BLT takes to the treacherous Nürburgring Nordschleife … and returned home alive
Like any racetrack, the Nürburgring Nordschleife inspires both exhilaration and trepidation. But for me, it represented more of an enigma; a bucket list item any petrolhead needs to strike off his list at least once. We’ve all seen the Top Gear videos of Sabine Schmidt and Jeremy Clarkson going at it on the ‘ring. We’ve seen the manufacturer test videos of their cars doing a blistering lap time. And yes, we’ve all seen the epic crashes and YouTube ‘fail compilations’ of exotics crashing when flogged too hard from corner to corner.
Even with all those premonitions and expectations, I wasn’t scared. I was confident. I wouldn’t call myself a veteran, but having driven many Californian racetracks in fast cars and gotten second in a Porsche race day, I arrived in the sleepy town of Nürburg with my head held high. To me, this was just another track, albeit one with a lot of unnecessary hype and fuss. She was just another conquest.
Boy was I wrong, though it would take me a day to realise it.
After checking in at the Tiergarten Hotel (owned by none other than the Sabine Schmidt’s parents), my friends and I thought it wise to do the Ring Taxi to whet our appetite. We were hooked instantly. The instructor took his M3 E90 to limits beyond what BMW must have intended and we did an impressive 8:30 with four people on board. My friend and I then decided to rent Suzuki Swift and do a ‘practice lap’ each in anticipation of the next day’s race. My friend pulled a 12:15 on his first lap, no small feat considering he had never driven left-hand-drive before.
At the helm, I pushed that little car harder than gravity intended and started passing car after car. My proudest moment was when I managed to pass a latest-gen Porsche Cayman S in the inside line. The thrill of passing a 300+bhp car in something with 200bhp less pleased me almost as much as my respectable 10:23 timing, and I went back proud to the Schmidt hotel proud of my achievements and hoping I would run into Sabine to boast about my exploits.
It all changed the next day when I woke up to the thickest fog I’ve ever seen, or rather, not seen. Indeed, I couldn’t even count my fingers with my hands stretched out. I was as if I were a tick lost in Santa Claus’s beard. The fog was everywhere, and to make matters worse, the fog’s moisture soaked the ground like a sponge. Perfect racing conditions… if one were suicidal.
Despite that, we headed off to the racetrack expecting the competition to have turned tails because of the fog. And even if they were silly enough to persist, how many weekend racers in their GTIs/Lotuses/”pre-F30” M3s were going to be a match for my rental today – The latest generation Porsche Cayman S (981). Fog or no fog, I was going to rock it. Again, I was severely mistaken.
Instead of a bunch of midlife crisis men with salt-and-pepper hair rocking M3s and hot hatches as old as their pensions, the parking lot was filled with chiseled alpha males with cars one only saw on Top Gear. Audi R8s, Latest-Gen BMW M3/M4/M5s, C63 Blacks, Race-Spec Aston Martin Vantages, Koenigseggs, Ferrari 458 Italias, McLaren MP4-12Cs, 650S, even a P1, not to mention a whole assortment of Porsche GT3s, GT3RSes, and Turbos. The value of the cars in that lot exceeded the GDP of some countries. I felt like the guy who brought a Super Soaker up against guys packing bazookas, and actually knew how to use them. All of them had roll cages, fire-retardant suits, helmets, lots of machismo, and perhaps one too many ‘Nürburgring veteran’ bumper stickers. Germany’s motoratti were out in full force. Gulp.
“Up against such competition, the only thing that prevented me from turning tail was the fact that I had already pre-paid for 16 laps; one lap of which was pricier than 10 lap dances from the most exotic of exotic dancers.”
Up against such competition, the only thing that prevented me from turning tail was the fact that I had already pre-paid for 16 laps; one lap of which was pricier than 10 lap dances from the most exotic of exotic dancers. Put in that perspective, the money-conscious Asian American in me (and the only one in the whole race) could not walk away from that opportunity cost. After I signed the innumerable amount of waivers, I was made to put a deposit on my credit card for the replacement value of the car if I so much as scratched it: E$24,900. Yes, “only” a third of what a base Cayman costs, but one too many zeros for my comfort level. I crossed my fingers and hoped it would exceed my credit card limit, thus allowing me a face-saving exit out of the race. Needless to say, it didn’t, and I found myself cursing AMEX as I fired up the car, its raspy Boxer 6 defiantly croaking against its V8, V10 and V12 counterparts in the mist.
“Predictably, I was terrible, pushing too hard on the straights and braking way too late to clip the numerous apexes properly. The 150+ turns, already a challenge in the dry, were downright impossible in the mist.”
I had hired an instructor for the first six laps so I wouldn’t be culpable to doing anything overtly stupid (at least not initially), and he was in charge of teaching me the proper racing line. Michael, a veteran of more than 20,000+ laps and current touring car champion, was the epitome of Teutonic cool as he guided me around the track. ‘Zis ist nicht playzstation, you dzon’t get rezet button!’ he yelled many times as I flew through the corners carrying way too much over-confidence-induced speed. I had to place full trust in Michael, because all the corners were not only blind, but downright invisible thanks to the fog. Yesterday, I remarked to my friends that the ‘ring was almost beautiful, even if one weren’t driving at 250km/h. Now, I couldn’t even see a meter in front of me.
