The Cresta Run is a legendary luge track in St Moritz, France, that has opened its doors to the public as a way of cashing in on its fame. Now extreme sports fanatics--or protracted suicides in progress, depending on your point of view--head like lemmings to the cliff face of one of sport's most intimidating names. Since luge ranks alongside chess on the public's sporting radar, the Cresta Run's notoriety comes solely from killing people--lots of 'em.
I never intend to feel my bones shatter on the ice after a 90-mph freefall, or wear a skin-tight Lycra suit. But before we criticize the tea-tray riding maniacs, we must admit we have our own Cresta Run. It's called the Nordschleife, the old Nurbuergring in Germany. And I experienced that, at the wheel of Porsche's new 450-bhp 911 Turbo S.
Safety-conscious Scot Jackie Stewart dubbed the Nurbuergring 'The Green Hell' before its long tenure as an F1 circuit came to an abrupt end in 1976, when Niki Lauda's face melted like the Wicked Witch of the West in a fire. The grand prix boys requested a new circuit, the Southern Loop, but it's a pale-pink imitation of the neighboring track.
While the Nordschleife was deemed too dangerous for the world's best drivers and most advanced cars, club racing still comes--even at night during the annual 24-hour spectacular. It also seemed rational to reclassify this 14-mile sliver of winding tarmac as a public toll road to nowhere and open all 157 corners on set days of the month. Welcome to the Cresta Run, with wheels.
Bikes, cars, vans, trucks, ambulances and tour buses all take to the circuit at the same time, a recipe for disaster in anyone's books, and it costs EUR12 a lap or EUR700 for an entire year's pass. An electronic car-park gate leads onto the world's craziest road. There are no safety briefings, no squadron of marshals on every bend and precious few rules. Most concern procedures if you come across an accident. Fail to follow them and you could be jailed, incidentally.
This is a public road and the laws apply, there is even a speed limit at Breidscheid. Legally, the Nordschleife is a minefield. The police will leave you alone if your car is legal and you don't crash. If you do, there can be any number of problems.
My personal Svengali for the day, Jamie Martin, explained all of this and more. Anyone pitching up for the first time should root out a veteran. Jamie, a neuro-linguistic programmer, or hypnotist to you and me, could have filled a book with tips. He filled several more on "How to Score with Girls," which along with a few major business successes is how he made his cash.
Two flying laps in the passenger seat of his Honda Integra Type-R that is, unsurprisingly, now for sale, pillaged my enthusiasm. I'd recently driven at Spa, seen the Nordschleife on TV and even done a lap or 10 on the PC game "Grand Prix Legends." But that 100-mph tour of hell had me handing next-of-kin details to a bemused snapper.
Or it may have been the German trailer trash gathering in the public areas to drink beer, play heavy-metal music and wait for the bloodshed that caused the onset of nerves.They cheered the ambulance on its way to another casualty in the five track closures we endured on a dry day. In the wet it must be like a vintage day at the Coliseum, and realizing you have willingly entered a bloodsport is a chilling moment indeed.
Rollercoaster altitude changes, vicious cambers and sharp, blind turns all combine with a track that is only 7-ft wide. This is no two-dimensional track, it's a 3-D wall of death: 100 mph feels like double that, and there's always the chance the car will plummet like a plane in an air pocket or take off over the next crest.
With roughly 11 corners in every mile, there is no chance to relax--or even look at the nav to see which way the road goes over yet another brow. There's no way anyone can learn it in less than a day and when Ruf hired the circuit for its promotional video its old hands refused to tackle more than three corners at a time.
The 'Ring has a habit of feinting left before carving right, or vice-versa, usually with an adverse camber thrown. And there could always be a puddle of oil, debris or even a stricken biker 'round the next bend.
Heading into one chicane I dived to the left to avoid a potential spinner, found myself hopelessly offline for the second turn and clattered over the curbs as the Armco waited to wipe 90k off the price of the car. I was lucky, Porsche's ceramic brakes were immense, and the car slowed in time.
