Wheels: Lords of the Ring

  • Eric R. Drosin and Edward A. Taylor

The owner of a Chevrolet Camaro stands next to his wrecked car, waving us past the pile of twisted silver metal that moments earlier had been in hot pursuit of a Ford Focus before it overshot a corner. As we ease past in a 2002 Jaguar XKR convertible, the scene reminds us of where we are driving, or, to be precise, where we are learning how to drive.

This is the Nordschleife racetrack, the northern loop of Germany’s Nürburgring Formula One circuit, a 12.9-mile stretch of speed-limitless road that, as the Camaro driver discovered, is one of the most challenging drives in the world. With the Nordschleife’s combination of treacherous corners, limited visibility, violent camber changes, and sudden weather changes, any shortcomings in a car’s design or a driver’s ability appear as quickly as one of the track’s 73 turns. “If you can drive well here, you can drive well anywhere,” says Dirk Schoysman.

He should know. Schoysman has instructed drivers for the German Federal Police, Jaguar, and General Motors. We have hired Schoysman and Wolfgang Weber, a former European rally champion, to help us navigate the track. Both claim that the Nordschleife is the best place to learn how to handle a performance car. “It took me 10,000 laps to master the Nordschleife,” says Schoysman, “and I’m still learning every time I come here.”

If you have a license and 12 euros (approximately $12), you can drive a car, motorcycle, or bus along the Nordschleife as fast as you dare—ability and horsepower notwithstanding. The track welcomes everyone from the naive new licensee to the professional BMW driver. In fact, for the last 25 years, the German automaker has tested each of its new models on the track because it is such an efficient place to put a car through its paces. In just a few laps, a vehicle can undergo the strain of thousands of road miles.

Not every car—or driver—is prepared for such a challenge. Crashes are common at the Nordschleife, where many a testosterone-fueled amateur, often piloting a powerful machine, has attempted to conquer the course with bravado rather than proper training. Racer Jackie Stewart dubbed the Ring the “Green Hell,” praising its tree-rimmed beauty while damning its demands. Injuries are common here, as are fatalities, which occur about once a week. After driving ace Niki Lauda suffered near-fatal burns in a crash at the Nordschleife in 1976, Formula One organizers declared the track off-limits. The danger, however, serves as a draw rather than a deterrent. It’s what brought us here.

To prepare for the Nordschleife, we took a preliminary course with Weber at the Fahr Sicherheits Zentrum, a nearby driving center. There, we learned how to regain control of our car after a hydraulic plate violently jolted the vehicle sideways. For added spice, supervisors placed obstacles in our way while we tried to catch the rear of our spinning car. This training, we hope, will help us avoid the accidents that Schoysman and Weber are paid to prevent.

The two instructors are similar in appearance and manner: tall, slim, and affable. Each downplays his achievements, hiding his ability behind a friendly and reassuring smile. But when it comes to driving, they take radically different approaches. Weber uses the experience he gained during eight years as a rally professional to master cars in the most unpredictable situations and settings, scoffing at mud, gravel, and snow. “When everything is calm and normal inside the car, try driving it sideways,” says Weber, who is the chief development driver for specialist automaker Ruf, the German company that injects steroids into Porsche chassis to create cars that can produce over 500 horsepower.

Conversely, Schoysman is a fine-bristled brush to Weber’s can of spray paint. While Weber is a seat-of-the-pants driver, Schoysman, who has an engineering degree, is a circuit and asphalt specialist who views cars and driving from a technical perspective. “Watching him is like observing a master at work,” says Daniel King, a British businessman and a Porsche enthusiast. “He epitomizes calmness, driving sideways at 120 mph without even breaking a sweat. Mr. Schoysman has this unnerving ability to drive incredibly quickly while articulating every movement, explaining the physics of the car and the precise reason for the particular racing line he takes.”

