Boys’ Big Drive – Part 2 – Germany

If Spa is the daddy of continental road circuits then the Nürburgring Nordsliefe must be some kind of patriarchal overlord. Given the pair’s geographical proximity, we decided to head over for a wander round the day after the Grand Prix. Sadly a tourist lap was off the cards, with our delicate stead having another two thousand miles of motoring ahead of it, we took the decision that discretion was the better part of valour.

Unlike so many, I don’t specifically have a fascination with driving the mighty north loop myself. I first became aware of the place as a child when I developed an obsession with the flat-12 Ferraris and knew it as the place which almost took my hero Niki Lauda. Being a driver virtually bereft of all talent, my fascination with the circuit stems from the legend of the guys who have raced and won there: Nuvolari hammering the Silver Arrows in 1935; Jackie Stewart’s titanic 1968 win in the Matra with a broken wrist; Stefan Bellof’s famous outright circuit record in the 956 when Group C took its final bow at the track in 1983…

I’m happy to admit that the circuit is beyond my abilities but I love that it exists and was eager to see the place in person to try and gain a little understanding of a circuit which scared my heroes.

Heading from Spa over the border we found ourselves overtaking the McLaren team’s convoy of enormous camions en route and wondered whether Jenson’s race winning car was aboard, and whether it could win again a few days later at Monza. We took a cross-country route and discovered pleasing countryside with quaint villages and big vistas, a useful contrast to the monotony of Flanders from the previous week.

The Nürburgring has attracted considerable press recently after it was revealed to be heading for administration, with crippling debts. The place is very large, but over recent years has grown exponentially, with expensive efforts to draw year-round tourism to the area. To this end, around the pits for the Grand Prix circuit has sprung a huge new complex dedicated generally to the motorcar in its various forms. This includes a karting circuit, dramatic (but apparently out of operation) rollercoaster, museum, kids’ area and a boulevard of shops. Across the road, numerous motor manufacturers house permanent development facilities. There’s no lack of things to see or do.

Not overly blessed with time, we elected to do the guided tour but were left disappointed that the museum was closed. The tour takes you behind the scenes around the Grand Prix pit complex. It gives an interesting view of a modern F1 track – you stand on the podium high above the startline, see the room where the famous hat and watch man hands out his wares and take in the enormous media room. Best of all, you are accompanied up to a roof-top terrace six floors above the startline, offering a panoramic view of the entire Grand Prix circuit and the Nordsliefe as it arrives and departs at the top of the GP loop. It’s a privileged view and gives some idea of the sheer scale of the place, with Nürburg castle silently presiding over the entire area.

When it was opened in 1984, the new Grand Prix circuit was lambasted in some parts as a shadow of its illustrious neighbour. Maybe in the context of the time it was, but with the modern proliferation of so-called Tilke-dromes, the current GP loop is actually quite a pleasing circuit. Blessed with some natural topography and a decent blend of corners, it feels decidedly old school when compared to some. We enjoyed watching a disparate band of drivers tackling the circuit including a couple of Radicals and a Ginetta G50 lapping together in an open session.

As news of the circuit’s perilous financial situation filtered through recently, I was intrigued to gauge the success of all the new facilities. Perhaps an autumn Monday with no tourist laps ongoing is not the best time to judge but, based on what we saw, the dramatic new building works might be politely described as a white elephant. The enormous new retail boulevard was deserted; not just quiet but completely empty. There was no atmosphere and the whole place felt like a ghost town. They will need to sell an awful lot of Nürburgring bumper stickers to justify the place’s existence. And pity the retailers who have adopted franchises there – Aston Martin’s shop was clinical in its approach, but utterly bereft of customers.

Being brutal, the whole place looks like expensive folly. My personal feeling is that the developers badly misjudged things. What draws people to the Nürburgring in big numbers is its elemental nature. It exists without even paying lip service to modernity and the dreaded ‘elf and safety’. Barely upgraded since the major revisions completed in 1970, it’s a monument to days gone by and drivers love it for that. What the place does not need is to be Disneyfied out of all recognition. What happens from here is in the laps of the Gods – or at least the politicians. Let us hope the correct decisions are made and the two circuits are able to continue normal operations.

