Nürburgring (18-19 March 2006)
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Despite lots of snow and some very cold weather (well, by Dutch standards anyway), Ring Management had been very positive that the Einstellfahrten for VLN would be going ahead as planned. Amazing what you can do with some heavy equipment and a few tons of salt. I planned to use the VLN-practice to give a new lens a first proper workout, and hopefully get some half-decent shots of Job's new Mercedes 190 racecar, decked out in the original 1989 DTM livery.
SaturdayAfter dropping off most of my things at the B&B I had a quick look at the Einfahrt to check the opening times for Sunday. The sign wasn't working properly, and other than that the track would be opened on Sunday the opening time wasn't readable. There was still quite a bit of heavy equipment in the carpark.
Most of the area around the Nordschleife was still covered in snow. It made for a picturesque scenery, and slippery walking tracks. According to the drivers, not only the walking tracks were slippery. Several of the high-powered VLN cars were spinning their wheels while driving away, but they didn't leave any rubber behind...
With time getting on a bit I went for an easily accessible trackside spot: the marshalls post on the right side of the track after Galgenkopf. It wouldn't give the most scenic of pictures, but it would certainly tell me if the new lens was tracking moving cars properly or not.
It was interesting to see the differences in suspension of various cars. Most of the GT3s would soak up the bumps on Döttinger Höhe, whereas as particularly the hot hatches were bouncing all over the place. It's bumpy enough to see some air underneath a wheel sometimes.
After a little while another photographer showed up, in an Audi RS4. A bit more impressive than my little Ibiza, and with the AWD he could drive right upto the gate and back up the hill again. He told me that driving would stop at 16.30. Which was fine with me; I'd been getting some very cold fingers.
Next stop was the pit, where I found Jeroen. We concluded that everybody had already gone down to Ring Racing. Upon arrival I saw lots of familiar faces: Niek (back from Shanghai), Christer, Job, Einar (who'd been out for a lap in my 964 last year), Primus (ditto), and Euan. I'd expected Jochen to be there (if only to show off his press pass for the entire VLN-season), but he'd gone home already :(
Niek was proudly displaying his current car, a Ford Mondeo. With a tow hook, naturally. And with a very groovy exhaust tip. And with high-performance drum brakes in the rear. All in all a perfectly sensible car for a perfectly sensible, mature, career-oriented young man ;-)
The Mercedes had been proving it's reliability in several days of training already, and it had taken a day of Einstellfahrten in its stride. I must say that it looks very cool in the official 1989 DTM livery. It's obvious that the decals have been applied by somebody who's done that kind of thing before.
With part one of the day's excitement over, it was time to prepare for part two: dinner in the Pistenklause. I quickly put the pictures I'd taken on my laptop for some pre-dinner entertainment.
Dinner at the Pistenklause was the usual slightly chaotic affair of people talking in three or four languages, explaining the menu to one another. This usually resulted in happy faces when those less familiar with the menu received their food.
A lot of catching up was done, and a bit off piss-taking too. Some people just don't realise that when you're in a hole, the best course of action is generally to stop digging. Despite that, Niek still had a good time :)
Of course, a mobile phone was switched to a foreign language. The inevitable candidate for that was Euan's phone, because it had a very weird orange colour.
Once desert had arrived (in the shape of a Weizenbier), all was forgotten though.
The silly orange phone was capable of taking piccies too. My defence was to blind the photographer with my own flash; Job chose to use his arms to make sure he would be unrecognisable.
All this talk about grip, driving, lines, torque, speed, acceleration, cars, and the Nordschleife made me look forward to going out on the track myself.
SundayThe official opening time was supposed to be 9.00, but that turned out to be a bit optimistic. Anyway, I'd asked for breakfast at 8.30, and when I came down I was the only one there. It turned out that I was the only one staying there that night: everybody else had left after the Einstellfahrten. The TV had already been tuned to the F1 race in Malaysia. My egg was boiled to perfection, and the bread was perfect (as is usually the case in Germany). I even had my own personal pitcher of orange juice. A perfect start to the day :)
The weather was perfect too: not a cloud in sight. A bit cold though, and a bit foggy on the other side of the Ed Tankstelle.
The carpark was still nice and quiet. Of course Ed was already there. First on the agenda was to get the new Jahreskarte. Luckily the office wasn't very busy yet, and the officials were more than happy to take my money. While waiting for my card, Achim (Ringmini) and Fabian showed up to get their cards too. Speaking of cards, you now get two bits of plastic: the familiar creditcard-sized card with your picture on it, and a black transponder the size of a watch. The transponder opens the gate, and the card can be used to check that you are the rightful owner of the transponder. I haven't tried opening the gate with the card yet.
The transponder can be worn around your wrist, but the wristband is rather itchy, and to get the transponder close enough to the receiver near the gate with it strapped to your wrist requires quite a bit of flexibility in your wrist joint. Instead, I closed the strap and stored it around the gear lever. That way it won't get lost, and it's easily accessible when you go out for another lap.