Predictably, I was terrible, pushing too hard on the straights and braking way too late to clip the numerous apexes properly. The 150+ turns, already a challenge in the dry, were downright impossible in the mist. As Michael scampered for the door after his six lap obligations were done (I don’t blame him at all), I tried my best to memorise where and when to turn and make it out of the numerous corners carrying the best possible exit speed. He did a fantastic job of teaching me, but I simply couldn’t memorize all 150+ turns at full throttle.
As luck would have it, the sun came out, but as the mist slowly dissipated, so did everyone’s inhibitions for speed. I found myself up against fast and furious racers relentlessly pushing my 6 o’clock in their 458s, P1s, and GT3s. With the fog gone, it was hard not to ogle at the supercars in my rear view mirror and think I was in a surreal dream – Except the dream was quickly shattered when all of them easily passed me without so much as even downshifting. Dream quickly turned into nightmare as I ended up being overtaken by one of the few hot hatchbacks at the race. How quickly the tables had turned since yesterday and I buried my face (and my dignity) in my hands at lunchtime.
Chain-binging on nuggets and fries, I resolved to give it my best after lunch. My passenger after lunch, Janina, was not used to screaming, but she did. Which, being German, is a big deal for her. That certainly inspired confidence in my driving. My next passenger and travel compadre, Malcolm, had the brilliant idea of navigating with the car’s GPS and with his help, I was starting to rock it. Like a rally team, he would give me directions right before a corner and give me a few milliseconds of much-needed anticipation. I finally felt confident enough to press the “Sport Plus” button on the center console and blew past a few cars.
“I now understand the allure of the Nürburgring Nordschleife. It’s not so much outright dangerous, but like a sexy vixen in a Bond movie, lulls you into a false sense of security with her luscious curves, then bites your head off right when you get overconfident.”
With our new strategy, I managed to pull a decent 9:53 hot lap. As I was going for another fast lap with my ego glowing, disaster struck. Right as I was about to take a corner at high speed, a GT3 appeared out of nowhere. Trying to cut him off so he couldn’t clip the apex, I pushed a centimeter too hard on the accelerator and the car spun out explosively.
Having been a victim to a few motorcycle and car accidents, I am no stranger to the sensation. Everyone experiences it differently and for me, it’s always in slow motion, yet I am always powerless to change the outcome. As we spun around the Nordschleife like a roulette dice, I remember thinking it was going to be expensive crash and cursed my AMEX again for its high limit. Thankfully, I smashed the brakes and downshifted quickly, stopping the car from catapulting me into bankruptcy and cutting short my ‘idiot drives Porsche into wall’ stardom on YouTube. After we took stock of our near-death experience, I noticed we were half a meter or so away from hitting the metal-plated barrier and becoming another Nürburgring casualty figure.
I was done. Like a sportsman trying to master a comeback and failing repeatedly, my subsequent laps were pathetic. I was scared, and knew it. I came face-to-face with death and blinked. Though my luck had not worn out and I was still in God’s good graces, I knew pushing it would be foolish. Normally I would have continued, but for some reason that day, logic won. As I sat at the starting grid watching others gambling with their lives with every kilometer above 200, I made the decision to stop and turn in the keys. At 12 out of 16 laps, my Nürburgring career was unequivocally and undoubtedly over.
I now understand the allure of the Nürburgring Nordschleife. It’s not so much outright dangerous, but like a sexy vixen in a Bond movie, lulls you into a false sense of security with her luscious curves, then bites your head off right when you get overconfident. I pulled a 9:53, which was respectable, but not noteworthy. Under Walter Röhl, the Cayman is capable of 7:56. I was two minutes away from the car’s true potential. My fantasy of running into Sabine and impressing her were all but the stuff of pipes.
With my self-worth in tatters, I bought some kitschy ‘I survived the Nürburgring’ bumper stickers for my Cayman back home; feeling that I might be able to bandage my ego with them by bragging to other petrolheads back in the States. Indeed, I comforted myself with the solace that I had crossed something off my bucket list without kicking the bucket itself. I figured no one in the States will know about my cowardice, just that I had raced at the ‘ring.
As I walked back across the parking lot past all the supercars and into my friend’s Seat Ibizia, I knew that I would be back, sans overconfidence. I was beaten and humbled, but not out of the fight. Perhaps that is the ‘ring’s true appeal – Once you’re smitten, you never let it go, and I wondered if that was what possessed men like Nikki Lauda to return. As I sat in the car contemplating my comeback, I started asking myself which corners I could improve on, what I would change about my racing line, and what car I would take next time.
What caused me to spin out? Why did I rent a Porsche Cayman when a much more basic car would have sufficed? What on earth had caused me to commit to 16 laps? Even one lap, basically 10 minutes and 23+ kilometres, was an eternity. They say pride comes before a fall, and the Nürburgring was the ultimate experience of my confidence not matching my actual skill. I was, in other words (specifically those of Jeremy Clarkson) ambitious, but rubbish.
At least I have those bumper stickers.