One (Green) Hell of a Trip
The Nurburgring Nordschleife. 20.8km (12.9 miles) long. 73 corners. The most dangerous race track in the world. The scene of Niki Lauda’s near terminal accident in 1976. The track is actually classified as a one-way public road. You just turn up, pay 14 euros, drive through the barriers and take your chances with Porsches, Ferraris, superbikes, family hatchbacks and even tourist coaches. There is no instruction, no separation of traffic into groups, no marshals, no ambulance and no run-off on most corners before you hit the unforgiving Armco barriers.
Each year for the past 3 years I have been invited to drive the ‘ring by a fellow Westfield SEiGHT owner that I know through the internet. William works for a major car manufacturer. He is based in Ingolstadt but does a lot of testing of road cars at the ‘ring and has driven over 1000 laps of the circuit. Until this year I had always declined for a variety of reasons; I felt that my sprint car might not make the 800 mile trip without problems, I wasn’t sure the cooling system would be up to 13-mile laps, I was more than a little concerned about thrashing around a race track nearly 400 miles from home with no trailer, and I never really had the spare cash. However I was always very tempted…
Soon after Christmas 2003 William started offering dates for the 2004 trip. In 2003 I had only done a few sprints and 2004 was looking like it would be the same. I decided that the ‘ring trip would be the focus of my year. Ferries were booked in January for a mid June trip and William booked rooms for me, my brother Keith who owns a 4.2 litre Ginetta G33, and fellow Westfield owners Graham, Carsten and John. Graham lives in England and has a 350HP 5.1 litre. Carsten comes from Germany and has a 330HP 4.8 litre. John lives in France and has a 200HP 3.9. Carsten was the only person who had driven the ‘ring before, on a previous trip with William. We would also be joined by William’s colleague, Jos, who is head of chassis engineering at the same manufacturer. While Jos gets to do development work on a whole range of exotic cars, including Lamborghinis, he too chooses a V8 Westfield for his own personal driving pleasure!
In the week leading up to our trip everybody was busy with their cars. Jos was rebuilding his engine and when he came to install the camshaft mid-week he discovered it had a manufacturing defect and there wasn’t time to get another. This was sorted by a machine shop and the car was all back together in time, but with no time for a test drive before the long haul to the ‘ring. Graham was out in his garage until 3am on the day of departure having suffered a catalogue of minor problems on his first long trip in the car the weekend before when he went to LeMans. I was replacing a damaged hub on the Friday evening and out in the garage ‘til 11pm on Saturday swapping wheels and loading the car. Keith was busy in his garage installing a new clutch master cylinder and pipework. Carsten fitted a new long range fuel tank that had been custom built for him. With all this last-minute work going on there were bound to be some problems however William told us that we would have the use of a ‘small’ workshop near the ‘ring.
On Sunday 20th June Keith, Graham and I met at Dover and sailed across to Calais. As Keith had the only car where you could possibly consult a map book on the move he was nominated lead car. The drive from Calais to Wiesemscheid was fairly uneventful until near the end. It had started sunny and warm in France, became quite chilly in the middle of Belgium, decidedly cold near Germany, and then the heavens opened as we entered Germany. It was raining so hard that we could hardly see at 30mph. Graham and I have aeroscreens and were using crash helmets and the rain just wasn’t clearing from the visors fast enough. Even Keith had problems in the Ginetta. As we had not been expecting rain we weren’t wearing waterproofs and Graham and I were soaked right through including our underwear. We stopped at a hotel for a cup of coffee and waited for the rain to pass. When we restarted our journey we found out that all of the rear lights on Keith’s car had stopped working - indicators, brake lights and side lights. After a quick investigation, with no joy, Keith assumed the fault was caused by putting all the wet bits into the boot against the rear lights electrics at the coffee stop. He slotted in between me and Graham to shelter him from other traffic and we resumed our journey. Soon afterwards we got a little lost but finally found our hotel after 6 hours on the road.
