FRIDAY, MAY 18
I leave Peterborough in our longterm BMW M5 and head towards Folkestone. Easy traffic and no stops means that, by around 11am, I’m edging the M5 onto the Eurotunnel. I’m heading to the Nurburgring to watch the N24hr race with BMW, who have entered a trio of Z4 GT3s. But it feels weird. We’re not doing it as a feature in the magazine, so I don’t have a photographer with me. I spend the whole time feeling like I’ve forgotten something. It’s like a missing limb.
Off the Eurotunnel and into France, I point the M5 up the French coast on the A16, heading for Oostende, Bruges, Gent and Brussels in Belgium. France passes quickly on smooth, sparsely trafficked autoroute, and I’m into Belgium, which rushes to greet me with a single lane and roadworks. What is it with the Belgians and roadworks? I always think of them as being very orderly, probably because of those EU directives supposedly outlawing excessively bendy vegetables, but Belgian roadworks are bountiful and surprisingly chaotic. I stop for fuel on the other side of Brussels. It’s impossible not to buy a waffle.
Looks like I’m heading in the right direction at Liege. Loads of roadworks on the ring road, and the building Friday traffic that seems to be mostly heading west is gridlocked. I see a sign for Asse and ‘ring’ written on the road. Lesser people would snigger.
I think I’ve left the roadworks behind when I slip into Germany at Aachen, yet the BMW’s head-up display announces ‘road closed’. I’ve got the sat-nav on, but I’ve also got an actual proper map and some Google print-outs, simply because I like to be able to orient myself. And, usually, I’d ignore the sat-nav and take the road to Cologne. But ‘road closed’? Surely it knows something I don’t. I make a snap decision to follow the sat-nav. I’m at its mercy, and it takes me through a squiggle of junctions and slip roads. My in-built compass becomes disoriented, but I look at the sat-nav screen and realise I’m being directed back the way I came. There are no further instructions. Erm. I realise I need to take the 4 towards Cologne, so I turn around, ignore the ‘road closed’ warning on the head-up display, and carry on. It’s cost me around 15 minutes. The road isn’t closed. Annoying.
On a fairly busy two-lane autobahn, a discreet round white sign with a black line through it – like our national speed limit signs – announces that I can drive as fast as I like. Amazing. It doesn’t feel as though everyone’s tuned in to this fact, though, so I spend a lot of time accelerating up to 130-140mph then immediately backing off. Then, at last, it’s clear. I flatten the accelerator and hold on. In no time at all, the M5 nudges into its limiter at 163mph. It feels like there’s an awful lot more to come. I see two cars in the distance and back off. But there’s plenty more de-restricted autobahn on the way to the Nurburgring, and I’m regularly above 100mph.
I arrive at the Nurburgring. The carnival atmosphere is already in full flow, with the smell of fires, long lines of cars on verges near the Nordschleife (the old Nurburgring, as opposed to the modern GP circuit – both are linked together and used for the N24hr race) and campsites that are full of flags and pounding with music.
I’m part of the M Corso group, BMW M’s official weekend package for fans. We share a car park at the Ring Boulevard with Mercedes AMG, and the entire place is rammed with a frankly awesome collection of cars. For a mile around the car park, the normal order of things is turned on its head: the most common cars on the road seem to be M3s, new M5s, C63 AMGs and 911 GT3s. It’s a struggle to spot a four-pot diesel. I like this ‘reality’.
BMW M has erected the ‘M Tribune’, a portable, slick, two-level structure that’s near the Nordschleife and also looks out over the GP circuit. We’re promised a couple of new-car unveils. In the meantime, there’s free food and drink, and a chap called Rufus who, someone tells me, is famous and has done something on German X-Factor. I don’t watch UK X-Factor. It starts to rain. Rufus sings for a long, long time. The cars are unveiled at around 10pm. It’s the M6 coupe and cabriolet. Interesting to hear the presentation chat when it’s aimed mainly at M enthusiasts, rather than journalists. The M6 is ‘as fast as lightning’ and ‘only has one kind of throttle: full throttle’. Fellow N24hr competitors Toyota might want to counsel them on the wisdom of such pronouncements. Still, there’s a good vibe here: the Z4 is on pole position. Wow!
