x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

For racing drivers, Nürburgring is the one to rule them all

In an attempt to tame a Black Pack cat from Jaguar, Noel Ebdon goes for a drive on the notorious Nürburgring.

The Jaguar XF-R Black Pack comes equipped with stability control that isn't too intrusive and gives you the impression of being far more in control than you actually are. Courtesy of Jaguar
The Jaguar XF-R Black Pack comes equipped with stability control that isn't too intrusive and gives you the impression of being far more in control than you actually are. Courtesy of Jaguar

Why are we, as humans, attracted so strongly to danger? We like nothing better than to peer over the edge of the abyss, leaning farther and farther, firm in the belief that if we overbalance we are more than capable of heroically saving ourselves.

Any location linked to death and danger draws us in like moths to the lantern. Perhaps our middle-class lack of imminent risk has left the male of the species impotent in modern times; whatever the reason, many of us tend to seek out these thrills on a race track.

Pulling up to the bizarre car park-style barriers of the legendary Nürburgring and its infamous Northern Loop, or "Nordschleife", some of this attraction grabs me. There is an element of insanity to be able to pull off the road on a bike, in a car or a minivan, pay for a one-hour track ticket and then head out into an automotive free-for-all on one of the world's most feared race circuits.

But what pushes to the front of your mind is the incredibly long list of racing titans that have tried to tame this circuit over the 90 years since it was built for motorcycle racing in the 1920s; especially, those that died in the process.

The wind whistling through the trees seems to sing the song of a thousand open carburettors and rasping exhausts long since departed. It also smells of the sweat and tears of those that became addicts of the racing circus that happily accepted them in and then cruelly spat them out when the fickle finger of fate decided their playboy days were up.

The haunting sounds remind you that you are now on racing's hallowed turf. The entire place screams of motoring melancholy, racing history and a gladiatorial sense of the inevitable.

I have driven and pushed my own limits on circuits and roads across the world, yet still feel slightly in awe of those who have mastered a particularly difficult or dangerous location. The Isle of Man TT course and Pikes Peak spring to mind, but in this league, the most famous, or in this case, infamous, surely has to be what Jackie Stewart nicknamed "The Green Hell" in the 1960s.

This thin, bumpy, twisty stretch of tarmac is the last great bastion of danger - extreme and sheer madness that makes men great (in the eyes of some) and remains the ultimate test of a car maker's prowess.

Standing around by the barriers are race engineers, bike racers, tourists and pilgrims who have crossed Europe and beyond to buy their ticket to the 'Ring. From everyone, save the tourists, there's the silent nod of acknowledgement you only get between people about to risk everything for nothing more than the self-satisfaction of doing it.

This shared love of something so intangible and pointless electrifies everyone who understands something that cannot be understood. It surges through my body, and I haven't even got out on track yet.

The 'Ring draws a smorgasbord of racing machinery, which manages to coexist in almost total harmony. See, part of the beauty of this place is that it unites all who come here; people aren't racing against each other, they're all trying to do one thing: master the 'Ring. In the car park, race bikes sit next to GT cars, Caterhams, race prototypes and almost standard hot hatches.

I'm here as a guest of Jaguar, which has a permanent facility metres from the entrance to the black ribbon of Tarmac that loops 20-odd kilometres (depending on configuration) around Germany's imposing Eifel Mountains. The centre is impressive enough, but pails in significance against the track.

For my driving session, I'm lucky enough to nab the achingly gorgeous Jaguar XF-R Black Pack. With the deep, dark metallic-painted bodywork and blacked-out chrome bits, it is a perfect match for the Nordschleife. Dark, brooding and dangerous, it oozes drama and purpose.

Jaguar has come a long, long way since the best-forgotten 1980s and 90s. This is a better car than any of its German rivals. BMW has more tech, Audi has its four-wheel drive and a Mercedes feels stronger, but the Jaguar has something none of them even seem to know exists: sex appeal. If the others are an engineering clinic, the Jag is a swinging Sixties party.

Out on track, the circuit twists, turns and undulates like a rollercoaster. In some places, it is the width of just two cars; the rest barely pushes three. The very idea of a 24-hour race around the circuit simply baffles me, but they hold them year in, year out and the grids are packed.

Inside the sumptuous Jag I've got every electronic driving aid and performance enhancement switched to on; this is not a time for pointless heroics. My guide to the track is Sacha Burt, FIA GT and single-seater racer and well-known ring meister. Luckily for him, but not for me, he's in a Jag XK-R, naturally faster than my four-door saloon. My suggestion of putting him in a golf buggy drew a few laughs but wasn't taken seriously.

The track is covered in writing and messages from previous races, adding to the distractions you don't need when trying to keep up with someone who is both incredibly gifted and who also knows the track like the back of his hand. The track is simply breathtaking and swooping around famous corners, such as Carousel, with its banked sections of concrete instead of asphalt, remind you this is a special place.

The lack of run-off areas and close barriers give no room for error, especially as the track has only one real straight. But that doesn't stop people from pushing the limits of man and machine here; the lap record around the Nordschleife is a staggering six minutes, 11 seconds.

The Jaguar's stability systems flatter me hugely and I am soon imagine myself lapping in grainy black and white, chasing the greats in their old GP cars, before a particularly sharp turn snaps me back to the present day. This is somewhere that you need your mind on a tight leash.

The XF-R corners flat and without fuss. Unlike many other manufacturers' systems, the stability control on the Jag isn't too intrusive and gives you the impression of being far more in control than you actually are. That's fine until you turn it off and discover you're not the driving god you thought you were. I left mine, as instructed, activated.

After four laps and more than a half an hour, we pull off the track for a break. The XF's engine is still ticking and the tyres oozing that hot rubber smell you only get at race tracks.

Jaguar has teased and honed its R cars over hundreds of laps of this titanic circuit and it shows. If this is the direction Jaguar is taking, then expect even sharper claws on future cars. Last weekend's announcement of the production of the beautiful C-X75 supercar suggests it is firmly heading beyond AMG and BMW's M spec cars.

For the 'Ring, the XF-R Black Pack not only looks the part, but also plays its role in this automotive opera perfectly. The fact that I can still drive it home in complete comfort only adds to this impressive machine's credentials.

And as I leave, my silent comrades on their bikes and in their prepped cars look longingly at the growling Jaguar. To turn their heads at the gates to motoring Valhalla is high praise indeed.