Breidscheid Revisited - September 2005 Trip

The photos aren't mine - they are either from Stephan's site or Tony's. I pretty much stuck them in at random; you're not getting any Ben Lovejoy picture-of-the-egg-I-had-for-breakfast journalistic style here.

Well, it was finally time. I decided I was going to take the bike to the ring. I'd been to the Suzuki Performance Riding School at Mallory Park, and enjoyed it much more than I expected, so it seemed as good a time as any to get the bike on the ring. I thought I'd bumble around slowly and just see how it looked from a bikey angle.

One thing was certain though, and that was that I was not riding it across. It just so happens that my father has a bike trailer, and so my brother (Tony) agreed to bring my brother (Keith)'s bike down from Edinburgh and then pick up mine and carry on through to Germany. It's a three-bike trailer, so it meant we had space for another - I managed to persuade a mountaineering chum of mine (Neville) that the Nürburgring was calling his brand new Fireblade. We booked ferries and rooms in Zur Burg. We normally stay in Adenau but, well, you know what they say about variety.

Anyone who saw me in May (or September last year) will probably recall me grumbling about the brakes on the Impreza. It's an early turbo estate, and has reasonably soggy suspension for an Impreza (which I can live with really) and fairly crap brakes. Well, they're not really any worse than a same-era Mondeo, but they aren't much good on the Nürburgring. They're not brilliant at the best of times, and fade part-way into a lap - last year I ended up driving somewhat sedately up Kesselchen in order to let them cool off a bit.

Well, I got in touch with Power Engineering - mainly because they were the favoured haunt of Paul Strong, who seems to have vanished lately. Yes, they said, the brakes were a bit crap on the early non-STi cars. I explained that I was a seasoned Nürburgringer and that for someone who could pilot a car as lightning fast as I could, money was no object when it came to bringing the car back from the ragged edge. Ahah, well sir, in that case they'd be delighted to fit me the later four-pot brakes, which would provide just the braking a man of my calibre required. For a measly 800 quid. "Oh" I squeaked, and I could hear him putting away the "seasoned Nürburgringer" catalogue and opening the "Southend Cruise" one. "Or perhaps you'd prefer just to get drilled vented discs and EBC green stuff pads, sir, for two hundred and fifty?" I explained to him that that was probably the best idea as, thinking about it, my driving was actually so good I pretty much maintained the car's maximum speed around the whole circuit and so only had to brake at the end. He seemed to understand.

New discs and pads on, I drove about 200 mostly London miles with them without really pressing them much, but they seemed to be fine. I had another 400 miles across Europe in order to get to the ring, which I thought all this should be plenty much to bed them in a bit.

After the superb trip we had in May (which I couldn't be bothered writing up) I'd pretty much decided that turning up for weekends with Touristfahren on both days wasn't the best plan, as it attracted all the Brits. Far better one empty day on track than two full ones. Well, I booked this trip early in the year when the calendar was showing the track open Saturday evening and Sunday all day, which seemed plenty to me. It was open on Monday afternoon, so we could travel Saturday->Tuesday and hopefully it wouldn't be too busy. On the trip across we used some cheap two-way radios I bought from Argos (which I notice have been reduced by a tenner now, a week after I bought the bloody things). This worked jolly well - they ended up having a range of around 1-2km between cars, which proved fine most of the time. They actually turned out to be handy at the circuit too, both for warning people to get ready to take photographs, and for finding each other in the car park.

Where was I. Oh yes. Once we'd all agreed on which weekend we were going, the opening times changed. All of a sudden it became a classic Friday evening/Saturday afternoon/all day Sunday weekend. We decided then that we'd travel on the traditional Friday->Monday, and just face the crowds. And crowds there were. Not the worst I've seen, and sadly fairly representative of full weekends of late.