The Hotel Rieder had 80 rooms and was full of ‘ring people – bikers, including 20 from Britain, tourists and industry testers including a man from Hankook who has done over 11,000 laps. That is over 150,000 miles! Interestingly he took one look at the tyres on Keith’s car and asked why he was running Toyo Proxes on the back. “Is he trying to compensate for understeer” was his comment! The Proxes is the latest must-have tyre for people on list 1A for those who don’t know. The hotel was a good place to stay, just a few minutes from the circuit and we were offered free use of their enormous garage to stow the cars in – I expect they saw we had no roofs and took pity on us as the forecast was rain for all the days we were there!
We weren’t the only people to have had an exciting trip down. Jos had been suffering overheating and his car was in the workshop. Talk over dinner was that the heads might have to come off in the morning before we went to the circuit. Carsten had also not even started the journey as his custom fuel tank had sprung a huge leak.
Next morning we drove down to the ‘small workshop’ where Jos and William had already started work on Jos’ car. The workshop was impressive and contained 3 hydraulic lifts, exhaust extractors, a wheel alignment lift, tyre fitting and balancing equipment, offices, loos and full kitchen facilities! This immediately put us more at ease as I think you could have fixed just about any problem with those facilities. There were even full service facilities available for the drivers with a prostitute in a caravan at the entrance to the industrial estate! The circuit didn’t open until 1pm so William fixed an oil leak on his car, Keith sorted out his electrics, and I fitted a decent rear view mirror to my car – essential for the afternoon when there would be a huge mix of car types and driver/rider abilities on the circuit. Jos got his car sorted and took it for a test drive. We then weighed all the cars on cornerweight scales for a bit of fun. The figures were as follows:
I was pleased with this as I was running heavy wheels and tyres. With my normal racing wheels and tyres the fully fuelled weight would be about 645kg.
It was now 12.30. It had been grey and overcast all morning but was still dry. Just as we set off for the circuit it started to rain and I could feel my stomach starting to churn. Keith and I had talked about this before the trip and our worst nightmare was that it would be wet… We stopped off at the petrol station and each of us bought a 6-lap ticket for 76 euros, then headed off to the car park to meet William and Jos.
The plan was for William and Jos to take each of us around as a passenger to get a feel for the circuit, then we would be lead around in convoys of 2 behind each of them. I was the first person to go out with William. The track was wet all the way around and he was driving fast. We passed every car and bike we saw. The car was sliding through most corners and it was like being on a roller coaster. Before going on the trip we had studied lots of videos from the internet and played a bit of Project Gotham Racing on the Xbox which has a faithful rendition of the 'ring. One of the things that the videos and computer games just don’t show properly is the undulating nature of the track. There is a difference of 1000ft between the highest and lowest points of the circuit. A lot of bends are either on, or immediately after, blind crests. The circuit is also quite bumpy if you are used to normal race tracks. And, of course, the Armco barrier is usually less than 2 feet from the side of the track!
Now Jos had a bit of a reputation as a nutter, and Keith had told me how, even in these wet conditions, the Westfield was in a 4-wheel drift at over 100mph during his demonstration drive, so I elected to follow William for my first convoy run! I needn’t have worried as our first runs were conducted at a sensible pace and we were passed by many cars and bikes. The new rear view mirror proved worth its weight in gold. Keith and John had a similar cruise behind Jos. During these drives a motorbike crashed heavily and we later found out it was a Suzuki GSX1000R from our hotel. Soon a more serious accident resulted in the police closing the circuit while they investigated. We adjourned for lunch and during this time the sun came out and the track dried completely. When we returned for some faster laps it was suggested that the convoy groups switched leaders – we now had Jos ‘the nutter’ to lead us around. The next couple of laps got a lot faster. On the third lap we were only passed by one motorbike and passed tons of cars and bikes ourselves. Graham was using A048Rs and, on list 1A tyres (cheap ones at that!), I was starting to drop back a little towards the end of the lap as the pace got hotter. You always have to maintain contact with the cars in front or you will get lost. They say it takes 50 laps to learn the ‘ring and another 50 before you can go fast. We were ‘cheating’ by following the exact lines and speeds of our hosts. However, once you couldn’t see the lead car, it became much harder. It was impossible to take a risk through any corner as you might find you had mis-remembered it and what you thought was a series of fast sweepers was actually a fast bend followed by a hairpin, or you might go over a crest at 100mph+ to find a tight off-camber corner straight after it. Believe me, when you see all these other cars and bikes crashing it instils a great deal of self-restraint even if the red mist is starting to appear at the top of your visor!
