If you're a serious go-fast geek and car buff, chances are you've enjoyed the recent jousting between Nissan and Porsche regarding the claimed Nürburgring lap times for the R35 GT-R and are well aware of the important role this legendary circuit plays in the world of OEM vehicle testing. As a result, the Nürburgring Nordschleife-an absolutely epic piece of twisty tarmac that covers 14 miles and 73 turns through the Eifel mountain region of Germany-has become a central part of global car culture and a list-topper on just about every driving enthusiast's Bucket List. The fact that a trip to Germany also means spending some time tickling the speed limiter on the autobahn highway system and visiting some of the shrine-like car museums that can be found in almost every major city just makes the trip all the more enticing. Throw in a visit to a Formula 1racing circuit and a blast down a world-famous alpine road like the Stelvio Pass (pictured, left) and you've got a European vacation that'd make Chevy Chase green with envy.
Part 1: JDM Invades Germany
For us, the Ultimate Road Trip started more than a year ago while emailing with Stephen Clark from iA Performance. We were featuring Stephen's WRX wagon (July '08 issue) and in the process learned of a customer car he was building in Germany. Stephen suggested a trip to visit this customer, an American soldier stationed in Germany, and take his U.S.-spec '04 Subaru Impreza STI for a rip around the Nürburgring. Umm . . . yes, please.
As the trip approached, a flurry of emails were exchanged between the three-man crew from Modified, Stephen at iAP and our man with the plan in Germany, STI owner and U.S. Air Force grunt Jon Herman. Jon suggested we check out Stelvio Pass during the first few days of our European power tour, a road we were familiar with from a memorable episode of "Top Gear" where hosts Clarkson, Hammond and May set out to find the greatest driving road in the world. But what would we drive to Stelvio in and what would we tour Germany in? There was no way we'd all fit into Jon's STI with all our camera gear and luggage, so with some help from Maurice Durand at Mitsubishi and John Shilling from Nissan, we found ourselves in possession of two rather tasty press vehicles to flog for the week: a Nissan 370Z and a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X MR.
What we didn't realize before landing in Frankfurt and taking delivery of our press cars was just how rare these Japanese beasts would be on the autobahn. As we soon learned, the German government is rather protective of its auto industry, meaning the importation tax on Japanese vehicles is so high that only the most die-hard fan would consider buying one. This must make it a particularly tough market for carmakers like Nissan and Mitsubishi, but it put an unexpectedly cool spin on the trip for us because we found ourselves piloting machines with a higher rarity factor than a Ferrari or Lamborghini. As a result, we were viewed by the locals, or so it seemed to us, as wealthy foreigners driving wildly exotic cars they could only dream of owning. This meant that we were hotter than David Hasselhoff.
Having flown overnight into Frankfurt, we loaded up the EVO and Z and immediately headed south toward the Alps and the famed Stelvio Pass. Despite the jet lag and sleep deprivation, the efficiency of the autobahn highway system was immediately apparent. Germans are the most disciplined drivers in the world, only using the left lane for passing and always getting out of the way of faster-moving cars. As a result, we were able to drop the hammer and make some serious headway whenever driving in the deregulated (meaning no speed limit) sections of the autobahn. This is when we discovered just how long the 370Z's legs are. From 0-60 mph, the EVO is no doubt the quicker car, but during the high-speed runs on the autobahn the slippery Z simply walked away from the boxier X. Part of this was due to the 7-speed automatic gearbox in the Z (which we were initially very disappointed to see, but as we learned during the trip it's actually a very responsive transmission that takes surprisingly little fun out of the driving experience), but the Z's superior coefficient of drag and high-revving engine certainly contributed to its impressive high-speed stability and acceleration. Starting from our typical cruising speed of about 160 km/h, both cars would accelerate strongly to about 200 km/h, but from there the EVO seemed to hit an aerodynamic wall and also ran out of revs at around 245 km/h, whereas the Z just kept on pulling like a train all the way up to its top speed of more than 270 km/h (about 167 mph). Of course, the EVO was at a weight disadvantage given the extra passenger and trunk full of luggage, so from a practicality standpoint the Mitsubishi certainly shined brightly throughout the trip.
