Why the ‘Ring?


These, then, are the words to the official Nürburgring 'hymn', and really I ought to stop writing straight away. You will know instinctively upon reading them, and especially if you log on and listen to it, that the Nürburgring is a dangerous cult that will spread mullets throughout decent society.

What is the Nürburgring? It's an old race track, the longest in the world, and it's open to anyone. It's pleasantly informal for something German and even rather scenic in places. driving around the 'Ring for a laugh – and I have done this a few times – is harmless, unless you collide with the Armco, the trees, that big fence or any of the other obstacles that prompted motorsport's governing bodies to declare it unfit for Formula one racing.

What the Nürburgring isn't, in my view, is an arena of serious scientific enquiry. The 'Ring, like the blower on WO's 4.5-liter Bentley, corrupts performance when it's used by car makers to develop new models. Testing prototype cars on a circuit is nothing new, obviously: it's probably been going on since someone drove a horseless carriage onto a disused donkey derby track. But the 'Ring, through being communal and open to all, encourages a pointless scrabble for comparative lap times that isn't helping you or me.

I may be alone in this, but I reckon that a lot of performance cars I drive lack proper feel. I blame the Nürburgring. Being able to claim that your daily driver holds a production car lap record somewhere in Germany is a good boast down the pub for the feeble minded, and the map of the place that Aston Martin embroidered on the center console of the N400 might make its owners feel superior, but it's all nonsense.

In what way is the Nürburgring like the roads we drive on? There is nothing coming the other way, no pedestrians, no traffic lights, no tractors coming out of fields driven by cider-addled bucolics, no average-speed cameras; nothing, in fact, that makes real driving a sort of feel-as-you-go activity.

In the real world, I reckon handling is more important than grip; in fact I would go so far as to say that cars with genuinely pleasing and intuitive feel are generally a bit short on absolute roadholding – the original Mini, the MX-5, the Perodua Kelisa (no, honest) and even my Panda. These cars, through the offices of that occult and incompletely understood thing we call the man/machine interface, send us messages about what the wheels are doing and what we should do about it.

But when it comes to putting in a good time on a track, grip is paramount. It's why racing teams expend so much effort on producing downforce. The faster you can go through a bend, the sooner you will arrive back at the beginning. I'm simplifying things greatly here – obviously brakes are important, because if you can brake later you can go faster for longer, and power is useful because you can reach a higher speed sooner. But Colin Chapman was spot on when he observed that races are always won in the corners.

So I would contend that cars with a good 'Ring pedigree are generally, and not unlike your correspondent, over-tired. Fat tires kill steering feel, for a start. They also generate bogus inputs through the phenomenon of 'tramlining', and because fat tires need to be low in profile to stop them deforming, the ride goes to the dogs. The ride then loses a fortune at the dogs because the suspension is set up to withstand cornering forces that can't be achieved on the B1108.

None of this bothers your Ringmaster. He can attack corners with impunity, for the reasons outlined above, and because he's already been round a million times he knows exactly what to expect. Speaking personally, however, I tend to drive all over the place, and not just round and round the same road. I never know what's coming next.

I reckon that driving quickly on a road you've never even seen before demands more input than driving around a track that's locked in your brain like the knowledge of how to tie a shoelace. Your understanding will only extend as far as you can see, which means you will have to go slower for most of the time and exploit opportunities for hanging your arse out over the ragged edge only when they present themselves unequivocally. Of what use, here, is a car that will go round that bend four times faster than you can? It will feel clinical and dull at your speed, and will probably punish you the rest of the time with a rotten ride and contrary steering feel.

This is the problem with road cars developed on a track and on the 'Ring in particular. Their prowess can be expressed as a single figure. Because the Nürburgring is a very long circuit, a tiny improvement in outright cornering speed will yield a bigger difference, in terms of tenths of a second saved, than it would on a big roundabout. Therefore it encourages compromise in the areas that actually make a car pleasant to drive. That N400 is the best V8 Aston around the 'Ring, but the standard car is much more enjoyable on the road. Building a car that yields a winning lap time around the track gives you a car that is brilliant at that but nothing else. It comes with an impressive certificate but no real talent.

In reality, performance is a sensation, not an absolute. It's about feedback, understanding, and the pact you establish with the controls and the car's limitations. Consider, um, Chopin. It won't automatically sound better on the concert Bechstein than it will on the beat-up and beer-sodden Joanna in the corner of the pub. What matters is that the person playing it feels the music.

