This week a few hundred nutters will convene at the now Russian-owned Nurburgring for their annual attempt to see who can stay scared the longest while still being quick. Those who manage 24 hours without hitting anything, breaking anything or simply returning to the pits unable to continue due to complete mental, physical and emotion breakdown, will regard themselves as winners, regardless of where in the order of the Nurburgring 24 hours they have actually come. And rightly so. The place is nuts, the event more so.
MAY 27th 2016
Thank Frankel it's Friday – Flat‑Out On The 'Ring In A McLaren F1
I have done quite a few twice-round-the-clock races but never at the ‘Ring: I’ve been offered seats over the years, including a startlingly good one this year, but I’d have needed to devote a lot of time to do the qualification races needed to do the 24hrs (I’ve not raced anything there over any duration for three or four years) and feared altogether too much the prospect of letting down a serious race team looking for a strong result. Looking at those who are actually driving the car, I’d have almost certainly been the slowest and to date I’ve managed to avoid being the one the other drivers don’t want to have in the car undoing all their hard work. Besides I’ve reached an age where racing has to be fun and it’s not enough simply to be pleased to have done it. It has to be enjoyable at the time. Last year I shared a GT4 Aston at the Silverstone 24 hours with Aston boss Andy Palmer and design director Marek Reichman and there was no pressure on anyone, we just had a great time. And came fifth, which was nice.
But back to the Nurburgring and my very first lap of the track, back in 1994. I was reminded of the time by none other than Dr Jonathan Palmer with whom I have the pleasure to sit next to at a dinner this week. Twenty two years later, we’re still giggling about it. As introductions to circuits go, I’ve not known its equal.
Palmer was there showing off the then still prototype McLaren F1 to prospects at the new, sanitized and safe Nurburgring F1 track. I was sent out to see if I could cadge a ride. It turned out that I could, but McLaren needed the track for other activities, so it was to the Nordschleife we turned. They didn’t let us on at first because the F1 lacked a number plate, so while they let a coach and a Ford Granada towing a caravan through the barrier without a backwards glance, we had to go an nick a plate off a McLaren truck before they would let us on.
I should say now that the last time Palmer had been around the old ‘Ring had been 11 years previously, when he’d come third in the last ever Nurburgring 1,000km race to be held there, sharing a Porsche 956 with Keke Rosberg and Jan Lammers. ‘I think I can remember most of it,’ he said in a totally futile attempt to reassure me. Also the track was damp and had I known then what I know now about how F1s on those old tech tyres behaved in those conditions, I think I’d have run screaming from its carbon fibre cocoon.
Instead I sat back to enjoy the ride. If you’ve been driven by any world class driver, even in a slow car on a track you know inside out, it’s usually a fairly humbling experience. Do it on the world’s longest, toughest circuit and it will likely be fairly bewildering and probably completely befuddling if, like me, you’ve never been there before. Now factor in the wet weather and, most of all the fact we were in by far the fastest car ever made and you’ll have some idea what happened next, with just the additional twist being the good doctor not being entirely sure which way the track went after each blind brow. Of which there are plenty.
Not that it slowed him, not one tenth of the second. From the Hatzenbach to the Tiergarten he was on it, touching 200mph on the way down to Aremberg, about 170mph towards the bottom of the Foxhole and right past 200mph again on the straight leading to the Tiergarten. He lobbed the F1 from entry to exit of every curve, corner and chicane, overcoming its heartfelt desire to redecorate the Eifel Mountains with our body parts by sheer force of will and a simply extraordinary talent.
By the end I’ll happily admit to being a wreck, Dr Palmer highly amused and pleased with his work. To him it was just a touch of comic relief to punctuate the serious business of persuading wealthy clients to part with more money than had ever been paid for a new car. To me it remains one of the most vivid memories of my life, the moment where man, machine and one mad race track came together to provide me with an experience that, until that very moment, I could not have conceived would even have been possible.
Lead image courtesy of Palmersport
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