Every gamer who's ever lapped a track in Forza or Gran Turismo has wondered how the real track would compare. Canada's Sympatico.ca Autos gave driver Brian Makse the chance to compare the games to the world's toughest racetrack. — Ed.
The challenge: Would I be willing to learn to drive the famous Nürburgring using nothing more than an Xbox, then fly to Germany, pick up a $100,000 Porsche and take it to that most treacherous race circuit in real life to try and match my virtual lap times? My reaction was unprintable.
This is the stuff automotive dreams are made of.
A little background: I've raced many different road courses and driven some of North America's most daunting tracks, like Mosport and Road America. Plus, I've used simulators to successfully learn Laguna Seca (won the race) and Road Atlanta (we had the fastest car in my class), so trying to learn this granddaddy of a racetrack with some help from Microsoft wasn't foreign territory.
The original Nürburgring racetrack, named for the nearby town of Nürburg, was built in the 1920s to showcase German driving and engineering talent. It's set around the remains of medieval castle deep in the heart of the Eifel mountains. The course was open to the public for a small fee, a tradition that continues today. For much of the 1960s, the German Formula 1 Grand Prix was held on the Nordschleife until it was deemed too dangerous by the drivers of the day.
Even after winning races there, Sir Jackie Stewart gave the track the moniker, "The Green Hell."
Today, the Nürburgring facility encompasses the Nordschleife, the Nürburgring Grand Prix circuit (home to the 2011 German F1 Grand Prix), hotels, a welcome centre, a museum, gift shops and even a Subway sandwich shop.
The thing about the Nordschleife is that it's uncommonly long at 20.8-kilometres, where the typical racing track is perhaps a quarter of that distance. Most circuits have a dozen corners, but the Nordschleife has over ten times that - between 150 and 170, with the actual number in dispute among 'Ring aficionados. With that many corners, automobile manufacturers now come to use the track as a test facility to develop brakes, tires and suspension components. Some manufacturers (including Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Ferrari, Chevrolet and others) even boast about their vehicle's lap times around the circuit as a yardstick for a car's performance.
First thing's first: I had to setup a simulator drive of the 'Ring. I chose to use Xbox's renowned Forza Motorsport 3 racing game, the Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel and to my wife's dismay, one of the best simulator chairs in the business, the Obutto. It all ate up valuable living room real estate for a couple of weeks.
One of Forza 3's great features is its range of cars and since I knew I was expecting to drive a Porsche 911 Carrera S in Germany, I was able to find an in-game car that was reasonably close, the GT3.
I heard American racing driver Boris Said say that it takes an experienced driver 50 laps to learn the German circuit. It was time to dial up my onscreen experience. The best part of a simulator is that you can attack the track without any concern for your safety, plus press pause for a pee-break while hurtling down the straightaway. In my first few laps, I missed many braking points, clobbered walls and generally inflicted unnecessary damage upon the innocent, pixelated GT3.
After the VR hooning, I got serious and tried to learn the basic corner sequences and even put on a helmet to simulate the level of concentration that's required of this track. It took ten laps before corners started to look familiar, but even then, my mind would trick me. When one corner seemed familiar, I would set the virtual Porsche up, only to be surprised when the turn went right instead of left. After about 30 laps (around nine minutes each), my brain was starting to assemble the corners into sequences, but not full laps. I ended up recording a best lap time of 8 minutes, 30 seconds, but wouldn't call myself a 'Ring expert by any means. Unfortunately, it was time to board a plane to Stuttgart.
Visiting Porsche's office adjacent to the factory in Zuffenhausen outside Stuttgart is itself an almost religious experience for a Porsche fanatic - and here I was picking up the keys to a new 911. "My" $104,000 rear-wheel drive Carrera S was fitted with the 3.8-litre, 385 horsepower flat-six and my favourite feature, the Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (PDK) dual-clutch automated manual transmission. The car's yellow paint proved a polite way of asking drivers to move out of the left lane while blasting down the Autobahn.
Approaching the Nordschleife, the roads surrounding the track cut through dense forest. Near the town of Nürburg, the circuit peeks out from behind trees seductively. My first sight of the famous graffiti-covered tarmac got my heart beating just a little faster….
