MICHAEL LORD'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE
BMW HIGH-PERFORMANCE DRIVING SCHOOL
THE NURBURGRING, GERMANY
e36m3-digest V1 #657
They just don't have turns like this where I come from...
But already I am ahead of myself. Let me back up and try to put the sheer magnitude of the Nurburgring into perspective.
The yearly BMW Nurburgring school works like this: First off it is assumed that you know what you are doing behind the wheel of a car. The time is spent showing you the line, not teaching vehicle dynamics. If you demonstrate a major deficiency of knowledge in the area of car control, you may not be allowed to finish the school and you are not invited back.
During school the track is divided into 13 sections. You have a driving partner who will stay with you come hell or high water for the next three days. The participants, two per car, are divided into groups of ten cars. Each group has a chief instructor and a group leader. Our group instructor was a senior instructor named Mike Dietel and our group leader was Dan Tackett (who also helped organize the U.S. contingents presence at the school) from the San Diego chapter of the CCA. Both patient teachers with an unfailingly positive attitude.
Each group of ten cars goes to a section of the track and is there divided into two groups of five. We would then do a lead / follow with five cars behind the Instructor and five cars behind the group leader. We would be shown the proper line of the section this way. We would then drive back, switch drivers and do it again. After a few times through the section like this we would do the section one driver at a time and be graded by our instructors. The feedback was always useful and to the point. Any time during the lead / follows, when it was your partner's turn to drive, you could get a ride with one of the two lead cars. These guys could really drive and it was very instructional. Not only could you see the section done flawlessly but also they would point out sight lines and landmarks to use as break points, turn-in points etc. As there was never any in-car instruction, seat space in these two cars went quickly. Many heads bumped as two people would try to take the same line into one remaining seat.
In the first section, E-man, my otherwise very capable driving partner, lost control of our rented 318 in the rain and did some custom body work to the right rear tail light/bumper. This would turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as we shall see. As an aside to this, our right taillight became a sort of group project. As we worked our way around the track people would find various pieces of colored lenses left over from similar attempts at custom car design. Two-inch wide clear tape was offered and a new and exciting tail light mosaic emerged from the ruble. As each new piece was added people would stand around and offer their opinions of how best to accomplish the task.
it this way man.
Have you ever noticed that in order to attract a crowd at any car event all you have to do is pop the hood and look busy? No matter how mundane the task, they will gather, discuss amongst themselves, offer up unasked for opinions and try to work out a solution. Or not! Sometimes it just serves as a focal point for a gathering unrelated to the task at hand. But it always works. Go figure?
Q. How many car guys does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A. One hundred. One to actually do it and another 99 to stand around and say "Huh! I could have done it better.
Anyway, back to the story. The first couple of sections went well for me. Then we came to the third section. This one section of track had more turns in it than any racetrack in North America! Really! The track itself is around fifteen miles long with 170 turns!?! There is nothing you can really do to prepare for this reality. The enormity of the task of memorizing this track became very clear at this point. Eyes began to glaze over. Tempers began to flare. Egos began to wither like last month's party balloons and brains began to fade faster than hot stock brakes. This was gonna be work.
This is a track that needs to be memorized. It can bite the unwary and bite badly. For example, there is the Fuchsrohre (the fox hole). This is a long, snaking section of track that is basically taken flat out if you have the nerve. Oh, did I mention that it is also dropping down hill for much of it? The upshot here is that even a humble rented 318 shod with truly useless, skinny, little Continental eco-conti's is really flying at this point. The last turn of the Fox Hole looks like another right hand, high speed sweeper but when you come around it you discover, directly in front of you, with no previous warning, a turn called Adenauer Forst.
