How to prepare for the Ring?
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|How to prepare yourself before going to the Ring for the first time
is highly personal. Below I describe what I did before going out
on my first laps, focusing on the mental aspects as opposed to
preparing your car (or bike). There are enough sources that tell you
to check oil level, brake fluid level, brake pads/discs, clean
windshield, appropriate seating position and the like, so I figured it
would be more useful to describe my own approach and experiences from
a mental perspective. I'm a car driver and certain things might be
slightly different if you're a biker: I wouldn't know. Sorry :)
You might think by now "what a loser, I don't need to do that, I'm cool, I have great car/bike control, I've been to many trackdays, I know how to drive fast". If that's the case, I'm surprised you're still reading this. However, if you don't mind risking a little lecture, read on and keep in mind that even bad lectures might teach you something ;-)
Why write this page? The Ring is long. It's very long. Your average Formula One track is about 4.5km long. The Nordschleife of the Nürburgring is more than 20km long and contains lots of corners. Officially, the Ring has 73 bends (thanks, Ben), but you'll be changing direction upwards of 100 times each lap. As a result, learning the track takes a lot of time. For instance, a track like Zandvoort involves about 14 direction changes. Then there is the altitude difference: the highest point is 300m higher than the lowest point.
If you want to do a good job (i.e. drive safely), you have to have a good idea of the speed you can do in each turn, where to brake, where to turn in, where to apex, and where to track out. It also helps if you know that a certain crest you could easily fly over doing 200+ km/h is immediately followed by a 90 degree turn...
I feel there's an analogy to flying: the first solo flights are dangerous, but the real danger comes when you think you know how to fly. The same goes for the Ring: in the beginning you know that you don't know the track very well. Then comes the time you think you know, but you don't truly know the track yet. To add to the danger factor, this is the time you start to drive faster, which produces new experiences in and of itself. Like the famous Sabine Schmitz says about Kesselchen: "It's quite bumpy. You don't notice it with 120 HP, but with 240, 250 HP Kesselchen is very nice." (Meaning that if you're not careful, you'll end up in the armco.)
Additionally, you should know that yellow flags and/or someone waving their arms up and down means that there will be an accident round the next corner. You should slow down as much as possible, and also put on your hazard warning lights to show following traffic and anyone on the track that you are slowing down. Sometimes you may come round the corner to find glass and bodywork spread over the track. This will cause a puncture unless you are going slowly. Sometimes you will find a marshall sweeping the track or laying sand on an oil spill - he will be putting his life at risk on behalf of yours, do not insult him by driving past too fast. Sometimes you will be the first person to stumble upon an accident - consider first aid training, you may be able to save someone's life in such a situation.
So what did I do before going out?
1. Join the Ringers List and read Ben's siteThe Ringers Forum is a forum where any and all aspects related to the Ring are discussed. The collective experience of its members is vast, they're a friendly and helpful bunch that treats newbies gently, so it pays to ask their advice on what to do or think of when going out for the first time.
Ben's site contains a vast amount of useful information on the Ring. Reading his pages gives you a feel for the place even if you've never been there before. You might want to read his views on satisfaction.
2. Learn the track layoutProfessional race drivers make sure they learn the track layout before going out at speed. They go around the track on foot, bike or in the family car before flooring the accelerator in a fast car. Get a map or a picture (as with almost anything Ring-related, you can find it at Ben's site) of the track layout and study it. Knowing the bend names helps communication with more experienced drivers.
3. Know the dangerous spotsCertain bends are known to catch out the unwary time and time again. Knowing them lessens the risks of going off enormously. The corners I was particularly respectful of on my first laps (and still am, actually) are:
Hocheichen is particularly dangerous in the wet. According to Sabine, Hocheichen is dangerous as hell in the wet.
Aremberg, because it's tighter than it looks and you approach it at high speed. That big gravel trap is there for a reason. Think of that for a second: there's hardly any run-off at the entire Ring, but here's this nice big gravel trap. Now why would that be...?
Adenauer Forst, again because it's much much tighter than it looks, it tightens, and you can approach it quite fast.
Kallenhard: it tightens, the exit feels slippery, and you're close to the armco.
Bergwerk: high speed approach, tight bend, not much in the way of run-off area.
Eiskurve: the name of this bend loosely translates to 'Ice corner'. Need I say more? This bend stays in the shadows for a long time, so you can count on it to be damp or wet when the rest of the track is nice and dry. Let me tell you, a wet Ring is very, very slippery.
4. Watch videosWatching videos gives at least some idea of the elevation differences. It also puts 'faces' to the anonymous inked lines on a map. You'll find out that what looked like a single bend on the map might be three twists closely together. It will also give you an idea of what you'll be seeing when driving yourself.
