This wasn’t in the script. Less than 30 minutes into a 2,500 mile, six country road trip and we’ve been diverted into one of Hull’s less salubrious neighbourhoods. By supercar standards, a grey Aston Martin is relatively subtle but it’s hard not to feel a total berk under the circumstances. It’s a relief when P&O’s finest hoves into view ahead of us. It’s time to hit the high seas, bound as we are for mainland Europe and a second continental adventure aboard my father’s V8 Vantage.
Two and a half years ago we completed the special triumvirate of Belgian Grand Prix, Italian Grand Prix and Goodwood Revival on consecutive weekends. This time, the headline events are perhaps less well-known but the trip promises equal intrigue and adventure. Our ultimate destination is the Großer Bergpreis von Österreich – the 43rd running of Rechbergrennen, a crazy, closed-roads, five kilometre blast up an Austrian mountainside. We’ve arranged a couple of automotive-themed diversions along the way and reckon we shouldn’t struggle to find some great driving roads and wonderful vistas to accompany them. Game on!
The Hull – Rotterdam ferry is bereft of glamour in the truest sense, but so too is it bereft of pretension. The cabins are redolent of an Ibis hotel – all pre-formed fibreglass bathroom pods and minimal elbow space. Still, we have barely 12 hours on board before docking in Rotterdam. A couple of ample plate loads from the buffet, several strong lagers and a handful of hours’ interrupted sleep and we’re on the European mainland.
Watching the vast, heavy industrial sprawl of Rotterdam is enough to turn my co-pilot to hyperbole. Nothing (including his beloved Aston Martin) excites him quite like storage tanks, miles of pipework, furnaces and the ephemera of process engineering. In fact, I worry the rest of the trip will prove to be a bit of a let-down by comparison.
Returning to the car to disembark provides the trip’s second departure from its intended script. The car had received a little attention from an Aston main dealer just before our jaunt; one of the areas in question being the headlights, after a dipped beam bulb required changing. Unfortunately the dash has thrown up a fault with the same bulb and it appears to be out of operation. Bugger.
We elect to continue to our first destination while we devise a plan – it’s 9am so we have no concerns about having to use the headlights just yet anyway.
While our ultimate destination is Rechbergrennen, we’ve planned a series of diversions to keep ourselves interested – much as we had done during our 2012 trip. While most of these relate to the automobile in its various guises, we do wish to broaden our horizons slightly and indulge in a few of our other interests. Accordingly, the first stop is at the Airborne Museum, just outside Arnhem in Holland. Only about 90 minutes from Rotterdam, this museum records the history of Operation Market Garden, an Allied offensive during 1944.
The Airborne Museum sits on the outskirts of Oosterbeek and is set in an old mansion which served as a temporary base for the field commanders of Operation Market Garden. Our first action upon arrival is to admire a British-registered BMW E30 M3 in the car park. With due reverence paid, we move swiftly on with the task of attending to the Aston’s malaise. There’s a dealership with a service department in Eindhoven – this is on our intended route anyway and the team there can accommodate the car at our convenience.
Buoyed by the kind of nonchalant, confident certainty only the Dutch can offer, we are able to enjoy the Airborne Museum without undue concern for our vehicular good health.
The museum focuses on Operation Market Garden. This was an exceptionally bold and ambitious Allied plan to capture strategic Dutch bridges from the Germans in order to expedite the end of the Second World War. The mission took place during September 1944 and proved a tragic failure after a fundamental misunderstanding of German defences left Allied armed forces circled and trapped.
The facility is fascinating. Not only does it describe, in useful visual and audio formats, the nature of Operation Market Garden, it also depicts life in Holland during the occupation. It’s impossible to travel for any time in central Europe without being aware of the terrific and terrifying effects of the First and Second World Wars. The Benelux region was hit particularly hard and it’s extremely moving to learn more about the terror faced by the Dutch people during the occupation and associated fighting.