Adenauer Forst is a sharp, fun, left /right combination that will not suffer fools gladly. If your initial turn in is correct you can carry a fair amount of speed as you progress through these two hair pins. There in lies the rub. Because of the aforementioned right hand turn at the end of the Fox hole you cannot see the left/ right hair pins until you are almost upon them. Not only that but if you want any kind of exit speed you will need to down shift from fifth to third as you slow to a proper turn in speed. All this in a very short space. There is enough room to do it, but only just enough. If you forget Adenauer Forst is coming up at the end of the Fox Hole you may not have time to accomplish the necessary braking and downshifting. This can place you and your car in a very compromised position as you slide, Zenardi like, across the infield of the first left hander towards the fence posts that were to mark the turn in point for the turn you just eliminated. Ask me how I know.
There are spots on the track where the car will become very unloaded. Can you say thin air? You can? That's good because that is what your tires are riding on if you can go over these rises fast enough. And I'll tell you this; you really want to be sure that your tires are pointed straight when you leave the ground because if they aren't, when you touch down again you will get a tour of the German countryside that really isn't on the schedule (or even the map). And of course there is the famous Karussel. You don't even want to know what will happen to you if you pop out of this steeply banked, 180 degree turn at speed.
This is the land of the blind double apex and the decreasing radius turn. This is the land of no run off. Nothing here but good old fashioned steel guard rails and trees to check the forward movement of the unlucky, the unwary and the unskilled. They just don't have turns like this where I come from! This track demands respect. The line is not obvious or even visible at times. The track has to be tamed and it is a real Shrew.
We were on the track at 8:00 AM each day and not off again until 8:00PM. Working one section at a time, it took a day and a half to make our way all the way around the track. On day one we made it 2/3 the way around the track. The only way to get to the various sections of the track is to drive the track to where you need to be. So at 8:00 am the next morning we set off to where we left off the day before. As such, we got to drive two thirds of the track, first thing in the morning, the second day. For us newbies this was a thrill. What a great way to start a day! A lap of the Nurburgring right after morning coffee. Ahhh! This was the first taste that we had of the track as one piece. Heaven!
Lunch, delivered to us on the track, always included something resembling an old, cold, turd patty generously slathered in grease. Group member and friend, Hugh Golden, dubbed it "mystery meat." The name was promptly adopted. I don't recall any one actually ever eating the stuff.
They don't do vegetables in Germany. The first time I saw something green in my food I assumed it was mold. Turned out to be a tiny, token piece of lettuce in my meat sandwich.
But I digress again!
On day two, after finishing the rest of our lunch and burying the mystery meat, we had open lapping. This was the first time we would drive the whole track. By the middle of the afternoon many of us were wondering what in Gods name we had gotten ourselves into? Why is it that I thought I could drive at all? Quietly catching the next plane home and trading my M3 in on a nice Ford Taurus station wagon seemed like a reasonable idea.
The track was winning.
I personally moped around the pits like this for about 30 minutes. However, I no longer like to suffer alone and there was plenty of company with whom to commiserate. This was good. It helped to hear other people's stories. Other people's successes, frustrations and failures. Furthermore, I think any one who has spent the time necessary to learn to drive well has had these moments of self doubt. They pass. During times such as this it is good to remind yourself of this fact. In the end there is really only one thing to do. Get back in the car and drive. And so I did.
Now lead / follow is a useful technique. It is also a big plus to have a driving partner who is not only a really good driver (in spite of being caught up short in the rain) but who also knows the track like the back of his hand (he lives in Germany). However, at some point, I need to tackle a track on my own, make my own dumb mistakes and learn from that. Until I do this I will never learn a track. I will never fully rely on myself or trust myself or find my own limits. With this in mind I told E-Man that unless I was about to do something really, disastrously stupid, I wanted him to shut up and let me make my own mistakes. He did and I did. After a couple of laps like this I felt much better. I still was not driving with much grace but I felt that the track was within my grasp. The thought of Ford ownership now just a fading distant shadow on the horizon of the mental landscape. The track felt now like one piece instead of a series of sections. It had become suddenly smaller. Life was good and the order of my universe had been restored.
The morning of the last day was to have been open lapping. This was delayed by the death the previous day of one of the Motorcyclists at the school. Apparently he suffered a heart attack while on a return lap through one of the sections and the accident was caused by this. My understanding is that he was a long time participant and well liked by many people there. Very sad.
