In the distance all I can make out is a sea of green trees. The horizon tapers on a gradient into the unknown. Somewhere beyond, out of sight, lurking in the mist lays the Nordschleife.
As I drive my mind wanders, drawing analogous thoughts to the time of the Romans. In the distance there is a place where men do battle. That battle can take many forms, but it’s gladiatorial in its nature. A pure and genuine pursuit.
Going to the Ring is a pilgrimage. An action which defines men, and women. Those who are drawn to it are often deceived. Its inherent beauty belies its fearsome undertones. Its harsh, it’s hard and it’s totally unforgiving. Jackie Stewart’s now clichéd remark, describing the Nordschleife as ‘green hell’ still retains its potency despite modern advancements in safety. Give respect and thou shalt be rewarded! If not, then be prepared to be punished….
Now enough of the slightly biblical ranting, Jesus (no pun intended), what a trip! We have had it all this year. Bangs bumps and flat out lunacy to boot. We had two cars this year and building on last year’s success we thought we would offer the chance to not only experience the Ring in the hands of the Nordschleife lap record holder Michael Vergers, we would also be giving people the chance to drive it for themselves under the watchful eye of none other than Anthony Dunn, the British Radical champion (amongst other things). Anthony has raced in the Nurburgring 24hr race in a Caterham (I can’t think of anything scarier!) and as I write this and having just done a car control day in just such a car, I am further filled for admiration for this guy. Racing the Nordschleife in a Caterham or taking good taxpaying folk around the Ring whilst they have control of the wheel in the fastest track machine money can buy, surely competes for its own trophy of lunacy!
I wasn’t short on comments from fellow motorsport enthusiast friends and one or two more respected individuals actually in the business of motorsport, telling me that I must be mad to let people drive our Radical around ‘that’ track. That said, and the inevitable feeling that is surely inherent of doing such a thing, I wasn’t so worried. Unique Track Days, whilst still a relatively new venture for me, I now have sufficient experience not to chew my face off with worry every time the car exits the pits. Anthony is an integral part of our experience because he sits next to the clients and to a large extent controls the experience they have, and mine. He coaches the client round the track, pushing them to their own limits whilst making sure the car and client come back in one piece and maintaining the best possible margins of safety. It’s a very delicate balance to strike! I have come to trust Anthony and without him I would be a lot more unstable! My hobby is climbing mountains, ice falls and other vertical like structures, yet I genuinely take my hat off to Anthony, Michael and our other instructor/driver Brad Ellis for what they do. They make possible for us mere mortals, dreams to be realised. Gents I am humbled to know you, thank you!
The weather gods were kind and gave us a dry day. Thank you! Driving to the circuit and turning left at the roundabout which directly leads to the Nordschleife, we gazed out to see the most beautiful sun rise unfolding.
It was a magical moment. I took it as a good omen, yet a pang of nervousness rattled in my stomach.
We arrived and parked the trailer, then set about erecting our base camp in the car park which would serve as our HQ for the day. I felt privileged to be at this event. In the same vein that Anthony and Michael put it on the line for clients in our Radical SR3 RS, a man named Darren Langeveld who runs Destination Nurburgring actually orchestrates this whole ordeal. He is wholly responsible for giving access to the circuit and co-ordinating the whole event. It’s not a job I would relish. We are all indebted to Darren for having the balls to put on such an event and entrust us all, on a truly remarkable day of epic proportions. Thanks Darren!
Our first client with Michael for the inaugural hot lap of the trip was Norman. Not a stranger to Unique Track Days, having already had hot laps at Silverstone. He is the nephew of Sean whom was at the Ring with us last year. We love clients like this! People who are genuinely enthusiastic about motorsport. So much so, that they are prepared to drive 9 hours to Germany to experience a very special event such as this one. Many who read this blog will simply not understand just how special being driven around the Nordschleife by the lap record holder for seven years, in the same make of car that he drove setting that record, is. To bring forth some clarity for such readers allow me to give you an insight. It’s like skydiving out of a plane in terms of adrenaline. It’s like a roller coaster of unimaginable proportions, yet there is someone doing the steering and you’re not actually attached to a rail. Have a look at the video:
Try and put yourself in this space for a few seconds and imagine what it’s like. Now multiply that by ten because you’re not actually sat there, and this might give you an inkling into what it’s like. Its fast, brutal and darn right nuts, and it doesn’t get any better!!!
The day ran smoothly enough. Despite being behind schedule due to a variety of reasons which are always inherent in motor sport (you always have to flexib
le in this game) the day was a great success and we had a mass of ecstatic clients whom will no doubt have uploaded their experiences onto YouTube by now.
I think the highlight of this day (for me at least) was watching the footage back from one of our clients who flew in, all the way from the U.S.A. Chuck contacted me back in March and wanted to know what the deal was. We spoke plenty on the phone and he bought into the whole idea, but seemed reserved and cagy when it came to sorting out payment. He was worried that is was a scam! J. We took a deposit and he seemed happy. I found it highly amusing that when we finally met at the hotel the day before, how he expressed his relief that we were actually real people and he hadn’t been scammed. Bless him!!!!