Having explored the Grand prix circuit and resisted buying a bumper sticker, we went off to see a little of the old track. There are numerous public viewing areas so we headed up to Brünnchen to see what all the fuss was about. We found a large group of Porsche 911s of various ages lapping with various degrees of commitment. GT3s proliferated and the pilots, for the most part, were really attacking. What was striking as a spectator was how long you could hear the cars for before you saw them. What preceded our spectating point was evidently an extremely fast part of the track. The drivers headed hard downhill towards us, crested a rise which caused a brief flare of revs before a distinct scrape as splitters grounded out in the compression before they were into a very fast uphill right hander and out of our sight. The quickest guys were absolutely flying and it made for entertaining viewing. With run-off at a minimum and that famous graffiti decorating the tarmac, it could be nowhere else and the place has a distinct atmosphere all of its own. Truth be told, it looks frightening and enticing all at once. I left quite wishing we’d been bolder and considered completing a tourist lap. That’ll have to wait for the next trip.

We left Nurburg and headed almost due south, bound for Sinsheim. It was a surprise to find several manufacturers using the local roads to test automotive prototypes, dressed in black and white camouflage wrap. Sadly we struggled to identify very much, but evidently it is more than just the use of the Nordsliefe which draws them to the area for vehicular development.

It proved to be fairly uneventful motoring down to Sinsheim and it was still light when we arrived at our hotel for the night. The only note-worthy sighting being the Hockenheimring, biennial home of the German Grand Prix; its main grandstand rising high above the autobahn as we passed. It was fairly tortuous passing without calling by but that’ll have to wait for another trip. We also took advantage of our first sections of derestricted autobahn. We didn’t record any particularly big speeds but the little Aston was happy cruising along 125mph all afternoon long. It made covering distances remarkably relaxed.

From our very brief observations, Sinsheim is a fairly nondescript German industrial town, but has become a major tourist hotspot off the back of housing the remarkable Auto & Technik Museum. The museum, and its twinned facility a few miles away in Speyer, holds a remarkable array of transport-themed exhibits. If your interests include cars, motocycles, tanks, planes and trains then Sinsheim will be akin to ascending into heaven.

Really, it’s hard to know where to start and which items in the collection are most meritorious. For us, the brace of supersonic passenger planes sited on the roof stole the show – an Air France Concorde sitting behind its Russian equivalent, the Tupolov TU-144; the Sinsheim ‘Concordski’ being the only example outside Russia. An enormous number of other planes are exhibited indoors and outdoors including Lockheed Starfighter, Messerschmitt ME109 and an eerie Stuka dive-bomber which had resided under water for many years.

In terms of cars, the most famous resident is probably Brutus, the pre-war behemoth powered by a BMW aero engine which has recently appeared on Top Gear, having earlier starred at the Cholmondeley Pageant of Power. Sadly Brutus was absent making an appearance but the museum is host to scores of other exciting automotive exhibits. Most fascinating is the Blue Flame. This pencil-thin rocket-powered contraption set the world’s Land Speed Record in 1970, driven by Gary Gabelich. To spend time in its company, it’s impossible not to marvel at the bravery and pioneering attitude of Gabelich and his LSR colleagues. The Blue Flame is stark in its simplicity and frightening in its potential.

Throughout the museum are hundreds of amazing exhibits, it simply isn’t possible to do justice to the collection in a few paragraphs. Suffice it to say, we were so overwhelmed that we had to sit down for a coffee half-way round to relax. It’s an Aladdin’s Cave of treasures. What is apparent is that there place has a sense of humour and looks great for kids. Some of the planes are fitted with slides so children climb steps into the planes then slide all the way back down and straight back into the museum. It’s interactive and fun, in spite of the sometimes geeky subject matter. Perfect for geeky big kids too.

