Wednesday, 22 November 2006


This is my first 'blog' entry. Its my write up of a road trip with Mikey to the famed Nurburgring in October - we both went in my old Porsche 968 ClubSport.

As you lot (the other CarListers!) didn't make lunch on Tuesday it seem I have to commit my thoughts on our trip to pixels!

Some of you will know, I've spent quite a lot of money on the car this year, and hardly had any seat time. My over-riding worry was that we'd get stranded somewhere in Belgium due to a (no doubt expensive) mechanical failure. Actually having said that, only the major engine internals that haven't received expensive attention recently :-(
In any event I washed the car, pumped up the tyres, paid £extortionate for the AA's top level European cover (Nordshcleife recovery explicitly excluded) and purchased a first aid kit/triangle/luminous vest thingy.

I didn't take any tools other than the car's limited kit. There really didn't seem much point in standing by the side of some Belgian road looking confused with an expensive ratchet spanner in my hand. Confused and a cell phone seemed enough of a plan.

I'd also downloaded the necessary maps and addresses into Doris-the-Sat-Nav. The early run to Dover was straight forward; we only stopped to fill up with 65l of Shell's finest V-Max Hyperpower as we'd figured les Frogs would be closed on Sunday. Waiting for the ferry, it was clearly going to be a bumpy ride, there were already white caps in Dover harbour. However by this time it was nearly midday and I was hungry, so a burger was just the ticket.

It seems I still had my sea-legs though as although the voyage was 'challenging' the burger stayed down. Mikey looked a bit green as did quite a few of my fellow passengers, several of whom were leaning against bits of ship for support. I spent the voyage reading the paper and wondering if I should perhaps have put the dampers on full hard, but I couldn't recall seeing recommended English Channel settings with the instructions from Koni. A shame really, as the boat was powered by two 8000hp engines and it would have good if the skipper had been able to give them some berries ;-)

I figured I'd let Mikey orientate himself on the easy bit on the motorways, so after waiting for him to stow the 50kgs of camera gear he seemed inseparably wedded to we were off. Its always a bit weird being driven in your own car, but I was quite happy to sit with Mikey and Doris doing their thing while I drove the music. It had appeared the carefully selected CD's I brought with me didn't suite M's taste though. How was I to know he didn't like Baroque or Cajun?.

After travelling through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Belgium and Germany we finally arrived at the Eifel. I demanded we go straight on the the Nordschleife entry area. It was hugely busy, and we ended up in the overflow overflow car park. When we'd confirmed the dates back in June, we didn't know there was a German bank holiday on the Tuesday, or that the circuit would be open for 3 straight days. As a result the place was about as busy as it ever gets as people used it for their last Ring w/e of the year.

Around 1/3rd of the plates were from the UK, 1/2 were local, and the balance were Dutch, Belgian & Scandinavians. There were several large groups of bikers too but the Ferrari count over the whole weekend was zero. The chair of the Essex branch of the FOC says that's because they all own their own circuits, but the Ronmeister said "They break here". I would say that unless you know what you're doing, your £130k 430 would be a red rag to a bull for any local with a stripped, caged & slammed Golf.....

My first impressions were much as Michael's; the place is a zoo.
I'd only 'driven' it on the PS2 before. While it slightly helped corner recognition, it was useless for figuring out corner speeds, and the effect of the topography was huge. And sitting in the spare bedroom at home in front on the PS2 screen doesn't prepare you for the mental and physical assault on the senses the Nordshliefe delivers either. At several points you can't see much of the track as it disappears above the top of the windscreen; at least half of the corners are blind so you can't see your line on entering the corner, and most of the corners come in complexes, so the line depends on the final section and works back. The speed differentials are also huge, the 'big' CSL's, GT3's & the Ring taxi were probably doing 60mph more than us as they came past on the quick bits, and turning into a corner with Sabine showboating in the M5 in front of you is also not something you find on the A286.

I appreciate that encountering a slower car is pretty frustrating for faster traffic, but most of the guys were pretty good even when they encountered you on-line. As on sane German roads, the rule is overtake on the left. Almost everyone did this, even into a right hander. A couple tried their luck up the 'wrong' side, and the next day one Audi did have to make a quick decision either to hit my Alfa or brake as he tried his luck up the inside of a right hander.
While the experience was pretty intimidating, there is a sense that its 'big boys rules' out there. Clearly if you're only 10% off the pace you'll have a lot less traffic coming past, so in that sense faster-is-safer. Unless you're being a real dickhead you won't upset anyone, but hesitate for a second and they'll not give you any more space than you really need as they fly past. I suspect Mikey was being a little too cooperative for his own good! We both agreed that the level of concentration needed was huge, which I expect explains the fact that all the following week whenever I closed my eyes I could see that bloody stretch of tarmac curving away between the trees in front of me!

Next days at the Ronmeister's (aka Ron Simons, 'Ring' guru) 75 Experience. It seemed the briefing was mostly about putting the fear of God into us. Clearly they don't know what kind of nutter is going to turn up and slam their tatty Alfa 75 into the first stretch of Nordschleife Armco they find, but I think they probably laid it on a bit thick. However we were given a list of the 10 corners to be really wary about, and where to use the wet line. The latter was just too much to take in at our stage of knowledge, and anyway it was easy to see where the dangerous corners were, because that's where the locals were all spectating...