Once we crossed into Austria, the terrain began to change-rolling hills turned into mountains and straight multi-lane highways turned into twisty single-lane ribbons of asphalt. And tunnels, lots and lots of tunnels, some stretching as long as 16 km. These made for some great photo ops, but paled in comparison to the breathtaking vistas that awaited us on top of Stelvio Pass. To be honest, the drive up Stelvio isn't all that thrilling, the countless (OK, there are 48 on the north side we drove) severe 180-degree hairpin turns requiring extreme caution because it's both difficult to see if a vehicle is approaching from the opposite direction and because you're sharing this very narrow road with countless cyclists, motorcyclists as well as buses and RVs. But the view just kept getting better and better as we climbed toward the 9,045-foot peak of this ancient pass, originally built by the Roman Empire more than 1,000 years ago and paved in the 1820s by the Austrian Empire.
After enjoying the view of the nearby glacier, snapping some pictures of our sure-footed press cars overlooking the mountain peaks and scarfing down some street meat, we made the far more enjoyable drive down Stelvio's north face. With the steep downhill entry into the switchback turns, it was now quite easy to see if there was any oncoming traffic, which meant we could chase a group of nutters on motorcycles and really put the brakes and handling of the 370Z and EVO X to the test. Both machines performed admirably, the EVO's turning radius presenting some challenges in the tightest turns but its all-wheel drive providing tremendous grip out of the corners. The 4B11T engine under the EVO's hood was no slouch, either, launching us forward violently as the MR dual-clutch transmission made razor-sharp and lightning-quick shifts in Super Sport mode. With its lower seating position and long nose, the 370Z felt like a bigger and less agile machine on these very tight roads, but its rear-wheel-drive configuration allowed it to rotate and accelerate out of the switchbacks with surprising composure and precision. But watching the EVO rocket out of another hairpin and blast down toward the next one, one thing was clear: the Z may dominate on the autobahn, but the EVO and its rally heritage reigns supreme on these winding alpine roads.
Part 2: Porsche Museum
On the return trip from Stelvio, we knew we'd be passing through Stuttgart, home of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Both of these German automakers have state-of-the-art museums open to the public, but for us it was the unique history of Porsche and its rich racing heritage that claimed our €10 entry fee. Having just opened in January 2009, the architecture of the Porsche museum itself is almost as impressive as the machines it houses, but once inside you'll no doubt be just as impressed as we were by all the race cars and street cars. One of our favorite displays was the Paris-Dakar 959 race cars, which took the top two spots on the podium in 1986.
Part 3: Hockenheimring
As our host, Jon Herman, brought to our attention, the world-famous Hockenheimring, a regular stop on the Formula 1 circuit, is frequently open to the public on Thursday evenings. And we don't mean open for a tour of the facilities, we mean lapping around the 4.5km, 13-turn German Grand Prix circuit at full steam. Of course, the official policy is that there's no racing during these "tourist driving" sessions, but as we experienced first-hand there are some very quick race-prepared machines out there hammering around at full tilt and there are also some senior citizens tootling around like it's a Sunday afternoon pleasure cruise.
When we arrived at the Hockenheimring at about 6:30 pm, a car session was out on the track and the motorcyclists were lining up along pit lane waiting for their 20-minute session (cars and motorbikes drive separately in alternating groups). We were shocked to see close to 200 bikes lined up and even more shocked to see the MotoGP pace the frontrunners were setting on the very first lap. Our collective reaction was somewhere between horror and bewilderment, since there was such an obvious skill level and machinery gap between the Valentino Rossi wannabes and the average tourist out there. It felt like a recipe for disaster, and as if on cue one overly adrenalized rider pegged the throttle too hard coming out on the front straight, popped an out-of-control wheelie and was launched over the handle bars at 80 mph when he put the front end down too hard. Fortunately, the rider walked away unharmed, but we were starting to have second thoughts about putting our Evolution X press car out there in such a wild environment.
