Some of my Facebook friends will have already seen this video from this summer. Here at last is a proper write-up of my adventure.
Early in 2014, my wife and I started planning a family trip to Europe. My oldest daughter would be headed off to college in the fall, and we saw this as probably our last chance to all travel together. Our other impetus for this trip was my youngest daughter's destination of Bilbao, in northern Spain, where she would be spending 3 weeks as an exchange student. With that as an anchor destination, we finally settled on flying into Italy, making our way across France, and finally into Spain, over the span of almost two weeks.
Italy, France, and Spain? As a Motorsport nut, it would have easily been possible to turn this into a completely gearhead-focused trip. As a family man, of course, that was unrealistic. Fortunately my family accepts that this is part of who I am, and they are always willing to give me some room to follow my passion, as long as I keep it within reason. So as we narrowed down the stops along our route, I was constantly evaluating nearby locations of interest.
Beyond the concerns of cost and convenience, I had to get lucky on schedule to find a venue with a coinciding public driving event, and also find a place to rent a car for the track. I investigated Monza (too expensive), Vallelunga (too far out of the way), Paul Ricard (a little of both), before finding the GT Experience at Circuit de Catalunya. The price was right, and we were already planning to stay in Barcelona, so it would be easy to squeeze in a morning on the track with minimal disruption. It wouldn't be a lot of track time, but it would be a Ferrari on a Legendary European F1 circuit- check two boxes on that ultimate Motorsport dream list!
As a bonus adventure, I slipped Monaco into our route. We spent a gorgeous afternoon there, including walking a portion of the F1 course up the hill to Casino Square, and had a great dinner on the famous harbor. An afternoon here was not quite long enough- I would love to go back, maybe even for the vintage Grand Prix weekend.
So finally, on to the topic at hand. We stayed at a Holiday Inn Express just outside the circuit grounds. I was out the door early, leaving my family to an unusually late sleep-in and relaxed breakfast. The GT Experience crew met me and a few other early-birds at the gates, and we followed them down to the paddock for check-in and orientation.
The organization sets up shop across four garage spaces in the paddock. I hardly know any Spanish, so I was a little worried about language barrier, but by this time I had been out of my language comfort zone for a week already, so from that perspective it was just another day! I had to ask for English a couple of times during check-in, but they were very accommodating overall. Through the garages and into the pits, there was a nice long line of Ferraris waiting for us. I had booked an F430, but they also had a couple of 458s, and I was surprised to also find a Radical in the garage (I think that wasn't for public use).
After a little bit of waiting as people checked in, the next order of business was a recon lap, given to a few drivers at a time in a Hummer H2. This was the only time language was a problem- the other drivers were native Spanish speakers, so I was reluctant to bring up the fact I had no idea what anybody was saying :) I have enough track experience to know mostly what I was looking for as we went around the track, so I did my best to pay attention to the brake and apex cones and flag stations on my own. However, it did push me to make absolutely sure my co-pilot was going to be an English speaker! In the end, I needn't have worried, the staff was on the ball and reserved the right combination for me. In the video, that's what you'll hear me talking about at first, but once my guide caught on he quickly put me at ease that he was going to tell me everything I needed to know as we went.
As for the car: What a beauty! Classic Ferrari red, beautiful yet purposeful lines. Inside, an interesting mix of purpose and luxury; everything was covered in lovely stitched alcantara. The seats were low, but cushy. The overall effect was sporting, but surprisingly comfortable; in retrospect I think my expectations were jaded more by Ferrari's Motorsport history than by its obvious luxury qualifications, so I was pleasantly impressed with how comfortable the whole experience was- there is much less compromise required in comfort than I anticipated, and I guess that is why the price of ownership comes so high.
