My BMW X5 ~ Greatest Vehicles

Friday, 2 September 2011


At the speed I am travelling, the Flugplatz is childs play. A long, not-entirely-straight leads up to the crest. Which isn’t even a sharp crease. More like a gentle fold. My BMW X5, its 4.4-litre V8 gurgling happily along, barely unloads the suspension as it begins the downhill rush into the approaching right hand corner. The radio crackles to life.
Jorg, BMW driver training instructor and race driver, is ahead in the M3. As he slices the car into the right hander, he starts talking. “This is most famous Flugplatz. First a small crest that you take at 250kmph in a race car that leads into a sharp left hander. This is interesting turn because there is a jump in the middle of it. And then you brake and turn right.” What he leaves unsaid is frighteningly eloquent. He doesn’t mention that the length of the preceding straight means you’re airborne at 200kmph or more depending on which car (or bike) you’re in (or on). At that speed, a second airborne is an alarming distance covered, a distance in which you can do nothing but wait for gravity to kick in and help. Gravity isn’t something you accuse of being indolent - especially if your parachute refuses to open mid-skydive - but the ‘Ring is so fast, it makes gravity look slow. Jorg omits the mention of the fact that the distance from landing area to apex is short. And that it compresses further at speed. He’s trying to ease us in to the ‘Ring and he most certainly will not point out the fact that the armco that lines the Nordschliefe is never more than a few feet away from you. And that the armco is alive and it’s hungry. It stares into your very soul and dares you to tease the finite limits of traction. Today, I will go nowhere close to the traction control button. Today, I will allow the ‘Ring to sink in. I will live to fight another day, as it were.
The Flugplatz, just so you know, is one of 78 corners that make up the 22-odd kilometres of the racetrack that every one now calls the Green Hell thanks to Jackie Stewart’s memorable reference to the tortuous nature of the ‘Ring and the formidable forests that line the track. Each corner is marked with a name board as if it were a tourist destination. And given the history of the track, that’s perhaps appropriate
The Nürburgring came about in the 1920s - my fridge magnet souvenir says 1927 - as a place that was at once a racetrack (a place which tricks drivers) and a proving ground (a place which unravels a vehicle’s faults). Back then, cars were fast, but braking wasn’t really their strong suit. And the race track in the Eifel mountains was built to reflect that. I presume JCB et al weren’t really up and moving Earth at the time and so the track was designed to follow the contours of the undulating Eifel mountains. Which means elevation changes that will make you giddy and blind crests that force you to react very quickly. The original ‘Ring was bigger. Counting its three loops (Nordschleife, Sudschleife and Betonschleife aka Zeilschleife), it was a whopping 28.265km long. The 7.747km Sudschleife and the 2.281km warm-up loop, the Betonschleife were demolished to make way for the GP Circuit in 1984 that is connected to the 22.810km Nordschleife (Northern Loop) at the beginning of the GP Circuit’s main straight. The whole of the circuit is now used only for endurance events like the 24 Hours of Nürburgring.
The Nordschleife is conclusive proof that the Germans do have a rather well-developed, slightly demented sense of humour, in fact. One fast lap shuts you up. And your silence is their mirth. Back then, the track’s flowing layout worked for the cars that existed then. Today, where tracks are shorter, have acres of run-off and are designed for a more stop-start sort of driving to keep things slow, the Nürburgring is properly, dangerously old-school. The trick, I hear, is to find a rhythm that allows you to go from corner to corner at incredible, elegant velocity. And this elegance of pace must be earned in the face of a million changes of camber, surface (after all, no one seems to know how many times the track has been surfaced, or indeed which parts of it...), elevation and direction. If the average racetrack is an afternoon cup of tea, the Nürburgring is a litre-bottle of pure alcohol that must be drunk from a dinner plate in the middle of an earthquake.
And an earthquake describes the famous Karussel to the T. It’s a bowl that features slabs of concrete that are now the sole pieces of surface that dates back to the 20s. BMW GT racer Dirk Muller told me that it requires incredible confidence in your car to put the power down through this iconic turn. He’s wrong. It requires superhuman bravery and complete mechanical insensitivity. The concrete pummels our X5 hard-hard-hard until the abrupt camber change at the end flips the car from canted hard left to some semblance of flat again. And before you can properly settle, there’s a right turn looming again.
These are two of 73 corners at the incredible Nordschleife. Each has a story this dramatic, this immediately felt, and this memorable. That a racing driver has to learn every one of these corners, how to string them together, is a sign of how hard it is to log a fast time at the Nürburgring. Of how critical experience of the ‘Ring is to the mastery of it. And that, Muller says with a shake of his head and a smile, “is impossible. You can never have done enough laps.”
