Lapping it up at two great circuits

| 28 Aug 2013

The last time I went to the Nürburgring, it was October, which meant that it was wet, cold and misty. The few slippery laps that I completed on the Nordschleife – behind a pace car during a BMW event – were therefore somewhat trepidatious. A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to return, and this time was greeted by glorious, unbroken sunshine.

A small group of us was there with Ron Simons Racing, which arranges car hire, track days, instruction and tours of the ’Ring and Spa – only about an hour away across the Belgian border. Ron himself (main picture above, on left) is an experienced racer and tutor, a Dutchman with an understated tone but a flamboyant driving style. We began our trip with a tour around the ’Ring via the surrounding roads, stopping every now and again to venture trackside.

To my delight, our first port of call was a short section of the Sudschleife. This oft-forgotten 4.7-mile loop of the Nürburgring opened in 1927 but fell into disuse in the early 1970s. Much of its north-eastern corner was lost when the current Grand Prix circuit was built the following decade. The outward leg, which dropped sharply from the start/finish area towards the village of Müllenbach, has now been turned into public highway, albeit with some of the corners eased. Simons tells how one of the old control posts still stands in the verge – the only reminder of the road’s former life.

The section on which we stopped (above) is a steep rise near the end of the lap – in the course of the return leg from Müllenbach, the course climbs almost 150 metres. Here, the track has simply been abandoned, the saplings that would have lined the circuit having grown into trees. I’ve yet to work out exactly why I have such a fascination with disused circuits, but I could have stood on this spot for ages, visualising the cars coming through.

We moved on to the Nordschleife itself, stopping at Hatzenbach, Breidscheid and Brünnchen, Simons explaining a little of the history to do with those sections and the best ways to drive them. At the last two, we were by no means the only spectators. 

“When you’re driving on the circuit,” said Simons with a smile, “take it easy when you see people watching. They gather at the places where accidents are most common.”

When we hit the track that afternoon, we had a choice of two types of Renault – Clio Cups or Megane R26.Rs. I went for the smaller model for my first quick laps of the Nordschleife, reasoning that it was fast enough to be fun, but not so much so that I risked crashing it.

It turned out to be perfect, and the fact that we were on a private track day rather than a public free-for-all helped. We didn’t have to negotiate coaches or look out for suicidal bikers. Six or seven laps was plenty, and the Clio proved easily capable of lapping in under 10 minutes, even if it struggled slightly on the long uphill section from Bergwerk to the Karussell (see the video here).

At the end of the afternoon, I climbed in alongside Ben Guynan – C&SC Advertising Director, Nordschleife veteran and the man who organised the whole trip – as he embarked on a lap in his own Honda Integra. He was quick and smooth – almost breaking the nine-minute barrier – and I learnt a lot more about how best to tackle the place.  

That evening, we swapped stories over the famous ‘steak on a stone’ at the Pistenklause restaurant in Nurburg, at one point wondering aloud whether Simons could have lapped the Nordschleife in less than 10 minutes in a Ford Transit. You might remember that Top Gear challenged Sabine Schmitz – with whom RSR has recently linked up – to do just that, only for her to narrowly fail. 

Ever the competitive racer, Simons shrugged while thinking it over: “I’m quite quick in a van...”

From the Nürburgring, we travelled to Spa in a convoy of RSR cars, including Lotus Exiges alongside the Renaults. Visiting the old road circuit that branches out from the modernised home of the Belgian Grand Prix is always a treat, and Simons gave us a quick tour of that, too.

Turn off the E42 at Malmedy and head for Francorchamps, and almost immediately you are on the old circuit (above). Our first view of it was while tackling it the ‘wrong way’, heading for the current pits via the long Burnenville curve and up to Haut de la Cote. 

Many commentators mourned the loss of Spa to Formula 1 in 1970 but, when you look at the track from the perspective of modern safety standards, the wonder is that the place lasted that long.

We paused to look back down the narrow two-lane road, taking in the gradient leading to Burnenville, where the cars used to flash between houses (above), a steep drop to the inside. 

Later, after an evening session around the current track that included an eye-opening lap alongside Ron in a Lotus 2-Eleven, our return trip took us back on to the original road circuit – this time heading in the correct direction. We convoy along the Masta Straight, through the fearsome Kink – on the approach to which Derek Bell used to reach 217mph in a Porsche 917 – and down to the uphill right-hander at Stavelot (below). 

It is sobering to remember that the lap record for this incarnation of Spa was set by Henri Pescarolo during the 1973 1000km sports-car race. The Frenchman swept around the 8.7-mile layout in 3 mins 13.4 secs – an average of 163mph… 

While the track time with RSR – especially at the Nordschleife, to which I can’t wait to return – was a highlight, the ‘tours’ of both venues with Ron were, for me, almost as much of a thrill. Despite the failed attempts to turn the ’Ring into some sort of theme park, which has put the circuit into a perilous financial state, it is still a wonderfully evocative place. The old Spa, meanwhile, is as majestic a track as you will see. If you get the chance to visit either (or both), I urge you to take it.

See the video of James Page's adventure here.

Thanks to Konstantinos Sidiras at RSR