I would only continue to be more impressed as we got rolling. Around 450 prancing horses started wailing behind me, and their crescendo is something you want to hear over and over again. The paddle shift was extremely quick, and packed a healthy wallop on every shift. The view ahead is excellent; turn-in immediate and precise and intuitive. The braking points marked on the track were far too generous- I didn't do anything to push the issue, but I'm confident the car was capable of braking at around 25% of the marked distance; it felt like I was practically idling down to the apex. All that on the lowest of sport settings; what could this thing do when truly unleashed? The car was so confidence inspiring that I felt acclimated in about a quarter of a lap- which was good, because I'd only paid for three! Yes, after all that, I was only booked for three laps. At €250 I still think it was worth it. I had the option to buy one more lap, but I figured 4 laps versus 3 wasn't going to make a difference, and still stand by that.
As you can see from the video, I did have a brief sector in my first lap stuck behind other cars, but in general my guide was more than happy to have me pass slower cars... which seemed to be all of them. I was ready to go for broke hunting apexes, and had a great time of it. The interior of the track is tighter than I expected, and feels like a large stadium- it must be a great place to watch an F1 event. We were on the National layout, which used most of the track but meant the main straight was noticeably abbreviated. Still, 205 km/h was pretty impressive in that distance.
And just like that... It was done! Even with the limited seat-time, I am still very satisfied with the experience. The car was better than I imagined, and amazingly friendly despite its high limits. If you ever get the chance, get behind the wheel, you won't be sorry.
Happy Holidays All!
Wishing safe travel to all and happy times with friends and family! Here's to many more sim racing and real life adventures in 2015!
A couple of nice production videos from teams that drove the 2013 Nurburgring 24 Hrs.
From the Falken Tire team (sorry, can't embed this one):
And from BMW:
Apparently the friendly cartoon Michelin Man wasn't always so appealing! Say hello to (the kinda creepy) Mr. Bibendum, as he was known before a much needed image makeover.
Read more at TheOldMotor
Tonight as I was prepping for PASRL's next event of the season at Zhuhai, I decided to go check my history at the track. This season PASRL is visiting tracks of the Pacific Rim, a region that is relatively new and comparatively unheralded in motor racing history. As such I haven't driven many tracks from that part of the world- even though Zhuhai was an original track shipped with GTR2, I had only driven it once in an online event... or so I thought. A quick check of my driver history showed me I'd been there twice, way back when GTR2 was practically new in 2007, in Race2Play's (or NASASimRacing's) season 4. More specifically, I drove in the S4 Extreme GT series, where I placed 5th overall, and the (apparently very popular) GT4 Cup, where I placed a meager 11th.
This minor revelation highlights for me two of my favorite features at Race2Play: my driver history, and the pre- and post-race forums. They go hand-in-hand; as you race here you are building a history, and it's available for you to wander through and relive the races you've run over the years. It's been a little while since I've done this, in fact I now realize I'm probably overdue, but I periodically browse through my driver history and re-read the post-race reports from myself and my racing buddies. One, I enjoy reliving the times I've had with my racing friends, and two, it gives me perspective on how I've grown as a driver. The thing that jumps out at me from my 2007 exploits at Zhuhai is that I spent a bit of both post-race reports apologizing to other drivers for racing incidents- the kind that I'm pretty sure 6 years and a couple hundred races later I would have avoided. It also drives home how long I've raced with some of my friends here at Race2Play- in 2007 I had already found a home with CT Racing and was racing under that banner with folks I still like to drive with today.
The last piece of that puzzle, which I fear is in decline for some people today, is the post-race report itself. My memory of these two events at Zhuhai would be lost forever if I hadn't recorded them in Race2Play's post-race forum. More than that- racing, and the car culture in general, is for me a social event. There would be much less enjoyment in a race if I couldn't talk about it with friends. That goes for online races and for real life events, both participatory and spectator. If you're showing up for races, finishing the race and exiting and never looking back, you are missing out on a shared experience component of the event. Take the opportunity to contribute to the history we are building at every race, both for Race2Play and for ourselves- take a few minutes to record your thoughts about the event. You'll be contributing to the culture of sim racing, and who knows, 6 years from now, you just might find it valuable to your next race at a track you'd forgotten.
Had a great day at the Grand Am finale at Lime Rock last weekend. Couldn't have asked for a more beautiful fall day at one of America's more scenic road courses!