There was a reasonably large contingent of 'mericuns around. Most of them from the air force, but Ed had found somebody (also called Ed, from Chicago) who'd come over for some sightseeing and some Ring laps. Chicago-Ed was in an Audi A3, and had played lots of GT4 to learn the layout of the track. Ed took him for some introductory laps in the 944 Turbo to show that the real thing can be quite different from gaming reality.
When the track opened at 10.00, there were some technical difficulties with the transponders: people kept waving their transponder in front of the sensor, but the display would say things like "Card expired" or "Insert card" or somesuch. The situation was resolved quickly, and I went out for the first lap of the season.
It was very weird to be on a track that's covered in salt. It didn't help that the lighting conditions made it difficult to distinguish between salt and snowdrifts. Regardless, it was very slippery. Sometimes because there was so much salt, sometimes because the surface was frozen, sometimes because there was a little wet spot of melted snow, sometimes because there was slush on the track. The announcement that the track was open was accompanied by the warning that you had to be really careful at Hohe Acht because of melting snow on the track. A bit of German humour that, as they might as well have warned for the tricky conditions at T-13, Bastard Bend, Hatzenbach, Hocheichen, Aremberg, Fuchsröhre, Adenauer Forst, Metzgesfeld, Kallenhard, Spiegelkurve, Bergwerk, Maddock Bend, Karussell, Eschbach, Brünnchen-2, Eiskurve, Pflanzgarten and Galgenkopf. Most amazing was that at certain points (T-13 and Hocheichen for example) the track was bone-dry and clear, yet slippery as snot.
It was good to be back again, after a long absence. The conditions required due care and attention, but the near total lack of traffic made it a relaxing early morning drive. Ed was one or two cars behind me, but because of the issues with the transponders he wasn't as close behind as I'd expected. The RingMini was out there too: he came flying past at Brünnchen.
Achim was going at an impressive pace: by the time I came to Döttinger Höhe for the second time, he overtook me again. I.e., he'd driven two laps in the time it took me to do 1.5 laps :-)
In the parking lot we'd spotted a grey Ibiza with some decidedly non-standard tyres on. On lap three he started out right behind me (the delay at the gate had been fixed), but it was quite clear that he was more committed than I on the treacherous surface. I let him by on the approach to Hatzenbach, and while he went sideways I slid a meter wide at a lower pace. He repeated the sideways manoever in the middle of Schwedenkreuz... Exiting Galgenkopf I could just see him a long way off on the final straight.
Incidentally, the final straight is now divided with cones into two lanes. At the beginning of the division stands a cart with a sign on it that tells you that the left lane can be used if you want to go out for another lap, and that the right lane can be used either for doing another lap or for exiting to the carpark. All in all rather a lot of information to take in if you see it for the first time. Also, since there's no warning of the 2-lane system beforehand, I suspect that we'll see some accidents when people get confused and decide to move from the right lane into the left lane and get T-boned by somebody in a hurry to do another lap. Ideally, there would be big signs on the gantry to give a bit more warning of the split.
The mobile ticket machine guarding the left lane could use a bit of work too: the ticket machine is set back from the side of the cart it's on. This means that you'll have to drive very close to the cart to be able to hold the transponder close enough to the sensor (it needs to be within a few centimeters).
Still, it's good to see that the Ring administration has managed to get the bypass lane and the transponders operational ahead of schedule. I guess we'll have to wait until Easter to see how much effect they have, but I'm optimistic. The regular gates will probably still be a mess, but with one or two lanes on the straight operational things should keep flowing reasonably well. Of course, more throughput at the access points means more cars and boiks on the track at any one time... After four laps it was time for a short break to let things cool down a little.
Eagle-eyed Niek had spotted a team from EVO on Saturday afternoon, taking pictures on the back roads. They were doing an article about convertibles, featuring the new M Roadster, a TVR, an Alpina, and of course a Porsche Boxster. The TVR has such a horrible paintjob that I couldn't help but see it parked next to the Ed Tankstelle.
The M Roadster looked a bit more decent, even in red. Which didn't mean that the marketing boys at BMW were reticent about putting M badges everywhere.
Back in the carpark the other diners from yesterday evening started coming in one by one. I'll spare you more pics of Niek's car, but figured that he'd earned a bit of free publicity after all the piss-taking. The poor car may well have suffered from a mental breakdown for being neglected all day long. Yup, the poor car, it didn't earn a Ring sticker.
Ed (the local one) had returned from some laps, and as he hadn't been in the Ibiza yet I invited him along for a lap or two. The grip had improved quite a bit since 10am, and we had lots of fun chasing down a 996 Turbo. The pattern soon became familiar: on the straight bits it would run away, but on corner exit we would be right on him again. A good example of this was Flugplatz. It was admittedly a little less grippy than earlier, thanks to some melting snow running across the track, but it was still possible to do a reasonable speed through there. Naturally he gained a lot of ground on the approach to Schwedenkreuz, but when we saw his brake lights come on before the crest we knew we'd be on his tail again before Aremberg.