I would have gotten away with it completely, had it not been for the pesky debris on the chicane that left a scratch on the underside of the rear wheel arch. Had I jinked the other way, I could have brought the Porsche home in a plastic bag.
Hartge Engineering's Jorg Wey had a worse experience. When delivering a customer's brand new and fully modified BMW, he found himself passing the Nordschleife. One lap couldn't hurt could it? Well yes, it could.
Jorg found himself leaving the track when a bike fell in front of him, and he hit the wall, hard. "His" car spun down the barriers and the only undamaged part of the car was one rear taillight, while he left with a broken arm, a EUR150 recovery bill and a substantial repair bill for the Armco.
This explains why the supercars were some of the slowest out. At the 'Ring, a single moment often precedes a write-off, which is why the most committed drivers took beaten-up Golfs, BMW 3 Series and even a Fiat Uno with a rollcage. Bomb disposal experts could have worked on the passenger seat of the Ferrari 360.
Less than a meter of grass separates the track from the battle-scarred Armco that whistles past the car on either side for much of the track. Behind the Armco is a wall of trees and it's like driving through a tight tunnel at times. The Cresta Run comparisons don't end at the death toll.
There's even two banked bobsled-style switchback bends, of which the first Karussell is the most famous. Ride it right and the car pops out of the corner perfectly aligned for the following bend, but carry too much speed in or take the wrong line and the car can fire off the bank and into the air--or a double-decker bus.
Coming round the previous blind bend I saw the tour bus steering wide of the banking and hurled the car down the inside into the pipe. The four-wheel drive handled everything and I passed the bus at a near 45-degree angle while a wave of camera flashes went off behind the windows. It was perfect.
Think of the Nordschleife as a borderline psychotic partner. Tread carefully-- exactly the right path--and the cambers provide a cradle to the apex and a slingshot out. Go wrong, just for a second, and you'll pay as much as if you forgot two consecutive birthdays and went out with your friends on Valentine's Day.
"I hated the place for my first 25 laps, but if you build up slowly you will learn to love it," said Jamie, who kindly spends a lot of time with Nordschleife novices. "But a mate of mine was absolutely determined to do a lap time on his first day here and, big surprise, he crashed."
Taking the warnings a little too much to heart on my first lap, I was overtaken by a flying Laguna Estate, driven by one of the Nordschleife's crack driver trainers. But the pace slowly came up as I learned isolated sequences of bends after 12 tours, more than 160 miles of mayhem, in two-lap stints to avoid cooking the car and my brain. These included the delicious four-corner combination at Hatzenbach, seemingly turning into a cliff face at Bergwerk, the fiercely quick Pflanzgarten, the jump at Flugplatz and the Karussell adrenaline rush.
The two banked corners and the fast back section through the Adenau Forest are perhaps the 'Ring's greatest challenges, but there are few standout corners. They're all difficult and this place is all about finding a rhythm and a path through the mayhem.
"It's the last great frontier for driving," was Jamie's verdict, but it's more like a "Fight Club" for cars. The Nordschleife is a personal choice to risk it all in a bid to feel life, to fly that little bit closer to the sun.When the contours are engraved in my mind like the letters in a headstone, that's when the 'Ring will really open up. She may even yield one of those sub-8-min. lap times bandied about by the tight-knit track-day crew.
The current production-car record is 7 min. 19 sec., set by a Radical SR3 Turbo. It will take years to get close to this and become a real Ringmaster, a true Lord of the 'Ring, which was a cliche in waiting from the start of this adventure.
But the addiction has already set in. I'll be back and if the hit ever wears off, which I am assured it doesn't, then the only challenge left involves a Lycra suit and an icy death.
'Ring Around the Porsche
Porsche press officer Nick Perry knows all about the Nurbuergring, and his bravery in allocating a near #100,000 car--the 450-bhp 911 Turbo S--outclassed anything I could offer on the day. And, despite being just too much car for this track, I couldn't really have asked for more help on my "Rites of Passage."
