The Nrburgring Nordeschleife in southern Germany is perhaps the most famous circuit in the world and a mecca for performance enthusiasts who want to experience the daunting track for themselves or simply soak up the atmosphere.
We should point out, it's important to refer to it as the Nrburgring Nordeschleife (northern loop), because this is the difference between referring to the glorious and historic 14.2 miles of public playground and the modern, sanitized, 3.2 mile south circuit Formula 1 track.
Although the Nordeschleife hasn't held an F1 GP since 1977, the 21st century has breathed new life into it. Today it's a test track for numerous manufacturers such as BMW, which has a permanent engineering center at the circuit. It's also the halo track on Sony's Gran Turismo 4 and still hosts an annual 24-hour race for production cars in June. It's an incredible place every car enthusiast should visit. We know, because we've just returned with all the info travelers need to get themselves to the world's best track.
Getting ThereFlights are available from many major US cities directly into Frankfurt. It's the nearest city to the Ring and only a couple of hours' drive away. But why not do like us, and thousands of others, and land in London, England? Apart from the tourist appeal and more flights, it's a great drive.
Once in Europe, the chosen car isn't too important. However, beware: some German car rental companies specifically exclude coverage for the Nrburgring, and some have mileage limits. There are even rumors that the rental companies have spies at the Ring who alert them if one of their cars appears!
If you're after something a little special, Avis in Germany rents a new Porsche 911 for around $335 a day, including Nrburgring coverage (exchange rates may vary). Alternatively, there are numerous "rent-a-racecar" companies around the Ring, and the famous "Ring Taxi" if you're looking for the full speed experience from the passenger seat.
Since it was our first time, we rented a VW GTI with DSG to drive to and on the track, but there were sports cars readily available, like the 350Z, RX-8 and Boxster.
The most important consideration is when to go. As the Nordeshleife all but closes in winter, the best time is June-August. And the track, which is still considered a one-way public road, is only open during daylight hours. Manufacturers, clubs and driving schools all book the track for exclusive private use, so check the official website's public dates to avoid disappointment.
The trip across the English Channel also needs planning. There's a ferry, but the faster and more novel way is the Euro Tunnel, via a double-decker car-carrying underground train. For around $350 return (depending on the time of year), it isn't cheap but it's fast, taking just 35 minutes to get from Dover, UK to Calais, France (www.eurotunnel.com).
Once you hit the Continent, speed changes from mph to km/h and cars switch sides of the road, but it's a reasonably simple path through France and Belgium and into Germany. London to Nrburgring is about eight hours, but take maps or a good GPS because you don't want to be stopping to ask for directions.
Following signs to the town of Nrburg, there's a distinct "Indianapolis" feel to the city, with track maps and signs leading to the legendary circuit.
Nordeschleife House Rules1.No cameras or lap timing2.Overtake on the left3.No overtaking official cars when lights are flashing4.Slow down for yellow flags5.No stopping on the track
Fuel For ThoughtTime to fill up and appreciate that US gas is the cheapest in the world: petrol in Europe is around $9 a gallon. Get used to it if you're planning more than a few laps
There's plenty of accommodation in the nearby town of Adenau, but some places in Nrburg are within a quarter-mile of the track entrance. Or, there's a hotel on the pit straight of the modern circuit if you really want to immerse yourself in the experience. www.nuerburgring.de has accommodation guides.
Heading south past the famous Nrburg castle ruins, an innocent "roundabout" leads into the main public entry for the Nordeshleife. It's slightly odd to drive off local roads, through a gate and onto the world's best track. However, it falls under German road rules, so helmets aren't required, carrying passengers is normal, and either the car or driver's skill is the only limit to speed.
There are some house rules though, including no in-car photography or filming without a permit, and overtaking is always done on the left. And no lap timing (officially, anyway).
These rules are visible in the main car park, where there's also a restaurant, the BMW Ring Taxi HQ and a large area where some of the world's best cars gather. This is also where a few Ring regulars like the Zakspeed Viper (www.viperjet.de) offer a ride in a Viper for $350 a lap. It's good, but a better ride is the BMW Ring Taxi. At $250 a lap, up to three passengers can split the fare. It's sold out months in advance with a limited schedule, so book early on www.bmw-motorsport.com/ringtaxi
TicketsAnother tip: before driving the track for real, practice on PS2 GT4. There are 174 corners on the track and the game makes it easier to learn them in a safe environment and for less money than endless laps.