What, you thought we'd go all the way to Germany and miss out on the opportunity to rip a few hot laps around a publicly accessible GP track? We paid the €12 fee for the session and jumped in the pit lane lineup. Although there were "only" 90 or so cars ready for action, it was certainly a very mixed bag of machines. At the front of the pack there were several 997 Porsche GT3s and a C6 Z06 Corvette that were absolutely flying, and at the other end of the spectrum there was a '66 Ford Mustang convertible driven by an older couple with their Siberian Husky dog in the back seat. That's right, a dog was allowed to ride in the back seat while lapping the Hockenheimring.
Meanwhile, our intrepid Editor-in-Chief, Peter Tarach, was out there in the EVO X MR mixing it up with everything from R35 GT-Rs and E46 BMW M3 CSLs all the way down to Smart cars. Here's what he thought about his Hockenheim experience:
"Being able to drive Hockenheimring was a real treat, but I wish I could have experienced it in a more controlled environment rather than a 90-car free-for-all. Forget safety or track rules in Germany. There are none during these 'tourist driving' days. You pay and go drive on the track regardless of the shape your car is in or how competent a driver you are.
"Despite all that, having to dodge traffic and outrun slower cars was satisfying, especially in the EVO X, but there were instances where we were four-wide going into a corner and that was downright scary. I was checking my mirrors as often as I was looking forward. Thankfully, the EVO performed like a champ and provided solid power delivery and excellent braking, which allowed us to do the passing rather than being passed. There were a couple of 911 GT3s and a GT-R that flew past us, but otherwise the EVO didn't have much competition and this was in stock form with worn rubber.
"I can see why Hockenheimring is such an exciting track to watch professional racing at. The long straights combined with the tight corners make it ideal for passing. Driving into corner 9 and onto the front straight where the 120,000-seat grandstands start felt particularly cool. I can only imagine how it would feel when they are jam-packed with race fans."
Part 4: The Tuning Dungeon
Before heading to the Nürburgring, Stephen from iA Performance needed to spin some wrenches on Jon's STI. We also arranged to have Nitto ship Jon a set of its new NT05extreme-performance summer tires because we wanted to experience the Ring with a fresh set of super-sticky rubber underneath us. Hawk Performance also set Jon up with front and rear DTC-60 brake pads, a true motorsports compound with tremendous stopping power that's easy to modulate and control.
Having installed the new tires and brakes before heading to Hockenheim, Stephen just needed to bolt up some goodies from Cobb and Kartboy, including a Cobb oil cap and battery tie-down and Kartboy shift knob, rear diff outrigger bushings, transmission crossmember bushings, rear subframe lockdown bolts and a full set of end links. Installing all the suspension and chassis goodies without a lift would have been a bit of a nightmare, but there just so happens to be a shop on the Air Force base where Jon is stationed that's affectionately called the Tuning Dungeon. A suitably old and grungy building, the Tuning Dungeon has hoists and tools available for a modest hourly rate. After clearing security and getting the Subie up on a hoist, Stephen handled the wrenching duties while we all stood around snapping pictures and whistling "The Final Countdown" (our cheesy '80s hair band theme song for the trip).
Part 5: Nürburgring Nordschleife
We had finally arrived. The Nürburgring! Giddy as a bunch of school girls at a Justin Timberlake concert, we parked in the main Nordschleife paddock and "pit lane" area where each tourist lap starts and finishes about halfway down the almost 4km main straight. Porsche GT3s were thicker than Honda Accords in a mall parking lot. BMW M3s of every vintage were just as plentiful. There was no shortage of European exotics, either, from Ferraris to Lamborghinis to a Porsche Carrera GT, plus a surprising number of Hondas, a few Nissan 350Zs, and even one or two EVOs and STIs. There were also some odd-ball machines in action, from a KTM X-bow to a Wiesmann GT MF5 to some seriously old vintage race cars from the UK. And although you can't take a standard rental car on the Ring, there were plenty of Ring-specific rentals in the paddock from companies like RSRNurburg.com and rent-racecar.de. In fact, "Lotus Dave" and the guys from RSRNurburg.com, who have an impressive collection of rental cars from FWD hot hatches like the Renault Clio Sport all the way up to RWD monsters like the Porsche GT3, let us store our gear at their shop in Nürburg and showed us the best spots for food and photography.