Evidence of racing cars are in every nook and cranny in Nürburg. The culture and businesses are centred around the historic track. BMW has been in town for years with their test centre (where I spotted the latest generation M5 test mule) and, more recently, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Nissan and General Motors have established their own beachheads in the town's industrial park. Even the car park near the track entrance is an enthusiast's delight. The day I was there, it was filled with numerous Porsche 911 GT3s, a fleet of Jaguar R models accompanied by engineers and a solitary Chevrolet Corvette Z06.
The easiest way to drive the Nordschleife is during Touristenfahrten (tourist laps). All you need is a Ring Card for every lap you want to drive. They can be purchased from the welcome centre or at any one of the trackside vending machines and cost 24 Euros each. Unlike track days in North America, there is no mandatory safety inspection and helmets are entirely at the discretion of the driver.
If you're familiar with the Nordschleife, the Touristenfahrten entrance (and exit) is in the middle of the circuit's extra-long straight. Sadly, that means you can't rocket down that stretch at 300 km/h, nor can you drive continuous laps. Nonetheless, at the prescribed hour, I hopped in the Carrera S and jockeyed for position in the queue. As the line got shorter, I pulled on my helmet and the butterflies hit.
Was I really prepared to take this six-figure car out on to what is arguably the most dangerous and difficult race track in the world? I hadn't been this anxious since racing school.
With a full dose of throttle, the 911 roared off to the first set of turns. They were easiest to remember from hours spent on Forza 3 back home, but your first lap is simply overwhelming. Forget about concentrating on your racing line. This is the track you've dreamed about for years.
Green Hell, indeed, Sir Jackie. The track is lined on both sides with tall, lush trees. I was surprised how little run off there is - just a couple metres of grass between the track surface and the guardrail. If you prang any of them, the Nürburgring expects you to pay for the repair. As would Porsche, if I took a corner off its immaculate yellow 911.
A couple kilometres into the lap, I was passed by an expertly driven sedan whose pilot clearly knew his way around the Nordschleife. I decide to tail him as best I could and it paid off. The corners started coming together and my lines were a reasonable facsimile of ‘correct'.
Seeing familiar landmarks around the course was surreal. In Forza 3 it turns out, the Nordschleife experience is depicted accurately. You can spot the buildings in the town of Adenau, for example. What doesn't translate well however are the elevation changes and bumps. The mid-corner humps upset the balance of the car when you're at the limit and the famous banked Carousel turn is seemingly finished with concrete patches of all different height. My spine and stomach were now fully aware of these nuisances.
After my first lap, I took a few minutes trackside to try to absorb what I'd just driven, but it's impossible to process that much information in one sitting. So, I headed back out.
The second lap was decidedly easier than the first. Stringing sequences of corners became easier and I felt confident enough to attack the track in a few sections. Visualizing my Xbox "training" I was able to focus on stringing corners together. Sections like Flugplatz-Fuchsröhre-Adenauer-Forst and Esbach-Brünnchen-Pflanzgarten became my favourites. The Flugplatz (whose literal translation is "airport") is famous for getting cars airborne just prior to a corner. As much as I enjoy catching a little air, I was pleased that I wasn't driving fast enough to leave the pavement.
My third lap was even better. With some familiarity seeping in, I went faster, charging through much of the track and passing cars that should be faster. I also got absolutely eclipsed by a murder of well-driven, track-prepared Porsche GT3s.
With Nissan extending their testing hours that day, the tourist laps were available for just an hour, and while I could have fit in one last go round, with the sun setting and track temperatures going down, I thought discretion was the better part of valour. So, I pulled the yellow machine into the car park for some cool down - both the driver and Porsche needed it. I'd managed a sub-10-minute lap time around the real ‘Ring.
On the flight back to Canada-and after a good night's sleep-it was time to reflect: In my estimation, the time spent "practicing" on Xbox's Forza Motorsport 3 easily saved at least a dozen laps I would have needed just to establish basic familiarity with the Nordschleife. If there was anything lacking in my virtual practice, it would be its inability to depict the extremes of the uphill, downhill sections and the wild affect of all those bumps.
What I will remember most fondly about the Nordschleife is the fresh smell of that green forest and the way the sun sets over the famed ribbon of tarmac. Those are things no simulator can replicate.
For a performance car and racing game enthusiast, going to the Nürburgring was like coming home. It's the most heavenly playground imaginable. You could spend an entire summer circling the Nordschleife and never get bored. I'll be back faster than you can say Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe.
This story originally appeared on Sympatico.ca's Autos on Feb. 10, 2011, and was republished with permission.
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