Nürburgring Nordschleife Circuit - Riding "The Green Hell"

Getting Schooled On The Most Challenging And Daunting Racetrack In The World: The 12.9-Mile Nürburgring Nordschleife Circuit

Here is the ticket office where anyone with a street-legal vehicle and driver's license can walk up and purchase a pass to do laps of the Nurburgring during public hours.
This sign lists many of the rules and standards expected of the public when they run laps on the Nordschleife. There are many that deal exclusively with bikes, since they make up a large portion of the vehicles during public lapping hours.
There is a short orientation meeting on the night before the two-day school that deals with riding theory and safety precautions on the Nordschleife.
Our two Nordschleife training instructors, Klaus Heimerl (left) and Peter Sperlich (right).
The first part of each day was spent doing practice drills over various sections of the Nurburgring, with frequent stops for discussion with the instructors.
When we were informed during orientation that passing was forbidden and that we would be following an instructor at all times, I had visions of boring laps playing follow-the-leader at touring speeds. Not even close; our instructor, Peter Sperlich, was deceptively fast, keeping the pace up while still teaching us the quick way around the Nordschleife.
This photo looking back on the front straight shows how long it is; and this is only two-thirds of the complete length!
The famous banked Karussell ("carrousel") corner is so bumpy from the old pavement sections that it's no place to try to make time. Even the cars avoid it by going around the outside.
By the end of the first day, I had a pretty good grasp of the entire Nurburgring circuit, and knew what sections were coming up as we approached them. By the middle of the second day, I had the place dialed.
The rider of this ZX-10R was very lucky that he didn't suffer serious injuries in this crash (and that his bike only suffered relatively minor damage) as he went down in the very fast Kesselchen section. Note the ominous-looking Armco the bike is leaned up against.
The modern 3.2-mile Grand Prix track sits right next to the older Nordschleife circuit; in fact, during the 24-hour endurance races still held here, they link both tracks together via one of the access roads in the foreground. The building in the background is the Dorint Hotel where we stayed, which adjoins the GP track's front straight.
The Nurburgring also has an interactive museum next to the Dorint Hotel, with numerous demonstration displays including driving simulators, plus a wide selection of racing vehicles including this Bimota SB2 (above), BMW Formula One racecar (at right, above), and this unique eight-wheel, four-engine kart (at right, below).
Many may scoff at the thought of riding a BMW boxer twin on the Nurburgring, but they shouldn't; the R1200S is an excellent mount that gets around the circuit very quickly with no real issues.

Three-time Formula One World Champion Jackie Stewart once called it "the greatest and most challenging race circuit in the world." But he also coined its most popular nickname: "The Green Hell."

While even the longest conventional closed racing circuits are no more than three miles or so in length and comprise no more than 15 turns, the Nürburgring Nordschleife ("North Loop") is an intimidating 12.9 miles long. And although the course's official turn count is 73, in reality there are probably twice that many bends a rider must negotiate during a lap. As if that weren't enough of a challenge, the elevation change during the course of a lap is almost 1000 feet; many of the turns are blind on entry, with enough elevation and pavement camber change even within some of the turns themselves to create an incredibly demanding circuit that has earned the respect of World Championship motor-racing competitors on both two and four wheels.

What's even more intriguing about the Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit is that when not in use, the track is actually open to the public for specified periods as a sort of one-way toll road with no speed limits, and has been since its inception. Anyone with a street-legal vehicle can buy a ticket and do a few laps on the same circuit as countless legendary racing heroes of the past.

So when BMW North America reps Rob Mitchell and Roy Oliemuller gave us the opportunity to participate in the recently created BMW Motorrad Race Track Training course to be held at the Nürburgring, we already had our bags packed months in advance. We would be given two days of exclusive track use with personal instruction by Nordschleife experts; this was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that couldn't be missed.

An Incredible History
The Nürburgring's overall design, location, and long, rich racing history have earned it a reverence unlike any motor-racing circuit in the world. Built in 1927 as both a test track for the burgeoning German auto industry that was at the forefront of automobile development and as an actual racing circuit, the Nürburgring was a very ambitious project that required government underwriting, 2500 laborers, and two years to complete. Intended as a showcase for German racing talent and engineering supremacy, the original Nürburgring was actually 17.6 miles in length and could be split into two courses: the 12.9-mile Nordschleife, and a smaller 4.8-mile Sudschleife ("South Loop"). Both circuits shared the 1.4-mile-long front straight that boasted a wide range of then-modern facilities, including a grandstand capable of seating 2500 people, a hotel and a paddock equipped with 70 lockable garages. Four years after the track's completion, the world's first electronic scoreboard was added to its already impressive list of accomplishments.