From Sinsheim it was a decent drive down to Bavaria for the next leg of the trip and the next activity. This provided the finest autobahn driving of the three days we spent in Germany and, usefully, it coincided with one of my stints behind the wheel. We finally found some decent three-lane autobahn and were able to cruise for long stints at 120mph plus without impediment, though always aware of a weight of traffic in the nearside and middle lanes with the potential – and sometimes propensity – to change lanes without indicating. One useful section allowed a blast up to a steady 150mph which was rather more exhilarating than I might’ve expected. It seems the pressure of driving your dad’s pride and joy at more than twice the UK speed limit carries a burden of responsibility I hadn’t previously envisaged. Still, the car felt fantastic and pulled beautifully above 4,000rpm in top; exhaust valves open, comfortably on the cam and stable as a rock. I came away with total respect for its capabilities.

Bavaria seems to have a personality of its own; it felt like entering another country again. The tall forests and big valleys are as expected but the suburb of Munich which was our home on Tuesday night was full of picture postcard views. The Royal Bavarian font is everywhere and it gives the place an atmosphere all of its own. Our hotel was comfortable and gated car park scored top marks for automotive security.

We chose to eat at a local hostelry and were delighted to find warming regional food, great foaming steins of beer and waitresses in traditional local dress. It was a real surprise, but entirely welcome and a trip to Oktoberfest immediately went on the bucket list after we enjoyed a terrific evening – and all within 2 minutes walk of the hotel. Of course when we stumbled upon a hydro electric power station the next day on a nearby river and could geek over the civil and mechanical engineering involved in its construction, Munich was cemented as our new favourite city.

Remarkably, though, we hadn’t come to Munich to enjoy its resident’ revealing garments, nor its sustainable energy solutions. We had, in fact, come to visit the BMW museum housed opposite the Olympic park, built for the 1972 Games. BMW was quite a visionary in realising and understanding its heritage and the museum dates back to 1972, opening shortly before the Olympic Games. It sits as part of a suite of buildings which includes the company’s administrative centre, manufacturing complex and BMW Welt – a kind of giant showroom displaying all the current models, along with shops, a restaurant and a concourse where proud new owners can collect their latest automotive acquisitions. The architecture is stark, modern and complex, with every corner turned revealing something new.

The museum is similarly architecturally impressive and throughout much is made of the design aspect of the company’s cars and motorcycles. The cynic in me therefore rather wonders why most of the modern range is generally so visually uninspiring.

Housed effectively over two wings, the museum gently tracks the company’s heritage in aeroplanes, motorcycles and cars. It is far from exhaustive, but tries to explain the company’s vision and ethos as much as simply its model history. Motorsport is well covered with delicate little 1940 fixed head 328 juxtaposing brutal Brabham BT54 turbocharged Grand Prix weapon. A fine array of tin tops charts the marque’s progress in touring and sports cars from 3.0 CSL ‘Batmobile’ to the E46 M3 GTR which did battle in the ALMS GT2 category during the last decade.

The second wing is the more visually obvious from outside and looks a little like a giant brushed aluminium bowl. It is circled internally by a narrow concrete ramp which is broken up by interim landings before opening out into a large display area at the top. Pedestrians then descend back to ground level by a long escalator which spears straight through the middle of the entire building. It’s nothing less than dramatic. The exhibits are all given room to breathe, which was a pleasing contrast to Sinsheim where thousands of exhibits vied for recognition from their peers. The content and general thrust of the place might best be described as quirky. Certainly interesting but maybe not the whistle-stop touring of the company highlights you might expect, nor quite the historical story-telling effect either.

We both came away impressed with the facility and intrigued by it but perhaps a little confused by it.

Still, we didn’t have much time to ponder as it was time to hit the road again as we had a hotel booked that evening in the foothills of the Italian Alps and to get there meant leaving Germany after a tremendous few days and crossing Austria. Countries five and six of our trip beckoned.

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