Chuck had bought in to the whole deal. Drive the ring, hot lap with Verge and onto Spa for more driving. He was a really genuine guy and it was a pleasure to spend time with him over the two days. I like to involve all our clients in the whole trip so we always encourage them to join us for the social aspects in the evenings as well. To be honest this is the part I enjoy the most. Meeting new people and getting to know them, and then scaring the crap out of them!
As the day drew to a close it was time to start thinking about Spa Francorchamps in Belgium. Pack up, put up and start driving, yet again!
We arrived that night at Spa and one of our racing academy students Alex had brilliantly (and thoughtfully) organised us a super parking slot right opposite the hotel. When you are towing a 28ft trailer with two Radicals and gear in it, you don’t quite understand how much of a god send this is/was in the busy town centre of Spa itself.
Our team and clients all met in the bar for beer, food and to exchange stories ahead of the mighty Spa the following day. It was a great night! Nothing too wild, but stories were told and experiences shared. I love that we had ourselves, our clients and our drivers/instructors all as one group chatting. Obviously, Anthony and Michael have a few more stories than most of us and we spent the most part of the evening listening to them regale us with some outrageous stories. Some hilarious, some more serious.
Everyone quickly realises, that whilst we might look at these guys as ‘super heros’ because they drive cars at mental speed, deep down they are no different from us all. The group gelled and the night was filled with constant giggles and laughter.
The following morning we set off from the hotel and headed for the circuit, Spa Francorchamps. ‘It’s the bloody Belgium grand prix circuit’, I thought to myself. What will Au Rouge be like? Is it flat out? My mind was a flurry of wild thoughts.
Just getting into the circuit was a mission. The sat nav kindly informed me that we had reached our destination, but Arran our race engineer carried on, so we followed. A further ten minutes later we finally entered the circuit through some back lane entrance which apparently is the only way into the circuit for anything other than a car due to height restrictions. It was like being in the film Labyrinth with David Bowe, and I was sincerely hoping not to come across the ‘bog of eternal stench’!
As we drove in we passed the F1 paddock. It was strewn with litter and looked a mess. I was less impressed when we arrive at these little garages which reminded me of Brands Hatch. This was not what I was expecting! The garages were parochial at best and barely fit in a single car, a tool box and an engineer. Yet 200 yards away you could accelerate onto one of the world’s most amazing circuits ever.
We unloaded the cars in what can only be described as cramped conditions. We unloaded the ‘Dark Knight’ only to find the battery dead when we tried to start it. The ‘Dark Knight’ is the affectionate nickname we have given our new Radical, owing to its carbon fibre vinyl wrap which, and I quote ‘is the best looking Radical to ever leave the factory’ (Radical employee). We soon breathed life into her and she purred like a wild cat ready to stalk its prey.
It was cold and the track was slightly damp. I stood on the pit lane looking at the mighty Au Rouge corner as it reached up, skywards. When you watch the F1 cars going through this section, it simply does not do it justice as to the elevation gain and severity of incline. I doubt there is anything else like it on any other circuit in the world. Maybe Laguna Seca, dropping through its cork screw sections could compare. Either way, I looked on with a flutter of emotion. Awe, doubt, excitement and probably a little worry in there somewhere……
We had a busy day ahead. Our clients arrived having been briefed and the garage was buzzing with excitement. As our first two clients left the garage and climbed up the incredibly steep approach to the circuit, I watch with a degree of jealousy, hoping the day would go smooth enough to allow myself to get out and experience this amazing circuit.
Our clients returned and we captured the smiles I love to see, and that make everything worthwhile for me. My focus then turned to Alex. Alex is a super chilled, laid back guy from the USA. This was his 5th day with us this year and he had a full day the following day to boot. He is a keen racing enthusiast and has ambitions to race in the Le Mans 24hr. Alex has come on leaps and bounds since his first day with us at Donington earlier this year. Things were busy and I was juggling clients and trying to get timings just right. Alex was like ‘hey man, I’m cool, if you have other people you need to get out then just do it’. I firmly reminded him that he had paid us also and that I wanted him out on track immediately as we expected great things from him.
Alex is a dream client. I trust him, having watched his footage and discussed his progress with Anthony. I would gladly let him take one of our cars out on his own, not something we offer to just anyone. He is a smooth a gracious driver, and quick! All the attributes we like! He went on to take Au Rouge flat out that day which is credit to both him, and Anthony (who was sat alongside him at the time).
Forgive me now for being a narcissist, but I want to talk about me for a moment. Yes the day did run smoothly enough and I got to tick off one from the bucket list. As Anthony was busy with Alex, Michael Vergers was going to be my victim, or so I thought. As it turned out, the only victim was me!
I knew the circuit vaguely from a few laps on a simulator. It helped, marginally. I had 45 minutes in the car with Verge and it was probably the most intense experience of my life. Michael pushed me every step of the way. There was no messing around. His tone of voice was serious. I felt like a school boy getting grilled by the head master. It scared me, excited me and pushed me a long way out of my comfort zone, something I relish as a climber. None the less, the exhilaration didn’t come until we turned into the pit lane and I realised it was over. It was a retrospective enjoyment, as are nearly all my climbs. As I turned in to the pits, my face exploded with a gynormous grin. My brain was working over time, playing catch up to what had just happened. It was an amazing feeling, one that is difficult to put into words. Spa, Michael Vergers, a Radical SR3 RS…..just mind blowing. I felt amazingly privileged to have just had the experience.