LOL, those crazy young men and their driving machines!
Read more about this (wisely) long-extinct sport at TheChicane
Another of my favorite events, shot by another of my favorite motorsports photographers. Great stuff by Camden Thrasher at a place now near and dear to my heart, the Nurburgring.
See more at Camden Thrasher Images.
One of my favorite events, shot by Julian Mahiels, one of my favorite motorsports photographers. Just imagine...
This past weekend I checked off a definite bucket-list item: driving the Nordschleife!
This was a dream that I never really thought I'd fulfill. I've long hoped to be able to do some international travel with my family, presuming I magically become wealthy at some point, but who knows where Germany would fall on our list of places to visit, so I didn't see the opportunity coming any time soon. Lucky for me a business trip popped up for a week in Wilhelmshaven, a port town on the north end of the country. It's a long way from Nurburg, but the good news was I'd be flying in on Sunday and have a day to myself. I've known about the possibility of the trip for some time, but until the contract was in place I didn't want to talk about it and jinx myself. Finally the contract came in a scant 3 weeks ago, and I frantically made my plans. I flew into Frankfurt, arriving at 5:30am on an overnight flight. I rented a car and drove for two hours to the 'ring, did my laps, drove back to Frankfurt to catch a 2:15pm train, and rode the train for almost 6 hours to get to Wilhelmshaven. It was a long day, I only dozed for about 1/2 hour on the plane... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Before even getting to the 'Ring came my first drive on the autobahn. Those stories you hear are true- the law says keep to the right except to pass, but it's more than just a law, it's also a survival imperative. You will be passed by German sedans doing 140+ mph in the left lane, so you will learn quickly to move over lest you become a hood ornament on one of those fliers! The autobahn has long stretches of unlimited speed, but it also has limited areas. I was good at recognizing the speed limit signs, but it took me a couple of times to recognize the "limit removed" signs- my first clue would be the sudden rush of high-speed traffic flying by me again, and I would follow back up to speed. I was comfortable doing around 150-160km/hr in my rented Jetta wagon, seemed like its natural cruising pace.
Nurburg is nestled in a beautiful region of hills, pine forests, and manicured fields. I drove past a number of villages tucked tightly into little valleys so only their red clay roofs showed from the road. The last thing you would expect to come upon out here is an F1 facility, but there it is. The GP portion of the track is now infamously overbuilt, and I got a good look at the now-inactive roller coaster. For those who don't know about it, this ambitious development plan is now in a lot of financial trouble, and the entire facility is for sale. To a driving nut like myself, this is akin to hearing that Jerusalem is for sale, and in danger of being leveled to create a golf course. Now that I've tasted a bit of the experience, I think management got themselves in this position through a fundamental misunderstanding of their audience. The development appears to have targeted a large and affluent F1 fan crowd, which probably works fine, except that only one F1 race is hosted every two years. The people who come there the rest of the year are drivers immersed in the culture of the car, and they are extraordinarily happy to sit in the parking lot, look at each others' cars, and swap stories about their 'Ring laps. The best development they could have made at that track to serve 95% of the calendar year would have been to quadruple the size of the parking lot at the Nordschleife tourist entrance, because it fills early with an enthusiastic crowd that has another kind of roller coaster in mind. So on to that...
The Nordschleife is the remains of a long F1 track first created from public roads in the 1920's. There were a lot of tracks like that in the early days, but *very* few survive today. Not only has the Nordschleife survived thus far, it has been updated to modern standards including guard rails, curbs, and safety catch fences around its entire 17km length. Formula 1 stopped using it in 1976 after one too many fiery crashes, but it is still used yearly for popular events such as the VLN 24-hour endurance race. The layout includes a staggering 73 turns, all of them unique when coupled with the unending elevation changes. Astonishingly (to a liability-minded American like myself), the track is opened to the public frequently for "Tourist Days". Drive up, pay your 23 euro or so, and you can drive one of racing's most legendary tracks.