To our relief, it has also been largely successful in treading that fine line between the provision of useful learning for adults and engaging with school-age children. The overt tactility and zany graphic imagery which have come to typify so many museums in recent years are mercifully absent. Instead, narrated videos, paraphernalia of the time, haunting images, maps and prose tell the story in a digestible form.
Lightweight or easy-going it might not be, but the Airborne Museum is a thought-provoking record of a defining period in modern European history. It is an extremely humbling way to kick off a trip which, it must be said, rather majors on self-indulgence. We pause and linger in the gardens behind the mansion before we set off. Rolling parkland leads down to the river, deer graze and birds chirrup in the trees. It seems hard to believe this spot bore such savage fighting only 70 years earlier. The idea of Britons cruising peacefully through Holland, Germany, Austria, France and Belgium, unhindered by customs interrogations and wielding a single currency, would’ve been unimaginable back then. We’re tremendously fortunate.
Such thoughts do bring some perspective on a minor headlight issue. Eindhoven is barely an hour away so we nose out into the Dutch traffic, which is generally quite light, and settle into our surroundings: we’re going to be spending a lot of hours in this cabin.
Eindhoven is easy to reach and the Aston Martin dealership is out of town so we manage to totally avoid any city centre gridlock. We are greeted by an incredibly friendly gentleman who, of course, speaks perfect English. He’s expecting us so we grab a couple of reference documents from the car and hand over the key. We’re shown to an extremely smart waiting area and fixed with a top-notch coffee. Surrounded by Rolls Royces, Astons and other high-end motors (including a gorgeous Jaguar XJ220), this is actually quite a pleasant break to the journey.
We’ve prepared an extremely thorough road book, covering the whole trip, pre-loaded the sat nav with all our destinations and also have some large-scale European road atlases for guidance. This seems a pretty useful mix but sometimes a simple glance in the atlas can spot a fine road or interesting diversion. We pore over everything while the technicians tackle the Vantage’s troublesome illumination.
It’s at this point that a scan at our route reveals that we will be passing very close to the Nürburgring. We’d consciously decided to avoid any repetition from our previous jaunt, but as we’re passing mere moments from Europe’s greatest track, we elect to call in. This is due to be late afternoon so I suggest calling in at the Pistenklause; having not been before I’m anxious to sample the famous ‘steak on a stone’.
We while away 45 minutes with ease before the car is returned to us. A diagnostic check reveals an issue with the electrical system controlling the headlights. Its severity is unknown but the unit has been reset and the lamps are working. The helpful gentleman suggests a trip to a service centre in the UK but confirms that the bulbs are intact and illuminating their surroundings. Sounds like we’ll have to monitor it and use our discretion. Still, that brawny V8 is working perfectly and we’re about to cross into Germany and its tantalising network of derestricted autobahns.
The going is fairly easy and we manage a few lunges into three figure speeds, but equally diverting is the B257 which leads to Nürburg; an open, twisting road of the kind the Germans seem to specialise in. The countryside is bathed in luscious green pastures and woodland, with the road snaking gently through peaceful villages and open sections, with the odd hairpin thrown in for good measure. It’s not hard to see why this location was chosen for a race track, nor why the world’s manufacturers use the wider area for car development.
We arrive at the circuit from the north, passing through Adenau village before dropping under the lowest point of the Nordschleife at Breidscheid. This used to be the location for a touristenfahrten circuit entry point but not today. We park up and wander up to the spectator bank on the infield above Breidscheid. This isn’t a public event, and in fact it seems to be a manufacturer test day. A variety of prototypes from a number of major manufacturers are pounding around, tyres squealing – and in many case door handles scraping the kerbs.
The majority of protagonists are from the German marques, or their derivative companies: BMWs, Audis, Mercedes, Bentleys and Porsches are in action and travelling extremely briskly. Interlopers include Hyundai, Chevrolet, Jaguar and Aston Martin.
Many of the cars are wearing the semi-obligatory camouflage wrap, though not all. It’s not hard to pick out the shape of a BMW 7-series but it takes a little eye-rubbing to realise that Jaguar has three SUVs out there, all under disguise but each carrying a British registration and the signature Jaguar grille.