Day 2, Spa:
Today was a little less hectic in terms of bookings. Chris from Circuit Days had kindly allowed me to do our pitch during the briefing to inform all and sundry that we were on track and had availability. I am no public speaker but managed to get out the general idea.
We had several clients on the day that came along for our experience, but one stood out. A slender middle aged lady approached me in the garage and said she wanted a high speed passenger ride and what would it cost. On divulging that it would be £175 for 4 laps, she gasped and exclaimed that she only wanted one lap. I explained we didn’t do just a single lap usually as there is quite a large overhead on sending out a client. We have to get them to sign forms, fit their helmet, organise video, not to mention getting them in and out of the car which is no walk in the park. She began to haggle so I agreed I would do a 2 lap session for her and that the price she was paying was almost comparable to the charge we usually levy for just the video. She then proclaimed she didn’t want the video and asked if I could do it at a further discount. You can imagine what went through my head at this point. I calmly said to her that she was getting an amazing deal, and that I promised her that when she got out of the car, she would not be disappointed. The final straw came when she gave me the amount I had asked for, in Euro’s. I said ‘no love, it was talking in pounds’. She gave me a strange look and I was about ready to tell her to **** off. We agreed at yet another slightly lesser amount due to conversion rates and I fitted her with a helmet. As I pulled the belts tight around her, I walked around the car and mentioned to Anthony (who was driving) that he might consider ragging the living shit out of my car as I thought she would appreciate full value for money. J Anthony floored it before he had even got around the final exit cones to enter the track and I grinned from ear to ear. I thought ‘you want it, you got it!’.
As Anthony arrived back in the pit lane with our ‘hard up client’, I leant over into the cock pit to ask her what she thought. I vacant stare greeted me. Somewhere in there, I could almost feel the vibrations of her brain trying to process what had just happened. We got her out of the car and with a slight wobble we took off her helmet. She concurred that my comment about it being value for money was genuine and I giggled to myself and she tried to convey her experience to the people around her. I recognise this easily now, having had the same experience myself. It’s incredibly frustrating to have an experience and not be able to share it with someone. I read that some of the men who went to the moon went mad purely for this reason. Getting in the Radical and being driven around any circuit is not something you can begin to describe to people who have not experienced it. The video helps, but you just have to do it to know what people are talking about. I have discussed this with nearly all of our clients and they all agree.
The whole trip finished perfectly. I got to drive another 25 minutes with Verge, and then just before they closed the circuit (like 30 seconds before) I left the pit lane with Michael Vergers at the wheel and me in the passenger seat. Holly shit springs to mind, amongst other expletives. As we left the pits and went down the first long straight, I gesticulated with my hand, moving it in a forward motion, imitating Michaels hand signals which he had given to me, which meant ‘keep going and don’t break yet’. I meant them as a piss take, then quickly realised that this would be red rag to a bull and began moving my hand laterally to indicate I was only joking. As we passed the usual point where I would break, continued on and then a bit more I genuinely screamed out loud. We had not had time to put the intercoms back in so Michael couldn’t hear a thing. We tore through the first chicane sections and as we went through the long right hand down hill hair pin I struggled to fathom who we were still on the black stuff. This continued and by the time we got to the bus stop chicane, I had managed to get a hold of my senses, barely.
As we turned the final right onto the pit straight, Michael and I both spotted a Lotus in the distance. His hand came off the steering wheel and jilted from side to side in an unsure motion. I knew from his teachings earlier that this meant they may or may not prevent us from going through Au Rouge flat out and that he would back off to a degree then flaw it. As he committed and the throttle went down, the engine screamed and we plunged into the compression at the base of Au Rouge. I could see we were going to catch the Lotus before we exited the blind left at the top. It was almost in slow motion. We crept closer and closer and I was expecting Michael to stomp on the anchors, ruining my ‘flat out’ experience of Au Rouge. Silly me! There is apparently a whole new section of track unbeknown to us mortals on the left and over and outside the curbs which can be used and so Michael, refusing to lift ripped past this Lotus, flat out. I screamed with excitement. My head filled with the thoughts of what the guy in the lotus must have thought as we appeared and disappeared just a quick.
The chequered flag was waved shortly after and it was a joy to have all the Marshalls come out onto the edge of the circuit and wave at you as you drove by. We waved back. I felt like and F1 driver having just finished a race. I was almost overcome with emotion and relished every second as we cruised the final lap, waving back to the Marshalls. A truly amazing trip and experience for all involved.
I would like to thank Liz, Anthony, Michael and Arran for all their efforts for making this happen. It was a privilege to work with you all. I would also like to thank all of our clients whom without this would not have happened. Alex, Gio, Barry and Dawn, Chuck and many more. It was a pleasure.
Until next year………