visiting the nurburgring
lap of the gods
There's Nothing Quite Like Germany's Nurburgring Nordschliefe Circuit But You'll Need Some Insider Knowledge If You're To Get The Most From Visiting. Steve Walker Finds Just That
Snaking through the dense green pine forests that blanket Germany's Eifel Mountains, there's a thin line of tarmac edged with steel. It contorts through 73 bends on its 13-mile course, rising and plunging almost 1,000 feet as it slices through the rolling terrain before finally arriving right back where it started. It's a road to nowhere miles from anywhere, yet the Nurburgring Nordschleife is a beguiling destination that draws visitors from across Europe and, in increasing numbers, from the UK. It's the world's greatest racetrack and you can drive it - but before you do, you'll need to know more.
You'll need, in other words, some inside knowledge. People who can advise you, fix your car if it breaks and sort out meals and accommodation near to the circuit. I'd been visiting the 'Ring' for several years before I discovered a way to make the whole experience much easier and more pleasurable. The Ringhaus, a hotel just a few hundred yards from the circuit entrance, is an insider's way to do just that. Accommodation, food, advice, mechanical help - even performance car hire is all here.
Before we get into that, it's important to try and explain the whole Nurburgring experience for those yet to visit. It's impossible to envisage anything remotely similar existing in the UK - which is probably why the 300-mile drive from Calais holds such an appeal for British motorists. The 'Ring' was built in the late 1920s as a racetrack and testing facility, 3,000 workers taking two years to carve it into the foreboding landscape. Albeit with a few modifications (originally there was a Nordschleife and a Sudschleife which could be combined into one 19-mile circuit), it fulfils largely the same role today.
Track time is divided up between industry testing, private races, rented track days and the infamous public days. This is the premise that takes some getting used to. On a public day, anyone can pay the entrance fee and take any road legal vehicle out onto the track. There's no particular requirement for extra safety precautions, training of any sort or special insurance (although, check your policy because some insurers now specifically exclude the Ring). The Nordschleife is classed as a derestricted toll road, so you just pop your ticket in the barrier and go.
Driving or taking a passenger lap on the Nordschleife for the first time, a number of things become apparent. The first is that the whole thing actually has the potential to be rather dangerous. The track, with its 13-miles of dramatic altitude changes, blind corners and ferocious high-speed sections all lined by walls of ominous Armco barrier, is like nothing else on earth and that would be sobering enough but you've also got the traffic. At any given time on a public day there are experienced Ringmeisters churning out 8 and 9-minute laps in some serious sports machinery, swarms of leather-clad bikers weaving between the cars and other slower drivers learning the track or doing a bit of sightseeing. It's not even uncommon to round an unsighted corner at a considerable lick to be confronted by a coach doing 30mph full of waving tourists - their cameras poised in anticipation of an expensive rendezvous between your car and the Armco.
The initial shock of the Ring eventually subsides and a sense of awe takes over. You can't fail to be impressed at the track and the unparalleled test it dishes out to vehicle and driver. The Ring demands respect, you simply can't drive it quickly without knowing what's over the next brow or how the camber changes in the next corner. Treat it with respect and a lap becomes an experience you'll want to repeat again and again.
It's easy for any enthusiastic driver to come down with the Nurburgring bug but once you've got it, the habit of regular trips to the ring can leave a big hole in your bank account where your money used to be. There are, however, ways in which you can keep the costs to a minimum and get the maximum enjoyment out of any ring jaunt, whether it's your first or your fiftieth.
The Nordschleife is open to the public mainly on weekday evenings but there are a handful of weekends in the year when you can get out on the track. A calendar showing the opening times is available at www.nurburgring.de and there's no point turning-up on non-public days expecting to do anything other than spectating. The route to the Ring is simple, if a little monotonous. Take the E40 from Calais down past Brussels to Liege where you get on the E42. Pass Spa-Francorchamps, home of the Belgian Grand Prix, then take the 410 to Kelberg where you get on the 257 which will get you to the Nurburgring Grand Prix circuit. Allow four and a half hours for the journey and you should get there in plenty of time.
Visiting the Ring can be an expensive business. Ferry crossings, fuel, accommodation, food, it all adds up. If you do, say, 15 laps over the course of a weekend's stay - that's around 350 Euros right there. It's also worth remembering why the world's leading car manufacturers choose the Ring as key development test for their new models. The strain that the Nordschleife puts on a vehicle is immense and if you are going to drive a lot of laps hard, you can expect your car's consumable parts to be in pretty poor nick at the end of it. Replacing tyres and brakes isn't cheap and there's a lot more to do at the Ring than hammering round and round the circuit. If you want to keep costs down, limit the number of laps you do and take time out to look around, taking in the sights and the unique atmosphere.
If you're looking for somewhere to stay, the Ringhaus, or to give it it's full name, the Altes Forsthaus St Hubertus, is ideal. It offers a perfect location 300 yards from the entrance to the Nordschleife, good food and simple, comfortable accommodation all at sensible prices. It's also much more than a mere hotel. If a driver from the UK has mechanical difficulties or an accident at the Ring, they find themselves with a big problem on their hands. Getting a non-runner transported back to Blighty won't be cheap and getting it repaired locally can be a bit risky. Prices for work carried out at local garages can vary widely and there's always the potential for the unsuspecting UK visitor to pay over the odds. At the Ringhaus, they offer comprehensive garage facilities ranging from secure parking, basic repairs and replacement parts to complete team assistance for the Nurburgring endurance championship event. Any work is carried out by experienced mechanics and prices are very reasonable. It's a great way to get your Ring trip back on track if something does go wrong.
The people behind the Ringhaus even offer a 'Ringtool' rental service through which tourists are able to hire performance cars for use on the circuit. You can book a room or get more information by visiting www.ringhaus.com or telephoning (+49) 2691 935390.
The Nurburgring is a must visit destination for anyone with a passion for cars and driving. A trip there can be expensive but if you take the proper care and give this peerless circuit the respect it demands, you'll gain an unrivalled driving experience. Just be warned, most people who make the trip once find themselves compelled to return.
ACCOMMODATION - Ringhaus (Altes Forsthaus St Hubertus), Hauptstrasse 1, 53520 Nurburg. Tel: (+49) 2691 935390. www.ringhaus.com
OPENING TIMES - Official Nurburgring website: www.nurburgring.de
GENERAL INFO - Excellent website for UK visitors: www.nurburgring.org.uk