Lord of the Ring: Tackling the Nordschleife
The trip would include a couple of laps of the infamous ‘Nordschleife’ circuit (the old Grand Prix circuit) with a GT1 driver. I would also join one of the pit crews for a racing pit stop. So far, so exciting. It was only after I had agreed to go that I thought to do a little research. The Nordschleife – the northern loop – has a reputation for being ‘unforgiving’ (which is race-driver speak for outrageously dangerous). I was quoted a statistic of 10 fatalities, which didn’t sound too bad for a track that has been raced since 1927. Then they mentioned that this was only for a recent 9-month period. Just over one fatality a month. Ouch.
My companion, a fellow scribe, further tested my enthusiasm for the trip. He plays the guitar, so he wouldn’t be taking part in the pit-stop practice. Huh? It seems that he’d tried it once before and considered himself lucky that he had only broken one finger. Apparently pit stops are a full-contact sport, with a race car as the opposition and part-timers (like us) can get damaged. I decided to ignore the scare stories. I’m a fighter pilot, so my day job has its own share of get-this-wrong-and-it-could-really-hurt moments, plus, if you so chose, you can drive around the Nordschleife towing a caravan, it’s open to the public on Sundays.
The trick is to make sure that you get in the right car: the GT1 series which, according to series promoter, Stephan Ratel, is ‘ushering in a new era for sports car racing’. With flowing locks, designer stubble and a mesmerising twinkle in his eye, Stephan is a fascinating character in that he appears to be a refugee from the music business. He is visibly proud that GT1 is a World Series, like its bigger brother Formula One, and raced over 10 rounds across 4 continents. He enthuses over the make-up of the 24-strong field of competitors that includes such ‘luxury brand appeal’ marques as Aston Martin, Corvette, Ford, Lamborghini, Maserati and Nissan..
But hold on a second. Ford? Nissan? Luxury brand appeal? I can see that the Ford GT40 and the Nissan GT-R are not their run-of-the-mill products but ‘luxury brand’ may be stretching the point a little far. I think we’ll have to settle for ‘iconic marques’ and move on. Stephan is quick to extol the virtues of a sports car series that has ‘the best of everything’. He is clearly working on the principle that if you say something often enough, with enough conviction, then people will start to believe you and success will follow. And who am I to criticise? I’ve spent the last 3 years saying ‘Of course the Bloodhound Car can reach 1,000 mph’. By comparison, selling the success of GT1 looks quite easy.
The GT1 rules require the cars to use the same body and engine as the ‘standard’ road cars – then it’s up to the teams to be as creative as possible with the remainder of the parts bin. Michael Krumm, of the SumoPower GT team, who was once a racing contemporary of Michael Schumacher’s, and a good one at that, showed me round the Nissan GT-R. What did he like the least about the GT-R? The weight. At 1250kg, the big-bodied Nissan is very much the pie-eater of the GT1 series. What did he like most about the GT-R? The power – the 600hp engine bullies this big brute of a car round the track with huge enthusiasm which is how it remains competitive with the anorexic Lamborghinis. Michael’s answers are not a huge surprise to me. Racing cars have the same concerns – weight and power – whether it’s GT1 or the Land Speed Record. It’s just the numbers that change: we’re worried about Bloodhound SSC’s burgeoning weight, around 6.5 tonnes fully fuelled, but the good news is the power output from the jet fighter engine and a hybrid rocket motor is 135 000 hp.
Even the key performance element is the same for Bloodhound and GT1 – the wheels. For Michael Krumm, tyre temperature is key to cornering fast: too hot and the tyres wear out, too cold and he’ll slide off the track. For me, Bloodhound’s wheel download is the vital figure – too much and we will break the suspension, none at all and the car will (briefly and violently) try to be an aeroplane. Michael and I spend some time discussing our shared obsession with wheel data, the critical importance of tyres in GT1 racing and the critical importance of staying on the ground when travelling at high-speed. Yeah I know, but not all of us fighter pilots spend our days playing beach volleyball and chasing Kelly McGillis around on a motorbike. Not that Kelly would have appreciated it. Apparently.