We got there at about 4:30 on Friday - we would have been slightly earlier had Mr Potts not lost his camera on the ferry and had to leave as a foot passenger after recovering it (the foot passengers actually go in a bus, which we had to follow around the ferry port). The track was busy but not obscene; against his will I managed to persuade Neville that a lap as a passenger in the car was not such a bad plan before going out on the bike, and a few of us trooped out for a fairly sedate one, followed by David (Potts) in his attractive borrowed Ford Fiesta. There was a good bit of traffic and as usual I wasn't very speedy (first lap too). Coming over the bit at the top of Fuchsrohre that got new tarmac last year, I heard a familiar "cladunk" and noticed at 100mph that my bonnet had popped up on the catch and was sitting there wobbling in an alarming fashion. I was mighty unkeen not to stop and so slowed down as much as I could before pulling in at Breidscheid. It was whilst closing the bonnet that I noticed the smell my brakes were making, which was extremely unpleasant. As we carried on around the back end of the circuit, the brakes got worse and worse. Not only were they fading much worse than they ever had before, the smell of burnt brake was almost oppressive. Had they given me some sort of pads that you couldn't use with drilled discs? Were they fitted wrong?

Having done a lap in the car, Neville seemed to have lost a lot of the enthusiasm he had for going out immediately on the Fireblade. He seemed to have decided that it was a much better plan to wander around the car park mumbling things about nutters.

I was somewhat dismayed - I had perfectly serviceable brakes before, and I'd replaced them with some that didn't work properly. I had a horrible vision of myself having to drive around Germany trying to find someone willing to change Subaru brakes on a Saturday, and it didn't appeal. I did a couple more laps (being very ginger on the brakes) and the smell seemed to have stopped a bit, but I wasn't sure. Brakes are the last thing you want not to trust.

Too many drinks on Friday evening. Well, just the right amount really, given that we didn't have to get up on Saturday. We ended up upstairs in the PK, which now has to be the most popular drinks venue in Nürburg by a long shot.

On Saturday the traffic looked pretty bad, but I was determined to get a few laps in, as was my brother Tony (I'd put him on my insurance). Conscious of the fact that I ought to be getting better each time I went, which I don't think has been happening recently, I had a few lines I fancied improving. I read a few books recently about driving and thought I'd see if they made a difference to my hapless abilities at all. The classic The Technique of Motor Racing, written by a compatriot of Fangio, is a must. He writes very simply about the dynamics of driving, and what he wrote in the 1950s holds true for the most part today. It's worth reading just to see the advice that you should brace one leg against the bulkhead so that you don't fall out going around corners. Bob Bondurant on High Performance Driving is a similarly straightforward book but geared a little more towards modern cars (it includes front wheel drive ones, for example). If you ignore the "because you've never heard of me, here are some dead famous things I've done" nonsense at the beginning and the occasional advertisements for his race school, it's a good common-sense book on car control. A Twist of The Wrist is actually a bike book but a lot of what Keith Code (another race school owner) says is equally true for cars. He talks a great deal about distribution of weight and some of his tips ("don't put any weight on the handlebars"; "roll the throttle on starting early in corners" and others) have made a real difference to my riding.

One thing I picked up from reading all these books was how important the exits of corners are. We all know, of course, that it's much more important to come out of a corner fast than it is to go into it fast - but what I hadn't really twigged was what this means in practice. For example, I hadn't realised that because of the acceleration/braking disparity, the apex of an even-radius corner going clockwise is actually in a different place to the apex of the same corner taken anti-clockwise. The only real way to tell whether you've taken a corner properly is to see whether (a) you crossed the apex and (b) you needed all of the road on the exit. Well, like anyone else I was of course using all of the road on the exit, but what you should really be doing is starting to run out of road on the exit. It was here that I realised I was miles off - all over the place there were corners where I'd zoom in under braking, screech about a bit in the middle and then drive over all of the road at the exit, but I didn't actually need it. If you don't need all of the tarmac at the exit, you're not fast enough out. Obviously there are exceptions to this where the sacrifice on prior or future corners would be too great to allow exactly the right line on the current one, but in general this rule holds.

