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Lord of the ’Ring

Ben Whitworth

Armco barriers, tarmac, candy cane–colored rumble strips, and towering oak trees rushed at me as I plunged the Mercedes-Benz SL 63 AMG into the Fuchsröhre, or Foxhole. I squeezed the gas pedal, and the car bellowed as it approached 130 mph. Gravity and a 518 hp V-8 engine combined to slingshot the car toward the bottom of the hill.

I relaxed my grip on the chunky steering wheel, eased the car over to the right, felt the suspension compress at the base of the hill, and then flung the car left and then right, up into Adenauer Forst. I had passed this test—unscathed—on the second day of the AMG Driving Academy’s three-day Pro Training course.

Shifting down through the gears, I slowed the Mercedes and then parked it with the eight other AMG cars that had preceded me through the Fuchsröhre. Their engines clicked as they cooled.

Roland Rehfeld walked over to my car. Calm, articulate, and urbane, the 31-year-old Rehfeld is one of the academy’s top instructors. "So that," he said with a devilish grin, "is the Foxhole. Scary, but good, yes?" The Fuchsröhre—a section of the Nordschleife, the northern loop of Germany’s Nürburgring—can indeed be scary. The stretch comprises a series of five reverse-direction corners that snake steeply down the mountainside. The corners are shallow enough for a skilled driver to pass through in a nearly straight line without slowing down. (The source of the Fuchsröhre’s name is not nearly as menacing as the span of track itself; the story goes that, during the construction of the Nürburgring in the mid-1920s, workers spotted a fox in a drainage pipe at the site.)

The Fuchsröhre is one of several frightening sections that have earned the 12.9-mile-long Nordschleife its reputation as the world’s most demanding and dangerous track. The entire Nürburgring, which was completed in 1927 and is known in motorsports circles as simply "the ’Ring," is located in the Eifel Mountains in the west-central part of Germany. The lush setting, combined with the track’s fiendish difficulty, prompted racing legend Jackie Stewart to dub the Nürburgring "the Green Hell."

The Nordschleife allows drivers little room for error. It offers no runoff, no broad swaths of gravel along its outer edges. Instead you find just 3 feet of grass, then unforgiving steel Armco guardrails, and finally the impenetrable, century-old Eifel oak forest. Make a mistake on any of the loop’s 73 corners, and you could meet the same fate as several drivers from years past.

Since the first fatality, in 1928, the Nürburgring has claimed the lives of at least seven professional drivers during races or practice laps. And although the Nürburgring’s management does not keep such statistics, it is estimated that as many as a dozen amateur drivers are involved in fatal crashes at the track each year.

Herbert Müller was the last pro driver killed here. In 1981 he lost control of his Porsche 908 on a Nordschleife corner, hit a bank on the side of the track, and died instantly when his head slammed against the car’s window. Five years before, at the German Grand Prix (which would be the final Formula One race at the Nordschleife), three-time F/1 world champion Niki Lauda was so badly burned when his Ferrari crashed that he was given his last rites after he slipped into a coma. Lauda, who recovered and eventually resumed his racing career, had spoken out against the track’s dangers and had even tried, in vain, to persuade his fellow drivers to boycott that year’s race because of safety concerns.

Perhaps thanks to the track’s reputation, the Nürburgring driving course has been among the most popular of the numerous European track-based events that AMG, Mercedes-Benz’s high-performance division, hosts throughout the year. (The next Pro Training at the Nürburgring Nordschleife will take place between September 6 and September 8.) The Pro Training course is one of five AMG Driving Academy programs, which range from the Emotion Tours (leisurely, scenic countryside drives) to the Masters (a notch above Pro Training).

According to AMG literature, the Pro Training course offers you the chance to "sound out your personal limits and the dynamic performance limits of your vehicle." Stated more simply, the program gives you a chance to drive a very powerful car fast and safely on a notoriously demanding track.

 

At last September’s Pro Training course at the Nürburgring, I was joined by 63 other drivers. They had come from Russia, Singapore, Australia, Japan, and the United States. Some brought their own AMGs, and others hired cars from the academy. (Available models ranged from a C 63 AMG to an SLK 55 AMG Black Series.)

Day one, a Saturday, began with some basic training—in the classroom and then behind the wheel. We first took the cars to an Auto Motor und Sport facility, located a mile or so from the main circuit, where Rehfeld briefed us on driver safety and track etiquette. He also delivered a physics lesson on weight transfer, cornering, understeer, oversteer, and the effects of steering and braking inputs on grip levels. Then we put those lessons into practice, conducting emergency-?braking, skid-control, and slalom drills on the facility’s skid pans and mini loops. In addition to honing my mental and physical responses, the drills gave me time to acquaint myself with the new SL 63 AMG that would serve as my ride for the event.

We finished the day’s lessons by viewing footage of a fast lap around the circuit, shot from the driver’s perspective. I could sense the other drivers’ enthusiasm waning as we took in the seemingly endless succession of straights and corners, each bend looking more dangerous and stomach-churning than the one that preceded it. For 10 minutes or so we stared at the screen, and then we headed to bed to try to get some sleep before confronting those corners in person.

Day two dawned cold, with a fog thick enough to slice with a blunt knife. Driving in this weather would be like driving blindfolded. Nevertheless, at 8 am we gathered at the Döttinger Höhe main straight (the high point of the circuit, near the village of Döttingen) for a briefing, which included an impromptu aerobics session to get our blood pumping. Sufficiently loosened up, we split into eight groups of eight drivers and made our way toward different corners of the track to begin learning how to navigate it section by section.

