I was advised not to have a heavy Saturday night. Sunday was going to be an intense start to some pretty hard-core training on one of the most demanding roads in the world. So, naturally, I found myself slumped in a seat on a flight to Frankfurt with a hangover that could slay a Silverback being stared at by a man in a suit.
Why was he staring at me? Clear look of a man in distress aside, I was concentrating as hard as I could on a PS Vita, and an adult playing video games in public is still frowned upon. He can shove his disapproval, though -- that plastic ellipsis holds a downloaded copy of Gran Turismo Portable, my crib sheet for one track and one track only: the Nurburgring.
BMW had invited me out to the Nurburgring to have a crack at its section by section training in an E92 M3. The training involves being given a car (a white M3 with M Sport stripes in this case -- other M vehicles are available) and following a lead driver, in my case Jürgen Wagner, a racing driver with heaps of patience. Wagner's job was to turn us Ring rookies into Ringmeisters, akin to the likes of Walter Rörhl.
After a challenging flight featuring many glasses of water and around 15 virtual laps of the Nurburgring, I hopped in a BMW X6M 50d for the brief drive to the circuit-adjacent Linder Hotel. Now, you may mock the X6, but hear this: with that diesel engine under its hood, you'll be mocking it from a distance. If only all hangover cures were quite as brisk.
A brisk transfer was only a good thing, as I was running late for the start of training and was ushered into a "safety/getting to know you" briefing.
There I sat, surrounded by people who liked to think of themselves as Nurburgring veterans. When we were asked who'd been before, most of the room thrust their hands up and nodded so vigorously you could hear the sound barrier breaking. I've been before,, but I'd hardly call myself an intermediate let alone audibly nod. The moment basic driving questions were asked, though, all the racing-drivers-in-waiting went oddly quiet. Perhaps the training is a good idea?
Basic theory, a minor physics lesson (some laws really can't be broken), and some Nurburgring history later, and it was time for dinner and bed; Monday's commute to work was going to be circular, fast, and demanding.
My car for the training may just be the last of its breed. The E92 BMW M3 is a naturally aspirated monster of a car; 414 bhp falls out of its 4.0-litre V8 and pushes it from 0-62 mph in just 4.6 seconds. The noise it kicks out is mechanical, raw, and guttural -- it's bordering on antisocial. The M3 still cuts a fine figure six years after its initial launch. As I'd later discover, it's also quite mad, a little like a chap in a Saville Row suit hiding a knuckle duster in his pocket and a dragon tattoo on his back.
My alarm woke me at 6:30 a.m. I didn't have to be with my car for a couple of hours, but it takes me a while to wake and I had some mental preparation to do. You see, in its near 90-year history, the Nurburgring has claimed a couple of hundred lives, injured countless pilots, and wrecked even more cars -- a quick browse of YouTube is a comedic testament to that ("Seven second ring king" is a favourite). One of the more famous incidents here is Nikki Lauda's 1976 wreck; the fireball that used to be his car left him permanently disfigured and ended Formula One racing on the circuit for good. When you think that the pros reckon it's too risky to race on, you do have to take stock of what it is exactly that you're voluntarily doing. Don't get me wrong, it's bloody good fun and your first flying lap is more rewarding than you can possibly imagine, but like a one-night stand with someone you met in a dive bar, you're best off being as cautious as possible.
It was finally 8:30 a.m., and I jumped in the car. Wagner took my group (Group One, I hasten to add) for a familiarization lap. The 14 miles are unforgiving, so a gentle "hello" was in order. Post-lap we took to our first section -- the very beginning of the circuit. This began a pattern; Wagner would take us around the section six times, each pass would see us going faster and faster, until we were pretty proficient at nailing each and every apex. This did involve a certain amount of driving the wrong way around the Nurburgring, as other groups were either side of us so we'd do our chunk, turn around, and chunter back. There are few stranger experiences than driving the wrong way around such an iconic track.
Depending on which section we were in, he'd occasionally stop, get us out of the cars, and talk us through whichever stretch of track we happened to be on. Again, a strange experience. Generally stopping to stretch your legs midlap is frowned upon.
This type of training is rather smart. By breaking something as giant and fearsome as the Nurburgring into smaller chunks, my mind (hopefully yours, too) retains the information for later.
After a pretty intense day, we took to the full circuit for a brace of flying laps. Each section we'd covered came comparatively easily. I knew which gear to be in, where to turn in, and where to brake as though my life depended on it. Wagner's attention to detail and deep knowledge of the track had, in part, sunk into my soft, weak brain. However, we hadn't had the time (nor the energy) to cover all of it, so once we'd reached the end of our prelearned sections, things got a touch...messy. Apexes were missed, gears misjudged, and panic set in. Even though there was a pace car ahead, I was hardly confident.
Laps over, it was time to go in and reflect on the day.
Track training aside, I'd learned quite a bit. The M3 is an incredible -- it's punishingly fast and unbelievably capable. Way more than I am, in fact. Should my fat feet fall a little too keenly, the car's electronic brain takes over, keeps everything in check and allowing me to continue until the next cock up. I'm man enough to admit that I'm no driving deity and that traction control light is the kind of safety net I enjoy. Each time it flashes, it's like a parent telling me it's "not angry, but disappointed" and letting me on my way. We both know I'm going to do something stupid again, mind you. The M3's power delivery is smooth, linear, crisp even. Shoving your foot as far as it'll go feels like you've been shot out of a rubber-band gun -- there's an elegance to its acceleration and momentum that other cars, the Audi RS4 included, simply don't have.
