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To the Green Hell and back: Preparing to race the 24 Hours Nürburgring, Part I

To the Green Hell and back: Preparing to race the 24 Hours Nürburgring, Part I

To the casual observer, the idea of driving a racecar at breakneck speed around a track for lap after lap must seem reckless, absurd, borderline idiotic. There is the inherent danger of pitching said car through corners as quickly as possible in a daring test of the very laws of physics—a test, it’s worth noting, that you cannot pass.

There is the concept of battling over slivers of tarmac with like-minded rivals in what amounts to a high-speed game of chicken. And there is the notion of pushing a machine to its very breaking point while refusing to even once consider the consequences of it breaking at the wrong time, in the wrong place and under the wrong circumstances.

I am not the casual observer—and I am not alone.

Of course, I know I’m not alone; I’ve know this for years. But this realization first gains traction as I guide the 500-horsepower Aston Martin GT4 down pit lane to start my very first practice lap around the notorious Nürburgring Nordschleife.

Although I’m taking to one of the fastest, longest and most terrifying racetracks in existence—a circuit so frightening to even the most stalwart of racing heroes, it’s skirted the very edge of legality since it opened in 1927—I find myself caught in traffic right from moment I reach the first corner.

This first corner is the initial challenge of the grand prix track at the Nürburgring, the thoroughly modern circuit that is adjacent to the throwback Nordschleife, the two linked together via an access road. (A full racing lap here encompasses part of the new track and the entirety of the original track.)

This corner also immediately follows a straightaway that sees the fastest of cars achieve speeds well in excess of 200 km/h before hitting the brakes; meanwhile, as noted, it’s the first turn for cars coming out of pit lane, where the mandatory speed limit is just 60 km/h.

To make matters all the more challenging, it’s a wildly deceptive turn in which the proper racing line is less of a concrete rule and more of an abstract concept; a 180-degree bend that’s capable of accommodating four cars side-by-each—providing everyone is on their best behavior. At this point, it should go without saying that the first corner is awash with incidents.

It is late in the afternoon on Friday, April 29, 2011. I have just taken the first step towards racing in the 24 Hours Nürburgring with one of the most storied car brands in history.

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The idea of a motor race that takes a full calendar day is not unique to the sport; events at Daytona and Le Mans are far more famous. But time is not what makes the 24 Hours Nürburgring such a tremendous challenge for the driver—rather, it is the track itself.

Nestled in the verdant Eifel Mountains of western Germany, the Nordschleife is over 20 kilometres long and features a total of 73 turns. Many of the corners are blind, meaning the correct approach is largely a mystery until these bends have been committed to memory—a process that veteran racers contend takes a minimum of 100 laps.

To the Green Hell and back: Preparing to race the 24 Hours Nürburgring, Part I

The circuit also features numerous elevation changes, which serve to put even more stresses on the car and the driver. By comparison, the vast majority of racetracks in the world have less than 20 turns to memorize and no hills or valleys at all.

Of course, there are challenging racetracks all over the world—Laguna Seca, Mosport and Spa-Francorchamps are just three that come to mind—but in all honesty, these are the equivalent of driving around a Costco parking lot when compared to navigating the Nordschleife. Some 40 years ago, Sir Jackie Stewart confessed to being afraid of the place, dubbing it the “Green Hell.” This phrase is now proudly displayed, in German and in English, on all manner of paraphernalia from beer steins to baby buntings, which are available for sale in shops near the track.

In 1976, of course, the track came within a hair of claiming its most famous victim, Niki Lauda. The fiery crash at the left-hander before the notorious Bergwerk corner ended the Austrian’s race weekend and nearly took his life. The accident also ensured that Grand Prix cars would never again race on the Nordschleife.

Since then the track has still managed to claim more than its fair share of collateral damage. Although specific figures are difficult to pin down, information gathered from police reports indicates that handfuls of people die there every year, either during races or public access days.

Long story short: Racing at the ‘Ring is not for the faint of heart, nor the light of foot—and one practice lap is all it takes to arrive at this realization.

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There is no such thing as being over-prepared to race at the Nürburgring. The organizers of the VLN series know this better than anyone. This is the bi-weekly championship that takes place at the track, the series the teams use to tune up for the 24-hour event.

Every driver, regardless of race experience or race license, must complete three VLN events at the Nürburgring before being allowed to enter the 24-hour affair. This rule forces drivers to learn the circuit in the light of day before even thinking of venturing out into the night—it’s a very smart rule and yet another way that racing here is unlike racing anywhere else.

This is just one of the many secrets of racing at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring—and this column represents just the first part in a series that’s designed to uncover every last one of them. This series will go into exhaustive detail on how to prepare for the toughest track in the world—mentally, physically and emotionally—and it will provide the erstwhile racer with a step-by-step guide to competing in one of the greatest car races the world has ever known.

Stay tuned for part II, which will include the outcome of the first race weekend and tips on how to use driver simulation programs to prepare for the real thing.

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