The Nürburgring

The Nürburgring? To the youngsters it is just another of those places far away where they hold races but to us old fogies it is like the TT, a place of virtually mystic meaning. Opened in June 1927 as the show piece for German Racing it was then a two part track with a stadium section with grandstands, flag poles and such but with another longer, darker section deep into the Eifel Mountains of Western Germany.

These days the stadium section has been revamped into a GP standard track and hosts both car and bike races. The northern loop, the Nordschleife, has been cut off but has not been forgotten.

You need to think of the Lake District to get the feel of the Eifel Mountains and then add some more serious incline. The Nordschleife winds 22 kilometres, rising and falling 300 meters in height, and offers some of the most challenging riding I have ever known.

To put this in context. In 1974 the motorcycle racers, who were still racing the TT mountain circuit, boycotted the Nordschleife because it was too dangerous and the car drivers started making unhappy noises. In 1976 Niki Lauda was seriously injured and the end came shortly after that.

The Nordschleife is now a toll road. You pay your 21 marks for a car or 25 for a bike and drive a lap. You can buy a season ticket, or bulk laps. There are locals who run their 'Ring Specials', normally seriously tricked up cars and motorcycles. There are the tour buses and Hans public in his beat up old Golf. For a special treat take the Ring Taxi - a BMW 5 series with special suspension, roll cage and goodies and a 10 minute lap or your money back but beware of the tourists (terrorists in ringspeak).

What has this to do with an ex-racer and who has now become a respectable IAM Observer? Well it's training. We IAMers are into training. So when I heard about a Ring training school I just had to go didn't I?

The course is operated by the UK based Nürburgring Riders Club once a year for two days. Instructed groups, graded by speed and skill, circulate the ring that is closed to other traffic so they can stop and learn the perfect line and then being tested and scored on it. I drew group 13 and discovered my group instructor to be John, a UK Police rider. A seriously impressive one too.

What's it like?

The Ring is a race track and a long and complex one. Starting from the new terminal the first bend is described as a 150 mph kink. At 50 mph it is a straight road but after a quarter of a mile run in with John at the front it is a kink. There are no simple bends on the ring. The best you can hope for are some reasonably fast bits between some of the more demanding complexes.

I must confess the sight of John accelerating towards another blind crest with an implied "trust me" speech bubble over his head was a bit unnerving. However he always placed us just right and if his bike could do it so could ours.

The first morning was spent learning one short section of the track in detail. We would park and get to a vantage point and review why the line we were to understand went the way it did. Then we would do it a couple of times. The rule seemed to be peel in ever so late and make an apex later than you could ever expect. 180 degree bends are common and the banking on the Karussell is almost too steep to stand on.

We studied three sections in detail, just about four kilometres, and then it was into laps. We rotated the group so we each had a turn to follow John and watch the line drawn on the track and to try to emulate it. At the front he controlled the speed by watching the group in his mirrors for gaps and also watching for the faster groups who needed to pass. The rules are strict. No overtaking except under orders. The instructor at the front and the last rider in the group have their headlights on. If the instructor indicates right you pull to the right to be overtaken. If he indicates left you pull to the left to overtake. No discussion.

Our final detailed study section was Wippermann, a descent through the forest that requires key lines into blind corners. The ring is unforgiving at speed. The track is delimited by Armco and run-off is always a verb and never a noun. There are times that you must aim for a point you cannot see at a speed that is just 8000 revs in third because the speedometer is too far away to be seen except on the start and finish straight. I will dream about the black square by the curb by the pole for years to come. I set my eyes on it so the bike would go over it long before I reached it I was watching for the slope to open up the next corner, impossibly tight but from where I was now possible.

Then the rain worsened. The ring in the dry was hard but the ring in the wet was interesting. We adjusted the groups and the circuit demonstrated the problem that it can be dry in one place and wet in another. Now riding with Helmut, a Bavarian Dentist who happens to have raced Paris-Dakar for various bike and car works teams, I discovered just how good tyres really are in the wet. I have Hi-Sports on the CBR900 and the tread runs right to the edge but some tyres do not do this so a high lean angles they become slicks. When you are following at about 20 feet in the rain ("Keep the group tight" insisted Helmut) watching the bike in front start to understeer is educational to put it mildly.

The second day started dry, went wet, very wet and then dried up for the start of the assessment laps. We were all lined up on the track and sent off at 30 second intervals with the fastest group first. By the time my turn came the rain was back. I have never leant a bike over that far over through standing water before and I am not sure I wish to do it again but the line worked. If you do it just right you can get round in a respectable time braking in only three places we were promised.

What did we learn?

The chief instructor lines you up on your machine at the start of the day and has you do relaxation exercises. This reduces his accident rate as people get wound up before the off. If you tense up you freeze and at the ring straight on is not an option.

You do exercises. How about the locked wheel exercise? Lock the rear at 30mph and stop. The flat spot will be gone in a few laps. Now lock the front at 50mph but only for a chirp. They made us do this so that a locked wheel would not be unfamiliar. They want you back alive.

The surprise lesson is casualty care. The first rider on the scene abandons the casualty and holds his helmet in the air running back up the track side to stop the oncoming riders. The second attends to the casualty while the third summons help. The first duty of the attendants is to get the casualty's helmet off as soon as they have removed their own. Yes I was surprised too but the reasoning is that you cannot control the casualty's ability to breathe with a helmet on and they could be dead too soon for the ambulance to help if they are not breathing. The drill is two person. One supports the head and neck and the other removes the helmet rolling it forward. You are only allowed certain movements for obvious reasons so a pull is OK and so is a nod but a twist is dangerous. If the casualty is conscious they should remove it themselves but it must be off as soon as possible and the airway must be clear. If the casualty is unconscious or becomes unconscious they must then be placed in the recovery position so they stay breathing. Only then can you worry about blood and broken bones. "If they are bleeding block the holes with your gloved hands. Just buy us some time" we were told. Only one hospital visit this time, just a check, but several bent bikes.

Overall

I do not expect to use many of the things I learned there rolling about the roads of Sussex but I have sharpened up my thinking and delivery on line. The course is not cheap, I think I spent about 800, in addition, I covered well over a thousand miles between 3:50 Sunday morning when I left for the ferry and getting home Wednesday night. The tyres show a distinct line at the edge of my wet lean confidence limit that, if the course had been dry, would probably have required a new set. You need leathers, boots, and the bike needs to pass scrutineering for basic safety items lights, indicators, chain, brakes.
Would I do it again? I certainly enjoyed it. I certainly learned a lot. I confess I'm not sure yet but when the club stuff comes round next year I will probably sign up and hope for better weather.

By Nigel Hewitt