x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Nürburgring: on the razor's edge

Nick Hall puts his skills to the test on the Nürburgring, one of the world's most dangerous race tracks.

A Wiesmann leads a tightly packed pair of G-Powers and the Ruf Porsche through the Nordschleife.
A Wiesmann leads a tightly packed pair of G-Powers and the Ruf Porsche through the Nordschleife.

The old Nürburgring circuit has become a sacred place for driving fanatics around the world. At more than 20km in length, it was used for the German Grand Prix until 1976, when the track was deemed too perilous for Formula One, a fact punctuated by Niki Lauda's fiery crash in that final race. But now, on certain days, anyone can arrive, buy a ?22 (Dh100) ticket and drive what is generally considered one of the world's most dangerous race tracks in their own car.

Conventional wisdom says it is best to learn the track, slowly and with a large margin of error. But I am sitting at the infamous tollgate in a supercharged BMW M3 with mischievous ideas in my head. The old hands would not approve. We've gathered at the Nordschleife, or northern loop, at the behest of Michelin, which has brought some of the world's fastest, most outrageous cars to the Nürburgring and then handed the keys to an assembled crowd of journalists. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Michelin PR Tsar Oscar Pereda has total faith in the drivers, the cars and the tyres that would keep us on the road.

In all, ?6 million (Dh27 million) and 10,000hp of supercar gathers in the Touristenfahrten car park. The highlights are the Gumpert Apollo Sport, which holds the production car record at the 'Ring, the Ruf CTR3, the world's fastest saloon in G-Power's 800hp M5, ABT's R8 GT-R, MTM's 720hp RS6 and a collection of Porsches from Manthey and TechArt. It's a mind-boggling group of cars on any day, but today is something else. Because the Nordschleife is as dangerous as it is famous.

Sir Jackie Stewart labelled this snaking ribbon of tarmac "The Green Hell", and Lauda almost died in his fireball here. Endurance racing still runs at the 'Ring, including the legendary 24-hour race, but aside from competitive motorsport the Nürburgring has evolved. Now it is mostly a manufacturer test facility, though there are the tourist days where newbies try to become heroes. YouTube is full of them getting it badly wrong and the conservative local estimate is 12 fatalities a year.

It is not one particular corner that defines the Nürburgring, it is the sheer length of the place and the fact that much of it looks the same. Blind crests, corners obscured by forest and more than 140 turns in total mean it takes at least 50 laps to learn the layout and a lifetime to learn the lines. Many accidents happen when the driver arrives too fast into a tight bend, expecting a smooth corner and finding a tight kink.

Luckily, Michelin thought ahead and brought in seasoned race drivers to lead us round by the nose. That is the fine dividing line between genius and insanity, but it is still a nerve-wracking moment as we head out on track through the gate that really is a tollgate - technically, the Nürburgring is a public road. I'm in the 800hp M5. One of the test drivers leads our group in a stock M3 with little more than half of that horsepower, but he knows the place backwards and that gives him the advantage. Anything we gain in the straights we lose in the bends, and the group is soon stretched out and driving towards the limit.

I fixate on the M3's rear lights, trying to learn the braking and turn-in points for the tight and twisting Hatzenbach section before the track opens out and I can unleash the 800hp underfoot to catch up. It's an exhilarating experience dancing through Breidscheid and then dropping into the banked Karussel corner and popping out on the other. Our laptimes are in the 8.5- to nine-minute region; this is totally controlled aggression and the lead drivers have defanged the snake to an extent. But it feels more than fast enough. And as we hit the straight, the G-Power reaches 240kph long before the braking zone for the tight left turn in Dh625,000 of borrowed metal.

After two mind-blowing laps, we peel to the right and into the pits to cool our frazzled brakes and brains and then jump into the next car. It's a Wiesmann GT MF4 for me, a 400hp sports car that's set up for the street. With softer springs, there is many a moment where the tyres touch the arches and send a plume of smoke towards the car behind. Memorably, at the appropriately named Flugplatz, or "Airfield", the Wiesmann drops from under me over the blind crest and the suspension reaches the end of its travel, one wheel even leaving the ground before a hard landing.

And as we hit the sweeping Tiergarten section, a furtive glance at the speedo shows we're going quicker than Pereda may have planned and the lame duck at the back of the group is nowhere to be seen. Today is starting to get interesting. Cars start to pass in a blur. Each of them come with their own characteristics, their own unique beauty. From the heavy yet supremely refined Alpina B7 to the darting fingertip control of the TechArt Cayman, they are each intoxicating and extreme. And as I start to unravel the mysteries of the circuit, I can rely less on the brake lights of the instructor's car and focus on the flowing track itself. The speeds rise, the horsepower flows and every lap gets that little bit tighter, that little bit better. I am starting to tame the almighty Nürburgring, albeit with a lot of help from the lead car and the huge reservoir of performance from these incredible cars.

But then, two mindblowing passenger laps with a test driver put our efforts into perspective. The Gumpert Apollo Sport is the current production car record holder at the Nürburgring with a time of 7m11.57s. It has 750hp, weighs 1,197kg and has enough downforce to drive on the ceiling at 320kph. Gumpert probably wouldn't hand us the keys to this customer's car even if it could, but in the hands of a professional, we nudged 305kph on the fast section.

Suddenly, the 800hp BMW M5 looks pedestrian as it flies backwards past the window. And just when you think things cannot get better, ABT Sportsline comes along with a bona fide Ringmeister, 20-year-old Christopher Mies. With a 600hp Audi R8 V10 that is a match for the GT cars in every area apart from the brakes, Mies ripped past every other car on the track. It was one of those performances that stays with you forever; the young German was apparently banging in laps of around 7:40s all day long with dumbfounded journalists beside him.

Michelin did not change one tyre due to wear all day, so the tyres certainly held up their part. The cars, the rubber and the drivers all went to The Green Hell and back and emerged unscathed; conventional wisdom, it seems, isn't always right. motoring@thenational.ae