As the track is a public road a fatality accident needs to be investigated by the police. This cut into badly needed practice time for the graded laps that were to follow that afternoon. E-man generously let me take some of his laps to better prepare. This made a huge difference for me (after the school was over I bought him a couple of laps as pay back).
During the graded laps we were sent out on the track at intervals long enough to keep us from catching up with the person in front of us should they be slower. In my case they needn't have worried. The instructors were at key corners on the track and they evaluated us. One lap only. The lower the score the better you did. To get a 1 on a given corner was high praise. They were not generous with 1's but the people who got them deserved them. There were 15 graded corners if memory serves. Therefore a perfect score would have been 15. The best drivers were in the high 20's and low 30's. A score in the 40's was quite respectable. The lowest scoring drivers were in the 70-80 range. I finished low in my group but mid pack overall with a 58. I felt this score accurately reflected my performance on the track that day and I felt OK about it. What was important to me was that I came away with a sense of the track and what I would need to work on. Some people returned stateside still feeling completely lost on the track. I did not.
Michael; 1. Track; 1. We were tied.
The Germans seem to think that things like brake lights and turn signals are important. They want them fixed right now! I had left my self another week in Germany after the school to bum around on my own so I needed to turn in my trusty but bent 318 on another car. I turned the car in at Frankfurt. As I was doing this, a customer drove up in a returning AUDI TT. This was a no-brainer. An hour later and minus a few more Deutsche Marks, I drove away in this remarkable Jewel of a car. I will not go into details here. If you would like a more thorough review you can email me privately. Suffice it to say, this is a true sports car. Tenacious grip, very comfortable with a cavernous trunk and a real head turner to boot. Perfect! Armed with this as a weapon I returned to the Nurburgring (via a tour of the Rhine River Castles) for some additional conversation with this temptress track. Two days and 27 laps later we had reached some new understandings together.
The track was mine.
Because Nurburgring is a public road any fool can pay their 20DM (about $11.00) per lap (cheaper by the dozen) and go at it. Many fools do. There is no requirement that you wear a helmet or have any experience or training at all. There is no tech sheet to fill out. No track waiver to be signed. The Germans have this inane notion that you are actually responsible for your own safety!?! If you hurt yourself on track and try to recover damages you are laughed out of court.
As such, if you spend enough time on the track, you will see almost every kind of vehicle imaginable. For example, tour buses. Yes campers! Tour Buses! Full of white haired little old ladies and gentlemen looking at the gyrations of a speeding auto that has just come around a blind apex only to come face to face with the butt end of their BUS (Shriek!), right in the middle of the line, going 25 mph!
my Henry. Did you see how close he came to that tree?
Then there is the road maintenance. You know, where the crews will go out and block off a section of the road with cones and go to work. Imagine finding that in the middle of your favorite high speed sweeper just on the other side of that little crest in the track that makes it impossible to see the other side until you are there. Or maybe the apex of turn 8 at Laguna Seca!?! Whoop! Adds a whole new level of fun and excitement! Kinda redefines the notion of heads up driving.
And , of course, the motorcycles. Mad Max's road warrior future is alive and well in Germany and hanging out at the Nurburgring. They lurk and skulk amongst themselves, shuffling around the paddock like hollow eyed junkies in dirty, black leather, Marvel Comic Super Hero suits. There is an element of madness about them that make Alfa club lapping days in Seattle seem well-organized and safe. Several deaths occur every year amongst the Ring cyclists. Accidents, bad ones, seem to be a daily occurrence here. A fact of life. An edge they seem to thirst and lust for. And boy can they ride! They can do amazing things with a motorcycle. Really amazing things! E-man and I followed one guy through the Karussel. Now on flat track through a corner they are almost on their side. Their well padded knee extended into the corner and sometimes making contact with asphalt. I have seen the sparks fly. But through the banked Karussel...? Unbelievable! For a moment they are parallel with the earth's surface as they tear, flat out, through this banked sweeper. It was a rush just to watch as we careened, pedal to the metal, through the Karussel right behind them.
