Tuesday 22nd November 2016

"What a wonderful, magical day" by Dr. Brian Ellis

As a fan of motorsport and a major BMW fan, this was a dreamlike experience. A day of wonder. Let us start at the beginning ….

BMW AG operates many driving experiences for both cars and motorcycles, at a variety of racing tracks around the world, but the focus is on the magnificent Nordschleife, situated between Köln and Frankfurt.

Nordschleife History

The track was planned as one of the first dedicated racing venues in Europe and, after 2 years in construction, it was opened in June 1927. Although the layout (and hence length) has changed a little over time, the Nordschleife is 21 km long, with 73 corners (33 left, 40 right) and an altitude change of 300m over its layout. There are treacherous crests and corners (many blind on approach), steep gradients and changing road surfaces throughout, which means that a fast lap is extremely challenging. In addition, as you might appreciate with a track of this size, there can be very different weather conditions from one section to another.

The track was used for the F1 Grand Prix von Deutschland for many years and as one of the most demanding in the world it became the love of many F1 drivers. Three times F1 World Champion Jackie Stewart was so impressed by the circuit that he coined the nickname “the Green Hell”

Unfortunately, the dangerous nature of the track caused many serious accidents, the most infamous of which is probably the awful accident of Niki Lauda in 1976, from which he was lucky to survive. It became inevitable that the Nordschleife would be classified as unsafe for the top forms of motorsport, so a new, shorter track (the Nürburgring) was constructed in the mid-1980’s with all the safety features required for today’s F1 racing. This new track is connected to the original Nordschleife, but separate from it on most occasions (a 24-hour race for GT and touring cars is still held every year on the combined Nürburgring-Nordschleife). However, for most of the year the Nordschleife is a separate entity, open for track days, testing and so on. For the day of my visit, BMW had hired the circuit for its own use and several Driving Experience sessions were scheduled: alongside the M-Insider experience in which I was participating, there were sessions involving the new BMW M2, M4 and M6 vehicles.

My BMW M-Insider Driving Experience

There are only a limited number of days when the course language is English, so I was lucky to book for the ONLY day in 2016, which was on 8 July. I arrived at the BMW M Testcenter in Nürburg, to be met by our trainer for the day (a BMW Engineer called Florian) and my co-trainees, 2 Americans and a Canadian. One of the Americans had flown in to collect his new BMW model from BMW Welt in München (and he would then ship his car to the USA), the other American was in the US Military and posted temporarily in Germany, while the Canadian had arranged a holiday with his family in Germany to coincide with the course. I would like to thank BMW for their excellent hospitality throughout the day; we were welcomed by wonderful fruit, pretzels and coffee, together with a great lunch at Döttinger Höhe (but that comes a bit later!).

After an introduction to the programme, we spent the first 2 hours in driver training, including videos of driving safely at high speed on the track. A vehicle can accelerate and decelerate much more efficiently if it is going in a straight line, and hence racing drivers are trained to “straighten” the corners as much as possible. This is done by approaching each corner from the opposite side of the road, clipping the apex and then moving out to the far side of the road on the exit. Overall, this “opens” the corner into a wider diameter curve. Braking on the approach to the corner should be done while you are still going in a straight line, while accelerating out of the corner is done by feeding in the power as early as possible on the exit. Power can be fed in more quickly if the corner exit is performed with the car as straight as possible. One very important fact is that if you make a mistake at one corner, it will impact on your exit speed, which will affect your speed to the next corner significantly.

A track of this length, with 73 corners, is bound to be difficult to learn, but it is even more complicated because not all the corners require the same angle of approach; some corners must be taken with a late apex, some with an early apex. In addition, many corners are blind on approach. I think we begin to appreciate why the best drivers in the world love this track so much; it is a fantastic challenge to learn!

We were all excited after coffee when we left the Testcenter for our first taste of the Nordschleife proper. One of the entrances to the Nordschleife is at Döttinger Höhe (about 1.5 km from Nürburg) and it is here that BMW had arranged a selection of cars for the multiple courses running that day.

So, we each chose our own M4 and formed a short queue behind our trainer Florian (also in an M4 as our “pace car”). The BMW M4 has a twin-turbocharged straight-6-cyliner engine of 3 litres capacity, producing 431 bhp, driven through a 7-speed dual clutch gearbox powering the rear wheels. Florian was in radio contact with all of us, so he could keep us under control (well, he hoped he could anyway!). He led us out onto the track itself and he advised us to close up to within 3 car lengths of each other. Our initial progress was around 120 km/hr as we started and Florian was able to advise us how to approach each of the early corners, when to brake, how to spot the apex and when to accelerate. Gradually he raised the speed as he could see we were getting more confident (or impatient!) so that by the end of the first lap we were cruising at about 150 km/hr.

The wonderful thing for me was to drive through some of the famous sections, such as the Karussell, which for those of you who don’t know is an approximately 180 degrees left-turn “hairpin”. It is relatively steeply banked, so you can take this corner fairly fast, but you have to “hug the apex” most of the way around and accelerate out only when you can see the road ahead. A very dangerous section, but fantastic to drive through.

Gradually Florian increased our cruising speed, so that finally we were exceeding 200 km/hr. On one lap he advised us to pull over to the right to allow Claudia Hürtgen to pass us. Claudia is a famous German racing driver and she was testing some new parts on a BMW. Suddenly this black “rocket” powered past, engine screaming beautifully! Florian took off after her, with the 4 trainees in hot pursuit. Jokingly, he said “let’s try to keep up with her”, but of course she had disappeared by the time we reached the next corner!

After a few magical laps, we came back into the paddock at Döttinger Höhe, our individual driving experiences over, but our minds and senses full of fabulous images which will remain with us forever. It was time for lunch, mainly typical Italian cuisine, except for the special Bavarian white sausages which of course we all had to try.

Following lunch, we had more presentations about BMW engineering, some indications about the direction of the Group, with several details about motorsport implications and aims. Yes, a bit of marketing and PR, but all quite acceptable on this day of opening our minds. Florian then presented a Certificate to each of us, indicating that we had passed this M Driving Experience successfully (and of course tempting us to go up to the next level of training!).

At the end of the day, we had another great treat; Florian took us around the circuit in a BMW M5 “Ring Taxi”. He split us into 2 pairs, so that he could take just 2 people a time in the M5. This powerful beast has a twin-turbocharged V8 engine of 4.4 litres capacity, producing 560 bhp, again driven through a 7-speed dual clutch gearbox powering the rear wheels. Out on the track, Florian talked us through the entire lap, advising us what gear was selected for each corner, and where he could start to power out of each turn. We might have thought we had been going quickly when we had been driving ourselves, but of course this was a very different matter. Yes, a bit scary at times, but also absolutely unbelievable; the feeling of hard braking on the limit from maximum speed was something else! The key way to enjoy this moment was to know that our driver was exceptionally experienced at this track and to appreciate that obviously he had done this many times before.

What a wonderful, magical day. Thank you BMW, but thank you even more my ESA colleagues for enabling me to have such a tremendous experience. Whoever in the ESA came up with this present for me was a genius. Thank you all, without doubt I shall remember this fantastic day forever!

Brian Ellis, former Chair of the ESA

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"What a wonderful, magical day" by Dr. Brian Ellis

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