Although the Ring was supposed to be open for touristenfahrten, or "tourist lapping," from 5:30 to 7:30 pm the night we arrived, it was closed for an accident cleanup. This is an all-too-common event during tourist lapping at the Ring, where talent and road run out and overzealous drivers find themselves sitting in a bent car against the Armco barrier that lines the track. We were determined not to be one of those guys, particularly since we'd be driving Jon's modified STI and Mitsubishi's loaner EVO. Crashing either of these wasn't an option, so after a good night's sleep at a local B&B we headed back to the paddock for the 8 am opening so we could get some clean laps in before the tourists started bouncing off the Armco again.
Jon's done more than 100 laps of the Nordschleife in his STI, so he knows his way around pretty well. Following him in the EVO, it was impossible not to hoot and holler like a bunch of frat boys at a strip club as we dropped down into the famous banked concrete Caracciola-Karussell for the first time. Sure, we'd all blasted through this carousel while playing Forza2 plenty of times, but this was different. This was real, and the feeling was electric.
Without Jon leading the way in his angry-sounding STI, hissing and popping and shooting flames out its tailpipe, we would have been completely lost. With 33 left turns and 40 right turns over a 22.8km lap that rises and falls almost 1,000 feet, it's not a circuit you learn in a lap or two. The tighter and more technical parts of the track are easier to remember because each is quite distinctive, but the high-speed "straight" sections that include countless small bends and blind crests are very difficult to distinguish from one another and are therefore quite intimidating. It's really pretty easy to get lost out there, so rather than thinking about lap times or the racing line, the main objective during our first few laps of the Ring was to stay off the Armco and begin to get a feel for the place.
But with only a single day of lapping to work with and with each lap costing €19 (we bought several four-lap cards that cost €75 each), we had neither money nor time to spare. So rather than spending the whole day learning the track before taking Jon's STI for a few laps, we decided we'd better get our testing done before the expected track closures started.
Part 6: A Lap On The Nürburgring In Jon Herman's Sti
It's not often you find somebody with enough brass to let you rip on their painstakingly built (and rebuilt) track car, especially when that ripping takes place at the most demanding and dangerous circuit in the world. But Jon Herman has brass aplenty, having spent more than his fair share of time turning terrorists into a little extra Iraqi desert sand. Listening to a few of Jon's war stories is enough to make an average man's attachments shrivel in humility, so it should come as no surprise that he seemed cool as a cucumber while serving as navigator during my lap of the Ring in his highly modified '04 STI.
After swiping our four-lap card at the electronic gate that controls entry to the Nordschleife, we tiptoed through the cones that limit entry speed for the first few hundred feet and then laid into the throttle.
Km 1: We pass under the bridge that indicates the start of the lap and blast downhill toward the Hohenrain chicane and the fast but technical Hatzenbach turns. I remember this part of the track well from Forza2, so Jon remains quiet as I find my way without too much difficulty. The short gearing of the STI's transmission is an excellent match for the tight, twisty bits of Hatzenbach II and III, the TEIN Flex coilovers and Nitto NT05 rubber providing enough confidence-inspiring grip that we've already passed a few cars and motorcycles.
Km 4: Climbing steeply up into Flugplatz, the car feels light for a moment as we crest the hill and Jon calmly barks out, "Deceivingly fast double righthander." Although it should be treated as a single radius turn with a late apex, I hold too tight a line coming in and have to scrub some speed off mid-corner as a result. No matter, a quick downshift and we're powering out onto the long stretch that leads to the extremely fast downhill lefthander known as Schwedenkreuz (could easily mean "Pucker Factor" in German).
Km 7: Another set of extremely fast downhill esses lead into Adenauer Forst, a turn Jon warned me about while strapping into the driver seat. This slow reducing radius lefthander catches a lot of people out, and even with Jon yelling, "Slow left, SLOW LEFT!" I overcook the entry and understeer off the line. Momentum lost but no damage done, I downshift and power out of the tight righthander that follows.Km 8: Metzgesfeld, Kallenhard and Wehrseifen make up some of the most technical turns on the entire Ring. Unfortunately, we're stuck behind a smoke-puking Audi TT with enough horsepower to match us down the straights but nowhere near as much cornering power, so we follow patiently and look for a good passing opportunity.