We get a bus back to our cars, and pass the BMW M test centre on the way. It looks as though the normal Cecotto 3-series touring car has been replaced by the pole-sitting Z4 – or something very like it, no doubt, as that car is presumably in parc ferme – for the night. It’s a fleeting glance of the car I’ve come to see.
Back to our cars and we drive to nearby Centre Parcs. I’m sharing a chalet with a journalist and the PR, and there’s another trio of journos next door. We get to the bar for 11.30pm – last orders – and order two pints each. I’m here without the kids and the race doesn’t start until 4pm. I’m looking forward to a lie in. But, somehow, we stay up until 2am. Okay, no alarm clock. I’ll just wake up when I wake up, I convince myself.
SATURDAY MAY 19
I wake up. Taking German local time into account (+one hour), this is when the kids usually wake up. I can’t go back to sleep. Curses!
I go for a swim at Centre Parcs. It’s a weird vibe: young families with kids in armbands alongside N24hr meathead fans who are getting all rowdy and splashing about. Note to self: don’t bring the kids to Centre Parcs during the N24hr race.
Back to the track. There are queues tailing back now on the roads leading up to the track, people filling the pavements and even a bunch of go-karts driving down the street - presumably as some kind of legal display, but who knows. I go straight to the M Tribune and meet a young Dutch BMW sales rep. He loves the brand, came last year and paid €480 for this year’s weekend, for which he gets the parking, camping, weekend race ticket and access to the M Tribune with free food and drink. ‘It’s much better organised than last year,’ he says. ‘And we didn’t get food and drink last time.’ He also got to take part in the M parade, driving in formation around the Nordschleife. Sounds frustrating to me.
The race cars assemble on the start grid and all the fans are allowed on too. It’s mobbed. The very first cars are cordoned off, so I don’t get a glimpse of the Z4 on pole. But I snoop around, see spot Darren Turner with his Aston Vantage, spot the Nissan GT-R crew, plus Akio Toyoda’s Gazoo Racing outfit with its Lexus LFA and GT86, and I also see Warren Luff, the Aussie touring car racer who I interviewed at Bathurst 2010. Then it’s all whistles and a cordon is slowly dragged back over the cars. Time to leave.
I head to another BMW M area at the top of the tower that stands over the pitlane. The cars do a formation lap, and are gone for an eternity – it really makes you realise how long this place is at around 13 miles all in.
Finally they come back round and roar past on the rolling start. It’s like a fighter jet coming overhead. But, because we’re high up, I fail to pick out the Z4. And after a couple of laps, the cars jumble up and I have no idea who’s winning.
Into the pitlane. I’ve got a media pass, but it feels a little too casual: I just wander through some team’s pit garage and there I am, standing in the pitlane. Immediately a warning buzzer goes off, a car rumbles down the pitlane, and a crew swarm over it. There’s a real mix of activity. Some pit crews are sitting about, some are frantically working on cars that are damaged, and sometimes you see a lone driver standing in the pits, staring into the distance and waiting for his car to come in so he can swap stints. I stand and imagine the nerves that are swilling about in their bellies.
Bit more food in the M Tribune. I still have no idea who’s winning, but I start to watch the DTM at Brands Hatch on the TV. It’s a bit weird. And, to be honest, the N24hr racing action isn’t captivating me. The GP circuit doesn’t do it justice.
I follow the fans onto a path that runs adjacent to the Nordschleife. Instantly the atmosphere changes, with campfires, drunk people, loud music – quite frequently Iron Maiden – and crazy wooden structures that give fans a commanding view of the action. One guy tells me that people camp all week. It feels a little feral, but very authentic, perhaps closest in feel to the campsites at Reading Festival. I’m one of the few people wandering about on my own though, and I have a medium-to-large fear that I’ll take pictures of some partying Germans who’ll spot me, strip me naked and tie me to the catch-fencing for the night.