I can take issue with the name, however. Giving an S badge to a 911 Turbo is like making a Bentley Arnage L, they're all luxury. Like all Twin Turbos, widebody 996s are a bit, well, "Sport."
The 30-bhp increase over the standard Turbo, courtesy of a larger pair of turbos and intercooler and a remapped ECU, has barely made a dent on the headline figures. The 0-to-62-mph time is down to 4.2 sec. and the top-end speed rises to 191 mph.
There is an extra 59 lb-ft (80Nm) of torque, though, up to 457 lb-ft (620Nm) and the in-gear acceleration is now so good that my test car managed to stay in sight of a driven-in-anger 590-bhp Ruf R Turbo--just.
So merging or pulling out into traffic becomes a matter of course. If the gap is longer than the car then within reason the move is on, forget about building up speed.
Within a mile of his house this car had silenced the snapper, no mean feat in itself, and it did the same to anything that chose to mess with it on the autobahn. The Porsche badge can trigger an irrational response in some, including the modified Golf driver who ran out of steam at 120 mph while the yellow speck that used to be a Porsche disappeared into the distance.
Scott Oldham recently had the same problem with the youth audience driving modified motors. He also reported how smooth the C4S felt at 140 mph, but with the help of de-restricted roads I can now testify the Turbo S feels safer at 181 mph than tea with grandma--and would have felt so at its top speed. Only a truck hundreds of meters ahead spoiled the party--a safe distance doesn't stay that way for long at these speeds.
The true speed only kicks in as the car slows, the balance shifts and the airflow changes. An F1 car feels like it's hit a wall if you lift at 200 mph, such is the power of the bodywork, and the Porsche has a similar if much less pronounced feel. Four decades developing a core shape has resulted in an aerodynamic masterpiece, and the rear wing that rises at 75 mph is just another sprinkle on the fanciest cake in the shop.
I love the brakes, too, which are 50% lighter than the stock steel items on the "standard" 911 Turbo and more effective. These PCCB ceramic units whipped hinny at the recent ec Porsche shoot-out on plain stopping ability. Brake fade wasn't an issue, even on the 'Ring, and on the road the middle pedal required the merest nudge to lose speed faster than Kelli White.
As for the four-wheel drive, it was undoubtedly a life-saver on track, with a trailing throttle covering a multitude of sins. But in normal life this car was almost too good, as Porsches are meant to be a little tail heavy at the limit. This car, then, is not for the purist.
Even with stability control turned off, it was hard to provoke this car in any major way, but that's the choice you make in the showroom. For hard-core hooligan thrills you need the GT2, GT3 or RS. The "S" is easy to drive and makes the right noise at the country club. The brakes alone are worth the #10,000 surcharge on the S. The carbon-fiber trim, communication system, superb Sat Nav and even the extra power are all relative degrees of window dressing.
The 911 Turbo S is supremely quick, supremely simple to drive fast, has the pulling power of the Stuttgart badge and the benefit of four decades of aerodynamic tuning. The four-wheel-drive Porsches may lack the personality of the rough-hewn rear drivers, but the 911 Turbo S is certainly amongst the most polished gems to emerge from Stuttgart. --NH
What to Drive?
Porsche is unlikely to lend cars to everyone that wants to go to the Nordschleife, but the good news about the northern loop's toll-road status means that an American wishing to drive the 'Ring can use a rental car.
EuropCar recently added the Alfa GT, BMW Z4 and a number of potent Mercedes to its books, and Avis boasts a solid range that would prove plenty powerful enough on the 'Ring.
You could even locate a Porsche, M3 or other serious sports car for rent from a specialist, but be careful.
Some policies exclude the Nordschleife and others impose a hefty excess charge if you crash the motor. Get the terms and conditions--and your fine-toothed comb.
They're unlikely to help if you ask what the policy is on taking their cars to the 'Ring, they weren't for me, and if you rent it nearby then expect a very careful inspection when you return the car minus the tires' tread. --NH