5. Play Grand Prix LegendsEven though the scenery looks a bit different from the real world, playing GPL is a great and very enjoyable way to get to know the track. In the game, you can approach that crest at 200 km/h (and crash safely sitting behind a computer screen). Playing the game doesn't prepare you for the G-forces or the up-down roller coaster sensation, but it's very good at teaching you how the track progresses from corner to corner.
6. Do passenger lapsThere's no substitute for the real thing. Doing a fast lap on the Ring feels like a ride in a serious roller coaster (those 300 meters altitude difference really press you down into you seat a few times). Try to integrate your knowledge gained from studying the map, playing GPL and the videos with what you're seeing and feeling in real life. Take note of the moments where you think "why did he brake here already?", and "why is he on the inside here, where I would have taken the outside line?". Think about it. Discuss it with the driver (and keep in mind that their line isn't necessarily the right line for you).
You'll find that many people don't mind taking a passenger. An easy way of getting a ride is to arrange something beforehand through the Ringers List (like meeting an experienced driver in the car park), or look for cars with a Ringers sticker on the car. If you have a helmet, bring it along, as many of the faster drivers wisely insist on wearing one, and most don't carry a spare.
7. Read the safety leafletThe safety leaflet contains a short lists of do's and don'ts which are the condensed experiences from people who know what does and what doesn't work at the Ring. Please learn from other people's mistakes. Learning from your own mistakes may cost more than you're willing to pay.
8. First lapsConsider leaving your super-duper seriously expensive high-powered car (or bike) at home for the first laps. Remember the pro who's walking the track first? Please don't drive slower than you need to, though: the larger the speed difference with other drivers, the bigger the risk. You'll just have to go as fast as you safely can with your limited track knowledge while still having time to keep checking your rear-view mirrors. Use your indicators to show that you are aware of faster traffic approaching you: indicate to the right if you want them to pass on the left (the usual situation). The overtaking driver will be very grateful, because he can be reasonably sure you've seen him. A lot of crashes are caused by confusion, e.g. the driver on the right pulling to the left to hit an apex, only to collide with a driver going for the overtake. Remember the vehicles going round here range from a hugely fast and experienced 650 bhp Porsche 911 to a coach full of kids - the speed differentials are potentially huge if you are new so be very aware of it on early laps. Blind crests and lots of corners can mean you get very little warning of another vehicle or bike catching you.
It helps to have a co-driver: he can do some mirror-watching from the passenger seat, and if he's experienced he can tell you where the track is going and where to position yourself.
I decided to do my first laps in the wet, strange though that might sound. Due to the extreme slipperyness of the track in the wet, speed differences tend to be smaller and the track is much quieter. This allows you to concentrate more on the track, and less on getting out of the way of all the faster cars and bikes. Even better, a wet track means very few bikes out. The enormous closure speeds fast bikes can achieve are scary. As an example, look at Jørund flying past the Ring Taxi, which is very fast itself...
Like I said, how you get ready is a personal thing: I know some very capable drivers who just don't feel as comfortable in the wet as I do. You'll have to weigh the pros and cons yourself.
9. Record your laps on videoDue to the length of the Ring, in the beginning it's very difficult to analyse your lap when you get back. Being able to watch it at home gives you lots of time to see if you drove the line you intended to. It may even provide feedback on how close to the limit you are. In the wet, I can hear a low-frequency rumble on playback to indicate the front end is sliding. Knowing the corners where you make the tyres squeal and where you don't tells you which corners can be taken faster without sacrificing much in the way of safety margins.
Update: unfortunately, the Nürburgring GmbH has banned the use of videoing during tourist hours...
10. ConcentrationLapping a 'normal' track takes a minute or two. You'll be able to get off the track within a handful of turns if you feel your concentration slipping. Inside of two minutes, you can relax and have something to drink. When you go out on the Ring, you had better be sure that you can keep your concentration up quite a bit longer. Say 12 minutes, unless you leave the track at Breidscheid. I therefore make it a point to do a self-check before driving up to the barrier: do I have any doubt (or a a slightly uncomfortable/weird feeling) that I can easily complete the lap? If so, this is not the time to go out.
Something to beware of is doing 'just one more lap'. It tends not to be a good idea. The 'just one more lap'-thought in and of itself might be an indication that your concentration isn't going to last another 20 km. Did I mention the Ring is long :-) ?
Regardless of how well you know the track, keep in mind that you never ever know what to expect, so concentration is essential. You may go out and find the whole lap is clear, and return thinking what was all the fuss about. Next lap you may go out concentrating a little less, and find the 400bhp Ring Taxi with paying passengers, and a long convoy of following Porsche 911's, coming up behind you at exactly the wrong point for you. And believe me, the speeds they will be doing will give you very limited time to make a decision about where you should place your car to get out of the way. Remember - always expect the unexpected on the Ring. That's what makes it unique.
Still here?Thanks for staying the course. I hope my experiences can be of some use to you. If they are, or if you have a comment to make, you know where to find me.
Thanks to Euan and Ben for their comments on an early
version of this page.