault Megane cabriolet in Sport trim (it was yellow so it looked quite convincing) and a Smart Roadster. Now I come to think of it I am glad my XM was out of service.
The Nurburgring had a restaurant and bar. It really ought to have had something more special around it than a lot of concrete and parked cars. What did I expect? I am not a Nurburgring person, after all. I expected a nice, neat German car park with lots of trees and a neat start gate where people would roll up, pay the fee. They could race off and return to a nice Gasthof-style building to dine on Scwheinhaxe or Blutwurst and creamed potatoes.
The actual facilities resembled nothing so much as one of those suspicious clubs found in the middle of forests in Germany. It reminded me of a similar building near Russelsheim, in the middle of a long woodland road, which was notorious as a swinger’s club. The Nurburghof featured too many wimples advertisting Bitburger beer (I think it was). Tacky sums it up. It’s not a place you want to hang around.
Finally the road itself. It’s known as the Green Hell. And of course not without good reason. It’s confusing and hard work to get around. What I didn’t expect was that when you acccelerate from the start there is a sharp right turn after less than a few hundred metres. My driver luanched off from the gate and as I was taking this in – first! second! third! fourth! fifth! – the car lurched right and my head was thrown left. Why are you dong this, I shouted? And then I noticed that if he’d done otherwise we’d have ploughed straight into a set of fatal obstacles.
I stopped asking questions quite soon into the drive.
The rest of the trip is now a blur of concrete, unexpected crests and the hazard of immensely capable vehicles being driven at staggering speed alongside tour buses with grinning pensioners from Niedersachsen, Markgraflerland and Pomerania gazing out the windows. In some ways the Ring is a place with all the traffic of an Autobahn but none of the safety features.
Both cars I rode in that day did a nice job of it. Both drivers were much better than me. I am quite certain I’d have been pulverised by a NSX if I had driven my 2.0 litre French saloon on the day. Or else if I had driven with proper vim I’d have crashed somewhere along the way. At the very least I think the demands of the course would have been too much for the hydraulics and I’d have been towed home. Even the Ford, nearly new, came back from the drive quite nicely cooked, with fluids hurled out of the reservoirs owing to the high g-forces.
Rather horribly, despite the tack, the crowds and the hazards I still think about driving the Nurburgring in my XM. I can see why people come back to it.