Learning the Nurburgring in a Porsche 911
The Porsche 911 is a very capable car. The Nurburgring is a very scary track. Alex Goy is not a very capable track driver. Those three statements are both true and connected.
In the summer of 2012, we had a phone call offering every petrol-head's dream: two days of professional training around the Nurburgring in a shiny new Porsche 911 Carrera S. To make things nice and complicated, I challenged myself to do a solo sub-10-minute lap of the Nordschleife after the instruction was over. An easy task for a pro, but not for someone who errs on the cautious side of driving, like I do.
The Nurburgring is widely regarded as one of the most fearsome roads in the world. It's very long, has more than 140 corners, and takes decades of practice to learn. Many lives have been lost on the Nurburgring and countless cars have lost a fight against the miles of Armco that hems the tarmac.
Its kerbs are high, runoff is minimal, and Armco is expensive to replace (which you must if you bend it), but people still flock there in their droves to master each and every curve. To help them, the Nurburgring has been re-created in many video games, but no matter how many laps you take in the virtual world, you're still woefully underprepared for the circuit itself.
Having only ever attempted the Nordschleife in the virtual world before, I was understandably nervous. I was crap at it online, how would I be any good in the real world?
I was there for Sport Auto's Perfecktions Training as a guest of Porsche. It was an ideal opportunity to have a crack at the legend, in a legend. My steed was a Porsche 911 Carrera S -- 400 horsepower of rear-engined, RWD fun. The new 911 is a brilliant car; it's nowhere near as lairy as your mates in the pub would have you believe. Yes, the weight is at the back, and if you turn all the traction toys off, you could end up oversteering into a hedge.
However, thanks to the Porsche PASM (Porsche Active Stability Management) system, it's perfectly safe in the hands of a moron. So perfect for a Nurburgring rookie, such as myself.
My instructor was the wonderfully unhinged Christian Menzel. He's a rather talented racing driver and something of a Nurburgring expert -- the ideal person to teach me how to shuffle around it properly.
My first lap was a nervous one -- the tales of crashed cars and lost lives fresh in my mind as I built my confidence, learned how much of my overly enthusiastic inputs the car could take, and began to recognize corners I'd previously overrun on Gran Turismo.
As with most things, the key to improvement is practice -- in this case, endlessly lapping the course, going faster each time, and keeping an eye out for silly mistakes. While my confidence was certainly building, I still didn't want to fall off.
Christian was the best sort of instructor; from his lead car he'd bark commands over the walkie-talkie and I'd comply. He often told me to go faster because "you are in a Porsche, you have ze power to go faster." Fair play.
As "go time" loomed nearer, I was getting better and better. So much so that I decided to take a breather and have a ride with a true Ring Meister: Walter Röhrl. A motoring legend and a bona-fide celeb at the Nurburgring, Walter showed me what can truly be done when you have actual talent. His 911 GT2 RS was terrifyingly fast, his reactions faster. Röhrl passed cars with inches to spare, raising a cheery hand off the wheel to thank them as he sped by.
For our (scarily) brief ride, Walter barely said a word. He was relaxed behind the wheel, repeating a routine he'd been though countless times before, yet still focused on making this one better than the last. Each turn expertly taken, braking points memorized, and every ounce of power available wrung from the GT2 RS' engine.
Still, my time to shine (or die) came, and Christian had one sterling piece of advice for me: "Just bring my baby home."
As I passed under the bridge, I flipped the switch on the 911's built-in stopwatch, and we were off.
I'd spent two days learning the circuit, taking in the camber changes, elevation differences, sight lines, changes of light, different corners, braking points, and I was finally on my own.
While I hadn't memorized each corner, I vaguely knew what was going to come next. Without a lead car ahead of me, I had no idea whether I was taking the right line or even going fast enough -- I'd timed a few of our laps before and saw we'd managed some low-9-minute runs. That, however, was with Christian up front. Could I manage to get anywhere close?
I'd done a fast lap before, countless times by then, but never alone.
One thing was clear: I was far more relaxed than I had been at the start. My first lap saw me more tightly sprung than a Jack-in-the-box with anger management issues, but now I was calmer with the controls and could anticipate what was coming.
As the miles tumbled I was worried I wouldn't make it -- I couldn't glance down at the clock as I was too busy not falling off the circuit.
However, as the finishing gantry came into view, a quick look at the timer showed that I'd made it with time to spare: 09:37. Not bad.
The Nurburgring is one of those "life list" things that many want to do but few ever will. I left the course with more confidence and a healthy feeling that I'd risen to a challenge. I'd taken on the Nurburgring and not been bitten in the arse.
Next step: 9 minutes.