Schoysman believes speed comes naturally to those who are willing to master the basics. Maintain an economy of movement; that is his mantra. Stomping on the accelerator or sawing at the steering wheel creates instant melodrama, but it also slows you down and increases the risk of unsettling the car. With this counsel and our Fahr Sicherheits Zentrum training, we drive from the center to the Nürburgring.

As we begin our first lap, our thick fleece jackets and the Jaguar’s heater fail to combat the bitter cold and damp fog of the Eifel region. Weber joins us in the Jaguar, calmly issuing instructions from the passenger seat. We would have taken a similar lesson with Schoysman, but on the day of our appointment, a major accident closed the track for several hours, underscoring the danger of the Nordschleife. Weber’s voice is steady, his advice precise as he tells us how to enter and exit each turn. “Remember, be cool,” he says. “Be smooth with your steering, throttle, and braking.”

We use the initial long straight to get the Jaguar up to 120 mph before the road gradually curves downhill and to the left. The Jag feels big and heavy here, but the suspension, which is so comfortable on the highway, takes the track in stride. On this first part of the course, all the corners are completely visible, luring you into a false sense of security. Your vision isn’t impeded by the dense forests, blind crests, and dips that appear later.

Suddenly, after we have weaved confidently through some gentle, meandering turns, we are confronted with the sharp S-bend of Adenauer Forst. “Whoa” is the only sound either of us can muster as the Jag hops across the curb, through the dirt runoff, and back onto the track. Weber laughs off what was nearly a disaster. “You don’t know the circuit yet,” he tells us, “so go fast only when you can see where you’re going.”

We do better with the ensuing turns, and for every corner we conquer, Weber offers another piece of sage advice. “It’s not so important to have a strong, powerful car here,” he says. “You need to know how to maintain your car’s momentum.”

Soon we’re approaching the Breidscheid corner—fast. This is the preferred exit point for drivers who have had enough of the Nordschleife. Turn off to the right, and you can leave the Ring behind. We keep the steering wheel straight, continue around the track, and head toward Fuchshroehre, a gradual drop followed by a sharp uphill section that fully compresses the Jag’s suspension. We eventually reach the Kallenhard, a fast triple right-hander. “The third bend is the apex,” Weber says.

After six laps, we’re exhausted and glad to take stock of what we’ve learned: that being fast has nothing to do with machismo or mashing the throttle. It has everything to do with clean lines, feeling the car, and always maintaining smooth steering, accelerating, and braking. “It may not feel fast, it may not even look fast,” Weber says. “But rest assured, you will be going faster, no matter what you’re driving.”

In the parking lot, two boys have stopped staring at a Porsche GT3 and a Dodge Viper and are now gaping in awe at a 12-year-old yellow-and-red Volkswagen Golf, complete with a roll-bar cage and bright orange alloys. The car may pale when compared to its sleek, high-powered counterparts, but it has navigated the track better than any of them. The boys, though too young to drive, already grasp the notion underscored by spending a day on the Nordschleife. “It doesn’t matter how fast your car is,” one boy says to the other. “It’s all about how fast you can drive it.”

Riding to the Ring
Before traveling to the Nürburgring, consult www.nuerburgring.de or call +49.2691.3020 for track times and directions. The track is mostly closed on weekdays from November through February and on some weekends when carmakers are conducting test-drives. Try to avoid weekends, because traffic on the Ring can be so dense that concentrating on your ideal line is nearly impossible.

Adequate parking is available at the Green Hell restaurant, but on busy days, you might have to park your car on a nearby field. It’s best to arrive in Eifel the night before you plan to drive the track to beat traffic and find a good parking spot. The preferred lodging for drivers is the Dorint Hotel (www.dorint.de), which is minutes away from the track. If you are traveling from overseas, fly into Cologne, then drive approximately 45 minutes to Nürburg.

To make an appointment with Wolfgang Weber, call +49.171.34.34.754 or visit www.wwmotorsport.de.
Dirk Schoysman can be reached at +32.475.44.23.59 or by visiting www.topline.be. - Eric R. Drosin

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