Porsche has examples of the Panamera and 911 out in force. The 911s are undisguised but display a number of different exhaust configurations – even among Carreras. It’s hard not to ponder whether there are new turbo engines lurking beneath those rising rear wings. In fact it’s tough not to speculate about virtually every car. Certainly BMW has a well-disguising M2 / 2M lapping very quickly. We see it only once but the quad rear exhaust tips and strident below as it blasts back up the hill away from us are a dead give-away.
Best noise of all was Aston Martin’s howling GT12. A road-going nod to the V12 Vantage GT3 weapons, the model is limited to 100 examples and hasn’t yet been released to the press so we feel rather honoured to be in its presence. It completes three laps during our half hour spectating and there’s a tingle of excitement every time in appears in the distance, anticipating its vocal departure.
Second-best noise of the day is awarded to Audi’s new R8 V10 Plus, in stealthy, dark livery and featuring a neat, fixed rear wing. Its trademark woofling V10 has gained a sharp, coarse edge and, while it doesn’t quite match the volume and drama of the GT12, it’s still utterly compelling – as well as fiendishly fast. 2015 promises to be a great year for the supercar.
The prospect of seeing something new and exciting keeps us nailed firmly to the trackside but eventually even the anguished cries of an X6’s tyres can’t sate our growing appetites and I need to get my co-driver’s head on to navigate us to the Pistenklause.
We amble through the Nordschleife’s vast infield and I turn to intuition for inspiration, selecting a turning almost at random for us to follow. It leads up a series of tight switchbacks before we chance up a red 911 moving fairly slowly ahead. At second glance it becomes apparent this is a new 991 GT3 RS and it’s tracking an estate car. The estate has its boot open and there’s a cameraman dangling precariously from its loading bay. We’ve stumbled upon a photo shoot for one of the most hotly-anticipated new cars for years; and what will doubtless become EVO magazine’s Car of the Year.
We follow at a discrete distance so as not to ruin the photos but the RS looks mega on the road. Those broad haunches and massive rear tyres bulge steroidally, as if unceremoniously crushed by the invisible force of the giant rear wing. And those front wing vents are as over-the-top, but brilliant, as you’d expect. I’m a sucker for anything race-derived and the RS appears ready to turn left onto the Dottingher Hohe and launch into a VLN race. It looks savagely potent.
Sadly we can’t prolong my love-in with the RS and we peel left towards Tiergarten where the combatants on the Nordschleife are pounding, right feet planted, towards the end of another testing lap. Not being a ‘Ring affectionado to the same extent as many, I feel rather ashamed that I’m yet to sample the famous Pistenklause. The restaurant attached to the Hotel Am Tiergarten, owned by Sabine Schmitz, is legendary for its hospitality, decor and steak on a stone.
The hospitality is fine but the decor is compelling. Majoring on Nürburgring history, but with a nod towards every aspect of race history, it’s a fascinating wander through our sport’s past. Numerous legends of the sport have left their own mark but everything from VW Golfs to contemporary F1 is given wall space. It could take hours to explore the whole place, drinking in the detail.
Steak on a stone is as literal as it sounds. The surprise, though, is the heat of the stone and the rawness of the steak. We receive great slabs of raw fillet steak, but served on what looks like a concrete paving slab and which is burning away at a temperature which threatens to embarrass the sun. Quickly dicing the meat into manageable cubes seems to work and soon we’re gnawing at perfectly cooked little balls of fantastic steak. It’s awesome.
Sadly we can’t linger around the Nürburgring, which is something of a shame as the place just exudes motor racing. It’s lazy to call it a ‘petrolhead Mecca’ but it really is just that. The whole area is steeped in its love for the great circuit and the macadam snakes and sweeps its way through the landscape, offering tantalising views every so often. And because it’s so vast you could visit time and again and still explore something new every time. We vow to do just that.