When it comes to bragging rights with petrolheads, being able to say you've driven "The 'Ring" is right up there with the best of them. The reputation of Germany's Nürburgring Nordschleife is formidable, its history unmatchable and its place in the hearts of car and bike enthusiasts irreplaceable. And I've never before been given the opportunity to drive it for myself. Now, though, my time has come and I'm nervous - really nervous. I'm in a new BMW M3 coupé and there's fresh snow on the ground, slowly dissolving in the harsh morning sunlight. What could possibly go wrong?
Ostensibly I'm here because there's Castrol Edge lubricant coursing through the various arteries of this M3's engine but we'll talk about that later. In the meantime, the Green Hell awaits. This legendary moniker for the Nordschleife was coined by former F1 driver and prolific safety campaigner, Jackie Stewart, perfectly encapsulating the reasons for this place's reputation.
After two years of construction, the track was opened in 1927 to compete with Italy's Monza as the greatest racing circuit in the world and to show everyone that Germany was overflowing with racing and engineering talent. Originally in four parts, with the Nordschleife being by far the largest, Grand Prix racing commenced here almost immediately and in the decades leading up to its end as an F1 venue, the list of drivers either killed or seriously maimed here reads like a who's- who of racing stardom. Green? That'll be the mountain forestry. Hell? That'll be the grim reaper patiently waiting for the next accident.
I swear I can hear the wet tarmac cackling maniacally and, just to focus my mind, an emergency medic drives alongside my car. He's sizing me up, I convince myself, mentally preparing the right size body bag for my flight home.
Mercifully, the entire track is at our disposal, having been block booked for this event, although Ron Howard's film crew was here yesterday, filming a recreation of Formula One driver Niki Lauda's near- fatal crash during the 1976 Grand Prix, for the director's upcoming biopic Rush. This happened at a corner known as "Bergwerk", a tight right-hander with a really quick left kink that has caught untold numbers of drivers unaware. I had two double espressos with breakfast. Must. Stay. Alert.
'Ring aficionados talk about certain corners with affection, like they're hell-raising relatives who cause anguish and joy in equal measure. The Carousel, The Mine, Flugplatz - they're all challenging for even the most expert driver and I've seen many a YouTube clip of burning wrecks, multiple car pile-ups and the occasional death. It's estimated that up to 12 people die here every year, usually during days when the track is open to the public. Hardly surprising as you can be tearing round a corner and immediately come up behind a double decker bus full of sightseers, a motor home or the occasional scooter rider. Expect the unexpected, that's the advice on public days.
It's terribly cold outside but warm air is circulating around the cabin. I know the tyres will be cold and hard - something I deal with by performing an introductory lap behind our pace car. If you've ever visited London, New York or another city made famous by the silver screen, you'll know what I mean when I say it's sensory overload. The sights here made familiar by watching countless television programmes makes the experience immediately familiar - I've been here before, driven through this stunning scenery at an alarming rate of knots. Déjà vu? Absolutely.
There are too many iconic parts to this track to list but even if the overpowering greenery that envelops almost the entire 20.8km course isn't enough to tell you where you are, the graffiti that's sprayed and painted onto the asphalt surely is. It's a visceral experience and, unlike so many of the world's circuits, the forestry provides an immediate reference point. The faster you're travelling, the more blurred the trees. With zero run-off, if I get into trouble there'll be an unavoidable M3/Armco interface. So far, so good, however. Because of the melting snow and occasional patch of death-dealing black ice, we're having to take things relatively easy but my next lap enables me to unleash much of the M3's pent-up frustrations. It's begging to be thrashed - this is its natural habitat and it's a brilliant, scalpel-sharp weapon that's been carefully honed over many generations. Far more wieldy than the new M5, it nevertheless feels incredibly powerful and, exiting corners with the power on, it'll kick out its tail even with all the electronic aids working overtime. I absolutely love this thing.
As the laps accumulate, my familiarity grows but, realistically, I'd need to do hundreds more before my brain could have a hope of taking it all in. My respect for the racing drivers who take part in 24-hour events here has increased ten-fold - it's mind blowing what they've had to endure over the decades. There are no fewer than 73 corners, many of them blind with huge changes of elevation causing cars to become airborne just as another right-hander looms into view. It's epic and using a games console cannot prepare you for the real deal.
The M3 just takes everything in its stride, managing to excite and flatter its driver whatever the speed. It seems to shrink around me, it communicates through the steering and seat of the pants like few other cars and I'm grateful for its relatively compact dimensions. 420hp might not sound much these days but it makes the new M3 a perfectly rounded performance car.
After a handful of laps (each punctuated by a stop at the entrance barriers), I decide it's time to set my stopwatch - just as a point of reference. We're still slightly hamstrung by the slippery conditions so I'm not expecting much but the following lap comes in at a smidgen over 10 minutes. Having put down the hammer whenever the opportunity presented itself, it's still humbling to remember that famed 'Ring mistress Sabine Schmitz managed it in a similar time behind the wheel of a diesel-engined Ford Transit van.
It's the great leveller, this place. Car manufacturers test and develop their cars here, records are set and lives are lost. And, as my time comes to an end, I finally understand why this twisting, heaving piece of road has such a hold on millions of people - many of whom have never even been here.
Oh, and the oil thing? It's not as boring as it sounds because Castrol Edge is an incredible lubricant that enables outfits such as BMW Motorsport to continually push the limits when it comes to endurance. It adapts to the way an engine is stressed, keeping the oily bits well oiled and forming a tough barrier between components like the camshaft and followers, actually preventing them coming into physical contact. If you've ever been tempted to put any old oil in your car's engine, perhaps it's time to think again - in fact, it's a condition for the warranty of any BMW M-car that it's used to the exclusion of all others. If I do ever bring my own car to the Nordschleife, I'll be wanting this stuff taking care of lube duties. And mark my words, one day - to coin a phrase - I'll be back.
How to: drive the Nordschleife yourself
If you fancy tackling the ‘Ring yourself, you’ll need to head for Nürburg, about 70km south of Cologne, Germany. To avoid confusion, the infamous “Green Hell” is not the same circuit as the one used in the German Grand Prix and it’s known as the
Nordschleife (or Northern Loop).
During weekdays it’s usually closed for manufacturer research and development use or media track days but, at the weekend, it’s normally open to the public and anyone can use it, provided their vehicle is road legal. It’s actually classed as a public road and is policed as such (albeit without speed limits) and anyone found driving dangerously will be prosecuted by the law. A single lap costs €26 (Dh126) for each car or motorcycle. Multi-lap tickets can be purchased (25 laps for €490) and an annual ticket (called a Jahreskarte) with unlimited laps, valid from January 1 to December 31, costs €1,445. Be warned, however, that most insurance policies do not cover using your car or bike here and, after any accident, you’re liable for recovery costs and any repairs to the track or Armco barriers. Bills of €15,000 or more are not uncommon.