Soaking up the atmosphere at the 'Ring

| 9 Nov 2012

The last time I went round the Nürburgring, I was in a Citroën Visa diesel and Dad was driving. It was 20-odd years ago and we were on a family holiday, the route for which took us conveniently close to the 'Ring and Spa.

So while my long-suffering Mum waited in the pits, off we went for two laps. The Visa was fine on the downhill bits, less good going uphill. This was before the circuit was turned into a track-day theme park – complete with rollercoaster – known to all and sundry as a bumper sticker on hot saloons.

Despite that, I defy anyone to approach the track and not find their heart beating a little faster. On my recent return visit, we arrived just as it was getting dark, but the roadsigns point towards evocative places such as Adenau and Hohe Acht. Every now and then, you get a glimpse of track between the trees.

The reason for the trip was to celebrate 40 years of BMW's Motorsport division, and there would be the chance to drive some of the best M-cars around the Nordschleife itself.

However much footage you see from this place, nothing prepares you for the elevation changes. The plunge down into the Hatzenbach section that begins the lap is a real eye-opener, as is the drop into the 'Foxhole', the climb from Breidscheid and the famous jump at Pflanzgarten.

And then there are the blind crests, the camber changes and the complete lack of run-off areas. The thought of going round here in a mid-1970s Formula 1 car or a Porsche 956 (look up Derek Bell's lap on-line) is mind-boggling.

The first lap I drove was in a V8-engined M5. In the wet. It was foggy, too. Although we were in a relatively slow convoy, I still had a couple of 'moments'. Earlier in the day, two M3s had gone off the road. The 'Ring can – and frequently does – bite back. Those who truly know the place have a name for people who arrive full of confidence having spent an unhealthy amount of time practising on computer games: PlayStation Professionals. The internet is awash with videos of how quickly they can come unstuck.

It was therefore with a certain degree of trepidation that I embarked on a few tours in the M1 (great engine, hugely offset driving position), 3.0 CSL (wonderful), E39 M5 (stonking in a straight line, interesting in the wet), E28 M5 (the one that I'd take home) and some modern incarnations that kept me out of the barriers with all sorts of electronic wizardry. Even at relatively slow speeds, it was a treat just to be on the Nordschleife.

I was later reminded of the gap between us mere mortals and professional racers during a series of passenger laps on the new Grand Prix circuit. Having announced that he'd never driven the latest M5 before, Andy Priaulx proceeded to throw it around at some ridiculous angles, laughing and chatting as he did so. Having attempted drifting earlier in the day and met with limited success, I thought it highly unfair that he should make it look so easy...

Other drivers present included Pierluigi Martini, who won at Le Mans for the marque in 1999. Somewhere, I've got a photograph of me as a 13-year old alongside his Minardi in the pitlane at the 1990 Belgian Grand Prix, so it was a thrill to meet this charming Italian and watch him enthusiastically demonstrate his old sports-prototype.

Former F1 driver Chris Amon – a purist if ever there was one – has said that the ’Ring was ruined in 1970, when the hedges bordering the road were cut back, Armco installed and some of the bigger jumps eased. For my part, I'm still not sure that people should be allowed to deface this Grand Old Lady with graffiti. Either way, this remains a majestic place. Drop in when it's not teeming with track-day heroes and soak up the atmosphere.

Watch the video of James Page's BMW Motorsport experience at the 'Ring here.