BMW M saloons are wonderfully dissonant things. They're the perfect cars for taking the kids to swimming on a Saturday morning, but can also match a Porsche 911 for pace. In fact, when rumours of a new BMW supercar were flying around in 2011, the U.S.' former M Division product manager Matt Russell went so far as to say: "I already firmly believe that we produce supercars, except that they're two in one: an executive car with supercar performance."
The E92, though, is liable to be the last naturally aspirated M car. A trend started with the 1M Coupe, a car powered by a twin-turbo 3.0-litre engine -- not only was it rather efficient, it offered drivers a more useable torque curve. The current M5 shed its predecessor's 5.0-litre, 507-bhp V10 and now rolls with a 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8, as does the M6. And so the story goes: less weight, better MPG, more power, more torque. The purity of the mechanical engine notes that previously fell out of the M3, I fear, will be gone. It'll be replaced by a throaty straight six with two whacking great turbos on it. It'll weigh less, it'll go faster, and it may actually deliver decent MPG. Maybe. The opportunity to thrash the last of a kind was then, obviously, not one to be missed.
Day two started with a healthy dose of apprehension. I woke early (again) and peered through my hotel room window. It was foggy -- not the slight mist you get on fenland fields, but Victorian London style foggy. Stupid-to-drive-at-high-speed-round-a-race-track foggy. I went to my car half expecting the day to be called off and be sent home. However, there's something wonderful about the Nordschleife -- its vast size means that if its raining on one side, it can be sunny on the other. The track was a touch misty but nothing to worry about; training was on.
We'd pick up where we left off, and went for another hefty chunk of the track. It was clear that we weren't going to finish the whole thing, but we'd certainly get through most of the tricky stuff. We did, however, get to cover my favourite part of the circuit: the Karussell. I even got to have a walk on it, which made me incredibly happy.
Again, we'd drive through, stop, have a chat, then drive it six times increasing our speed on each successive run. It was going wonderfully until it started to rain heavily. But it didn't decide to rain just anywhere, oh no, the sky opened just when we got to the section containing Hohe Acht and the Eiskurve (so named because it's slippery all year round). Now, I've mentioned before that the M3 is incredibly powerful and that its traction control light likes to flicker when in my company, but I didn't realize just how capable the M3 is in the dry until I took it out in the proper rain.
If you're not smooth with it -- pop the power on too early/turn too aggressively/brake too hard/look at it funny -- the rear will decide to say hi to the front. It's physics and the reason things like traction control exist. While climbing from Hohe Acht to Wipperman, even though I was in ultra-smooth-don't-scare-me mode, I got on the gas way too early and my little M3 had a hissy fit. It didn't spin, but would have done. I scared myself, which meant that (a) I had to clean up my act and drive smoother than I've ever done, and (b) I had to do so while clenching harder than a Russian power lifter.
Still, I kept going, keen not to make myself look like a fool in front of Wagner. It made me realise just how much foolishness you can get away with in the dry. Power on too early? It's fine! Turn in too much? Don't sweat it, just correct it as quick as you'd like. Not so in the rain.
The training continued with only a couple of minor traction interruptions.
When all our sections were done, we took to the full circuit for three flying laps. The rain was still falling, mercilessly, from the sky, so we had to take it easy. I won't lie -- the prospect of lapping a wet Nurburgring isn't one I loved.
Lap one was relaxed, balanced, and almost peaceful. I'd had a few slips, but nothing major. Lap two upped the speed and the nerves. More speed meant more opportunities for a mistake, and mistakes scare me. Things got tense, and I almost lost the car on numerous occasions -- I was too tense, too pent up, and too ready to make rash inputs.
I won't lie, we were given the option to duck out of lap three, and I was tempted to take it. My pride, however, wouldn't let me. We were to push on in the rain and hope that the mad skillz I'd picked up over the past two days would keep me on the straight and narrow.
The speed rose, the M3's eight cylinders fired noisily, and I swallowed a fistful of brave pills. My brain told me to relax, and I did (after a fashion); it was a simple matter of keeping smooth. I soared through Flugplatz, Schwendenkurz, Bergwerk, and even through my sainted Karussell. I felt elated, on a roll -- my training, Wagner's patience, and the E92 were all working in harmony and I felt fantastic. Until I got over excited at the Eiskurve, and got a telling off from my digital nanny.
Final lap over, it was time to go home. I left a happy man; I had a better understanding of the Green Hell thanks to an expert instructor and thorough training. The next time I visit the Nurburgring, it won't be quite as overwhelming as before. Well, I hope not, anyway.
As a last drive in the E92 M3 goes, it was pretty special. What really surprised me was that a car so incredibly capable, fast, and usable is, in BMW's eyes, now obsolete. Its replacement is going to be quite something, I think.
I'll leave you with this thought: there are 73 "proper" corners on the Nurburgring Nordschleife. That's 73 opportunities to get it completely wrong that the M3 coaxed a fat-footed novice through. That's gotta be worth some kind of celebration.