In that moment I totally understood why someone would die for this feeling. I got the nature of the appeal. To get as good as some of these guys are I think you would really have to be driven and somewhat crazed. The learning curve is steep and the consequences of miscalculation and miscue are painful at best. Deadly at worst. I'll stick with my wussy M3 LTW, it's roll cage, harness and sheet metal thank you very much! I can generally fix a bent car. A bent human is another matter altogether. Still, I got it! Following this bike through the Karussel, I understood why they do it.
So let's talk about German M3 drivers for a bit. I have never seen so many truly beautiful M3's in one place in my life. We never got the M3 GT over here and it is a shame. It would have sold quite well. It is among the most beautiful cars I have ever seen. A shade of deep forest green unique to this model. A two tone black and silver suede interior with ebony trim. It comes with every conceivable option including rear windows that open outward electronically. It must be a heavy car but then it has that wonderful Euro engine. Top end forever.
Tuner cars are the rule there. No one leaves their car stock. It is a cult and a way of life. On the track the M3's run in packs like wolves. You will be driving along in your rented 318, dodging motorcycles and tour busses in relative peace. Then, out of nowhere, you will be suddenly descended upon and surrounded by this ravenous, rabid horde. M3's whooshing by all around. Snarling, biting, pushing, spitting, shoving. Then, as quickly as they emerge they vanish, leaving you chewed up, spit out and spinning cartoon-like in their wake as they howl off into the distance.
But here is what I found most curious about the German M3 crowd. They spent most of their time at the track in the pits hanging by their cars (?). They would do one or two laps and then come in and hang. At first I thought , Well, it's their home track. It is just not as big a deal to them as it is to us. But this never stops me or any one I know from driving as many laps as we are allowed on our own home tracks.
Though there were some good drivers among them it seemed to be more about looking fast than going fast. More about looking like you spend all your time on a race track than actually spending all your time on a race track. I remain baffled by this. Given that they got the best engine this seems unpardonable. The M3 drivers I know in the U.S. are more akin to the motorcycle drivers in Germany. Obsessed! More about hard core enthusiasm. The M3 drivers in Germany seemed to me more like the Honda guys in the U.S. More about hard core showmanship. One mans answer...Go figure.
It has been said that the Ring is a momentum track; the whole track can be done in 3rd, 4th and 5th gear. The trick is finding the flow. Once you have the line the track is very easy on brakes and tires. Some of the most important turns require that you don't give up to much speed on an uphill exit. A bone stock E46 318 will red line at 210kph (approx. 126mph). Even at this speed the car is very stable and predictable. But heaven help you if you let it slip below 3,700 rpm. I think the 318 could best be described as a momentum car. It'll go 210kph but it takes forever to get there and if you don't keep it moving it'll never get there. It's gutless folks. Really gutless. But it took good care of my friend E-man and me and for that I am grateful. It was a good car to learn this Mother of all race tracks with. The handling could be kept quite neutral by generous trail braking and you were never going fast enough to get into any serious trouble. Nonetheless, I was happy to have use of the AUDI TT for two more days at the Ring. What I wouldn't give to have had my beloved LTW!
Returning as I did, to the Ring after the school, it was my surprise and pleasure to run into my friend Dale Beuning. Most of you will know him as the creator of the Unofficial BMW Web site. If you do not know this site you should. www.unofficialbmw.com It is one of the best resources of collected BMW wisdom I have seen on the Net. I spent a lap showing him what I had managed to learn of the track line so far. We then bombed around together in our cars, dicing it up with the locals and the tour buses until they finally kicked us off at closing time. I was the last one off the track that day having made it out just before they closed the gate.
That evening, after an excellent meal, a good beer and some great conversation at an Italian restaurant in Nurburg village we said our good-byes to each other and the track. We headed out into the now rainy night to our separate destinations with a sense of satisfaction that can only come from a job well done in the company of friends.
This track is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. Next year I'm going naked.