One thing I was surprised to learn was that there are markers for turn-in and apex. These are faded white circles about 30cm in diameter. The Ronmeister told us that if we're going too fast to see them, then we're going too fast.

Here's one like ours:

1991 ALFA ROMEO 75 Twin Spark, Price: £450
Features: 98,000 miles GREEN Saloon Full Description: Glossary of Terms 2.0, H reg. 98000 miles, Green, excellent condition, all service records.

Add £1000 for suspension, another £400 for a cage,£200 for a cheap seat/harness and £150 for pads/fluid and I suppose you're somewhere near €3500 excess, although that does assume you're going to reduce the thing to scrap metal!

The Alfas felt like a bag of bolts driving up to the circuit from the workshops. Each had a dished wheel & column extension to bring the wheel closer, but this also raised it up a lot. And as the race seats were on the floor the driving position felt pretty odd at first. The 'Christmas Tree' of warning lights showed the usual Italian sense of humour when it comes to automotive electrical components and we were told only to worry if the car lost all oil pressure or started to "Shmell bad. I mean even worse than they shmell right now".

The rear transaxle layout may have helped the handling balance, but combined with weak synchromesh, under-engineered shift linkage & thousands of miles of unsympathetic use, and it was pretty difficult to find any gears at all. I found a very gentle approach combined with a big blip helped, but dear reader, you will appreciate doing this in the wet coming into downhill blind corner with Michael Schuwbacca and Ferdy Hansolo 1m from your boot is a different kettle of bolts...

Apart from that that Alfa's were pretty friendly. An asthmatic 130bhp or so isn't as much of handicap as you'd expect although it would have been nice not to be passed by a bloody Vauxhall Meriva on an uphill section!* Downhill at the 'ring, especially in the wet, you'd soon get up to scary speeds with a dead engine, so a knackered Alfa was plenty. Much depended on the tyres your particular bag of bolts came with. Ours had the monkey-with-the-umbrella rain-masters and held on fine, even when the Pirelli equipped 75 in front of us was sliding gently sideways towards the Armco.

There were two instructors in addition to the Ronmeister. Ours, confusing also called Michael, was a local in his 50's. He claimed to have done 1200 Ring laps. I reckon he either miscounted or he was a slacker; allowing for 30 years driving that's only 40 laps per year. Later that weekend we found one wide-eyed Brit who'd done 40 over that week-end. I suspect he still sees that bloody road every time he blinks.

Following Ring-Michael in his red-hot stripped Audi (actually a bog standard A4 Tdi Avant) it was clear he knew his stuff. But he didn't do the commentary we enjoyed over the radio from the Ronmeister, and at times it was difficult to tell which gear and braking point he was using. It became worse when you were 2nd or 3rd in the Alfa 75 chain. Then you were trying to watch Ring-Michael, the two novices in front, the track, the white circles as well as dealing with Michael Schuwbacca and Ferdy Hansolo doing their main-beam thing in your mirrors.By far the preferable result was when you were first in line & although I did try and gently push in, Mr Be-too-nice-to-everyone-Hinchliffe was more reticent.

The lack of laps on the Monday was a real pain. At that point I'd driven 4 laps, (1 in the 968), at a cost of £550 and 1400 road kms. I know ending up in the morgue ruined the biker's day, but frankly he should really have showed more consideration. At least we got another couple of hours the next day, but if I had an issue with the 75Experience it was the lack of track-time. Make sure you that if you take the course, you do it when there's a full day after an evening briefing, and hope the bikers stay on. Of course it does help if your co-driver decides he'd rather take pictures than drive!

I also suggest that the best time to do the 75Experience is when you've already got a few (probably 20+) laps under your belt already. You'd be at the point when "Take the wideline at Adenau Forst in the wet" was actually meaningful advice. Of course, if you can get your 20 laps in on a quiet day without the Schuey & Ferdy show you'd be a lot better off. Up to then the only sensible approach is to drive like a B road that you haven't seen before. Of course, because we've old f*rts we know this. If you're 21 you don't, hence the accident rate amongst younger f*rts.

I'm thinking of changing the 968. A change of circumstances mean it'll probably just live in my garage. But any replacement/s will have to be up to a Ring trip, and I reckon the RMA days (when the Ron-Meister is also in attendance) would just about be a perfect high intensity motoring experience. Something like this would be perfect:

The final laps we ran (again in my 968) were damp/drying. This is when the 'Ring really bites - there's more grip in the wet most of the time and the car slid in a number of places. And I was really worried by the '"just one more lap" syndrome - because you always bin it on the last lap.

So after more tentative driving we made it, and after a final wander around the car-park headed off for home. We did take the scenic route for 50km's, the highlights of which were a couple of overtake's around the outside of open corners - where you could see the road for several kms. Trying a stunt like that in the UK would bring instant road-rage from the victim, but the locals didn't seem to mind.

Anyway, I've got the sticker and now have nothing to prove!
*my excuse is that I was being held up by the others.

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