The Nordeschleife is a toll road, taken one lap at a time. Sadly it's not possible to blast down the front straight on a public day, as this is the track entry and exit point. So after each lap, you're herded back into the pits.
At the main office, a ticket machine will sell one runde (lap) for 19 euros ($25). Buy 25 runden for 345 euros ($465) and it drops to under $19 per lap. There's also a bus ride for $5. There's even a season pass for 895 euros ($1200)! Credit cards are fine and most staff are bilingual if you have questions.
There are three ways to measure lap times at the Ring; the full north and full south circuits, as used on private track days, or the more common public day "bridge-to-gantry" method. After entering the track, there's a bridge that marks the start, and after the final turn, there's a gantry that marks the finish. The "missing straight" adds about 10-15sec to the full lap time, so consider that when you hear "Ring records."
Track TimeAbsorb the track on your first lap and you'll be amazed at its gradient and length. In GT4, a lap takes forever, but in real life it feels half as long. The curbs are higher, the trees are closer and some sections really show that you're deep in a German forest.
After just seven laps our fuel light was already on. The nearest gas station is the Tankstelle Dottinger Hohe, about a mile away. It's home to a model shop and all the Nrburgring merchandise you'll need, including the important track map stickers. You'll get to know the burly German behind the counter too: over our three-day weekend we filled up seven times, at an average of $95 a tank!
Back on track, motorbikes are everywhere. Buses are relatively rare, but carry good pace. However, it's the sights and stories that make the trip memorable. You don't need a supercar, but there are plenty to see around the Ring.
There are also constant reminders this track is dangerous. It's rare to do more than two or three laps without seeing a crashed car or bike. We saw a Porsche GT3 slide backwards into a barrier and roll, all caught on a friendly Englishman's trackside video camera. A chopper flew in a day later to rush an injured motorcyclist to hospital. Eerily, officials simply sweep up the mess, prepare an invoice for any damaged Armco, recover the vehicle and reopen the track for the next group of lunatics.
Race?Our best experience was exiting the pits behind a black Porsche Carrera GT. As we start, the Porsche pulls aside. As luck would have it, we had Australian V8 Supercar driver and two-time Nrburgring 24-hour racer, Warren Luff, driving our Golf. He decides to see how long we can keep Porsche's V10 supercar behind us
Warren hits every braking point and traces a perfect line through every corner. We're regularly glancing in the mirror for the menacing nose of the GT, but after six miles there's still no sign.
We pass sections like the uphill Flugplatz and the rollercoaster Fuchsrohre (Foxhole), and are passing cars and bikes a full eight miles into the lap before we see it. As he blasts past, with about a 50mph advantage, it had taken 10 miles for the average driver in a Porsche GT to beat our expertly driven Golf GTI!
And our lap times? Although traffic has a huge effect, Warren's best time for the weekend was bridge-to-gantry in 8m:48s.
FinallyWhen you've had your fill of driving, there's a museum, indoor kart track, Hall of Fame, indoor attraction park, helicopter rides, even a 16-mile mountain bike path that winds in, around and under the track, visiting all the spectator points.
There are plenty of restaurants, but it's essential to visit the Restaurant Pistenklause. It's less than a mile from the track entrance and the walls are filled with motorsports memorabilia. And they serve a legendary steak on a hot rock.
After 40 laps of the Ring, our tires were done, but the brakes were cared for and only half worn; an important consideration if the car is your transport home.
If you're returning to London, there's another surprise in store - the small town of Spa in Belgium. Just ten minutes off the freeway, it's home to another of the world's best tracks, Spa-Francorchamps. There was an open track day when we visited, and many of the cars we'd seen at the Ring were taking part. It was worth the visit just to see cars tackling the daunting Eau Rouge corner.
There are better ways to spend $4000, but for motoring thrills, few compare to the mystique, wonder and thrills of a weekend at the Nrburgring Nordeschleife.
Hot Ring Links:www.nuerburgring.de (official homepage)www.nurburgring.org.uk (one of the best fan sites)www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwtyZosuPNE (Radical lap record)