I was quite convinced that this piece of information was going to make me the fastest person on the Nürburgring* and so I set about putting some of it into practise. For anyone interested, here are some pieces of wisdom I gleaned on this visit (mostly in a "can go faster out" vein as above):

  • Kalenhard - I don't think I'd been taking this quickly enough since I crashed there. You can actually get on the power quite soon after the turn-in and, even though the camber is against you on the exit, there's quite a lot of road. And some nice shiny armco I've paid for, though I imagine others have paid for yet more in the years following.
  • Breidscheid - for a long time I was turning quite early for this, but I think it's a mistake. The graffiti now incorporates an orange/yellow line across the track - I'm beginning to think that the turn-in point is actually about here. Although the road drops away from you a little (and the skid marks driving straight into the solid-looking bridge wall put you off somewhat), you can keep the power on even before apexing and you will just drift over to the right nicely. You still have plenty of time to get back left before Ex-Muhle, so no real reason not to use all of the road. I still lift for Ex-Muhle, due to my normal-sized testicles.
  • Steilstrecke-Curve - I've pondered for years about this and finally found a line that is at least not a complete mess. If you drive quite deep into the corner, you can turn sharply across, apex it early and just keep your foot down. There is a lot of road on the exit and (with a spot of squeaking) you can actually use plenty of it. You end up on the left in a not unreasonable position to start aiming for "that tree".
  • Galgenkopf - Again this was formerly one of my least-favourite corners. I know it's a double-apex and I know the "head for the 186 sign" routine, but once I got to the 186 I was never sure what to do. Well, this time I've been heading for the 186 on the left and then turning in and just accelerating as soon as I reach it. The track cambers back at you and the tarmac is very grippy there - it's amazing the speed you can get up to before coming out onto the straight. This is particularly handy if you have novice passengers, as even if the rest of the lap was a dog's breakfast they'll come onto the straight thinking "blimey, that was a bit quick".
  • Wipperman - It always amuses me to drive over the Wipperman "S" in the wet. Whilst the line is generally clear on the rest of the circuit, people have clearly driven over Wipperman in about a million different ways. I tried some other ideas (turning late; crossing the first left-hand set of curbing quite late) this time but I think it's even worse. Someone please tell me how to drive over this damned thing.
On the Saturday we had lunch up by the castle - Nev's "Schnitzel mit Köm" fairly put a fire in him and he and Keith mustered the courage to take the bikes out. Keith did one lap and then decided he wasn't doing any more (though he did spend the whole of Sunday wandering around the car park in leathers) - Nev leapt off the bike, announced that it was more dangerous than climbing, clapped his hands and leapt back on again. He had cheerfully mentioned in the PK on Friday night (before he decided he was so tired and emotional that he had to go to bed immediately) that I was welcome to a shot on his bike at some juncture. As we all trundled to the cash machine up at the F1 circuit, I swooped. "Hey", said I, right as he was putting his card in the machine, "how about you take my car back to the hotel and I'll take your bike!". "What?" said Nev, but I didn't hear him too well as I had managed to get his crash helmet on. It's a 2005 Fireblade... I don't know much about bikes really (and Ross told me it was crap, as it was a Honda) but it seemed very pleasant to me. Much lighter-feeling than I'd expected, and what ridiculously tractable power. I started off in fourth once by mistake. The whole thing felt much stiffer than my SV650S "sewing machine" (thanks Nev) with a "gay bikini fairing" (thanks Tony), and the lack of dip under braking certainly inspired confidence. Also I noticed that after riding it for only ten minutes, my penis had grown by a full three inches, and I became pretty much immune to any insults. I think I've worked out why Nev just sits in the corner looking smug all the time.

We all went to Bruunchen and spectated for a while after one of the closures on Saturday afternoon. Somehow, Keith and David got lost between the Bruunchen 1 car park and Bruunchen 2, having inexplicably walked underneath the track in order to get there.

Later on, the queues to get off the track were getting fairly long - I'd say we waited 15-20 minutes a couple of times. I think this queue is almost completely because of people who come straight off the track and want to park in the two main car parks, which are almost inevitably full of people posing, standing around, or parking cars/bikes in the most ridiculous places. We took to parking further up the road into Nürburg or in the field on the other side - this at least allows people to get off the track when they're finished. It's not so bad for us in our family saloon cars (though you can't get Radio Four in Germany), but it's a complete pain if you're sitting in the queue in an oven with a metal plate clutch.

More beers Saturday night - we couldn't even get into the PK upstairs so we went to the Lindenhof (somewhere I haven't been for a while) and had a jolly nice dinner there along with several "man beers" and a few "lady beers", which appeared to be the local lingo for pint and half-pint near-equivalents.