Changing all four wheels at the half waypoint is a highlight of the GT1 race. All the cars must stop between 25 and 35 minutes into the one hour race, to change tyres and drivers, which guarantees the frenzied spectacle of all 24 cars rushing into the pit lane more or less together. The excitement is increased by limiting the pit crew to 2 people – Man A drives the air impact wrench and removes the old wheels, Man B fits the new wheels. This results in a lot of running about and throwing tyres around – they are trying to get the whole thing done in about 30 seconds. This should be fun to watch. Then they gave me a set of overalls and the air impact wrench: I’m Man A for the next stop. This is likely to be fun to watch for everyone except me. Then again, how hard can it be? Wheel off, wheel on, x 4.
The action starts with the front right wheel. Wheel nut off one-handed, with the air gun. Pull the wheel off with the other hand, step back to put the (very hot) wheel down, make room for man B (new wheel on). Reverse the direction of the air gun and replace the wheel nut. Front right wheel complete – run round the bonnet to the front left corner and repeat. Now it gets more complicated – the wheel nuts turn in the opposite direction on this side of the car, so the air gun settings are all reversed. And when we get to the back left corner, I have to remember to pick up the old wheel again after replacing the wheel nut – it’s Man A’s job to throw the left rear wheel clear of the pit lane. Ever tried to throw a huge, cooking-hot racing car wheel one-handed while running? Now I understand my guitar-playing friend’s reluctance to do this again – and just how he broke his finger the last time.
Overall, it went alright. Four wheels changed, all the wheel nuts back on cleanly (which was good) and they stayed on for the next session (which was better), with no broken fingers (best of all). Time? 39.0 seconds. At the start of the season, under 40 seconds was considered a reasonable effort, but since then the team has been practising. They’re now down to 25 seconds dead, so I won’t be giving up the day job just yet.
Finally we got to the bit that I really came for – the drive around the world-famous Nordschleife circuit. A narrow, twisting race track running through the forest, the Nordschleife is 13 miles long and has around 100 corners including the notorious bend, the Bergwerk (the Mine), a tight 180 degree right-hand corner. After a long fast section comes the Lauda kink, scene of Niki Lauda’s notorious crash in the ’76 Grand Prix in which the Austrian driver was trapped in his burning car. Formula 1 racing ended here, after that. The track was deemed too dangerous for further high-speed racing: one mistake and you were off into the trees, frequently with less than healthy results. It’s not called the ‘Green Hell’ for no reason. I’m not worried though, I’ve got Michael could-have-been-Schumacher to look after me. I’ll get to see how it should be done – by someone who really should know how to do it – even if he did learn the track on his Playstation.
We will do a lap each – me first. Michael would do his best to talk me round the first lap and I would do my best not to crash while I’m listening. We’re not going to be helped by our car: the road-going Nissan GT-R ‘only’ develops 480hp but it’s still a bit of a monster and certainly not the obvious choice to learn perhaps the most dangerous race track in the world. Michael and I make a pact – if I don’t kill him on the first lap, he won’t kill me on the second. We make a good start, taking the first few (fairly easy) corners comfortably. Then I started to get the feel of the car and the speed starts to creep up – and up. It took until about a third of the way round before Michael started to run out of words, unable to speak as fast as I was now driving. Into the next corner on the wrong side of the track, a small but exciting moment – we both giggled, screaming would have been a sign of weakness – and we both decided that was fast enough. I backed off just a little bit for the rest of the lap.
Michael’s turn next. Thanks to Sony, he knows the track off by heart and can throw the car into blind corners at speeds I can’t really believe. Could I do this if I took up the Playstation? Mostly, perhaps. But every now and then Michael twitches the wheel instinctively through 90 degrees to catch a slide or bump and that’s the big difference between us. Any one of those moments would have had me off into the trees, just another victim of the ‘Ring. Instead, we continue confidently on our way, Michael’s making it look almost easy and I get to watch a master at work. At the end of the lap, I’ve got a sense of just what ‘The Green Hell’ must have been like in the old Grand Prix days. I’ll take 1000 mph any day – racing here is too scary for me. Michael pulls over and we get out, leaving the car sitting by the track with smoking brakes and worn-out tyres. Just the way a race car should be left.
More information on the FIA GT1 world championship can be found online at gt1world.com. For more information on the Bloodhound SSC project please visit bloodhoundssc.com.