I’m now closer to the racetrack, and the racing takes on a harder, more vital edge. The top-class cars have blue flashing lights in their windscreens to warn slower traffic – there’s a Clio, a Mk4 Astra and an old Opel Manta mixing it with the factory cars, so the speed discrepancies are huge – and they’re absolutely pounding around the circuit; I actually feel quite vulnerable, even standing behind Armco and catch-fencing. It dawns on me that I couldn’t do one lap as fast as these guys, yet they’ll often be lapping for hours while dodging slow cars and jostling with their equals. Heroes.
It’s a warm evening, and some of the drivers have their windows open. Apparently you can smell the campfires as you drive around. It must be incredibly evocative.
I walk and walk and walk, and eventually the campsites thin out to nothing, the evergreens get thicker and the path moves a little further away from the racetrack. I spot a cross commemorating the death of driver Roland Ebel, who died back in 2009. I don’t want to be out here alone when it’s pitch black, so I decide to turn back to ‘civilisation’.
It’s starting to go dark, but the pace doesn’t lessen. I simply can’t imagine what it must be like driving the fastest cars. So I sit and watch, and start to mess around with the shutter speed on the office camera. Have a look at my pics. I’m sure you’ll agree that CAR normally uses some very good photographers.
I leave the Nordschleife and head back to the M Tribune for some ice cream. Rufus is playing again, but, unfortunately, I seem to have missed him. Chelsea versus Bayern Munich is playing on the screens, though, alongside earlier replays of the N24hr race. There are some huge crashes, with debris strewn across the racetrack and sweaty men sitting on the Armco shaking their heads, as though life has just changed forever.
I decide to head back to Centre Parcs. I still have no idea who’s winning and I feel like I’ve experienced what I need to experience – I was planning on staying to the finish, but if I leave early I can be back at work for Monday morning. No beers tonight, and I reckon I fall asleep by midnight.
I wake up feeling fresh. Nice. A quick shower, some Nutella on toast, and I jump into the M5. It’s bright and sunny, but it’s rained overnight. I’d absolutely hate to race on the Nordschleife at night in the rain I think as I adjust my leather seat to perfection and plug Calais into the nav.
Right then, how quickly can we get home? It’s now dry and sunny and the roads are empty. I get onto a de-restricted autobahn fairly quickly, and this time I can just pin it. The M5 touches 166mph downhill and I rarely dip below 140mph as the rolling countryside stretches out before me. I get to Belgium in about 10 seconds.
Naturally Belgium screws it up, with an immediate procession of roadworks and a road closure (naturally, the M5’s sat-nav didn’t know about it), which diverts us only briefly. I cross Belgium and France at about 90-100mph, filling up on the way, and at around 1pm I get to the Eurotunnel. I’ve just missed one crossing, so I get a sandwich and a paper and queue up for the 13.42 train.
I gain the hour back crossing into the UK. I’m first off the Eurotunnel. I’m in a M5. All the traction control seems to be turned off. Ahead of me lies four lanes of a constant-radius turn that can’t possibly contain any other traffic. It would, I hope you’d agree, be rude not to. As I get to the end of the slip road, a police motorbike with blue flashing lights pulls over onto the hard shoulder. And there’s another one there too. My heart sinks. I drive past. The bikes stay put. I laugh out loud. Jesus!
Traffic’s pretty light, and I sit at 85-90mph where I can. I get home – just a little north of Peterborough ¬–¬ at 3.30pm. Taking the time change into account, that’s 7.5 hours door-to-door to cover 488 miles. Could you fly that quickly? I’m not sure you could.
MONDAY MAY 21
I meet CAR editor Phil McNamara in the car park. I’ve got no idea who won the race, I admit to him. He fires up his computer and finds an email from Audi. ‘Audi records its first outright win at the Nurburgring,’ he announces. Well, now I know.