Back then, the Gesamtstrecke ("Total Stretch," or combination of the North and South Loops) incorporated a total of 172 corners that included virtually every conceivable combination of radius, camber and gradient. After 1929, however, all races were held exclusively on the Nordschleife, and with the automobile industry growing at a fever pitch in Europe (and with it, auto racing), the forging of legends soon began.

Numerous famous car racers of that early era added to their legendary status with their exploits at the Nürburgring. Names like Tazio Nuvolari, Bernd Rosemeyer and Juan Manuel Fangio became even larger than life by competing and winning there. That reputation continued into the modern era, with Stirling Moss, John Surtees, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, et al., etching their names into racing history with their heroic deeds at the Nürburgring.

Unfortunately, as racing technology progressed, so did the speeds, and the Nordschleife's unforgiving layout claimed the lives of many competitors. Cars would routinely become airborne each lap in some sections, so modifications in '71 smoothed out some of the jumps and straightened out some sections. But with the circuit's unique topography as it winds its way through the Eifel Mountains, only so much could be done, and it soon reached the point that the circuit could not accommodate the increasing safety demands. The final straw was three-time Formula One World Champion Niki Lauda's infamous fiery crash during practice for the '76 Grand Prix that nearly cost him his life. World Championship Grand Prix motorcycle racing soon exited as well, with the last GP held at the Nordschleife in '80. Competition events are now limited to a few automobile and motorcycle endurance races a year; all of the major and international races are now held on the much safer 3.2-mile, 15-turn GP-strecke circuit that was built in '83 over part of the area that used to encompass the old Sudschleife course.

A Test Track You Can Ride
The Nordschleife's lack of competition events just makes more room for its other intended role: a testing medium of the highest order. If a manufacturer wants to push its product to the limit in what is probably the toughest environment anywhere, this is the place. And that notion hasn't been lost on most of them; BMW, Porsche, Mercedes- Benz, Audi, Nissan, Jaguar, Toyota and even General Motors all have facilities nearby, along with numerous tire, suspension and other aftermarket performance manufacturers. Needless to say, the track has no trouble filling its weekday calendar during the nonwinter months, and there's so much testing going on that some photographers practically make their living just by hiding trackside and shooting the many prototype models (most disguised with taped-on fake bodywork) that undergo endless test sessions at the Nürburgring.

The one aspect of the Nürburgring that has surely helped maintain its popularity and mystique over the years, however, is that the circuit is open to the public on many weekdays in the early evening and on many Sundays. All that is required is a valid driver's license, a street-legal automobile or motorcycle (a 95db noise limit is posted, but usually only enforced on the most obnoxious offenders) and paying the entrance ticket fee for the number of laps you want to do. This ranges from 19 (about $27) for a single lap, on up to 345 (about $485) for 25 laps, to 895 (about $1258) for a Jahreskarte ("year card"-basically a season ticket valid for unlimited use for the calendar year).

Because the circuit is essentially treated like any toll road when open to the public, some of the basic European traffic laws apply, such as no passing on the right and moving over for faster traffic. (In fact, if you don't move over and cause a rear-end accident, you are held responsible for damages incurred.) Make no mistake, however; while the Nürburgring offers an incredible opportunity to have some legal fun on one of the world's greatest circuits, it is also a formidable place that commands the utmost respect. Besides the unforgiving aspect of the Nordschleife's layout-only a handful of corners have any runoff, with the vast majority of the course having about six feet of grass before you encounter steel Armco that lines both sides of the entire circuit-there are also significant financial costs that can be incurred in a crash (outside of the ambulance ride and hospital stay) that can add up so fast it'll make your head spin. For instance, you must not only pay for the Armco repair bill if needed, but if the safety car must be called out, that will run you 82 (about $115) every 30 minutes; if your crash causes temporary closure of the track, you are billed at 1350 (about $1900) per hour. Also, the German 19 percent VAT (value added tax) is added to any charges you incur.

For the motorcycle rider at the Nordschleife, however, there are still some risks present when running during public use time, even if you are riding well within your limits. A large portion of fatal crashes at the Nürburgring can be attributed to leaking fluids dropped from cars and even other bikes; due to the vast number of corners, it's impossible to have marshals at every bend, and even that would be no guarantee of safety.

Basically, the Nürburgring Nordschleife is not a place to be taken lightly by any means.