Our own little party had a few mishaps as well. John was the driver with the least track experience in the group. On lap 3 he was following Keith and William when he lost control and had a spin. Keith and William slowed down and waited for him but he dropped back again when they speeded up. Back in the car park he decided to sit out the next drive. This time Graham followed Jos for an even faster lap and Keith and I went out behind William. This turned out to be slower than the laps with Jos as, while he was cornering briskly, William was only accelerating up to about 90-100mph on the straights. I pointed out to Keith that he should try a drive behind Jos if he wanted to exercise the long gearing in his car. Keith wasn’t sure that he wanted to go any faster but soon we both followed Jos out on to the circuit. After about 5 miles I noticed that Keith had disappeared from my rear view mirror. As he had been a little concerned about going too fast I assumed he had dropped back. Jos noticed too and we slowed down. Then we slowed down some more. Finally we were crawling along at 40mph with our right hand indicators on. Keith finally reappeared and we finished the lap. When we got back to the car park it turned out that a motorbike had tried to pass Keith going into a corner, the bike had started to slide and it looked like the rider was going to be high-sided. As he got thrown up out of the seat Keith hit his brakes hard to avoid hitting the bike and, as a result, was now unable to get around the corner himself. He took to the grass at a spot where he knew there was slightly more run-off than elsewhere. The kerbs were very high at this point and the underneath of the car took a battering. He then had to drive about 100 yards on the grass before the kerb was low enough for him to get back on to the track. Fortunately there was no damage to the car but to be on the safe side he decided to miss out his next lap!
By the end of the first day I had done 6 laps, Graham had done 7 (using one of Keith’s laps), Keith had done 5 laps and John had done 4. Despite the forecast the weather had been great all afternoon and evening. I think we all found our favourite parts of the track, but for me these were Hatzenbach, Adenauer-Forst and Ex-Muhle. Hatzenbach is a left-right-left-right-left sequence of corners that just flow one into the other at medium speed. Adenauer-Forst is a fast blind right over a crest that leads into a tight left hander that you have to apex incredibly late. It is a famous spot where people tend to take the right too fast and run out of track. Ex-Muhle is preceded by a medium speed left that leads into the lowest point of the circuit and the track then immediately climbs steeply through Ex-Muhle, a very tight right hander that leads to a fast straight and then to the left hand kink where Lauda crashed. One bend that none of us liked much was the famous Karussell. This is where there is a steeply banked section of concrete on the inside of a hairpin. The fast line is to drop down into the concrete section, however it is very bumpy and the edge is so sharp that it is easy to catch your sump as you drop down. I followed Keith once and a huge shower of sparks came out from under his car as he turned in!
That evening we went to dinner in 2 factory development cars, both of which were fitted with 340HP 4.2 litre V8s and had modified suspensions. The drive from the hotel to the restaurant was fast and frantic, the tyres squealing and the cars drifting through virtually every bend on the road through the Black Forest. After a great pasta dinner we retired to the hotel for plenty of beer.