Fuchsröhre was still damp and slippery, but I was a bit surprised to find that I had to lift exiting Adenauer Forst to avoid pushing the 996 onto the straight. I'd have expected it to have not only a horsepower advantage, but a traction advantage as well.
The yoyo-effect of him running away a bit and us reeling him in again continued until Kallenhard, where he put his right indicator on and let me past. It was kind of him not to re-overtake me up Kesselchen. Then again, Maddock Bend was by then flat in the Ibiza, but it did involve a bit of sliding over the front wheels.
For the second lap I used the lefthand lane on Döttinger Höhe. I had to look carefully where to go through the cones on the other end (just as it takes some getting used to that you have to check over your left shoulder as you come out of the regular gates), but it seems to be working very well.
For most of the lap I was chasing a Scooby STi from one of the 'mericuns. It made lots of impressive noises, and I had to work hard to keep up. Must be nice, having 4WD when the track's slippery. Ed and I both noted that cars like these seem to make life easy for the driver. Through Wippermann for example (where a grey E30 was very much in the way: I could have gone round the outside of him, he was that much off line) the rear end was moving all over the place, but feeding it some gas seemed all that was necessary to keep it pointing in the right direction.
The acceleration out of Eiskurve was particularly impressive: he gained at least 25 meters powering out of the no-grip exit of that corner, while I was trying to find a bit of traction. All in all it was a fun lap.
A wander round the carpark turned up the EVO crew. The driver of the TVR agreed that the paintjob was a bit on the loud side. It'll be interesting to see what they say about that in the upcoming article. The TVR-driver tried to inch his way out of the picture, but his lateral speed was no match for my zooming speed.
They'd positioned a photographer at Brünnchen, and were going to do a lap with all four cars to get them in the same shot. Naturally I was tempted to see if I could tag along. However, fate intervened. After I came back from a short pitstop, admiring some classic cars and a not-so-unobtrusive videocamera in a Cayman-S, the track opened and I was ready to go.
I was out of the gate a little bit ahead of the EVO convoy, and pulled over to wait for them. At this point Chicago-Ed passed me, and indicated he'd like to do a convoy lap with me. Meanwhile the EVO boys were dawdling about, and I figured it would be more fun to do a lap at speed with Chicago-Ed.
Given that it was his first visit, he was doing impressive speeds. And, not unimportantly, he was doing it safely, using clean lines. Nothing can compensate for a thorough preparation. Of course I had to wait a bit on the straight bits, but it was an enjoyable lap.
It would have been nice to do another one, but I had no choice in the matter as the track was closed due to an E36 that had crashed at Hohe Acht (despite the warning through the PA system, and despite a warning triangle on the track), severely damaging the left rear and left front. It had also lost oil and/or coolant. For a change this was no danger to the boikers, as (a) there were no boikers around, and (b) the car wasn't capable of going anywhere by itself anymore.
With the track closed I moved to Schwalbenschwanz to take some pictures. Most of the people I'd been talking to in the carpark earlier that day showed up, including Arnoud (C5, sp?), Dennis (E36 M3), Ed (borrowed 190), Euan (968CS), Einar (AMG), Chicago-Ed (Audi A3), the EVO boys (M Roadster, Boxster-S, TVR), and of course Karl (944 Turbo wannabe).
The weather was wonderful, and after a while I went back to do some more laps myself.
The first lap I took Chicago-Ed along. Traffic was still pleasantly light, and grip levels low but reasonably predictable. Some of the dry bits still didn't have any grip, but that stayed the same from lap to lap. Not much of an issue, therefore. The lap was an enjoyable one, even though the brakes started complaining a bit. They would retard well, but the pedal was getting a bit soft, and the brakes were quite hard to modulate properly. So, to get around that, I took Christer's advice and didn't brake or lift going down Fuchsröhre. On previous laps I'd been getting quite close to not lifting there, and I figured this was as good a chance as any to keep the loud pedal planted all the way through the compression.
Despite the marginal difference in speed it felt a lot faster. Still, the car is capable of doing it even quicker than that, but to get there I'd need more exit speed from Aremberg.
I dropped Chicago-Ed off in the carpark, and after a chat about this, that, and some other things, took Euan along for a ride. He too hadn't been in the Ibiza yet. With the traffic as light as it was, it was easy to do a reasonably quick lap. Naturally I repeated the flat-through-Fuchsröhre bit, even though it's quite hard on the brakes. The rest of the lap was also driven in a spirited fashion, and before we knew it we were back in the carpark. I think Euan liked what the little Ibiza could do :-)
We admired the Mercedes 190 once more, listened to Christer grind the gears, and decided to have a little break at the Grüne Hölle restaurant. The prices they charge never cease to amaze me, not does the fact that nobody seems to mind paying 3EUR for a little bottle of softdrink. At least the weather was nice and the view excellent.
Time was getting on, which meant that people were starting to leave.
I'd hoped to get a passenger lap in the Mercedes, and one or two in
Euan's 968, but it wasn't to be. Luckily I know that the Merc, Euan,
and I will all be back before long :-)