Rehfeld, my group’s instructor, is well-credentialed. Earlier in the year he had been a class winner in the 24 Hours Nürburgring race, a touring-car endurance competition modeled after Le Mans that was first run in 1970. If anyone could teach us the intricacies of this track in two days, Rehfeld could.

Looking like a string of beads, my group set off slowly from our starting point. As the fog gave way to bright but cold sunshine, our confidence increased—and with it, our speed.

Rehfeld, linked to his charges by radio, delivered a running commentary, describing the scenes as we approached them at 120 mph: "Watch for the monument on your right at Schwedenkreuz, because this is the perfect marker to move over to the left for the correct line to approach Aremberg." Each time we passed through a key point on the track, we would stop and gather around Rehfeld while he delivered a detailed breakdown of the next section. "You have to get every single corner correct," he told us during one of these stops. "Why? Because the exit point of one corner is the entry point for the next. A small error on corner one will become a huge mistake by the time you get to corner five. A circuit is a chain of corners. Although we’ll learn each one individually, you need to string them together as a single piece—as fast as you can."

By the end of the lessons, my mind was overflowing with information about some of the most notorious corners in motorsports. In addition to the Fuchsröhre, there is the Karussell (the Carousel), one of the circuit’s two berm-style banked corners. It is among the track’s slowest corners, but you enter it blind. Five-time F/1 world champion Juan Manuel Fangio is said to have advised a young driver to aim for the tallest tree as he approached the Karussell.

We also became acquainted with the Bergwerk (the Mine), named for its proximity to the site of a former lead-and-silver mine. It is a tight right turn that follows a long, fast stretch of track and precedes a left-hand bend on a slight crest. While practicing for the 1964 German Grand Prix, Dutch driver Carel Godin de Beaufort veered off the track here and was thrown from his Porsche 718. He suffered massive injuries and died three days later. The Bergwerk was also the site of Niki Lauda’s fiery crash.

Another infamous section, the Flugplatz (the Airfield), is named for the airfield that once was located near this section of the track. It also includes a sharp crest that can launch cars into the air. The career of a young British racer, Chris Irwin, ended here in 1968, when his Ford P68 jumped and then flipped end over end during a practice lap prior to the 1000 km Nürburgring endurance race (an event that was replaced two years later by the 24 Hours Nürburgring).

Before our day ended, we were unleashed and allowed to complete half a dozen full laps on the circuit. It was difficult initially, because I delineated each section of the track and addressed it independently of the next. But by my third lap I had become more comfortable with the constantly changing surface, the off-camber corners, and the momentous pace, though I dared not stop concentrating for even a nanosecond.

The SL 63 AMG proved to be a reliable ally as I tried to conquer the Nordschleife. Initially skeptical of the SL’s track suitability—this is a big, heavy car that seems better suited to making fast transcontinental treks than to lapping racetracks—I became increasingly impressed with its abilities. It is phenomenally competent, and its 518 hp, 6.2-liter V-8 is a gem. Muscular, high-revving, and scalpel-sharp, it pushes the SL’s 4,274-pound curb weight with ease.

Scott Preacher, a fellow Driving Academy participant, prefers the track-tuned and race-ready AMG Black Series cars. Preacher, affable and laconic, is the CEO of the Blacqube marketing-and-advertising agency in Atlanta, which is responsible for the global digital marketing of Mercedes-Benz AMG. He told me over dinner after the second day of driving that he had been a huge AMG fan since he first took delivery of a CLK 55 AMG eight years ago. "I’ve been through quite a few of them now," he said with a smile, "and I’ve now settled for the CLK [63 AMG] Black Series."

Like many of the drivers in attendance, Preacher squeezes two or three AMG Driving Academy events into his schedule each year. This was the second time that he had been to the Nürburgring. "I love it," he said. "You come here and there are no egos. It’s all about the love of AMG cars and driving them on the finest track in the world. And the instructors have so much passion for the cars and the circuit that a lot of it wears off on you."

 

Day three, the final day of driving, began even foggier than the previous day, but once we were all on the track—a quick calculation estimated that more than 30,000 hp was thundering around the Nordschleife—a dry line soon appeared on the circuit, and the sun eventually burned through the fog.

We racked up some quick group laps in the morning, with Rehfeld increasing the pace after each go-round. The SL 63 AMG responded well; it was polished, coolly composed, and completely stable. It also felt alive, with every one of its dynamic synapses sparking at the right time. The car seemed to be enjoying the workout.

We paused briefly for lunch and then devoted the afternoon to pulling together everything we had learned—and testing that knowledge against the clock. Each car was equipped with a GPS data tracker that monitored our every move, and we were given four laps to do our best.

I began with some apprehension, but within a few minutes I was pushing hard, stringing corners together fluidly and precisely. I could hear Rehfeld’s voice in my mind: "Slow in, fast out. Don’t drive turn by turn, but rather, try and flow from one corner to another. Remember, the Nürburgring doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Make a stupid mistake, and it will punish you—badly."

After four laps I peeled into the pits, exhausted but jubilant. Kudos to the big Mercedes; it rocketed and roared around the circuit far more quickly than I had hoped it would. I was not yet close to being a ’Ring master like Rehfeld, but I was a lot closer than I had been three days before.

 

AMG Driving Academy, +49.7144.302.575, www.mercedes-amg.com/driving-academy.com

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