The next day was an Industry Pool day at the circuit. It would not be open to the public until 17.45 and would close at 19.30. Previous trips organised by William have ended after the first day, however we decided to stay on for the Industry Pool day. This meant we could visit the Nurburgring Museum, watch the industry testing including the famous mule cars covered in tape and plastic, go and buy our souvenirs and, most importantly, have another crack at the ‘ring ourselves. The original intention was that this would be our reserve in case it rained on the first day. As the first day had been sunny the pressure was off, we thought it really didn’t matter if it rained now. We did the museum first and then went to watch the industry testing. The day was grey and overcast with occasional specks of rain. This was a shame as, contrary to what we thought about rain at the start of the day, we were now keen on one final blast in the dry. The industry testers were quite entertaining. We saw loads of BMWs, Porsches and Mercedes. The most interesting cars were a Range Rover and a Mini Convertible. The Range Rover looked like it was being tested as racing development! It was screeching and leaning through every corner, and was heavily disguised with tape. The Mini seemed to be circulating almost constantly and was being driven similarly hard. The fastest car we timed was an Alpina BMW Z4 that was doing consistent 8:34 full laps.
I think the Gods must have been smiling on us because as we drove up to the car park from the hotel the sun started to shine and it got lovely and warm. The final session didn’t pass without incident as Jos’s poly-V belt that drives the water pump and alternator broke on his first lap. Graham had been following. William, Keith and I streaked past the two Westfields pulled over near the start of the lap. We slowed right down wondering if we should stop, then William sped off again. This would be Graham’s white knuckle ride. Jos told him to join us. By the time he got back on track we were out of sight. By about half way round the lap he had caught us. He was using his full 350HP on every straight and then driving slowly around any bends he wasn’t sure he could remember, which was most of them! Fortunately William was still cruising the straights at 100mph, otherwise Graham would have been by himself for the whole lap!
We each did 3 laps then William left to help Jos with his car. He warned us that if we did any laps by ourselves we should be very careful. We didn’t intend to do any laps but there was one bit of unfinished business. Graham and I had been having acceleration tests on the main straight. I had done 145mph but had run out of revs so I had nothing left to prove. However Graham had taller gearing and had reached 147mph but wanted to crack 150. He bought one last ticket and set off by himself, just minutes before the circuit was closed for the night. Some time later we saw a tiny red car appear over a mile away with its lights blazing. This had to be him. The engine note was awesome. A number of people were craning their necks to see what car was coming and one guy dived through a hedge to get a better view. You could hear that the engine was straining and wasn’t accelerating. The straight is uphill so we weren’t sure if he could manage it. Graham rolled into the car park and gave us the thumbs-up. Exactly 150mph. Apparently it had got stuck at 149mph for some time before picking up that last 1mph! The speed was verified from the tell-tale on his Stack digital dashboard.
After 9 laps on cheap road tyres (I hadn't wanted to wear out my soft sprinting tyres) I had a best lap of 9m 37s. Very sedate but still exciting.
After another good meal that night we got up at 5.30 the next morning, had an early breakfast and set off home. Over dinner William had mentioned that he was praying for rain as he wanted to do some wet testing the next day. We prayed equally hard that it would not rain! We knew there would be more traffic going back on a weekday so we allowed 8 hours for the trip. It was just as well. First we got lost and realised something was wrong when we hadn’t reached Belgium on schedule. It turned out we had joined a motorway going in completely the wrong direction! William’s prayers were answered and the weather was foul. It rained about half the time, sometimes so badly that we were only doing about 40mph on the motorways. Then, about half way through Belgium Keith’s engine started to cut out intermittently. A stop to investigate this showed the ECU wiring was loose. This was caused by his helmet banging around in the passenger footwell against the ECU wiring! When we reached the last 70 miles through France the wind was so strong that it made my neck muscles ache as my head got buffeted around. On arrival at the port there were no ferries due to the gales! Fortunately we had a free transfer onto the Eurotunnel and arrived safely back in England around 4pm.
We all had an amazing trip and everybody is looking
forward to our next trip to the Green Hell in 2005. In fact, Graham is hoping
to go again in August! Despite my fears my own car did the entire trip without
a single problem and the water temperature rarely went over 75C even when doing
two consecutive laps.
(this article first published in the Sevenoaks Motor Club magazine 'The Acorn' in August 2004)
© Ian Crocker
Last updated on Dec 1st 2004