Top 5 Things to Know Before You Drive the Nürburgring

Welcome to the ‘Ring!

The Nürburgring racetrack in the Eifel region of Germany is perhaps one of, if not the most famous road courses in the world. A quick glance at the stats explains why: 12.9-miles long, 73 turns, around a 1,000 feet in elevation changes, and a straight-away that runs for more than a mile. It is known for being breathtakingly beautiful, awesomely technical, and extremely dangerous. For many car enthusiasts — and car manufacturers — this is the Mecca.

This past spring I was fortunate to spend five days at this incredible racetrack. While it was certainly one of the best weeks of my life so far, it was also potentially one of the most dangerous and humbling things I have ever done. From this experience I learned quite a lot about the track’s intricacies and hazards, many of which I wish I had known before my time on the ‘ring. As much as I would have liked to know these things, I could not have known them before driving the track, even after the extensive research I put into this experience. To try and help those who also wish to go, here’s a countdown of the top 5 things to know before you drive the ‘ring.

Nürburging tollway
Ready to drive fast? First you gotta pay. [photo: Michael Curtis]

5: The Nordschleife is a public toll road

During Touristenfahrten, or tourist sessions, the Nürburgring acts effectively as a public German toll road, which means, amazingly, that almost any vehicle is allowed to drive the track. Of course you see a plethora of Porsches and BMWs — plus motorcycles, coach buses, and cargo vans on the track at any given time.

Furthermore, new vehicles enter the track the whole time. Accordingly, the track can quite busy, which increases the chance of an accident, and also causes some very frustrating lines and wait times.

If you want to deal with fewer cars and a safer driving environment you have to go during a designated track session, which costs extra money. The toll-road nature of the tourist sessions also means that German road rules apply: no passing on the right, any car is allowed, and speed limits are enforced on certain parts of the track.

Ferrari Nürburgring chicane
Where supercars come to play. [photo: Michael Curtis]

4: Eighty percent of corners are blind

Part of what makes the track so dangerous is the fact that you can’t see the exit of the corner a vast majority of the time. Like a number of mountain roads, dense forest lines much of the course. And those trees make it difficult to see where the corners lead, unless you know the track extremely well. If you go into a corner too fast, and take the wrong line, it can be very easy to push out wide and end up in a barrier. The only way to get around this is simply by knowing the track, which almost every first-timer certainly doesn’t.

Nürburgring top speed
That’s 107 mph to you and me. [photo: Michael Curtis]

3: Yep, the track is extremely fast

The Nürburgring Nordschleife loops runs for roughly 13 miles, and lap times serves as performance benchmarks for manufacturers and enthusiasts. Most people who pay attention to Nürburgring lap times consider a 7 minute lap extremely fast. To do this a cars needs to average 110.5 mph.

Nobody doing their first lap is going to come close to that sort of time. The average time for a newcomer is somewhere in the 12 minute range depending on the car and the ability of the driver. And that works out to an average speed of 64.5 mph. That may seem incredibly slow compared to the record, but it sure doesn’t feel that way.

The sense of speed is intensified by the fact that the track is fairly narrow in many places — sometimes no more than two car widths. The dramatic elevation changes add to this sense as well: Drivers climb — and drop — more than 1,000 feet from the track’s highest point to its lowest. I’d spent hours driving the ‘Ring on a video game and was completely unprepared for how dramatically this track changes in elevation at certain points.

Nürburgring BMW crash
The bill to clean up his crash will likely cost more than the repair cost for his BMW. [photo: Michael Curtis]

2: The Cost of a Crashing Is Insane

Crashing on the track has been well documented thanks to YouTube. Everyone who drives it should know that the likelihood of a crash here is high. But, few realize just how much that crash can cost. It starts with the damage to your car and any cars you took out when you lost control. Obvious stuff, right?

Now here’s where it gets crazy. Metal safety barriers surround the track, and the cost to replace these barriers is €1,000 per 4-meter (13-foot) segment. Given how fast a person goes when they end up smashing into them, a 100-foot slide on the barriers is not completely out of question. That pencils out to upwards of €10,000 ($10,928).

But there’s more! Depending on the severity of the crash, your car may need a tow off the track, plus a environmental payment for any fluids your car may leak. Oh, and if the officials have to close the track to clean up the mess you just made, there goes even more money to cover their losses in ticket revenue. All these costs could turn a small fender bender on the guard rail into a bill that totals well north of $5,000.
So don’t crash, okay?

Porsche Nürburgring traffic
Sample of rush hour traffic on the ‘Ring. [photo: Michael Curtis]

1: Lap times mean nothing during a tourist session

Face it, the nature of the public sessions, traffic, road rules and the track layout render your lap time irrelevant. Due to other traffic, you are constantly forced to drive on a bad line, a.k.a. slower. Furthermore, these sessions don’t allow drivers to attempt the full Nordschleife. You drive what is called the ‘bridge-to-gantry’ segment, only 11.8 miles compared to the full 12.9 used for most lap records. So whatever time you set there cannot be realistically compared to any lap records.

While it was hard for me to digest this reality check after so many years of waiting for the chance to rip around the ‘Ring, I embraced the fact that it was better to just go out and enjoy the drive. This doesn’t mean I didn’t push myself.  But I left Germany with the knowledge that my track time wasn’t the best measure of my driving skill.

If you know that going in, you’ll have a blast.

Nürburgring dangerous curbs
Stay away from the curbs! [photo: Michael Curtis]

Bonus Tip: Watch Out for the Crazy High Curbs

The curbs’ heights — some nearly a foot high — on the ‘Ring shock many first-timers, myself included. Hit one and you upset the car’s balance, which can easily cause a crash (see Tip 2). My instructors told me that there are only four curbs among the track’s 73 corners that they will drive over. The other 69 can easily cause serious damage to a vehicle.

So now you know before you go. And if you’re lucky enough to drive a fast car just remember, be safe and have fun!