► Ben Barry attempts to learn - really learn - the 'Ring
► An intensive training course over two fear-filled days
► 'Buy a Vauxhall Astra and enjoy the best couple of days of your life'
I’m a motoring journalist, so of course I know the Nurburgring Nordschleife; I know those 12.9 treacherous miles so well that I register every microscopic change and exchange tips in the Pistenklause on an evening. 'You must be careful on the new penis graffiti at Briinnchen, it really is very slippery'; 'did you see the new metre of tarmac at Arernberg? It's worth 0.574sec per lap!'
The truth is, until recently I'd done just eight laps. I was constantly backing off over the innumerable crests, and —the stuff that actually makes your stomach somersault from your mouth — sometimes getting mugged by a decreasing radius corner.
They say it takes 50 laps to get familiar; to be good, you'll need 100-plus. It could take a Brit tens of trips, and I feared I'd only know it after my pension matured. Then came the invite from Vauxhall: would I like to spend two days on the Nordschleife in an Astra VXR with Scuderia S7? My response came faster than a Red Bull pitstop.
The Scuderia S7 training course books the circuit exclusively and is limited to around 100 participants. It costs €2000.
The 100 drivers are divided into groups of five or six, and the Nordschleife is carved into bite-sized chunks. There's training on each of the chunks at all times, with two groups per section led by two instructors. You repeat the section multiple times, with each student taking turns behind the instructor's car, like a Tour de France peloton.
There's a little theory to chew over at the start, and then we're out on track. For the initial runs, the pace is pretty leisurely; our instructor shows us the lines, explaining over a walkie-talkie why we're taking them.
But pretty quickly the pace steps up. If the second car pushes the instructor hard he'll crack on; if someone flounders, he'll drop back. The standard in our group seems pretty high. I can see the lead car starting to lean and bob and get away from me; I'm starting to work hard, feel like my driving's frustratingly sloppy; the sweet stench of hard-worked pads seeps into the hot cabin. I'm glad it's dry, and that the Astra - developed here - is so balanced and stable and punchy.
Soon we move onto section two. You know that the Nurburgring is fast and tight and intimidating, but nothing can prepare you for accelerating steep downhill to the Foxhole flat in fifth gear while steeling yourself to keep right before the compression, speedo nudging past 130mph. The commitment and concentration here is matched only by the consequences.
But our coaching is superb, and we short-cut the learning process by sucking up knowledge earned over hundreds of laps; I meet guys who've raced here and are changing their lines.
By the end of day one we've been out for about 12 hours - this intensive course is intense - and much of it's been on track. We've learned every chunk of the circuit, but there are two problems: we've been starting some sections in first gear that we'll actually approach at well over 100mph, which vastly changes the game; and due to the inevitable trail off in concentration, I don't feel I know the later sections as well as I do the earlier ones.
The next day we start to string it all together, our instructor again leading us round. I'm buzzing at the speed and my new-found confidence and then, like a plane dropping the glider's towrope, our instructor's gone, his protégés left to their own devices.
It takes me a while to find my feet, but then something miraculous happens: after just over a day of driving, the Nurburgring is entirely imprinted on my memory. I know that you just keep accelerating all the way out of Flugplatz, even though it feels scary; I know you do the same all the way up the hill out of Bergwerk; and that you should brake, then fly, then brake again at Pflanzgarten,
I pass a 911 GT3, a McLaren 12C, and close so fast on a Corvette through the Lauda Links that I whoop in both fear and amusement.
The 'Ring will always be a scary place — I can't imagine racing something quick here at night, let alone in the rain but it's amazing how much familiarity reduces the fear. So, forget that supercar if you want to be a 'Ring king. Buy a Vauxhall Astra and put aside a few grand for the best couple of days of your life.