On my day - okay two hours - at the Nordschleife, I was rewarded with the other variable that is another Nürburgring legend - weather. Germany in April is something that causes Muller to break into a wry smile. He looks up at the ominous sky, the pattering of rain, down at the glistening wet tarmac and says this is some of the best April weather he’s seen. And I can barely hear him over the chattering of my teeth from the bitter, you’re-not-going-to-get-any-heat-into-the-tyres-soon cold. But it isn’t even a place where the weather is a constant. I see a shaft of sunlight at the beginning of the long, long, long, long, long main straight (it’s so long that the Nordschleife posts a speed gun on it on public days to prevent people from going too quick. Jorg tells me they hit 300kmph regularly in races - and this isn’t F1, remember. I ask him for how long. He smiles and shrugs, “It’s usually too busy in the car to notice things like that.” To repeat, on the straight.
Three corners later, automatic wipers come on. The M3 sprays the X5 with rain water. And then traction control starts to blink corner after corner as some faceless software engineer’s magnum opus keeps my wheels in line, and fends off the openly drooling armco. In a few minutes, there’s small balls of ice shattering across the X5’s bonnet and when we slow for the second gear left that leads you into and over the village and castle of Nürburg, you see the grainy whiteness of hailstones blurring the all-pervasive graffiti. I reach over to turn on the seat heaters, but nothing helps the icy-cold fear that grips me. This isn’t funny. It will probably make a great story a few years on, but I grasp why you whisper ‘Nordschleife’ reverently. It’s not a racetrack. It’s an aptitude test for drivers and cars. And you’re probably going to either flunk out or chicken out. I taste like chicken.
The rain sinewaves from none to full-on, the track dips, swerves, dries and re-wets itself. And when the M3 indicates right on the main straight, I’m feeling relieved rather than crestfallen. The radio crackles again, “Gentlemen, our time is now up. I am glad we haven’t had any incidents today. We’re heading back to the hotel now. Say your goodbyes. And I’m sure you will return again soon.”
There’s a stunned silence among the just-met-the-’Ring crowd outside our hotel. The smokers are quiet, hands shivering either from the cold or from the experience. Everyone’s eyes have a faraway look. They’re all still in Green Hell. Still living it. And now it’s gathering the golden hues of a cherished memory. The stories are gathering adjectives. The twitch is now a slide. The traction control is replaced by measured opposite lock. The stories going back to 60 countries will be fearsome. Inside the warm lobbies, hands collecting room keys continue to shake. These people don’t look like winners.
But they are. These are all winners of the Castol Edge Nürburgring Experience contest. From all over the world. There’s a few media-hands like me. And there are Castrol sales team members who won internal contests. This is our fourth day in Germany on this petrol-soaked winner’s prize, two of which were in Munich and two here at the Nürburgring.
The two hours of the Nürburgring today almost overshadow the gloriously sunny previous day when Castrol’s long-time partner in motorsport, BMW brought out the M3s that they use for the BMW Driver Training program and showed everyone the ropes. We spent a warm day doing pace laps of the top portion of the GP circuit, slaloming M3s on the Mullenbach back straight, practicing emergency braking, emergency swerves and even drifting - and I proved decent at the latter, I’m happy to report. I’ve done these kind of training days before, and I remember the sparkle in eyes all around.
We have nearly forgotten amidst all this, the lovely art cars (Jenny Herzog is my new hero - she’s the artist who did the white Le Mans racecar with the words written all over it) we saw at the BMW Museum in Munich or the time we spent lolloping around the impressive BMW Welt - the super-showroom, also in Munich. We have also erased the charms of the BMW Classic - a place which displays and restores classic BMW cars and motorcycles, and usually closed to the public - where we spent hours looking at things like the M1, F1 cars, McLaren F1s and my favorite, the X5 Le Mans. Hell, I’ve even forgotten the excitement of walking into the GP circuit parking lot wondering what car we were going to drive on the Nordschleife. Some got M3s, a chap in my group grabbed the sole X5 M. Another punched the air as he slid into a sunshine yellow Z4.
Four glorious days, each bigger than the one before, we head back to Frankfurt to go home. We’re all buzzing. Banter returns slowly as the long shadow of the Nürburgring slowly recedes. Or rather becomes part of us now. There’s only one way for any petrolhead to react to the Nürburgring. You have to come back. You have to return until the hollow in your stomach and the knot in your throat are something you can live with (no, they aren’t going to go away). You have to keep coming back because who knows when something as insane as the ‘Ring will get shut down because some suited government official thinks it’s too dangerous.
I know I have to come back. In a car. On a bike. In sturdy walking shoes if it comes to it. I’ve never walked 22.281 km before, but if that is what it takes. Jenny Herzog emblazoned in chrome on her car phrases. “The unattaniable is invariably attractive.” She also said, and I think it fits perfectly, “Protect me from what I want.”


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