On Sunday, Luke was up bright and early sneaking a few laps in in the old 911; by the time I got out of bed the circuit shut almost immediately, perhaps in anticipation. I managed to get a few laps in - the track was quite busy but not all that bad. Loads of accidents - there seemed to be a gaggle of people from something called (if you click on it and it's filth then don't blame me, as I haven't) driving around slowly and crashing into things. Loads of bikes too, even in the sporadic bouts of rain.

My brother Tony drove around - I think it's the first time I've passengered in my own car and it was his first time on the circuit, but the whole business proved much more pleasant than I was worried it might. He's a good fast driver, so we were keeping out of the traffic much more than on most people's first laps. After Dave accused me of telling Tony to slow down far too often, I took to telling him to speed up instead, until he drove on the grass. He'd played a bit on GT4 - the worst thing about learning the circuit on that game is that you've no idea what the bend names are because the signs are just far too small. It means you can't really talk about lines very much, even if you know where the thing goes.

I had a passenger lap with Luke in the 911 - was really quite a hoot. When you drive a Japanese 4WD it's a cracking lark to get back into a proper old sports car. You can just tell that all the hisses, thumps and bangs are all coming from Important Driving Bits, rather than the CD player or more bits of plastic trim falling off (two this weekend for me; one still unidentified). It's quite a pleasant honour to sit with someone who knows very well how to drive their particular car and just tell them where the track goes. I would shout "ok, flat out here" and would turn around and see Luke grappling desperately with the steering wheel and hear him saying through his teeth "I don't think so".

To continue my passenger-lap-o-rama, I hopped in with Dave in the borrowed Fiesta. I thought the car wasn't at all bad actually, though he informed me afterwards that it was understeering a lot more than I thought it was. The last time he drove the circuit he had an E30 M3 so I'm not sure he was overly impressed, but as lines went he was much better and the whole thing felt a lot more fluid. There was a ton of traffic on the lap I was in for, which was a pity. Dave finished off the trip with a flourish by coming off the track and reversing into a "no parking" sign, and then completely losing his car and causing us to drive around Nürburg looking for it.

Coming back to the track after filling up with fuel, I bumped into Nev. He'd met some bike-minded people in the car park and I hadn't seen him for most of the day, but now he was standing on the roundabout looking a bit subdued. He grunted some sort of greeting and then after a bit of careful prodding revealed that he'd asked one of his new biker mates to show him the lines around. He'd followed the chap around at rocketship pace, leaning the bike at seemingly impossible angles as he flew around the track. Upon reaching the car park again he'd asked for some sort of expert assessment of his performance, and been told "you could have pedalled around faster than that". I understand this excluded him from standing talking to his new biker chums, and he was now having to go back and talk to his gay car friends.

Track highlight of the weekend for me has to be catching a stripped Vauxhall Nova around Hatzenbach and then chasing him all the way around the circuit until eventually we squeezed past coming out of Pflanzgarten 3. It's superb fun when you find someone who's going at a similar pace to you but isn't going to drive like a moron in order to stop you getting past, or try and pass you at the most ridiculous places. Lovely spirited run all around, spoiled slightly by the fact that we got in some unpleasant traffic coming into Schwalbenschwanz. The two of us (me in front) were going at almost the exact same pace, but in front were two slower cars (Golf/Audi estate if I recall correctly), one trying to pass the other and up behind us was coming the Playstation-style Supra (friend of Ross' - sorry, I forgot the chap's name). The Nova and Supra had a spot of confusion about exactly who was passing who, and in the meantime the Audi and the Golf collided very gently coming through Schwalbenschwanz. From the angle I was at I couldn't really tell whose fault it was, but they were both pretty grumpy when they came up to the queue at the end. Had a brief chat with the Nova driver, who turned out to be from and claimed to have a video of me on three wheels. He then ruined my afternoon by telling me that the engine was a bog-standard 1.6 that he'd bought for £75, and then made me grumpier still later on by opening the bonnet in the car park and showing me the thing.

All in all, a great weekend, as much for the evenings as the days. I'm still keen on the idea of going when there's only one TF day on the weekend, so I think the trip next year will be more that format. Oh, and if Ecurie Europe will have me again, I might shimmy back and pit-bitch at another race.

Strangely my todger has managed to retain its Fireblade Extension, despite my never having ridden it on the track at all. If I have another go on it, I'll have to buy special trousers.


* in a toothpaste-coloured estate car with a roof rack