This track is rightly considered the biggest challenge in the racing world, and with the challenge comes a very real danger of getting it wrong. It is fairly narrow in most places, with very little runoff on either side before the 3-4 feet of guard rail that line the entire track. Spinning out here at high speed typically means pinballing back and forth between the guard rails, and in the short time I was there I saw the results of that happening to a nice Z06 Corvette, as can be seen in one of my in-car videos.
With such a reputation, rental car companies *really* don't like to find out you've taken their rental car on the 'Ring. Rumor has it they periodically send spotters to the track during tourist drives just to make sure, and I've heard of people being banned from Avis forever for their trouble. Fortunately that has given rise to a small number of companies who prep cars as 'Ring rentals. I settled on Rent4Ring Gmbh on the recommendation of BridgeToGantry, a popular Tourist Days web community.
Rent4Ring offers several different cars to choose from, starting with their popular Suzuki Swifts. That may sound funny, but they do a nice job preparing the little cars, whose short wheelbase makes them quite nimble when tuned properly. They are surprisingly quick on a roadcourse like the Ring where top speed is not paramount, and in the right hands they can surprise some much more powerful cars. You'll see several of them in my videos, some that I passed and some that passed me!
As for me, I was really looking for a rear-drive car to maximize my experience, especially since I expect I may only get the chance to do this once. I settled on a Subaru BRZ. This is a new sports car model jointly developed with Toyota, rear wheel drive with just a little over 200 horsepower as tuned by Rent4Ring. I also went for a paddle-shifting automatic. I normally drive a stick, but I figured that operating one less pedal this time would leave more concentration for staying on the road :) The paddle-shifting worked out fine; the car shifted positively and held whatever gear I selected. With 200hp the BRZ is peppy but not over-powered, and comes with a full suite of electronic traction and spin controls, so I was confident I should be able to push this car without getting myself in a lot of trouble. Rent4Ring strips the interior of all their cars, and installs a full roll cage, racing seats, and 4-point racing harnesses. Suspensions and exhausts are modified for road-course use, and nice sticky tires installed. The whole package felt very well put together.
The entire staff was very friendly, and fostered a jovial atmosphere with everyone there for a car. We received a good briefing about what to expect and how to behave on track, and a bit of warning about common mistakes and their serious repurcussions. Then we were fitted individually into our cars and sent on our merry way to the track entrance.
How to describe that first lap? I'd had the jitters for days in anticipation; in fact it was probably a blessing that I couldn't plan until so shortly before the trip happened- if I had months to think about it I wouldn't have slept for a week. But there I was helmeted and strapped in, so tightly in fact that I couldn't reach the pass machine to swipe open the gate at the entrance to the Nordschleife :) I worked the badge holder over my helmet and managed to get the gate open, and I was off at last.
I've been driving this track in computer simulations for years, so I was familiar with the track layout before I got there. In a track this size, it's extremely difficult to memorize each corner as you would do with an ordinary track. The strategy therefore is to memorize the most dangerous ones so that you can recognize where to be prepared to slow before it's too late. The simulated track is remarkably accurate, and I fully recognized the more iconic corners, and had very little trouble adapting. To my relief, I didn't set a tire wrong the entire time I was there, or even experience one moment of panic- testament to my own mental preparedness and my immediate confidence in the car.
I treated my first lap as a reconnaissance lap, soaking in the sights and sounds and marveling at the elevation changes, which are difficult to get a sense of in a simulation. More than gross elevation change, the track sharply undulates in a few places, and the car bounces and moves around quite a bit if you're going fast enough. I was very cautious with traffic, backing off and letting faster cars by with no hesitation. I was passed by the afore-mentioned Corvette around halfway through the lap- he blew by me in the faster 2nd sector, and came unnecessarily close to me in the process. At the time I wondered about the driver's precision; the proof is on the tape, I guess, as I later passed that Vette on a flat-bed, missing some fiberglass from both ends.
At the end of the lap I made my sole rookie mistake- I nearly entered the one-way parking lot from the wrong end. A sharp yell from the safety people patrolling the lot stopped me quickly, and I sheepishly backed up and got a tolerant smile for the foolish newbie :) I parked and got my dash-cam installed and took a quick walk around the lot to take a few pictures, then it was back to the track.