Km 8: Metzgesfeld, Kallenhard and Wehrseifen make up some of the most technical turns on the entire Ring. Unfortunately, we're stuck behind a smoke-puking Audi TT with enough horsepower to match us down the straights but nowhere near as much cornering power, so we follow patiently and look for a good passing opportunity.
Km 10: We finally get the inside line on the Audi through a very fast righthand sweeper that leads into Breidsheid, a reducing radius lefthander over a bridge that marks the lowest point on the track.
Km 13: Here it comes. The Karussell. Following the twin Porsche GT3s that just passed us going into Steilstrecke, we drop down into the steeply banked turn that looks and feels more like a concrete berm than a racetrack. Adding gas in pursuit of the Porsches, I can feel the STI's suspension compress.
Km 16: After climbing steeply to Hohe Acht, the highest point on the track, I'm totally disoriented coming down into Wipperman, but Jon senses my hesitation and barks, "Left/right combo leading into a fast righthander." Back on the gas, the GT30 turbo spools up and my grip tightens slightly around the Sparco steering wheel as the left tires jump up onto the cobblestone curbing on the outside of Brünnchen curve.
Km 18: After the high-speed run from Pflanzgarten, we approach the second carousel turn on the Ring, this one a wider radius lefthander at Schwalbenschwanz. Accelerating aggressively out of the carousel, I grab fifth gear approaching Galgenkopf, a very fast increasing radius righthander leading onto the main straight. Just as I begin to relax, we spot a formerly pristine 997 GT3 parked on the inside of the turn, the front end damaged from an expensive encounter with the Armco.
Km 20: We pass under the Gantry bridge that signifies the end of the lap, reducing our speed as indicated by the signs as we approach the track exit that leads into the paddock.
Drained from 9 minutes of the most intense concentration of my life, Jon and I take our helmets off and I thank him for his well-timed navigation. He asks what he and Stephen can do to make his STI better. I pause for a long while and can't really come up with any obvious shortcomings. Time for a rollcage.
Axis Power Stage 2 block, CP pistons, ARP head studs, GReddy timing belt, Kelford 272 camshafts, Supertech 1mm over valves and valvesprings; Ultimate Racing GT3076R turbo kit and Version 1 FMIC; HKS SSQV BOV, TiAL 44mm wastegate, Prodrive boost control solenoid, APS intake risers/tumbler valve deletes, PE 850cc fuel injectors, Walbro 255-lph fuel pump, JIC Bullet Titanium after-cat exhaust, Cossworth air/oil separator, Samco rad hoses and ancillary silicone hose kit; Koyo radiator, Process West oil cooler, Cobb oil cap and battery tie down; custom grounding kit, carbon-fiber alternator cover and cooling plate
Cobb AccessPORT V2 (road tuned on the autobahn by Stephen at IA Performance)
ACT 6-puck clutch and Streetlite flywheel; Agency Power short shifter, SubyDude shifter bushings, stainless braided clutch line
TEIN Flex coilovers w/ EDFC; DC Sports titanium strut tower brace (f), Cusco strut tower braces (r), Whiteline 27/29mm adjustable front sway bar and 24mm rear sway bar, rear sway bar mounting kit, and steering rack bushings; Kartboy end links (f/r), transmission crossmember bushings, and rear subframe bushings and lockdown bolts, GrpN transmission, engine, and pitch mounts
Wheels, Tires and Brakes
OEM BBS 18" wheels, Nitto 245/40ZR18 NT05 tires, Hawk DTC-60 brake pads, Project µ 2-piece rotors (f/r), ATE Super Blue brake fluid, StopTech SS braided brake lines
Kartboy extra long exhaust hangers, GT Spec carbon fiber exhaust shield, Prodrive mud flaps
Defi BF gauges (EGT, Boost, Oil Pressure) and Link II control unit; Sparco "Ring" steering wheel, GrpN quick release, Pro2000 racing seats, harness bar and 3" 4-point harnesses; harness bar camera mount, Splash CF trim kit, Kartboy shift knob, Peter Solberg autographed A-pillar cover
Stephen from iA Performance for working his arse off getting the car together and for the support from the guys at the Wiesbaden Car Care Center (Mr.Cooper and Mr. Jackson)