BMW Motorrad Race Track Training
BMW AG in Germany has been hosting riding clinics to help customers (and potential customers) better enjoy its products for many years, but this was the first "race track training" course to be held at the Nordschleife. The company has been working very hard to overhaul its perceived brand reputation as of late; long thought of as a motorcycle for older, mellower riders, a slew of exciting new models with serious performance has been introduced during the past few years in an effort to attract a younger clientele. The plan has been successful to say the least, with BMW posting record sales across the globe and reestablishing its dominance as the number-one European motorcycle manufacturer.

The two-day course consisted of a short orientation class on the evening before the first day, where riding theory and bike control were discussed. But the two days themselves were filled with nothing but riding, which was fine with the assembled riders who were itching to ride the fabled circuit. Although there were about 50 or so riders total, each group was no more than eight, with two or more instructors to a group to ensure everyone got the proper attention. The first half of each day encompassed repeat riding drills through a few sections of the course, with the rest taken up by doing laps of the Nordschleife. Obviously, there was no way to do repeat drills of the entire circuit, so the instructors concentrated on important sections of the first half of the loop.

What's it like to ride the Nordschleife? Imagine taking your favorite canyon road, merging it with your favorite racetrack, and you'll have a fair idea of its magic. And it's not just the circuit's length; the sheer number of elevation, camber and radius changes that come at you in rapid-fire succession during a lap will test your riding skills to the fullest. Because we had exclusive use of the circuit, there was no pressure to get laps in, and we didn't have to deal with traffic woes and other possible hazards that normally accompany public lapping, so we were able to experience the Nurburgring's multifaceted challenges without any distractions.

I must admit that I was a bit worried when we were informed during the orientation that all riders were required to follow the instructor in single file at all times and that passing was not allowed. I had visions of boring laps, droning around at a snail's pace-but nothing could've been further from the truth. Our primary instructor, Peter Sperlich, was one seriously (and deceptively) fast rider, and he did a fantastic job of teaching us the intricacies of the Nürburgring while still keeping a very quick-and fun-pace. The instructors were also careful to keep people within a group speed they were comfortable with; some of our original party who found the pace a little too fast easily found another group whose speed was much more to their liking.

My experience racing the Isle of Man TT in '97 and '98 taught me that an ultralong course like the Nürburgring can't be learned corner by corner, especially in the span of a couple of days. Instead, it's far easier to break the circuit up into sections, which allows a much quicker familiarization process. By the end of the first day, I had a pretty good grasp of the course; by the end of the second day, I was pretty confident in where I could maintain momentum in the many blind corners, and could easily do a fairly quick lap without any surprises or mistakes.

In fact, our group's speed was high enough that toward the close of the first day, Sperlich had former 250 Grand Prix star Jurgen Fuchs lead us around for some laps. The pace livened up even more, and it was a treat watching how he attacked certain sections; interestingly, some of his cornering lines differed from the "correct" line that we were taught, showing that there's more than one way to get through a corner.

Easily Worth The Price Of Admission
Riding the Nürburgring was a fantastic experience that should be a "must do" on every sportbike rider's list. Although it is obviously a bit of a financial stretch for the average American rider, if you are ever in Germany with access to a motorcycle and riding gear, it is highly recommended. Besides the public open track times, there are also numerous motorcycle-specific track days held by various clubs/organizations; a quick search on the Internet will easily get you the necessary information.

The BMW Motorrad Race Track Training two-day course at the Nürburgring Nordschleife is held only once a year, due to the costs and busy schedule of the circuit. For its 995 (about $1400) fee, you must provide your own fully fit and ready four-stroke motorcycle and complete riding gear, but your two-night stay at the exclusive Dorint Nürburgring Hotel adjacent to the Grand Prix circuit's front straight plus all meals are included. A similar one-day Race Track Training course is held at the famous Salzburgring circuit in Austria, for a cost of 390 (about $550). These training courses (as well as many on- and off-road rider training courses and tours) are run by BMW AG in Germany, so your application must be sent to them directly; see your BMW dealer for details.

For American riders who can't foot the bill for a transatlantic flight, bike acquisition and course fee, BMW of North America will be offering motorcycle training courses at its $12 million BMW Performance Center near Greenville, South Carolina, by the time you read this. Again, see your BMW dealer for details.

Special thanks to Edelweiss Bike Travel tours for the loan of the BMW R1200S (which handled the Nordschleife superbly), and the four-day motorcycle tour through the German countryside prior to our Nurburgring experience.