Gaining in confidence for the second lap, though still holding back at a couple of corners where I wasn't 100% sure what was on the other side. It was still early and I saw very little traffic; I could hardly imagine my good fortune at having the entire Nordschleife practically to myself. There were a few photographers out, and a couple of people were starting to show up at the spectator area at Echsbach. I got the stability control to kick in a couple of times, but under the circumstances I wasn't even tempted to turn it off- I'd much rather work around it than risk it all going wrong. It was loud- you can hear it in the video, sort of a sharp groan as it pulses the ABS. By the end of the day I had the traction light flashing like mad as the rear suspension struggled to keep both tires on the pavement at every lump and crest.
Lap 3 I didn't even leave the track but used the on-track lane to rejoin the entrance. This would turn out to be my fastest lap of the day- traffic was still very light, and I was confident and comfortable enough to start pushing pretty hard. I was still conservative for a couple of passes, but when I had the track to myself I was flying right along, lifting much less than before. It was cold out that day, overcast and in the low 50's, but by the end of this lap I was sweating up a storm! When I was done I had to pull off to remove my jacket and cool off a bit.
I was fully committed by lap 4, and got into the stability control a lot. That's fun, but making the car slow itself is a clue that you're making mistakes. This is when I came upon the yellow flags at Fuchsrohre and saw the wrecked Corvette on the side of the track. The track was beginning to get busy at this point; I was very conscious of faster traffic coming up behind me. They're rarely hesitant to pass, so if you're smart about staying to the right and lifting briefly you can both get on your way with very little disruption. My only mistake on a couple of occasions was misjudging the rate other cars were closing on me and slowing well before I needed to, but most of the time letting faster traffic through had no effect on my enjoyment of what I was doing.
After lap 4 I parked again for a few minutes to cool down and give enough time to clear the Corvette. The workers were quick but I still managed to catch up to the Vette on the flatbead- I was extra cautious there, certainly didn't want to be the moron that crashed into the wrecker! I was much smoother on laps 5-6 and didn't kick in the stability near as often as I did on lap 4.
And with that, it was done! I had the option to spring for more laps if I wanted to, but the parking lot was already full and more cars were streaming in; the track was well on its way to getting very busy. Plus I had a tight timetable to get back to Frankfurt and catch my train. So I headed back to Rent4Ring.
The guys at Rent4Ring checked my car back in, and had a nice little joke with me about finding damage- there wasn't any, but the look on my face was no doubt priceless :) I told them what a great time I'd had, how much I liked the car, and how my lap timer said I'd turned a 9:31, which is respectably quick for a first-timer, and even elicited a "Bloody hell!" from the fellow who gave us our briefing. I'm certain I could have shaved another 10 seconds or so off of that time if not for the increased traffic and persisting yellow flag in my last two laps.
The track and the experience were everything I could have hoped for, and I confess to taking a great amount of pride in having faced the legendary Nordschleife. I'm a long way from being its master, but I survived its challenge competently and came away with a respectable lap time.
My lasting impression will be of what a singularly unique place this is. It takes a very special culture to preserve a piece of road like the Nordschleife, to make it publicly available for tourist days, and to tolerate the fact that it daily claims a regular sacrifice of sheet metal. Surely if such an environment still existed in the US it would be headline news until it was shut down. I feel that I've experienced an anachronism of driving history and count myself immeasurably lucky to have had the opportunity.
More videos to follow once I get to a better internet connection!
Bonus pics from the car park:
How to decorate your Porsche RS
There's that Vette again in the background... soon to be missing a lot of that rear valence...
Looks just like Mike Miller's car, seen here in its natural habitat
Starting to fill up now
EDIT: Finally got to a reasonably stable internet connection, here's two more vids!
Lap 3: My fastest of the day. Still a little tentative, but this would turn out to be my last uninterrupted lap.
Lap 4: This one has a large yellow-flag area for that ripped up Corvette!