James May


Based on 20 reviews

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HunterNYS's Avatar
on Jun 12 `09

Captain Slow does have some good points. On the other hand, I agree with those who say the cars tested on the ‘ring aren’t the ones people are going to drive to the shops. It may be a prestige thing more than an actual yardstick, but I think cars like the N400 and the Ferrari 599 and whatever ludicrous-looking speed monster Lamborghini’s coming out with next need the ‘ring as a sort of “trial by fire.“ Oh, and props to lincolnls, who’s right when he says it’s a joy to drive a car fast that’s not supposed to be fast. I’ve experienced that several times, in the Honda Civic and the Ford Focus, and their handling made it all the more fun.

i personally think all the new cars are a bit too serious .... its a joy to drive a car fast which is not meant to be driven fast ... that is why i like the old TVR’s over any sport cars ,super cars or hyper cars.

what has the fastest time in the Ring.  Anyways,  I agree with the first guy.  The ring is needed.  The ring is not for the Chocolate milk cars like the ones used for every day driving.  It is there for the port and whisky.

holmestama's Avatar
on Jun 11 `09

as agearhead and adrummer feel the music feel the car.

MaseratiGreek's Avatar
on Jun 11 `09

I think That you hit the nail right on the head James. Nicely put.


Tattoofun's Avatar
on Jun 11 `09

I agree with first poster. The ring is needed. Any car thats trying to get a fast time around the ring, isnt trying to be comfortable as a daily driver. Its going for speed. And the ring is the closest you can get to regualr road surfaces and still be in a controlled enviroment. The GM proving grounds is a few miles from my hosue and I would LOVE if I could take my car or bike down there and give it a go. The regular tracks down here are either to small(think perfect for shifter karts) or closed due to noise issues to a neighbooring golf corse. Lame thing about that is that its literally 50 years away from a major air force base. :(

MoreVette's Avatar
on Jun 11 `09

Ha! May, you’ve really called the dogs on yourself! =]

Captain Slow is right, of course.  Drive a Ferrari to its full capacity in the real world and you’ll either wreck or get yourself arrested.  I understand his points and agree with them; much better to get a comfortable car and soup it up than spend $200,000 on a rough ride.

...but still… <=]

az felix's Avatar
on Jun 11 `09

Drivers need the Nurburgring for the same reason that readers need May, etal on this site.  One could habitually read ‘Ethel the Aardavark Goes Quantity Surveying’ instead of James’ column.  In the end you would have passed the time, absorbed some words, learned a fact or two, and possibly have been entertained.

But the similarities stop there since one can easily discern the difference between mundane literary porridge and writings that arouse the consciousness through exhilarating verbiage.

So keep driving cars round the ‘ring and reading Top Gear my fellow auto enthusiasts.

Wheelman13's Avatar
on Jun 11 `09

You say that the ‘ring is nothing like the roads that you, James May of England, drive on.  I suggest a more relative comparison.  Compare the ‘ring to those roads, and then compare a modern F1 circuit (Paul Ricard, etc.) to those same roads.  See where I’m going?

The ‘ring is riddled with bumps, inconsistent surfaces, sudden camber and elevation changes, and one can encounter wildly different climatic conditions within a single lap.  That sounds an aweful lot like going for a spirited drive up in the mountains where I live in Tennessee.

A car must be much more compliant to be quick at the ‘ring than to be quick at one of the antiseptic F1 circuits currently in use.  So really we should be thankful.  Can you imagine the ride quality if companies only tested on a brand-new F1 track?

robl326's Avatar
on Jun 11 `09

BAH!  My massively long comment wouldn’t post and I lost it!  Oh well, cliff’s notes version…

WE NEED A NURBURBRING IN THE US!!!  A Pittsburghring or St. Petersburgring or just any suburbring would do.  The only thing I don’t love about living in the south is our racetrack engineers aren’t very good at engineering right hand turns.

My car is really just a souped up go-kart.  I would be worried if I couldn’t feel every groove or seam in the road.  I realize I’m in the minority.  Most people are more like Capt. Slow.  They want to ride in luxury.  I’m more interested in g-force and speed.  I’d say I’m more of a Hammond.  We are Nurburbring.

Nismo's Avatar
By Nismo
on Jun 11 `09

Cool first to post!  Some good points May, but these cars aren’t really intended for daily use.  They are bought by the enthusiast looking for racecar type experience in a street legal package.  Rubbish for common use but that’s the supercar dillema isn’t it?

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