Khristopher Olofsson has ridden 1,500 miles from northern Sweden to the Nrburgring Nordschleife in Germany's Eifel Mountains. He'll stay for two days and 30 laps before setting off on the return journey. It sounds like an impressive display of commitment even before you discover that Olofsson is paralyzed from the chest down.
"I was injured in a motorbike accident a few years ago," he explains. "But it hasn't put me off." His Suzuki GSX-R 1000 has been adapted with stabilizer bars that pop out below 3 mph, and his wheelchair is attached to the rear. Yesterday he crashed. "The bike got loose and I can't balance it with my legs," he says matter-of-factly. "I was lucky the bike wasn't too badly damaged. We managed to repair it so I'm back for another go."
Anyone who doubts the enthusiasm of Europe's track-day enthusiasts hasn't spoken to Olofsson. I return to the comfort and convenience of my Porsche 911 Carrera feeling suitably humbled.
I left London two days ago with a simple remit: to visit two of the world's most famous race tracks in a Porsche 997 Carrera. A day's lappery at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit would be followed by a visit to the track that Sir Jackie Stewart described as "the Green Hell," the Nrburgring Nordschleife. The two are no more than an hour apart and represent a fearsome test of man and machine.
It was tempting to choose one of the track day specials that the U.K. has become adept at producing. A Caterham, a Radical or an Aerial Atom would be faster and arguably more fun over a single lap than a 911, but they're as uncomfortable as they are impractical. This trip is a grand tour in a traditional sense, and for this sort of job the civilized, comfortable "everyday" Porsche should be the perfect tool.
The Spa-Francorchamps circuit is home to the Belgium Grand Prix and arguably the most challenging track left on the F1 calendar. Measuring 4.3 miles long, it's a testing mix of high- and low-speed corners. Michael Schumacher is the current lap record holder with a time of 1:43.73.European track days are easily accessed. In recent years, a plethora of companies have been launched to satiate the demands of enthusiasts. My day was organized by Goldtrack (www.goldtrack.co.uk) and for 250 ($437), I was able to lap anytime between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Official Lap Records:
Clay Regazzoni (Ferrari)
7:06.4 (119.8 mph),
GP of Germany, 1975
Derek Bell/Stefan Bellof (Porsche 956)
6:25.91 (120.7 mph),
1000-km race, 1983
Location: Nrburg, Germany Course
Length: 14.2 miles/ 22.8 km
Official Lap Records: Formula One Clay Regazzoni (Ferrari) 7:06.4 (119.8 mph), GP of Ge
At 8:30 a.m., a bunch of happy punters began to strap on crash hats as the paddock thronged to a multifarious mix of machinery. A triplet of Ferrari 360 Challenge racecars joined a new BMW M5 and even a classic Peugeot 205 GTi. There was also no shortage of Porsches-an old 964 sat alongside three 996 GT3 RSs, a 997 Carrera S and even a Carrera GT, although the latter wouldn't be taking to the track.
Spa is most famous for Eau Rouge, the daunting left-right-left which charges first down and then uphill and is taken at 185 mph in a grand prix car. There are those who will tell you it should be taken flat out, but unless you're driving something astonishingly capable-an F1 car would suffice-or disappointingly slow, Eau Rouge requires a firm prod of the middle pedal. Going off here is not a sensible option. Just ask Jacques Villeneuve.
From the top of Eau Rouge, there's a long straight to Les Combes. It was here that Mika Hakkinen famously used the presence of backmarker Ricardo Zonta to dart past Michael Schumacher at 200 mph en route to victory in the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix, but my progress today is more modest. The Carrera's 3,596cc engine boasts 321 bhp, which is 29 bhp less than the 3,824cc unit fitted to the Carrera S, but still sufficient to carry this car beyond 140 mph at the end of the straight.
My test car is fitted with Porsche Ceramic Composite Brakes (PCCB), which cost a mighty sum but combine increased stopping performance with a welcome reduction in unsprung mass. Some ceramic setups I've tried-notably on the Mercedes SLR McLaren-lack driver feedback, but the Porsche system is terrific. Even after several hard-driven laps, they remain resistant to fade.
Official Lap Records:
William Prost (Williams FW15C)
1:51.09 (140.42 mph),
GP of Belgium, 1993
Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)
1:43.73 (150.2 mph),
GP of Belgium, 2002
Location: Francorchamps, Belgium
Course Length: 4.3 miles/ 6.9 km
Official Lap Records: Formula One William Prost (Williams FW15C) 1:51.09 (140.42 mph),
Track day fanatics will also be tempted by the Sport Chrono Package Plus, which adds $920 to the $71,000 list price. A discreet Sport button on the center console alters the engine management system to provide a more dynamic drive and replaces the soft rev limiter with a more abrupt system. The electronic changes are welcome, but I've never been a fan of the chronometer-style stopwatch that resides on top of the dashboard. It looks naff and is of little practical use.
Any car that has been properly set up for the road will feel soft on the track and the Carrera is no exception, as the Pouhon corner illustrates. Pouhon is one of Spa's most challenging corners, a tricky double-apex left-hander that's taken in third gear. The entry is downhill and the sudden change of direction induces body lean as the right front tire takes up a high proportion of the load. The best technique is to turn in with only a smattering of throttle, allow the car to take a set and then gradually feed in the power.
Driving this car hard on the track requires some forethought, but that's not to say that it's not fun. The qualities that seduce on the road remain relevant on the track. The chatty steering is present and correct and the controls have a wonderful consistency of weight and feel. Such attention to detail helps build driver confidence and makes it easier to explore the limits.Today, these qualities should prove doubly important at the Nrburgring, where even the slightest "off" can have tragic consequences. Built as a test track for German manufacturers in the 1920s, the 'Ring hasn't hosted a grand prix since 1976, when Niki Lauda almost came to a fiery end.
Many manufacturers, including Porsche, develop their cars on the Nordschleife and the so-called "Ring time" has entered the petrolhead vernacular. Manufacturer test days now fill up a large portion of the 'Ring's calendar, but there are also plenty of public days, when anyone can roll up, pay 15 euro ($18) and complete a lap. The Nordschleife is officially categorized as a toll road and you enter through an automated barrier.
World Rally Champion turned Porsche test driver Walter Rohrl registered 8 minutes, 15 seconds for the Carrera and 7 minutes, 59 seconds for the Carrera S, but I'll be happy to lap under ten minutes today. Even in its current, slightly shortened guise, the Nordschleife measures over 13 miles and boasts 74 independent corners. Learning it is not the work of a moment, as even Fangio found out. "I tried to learn the track section by section," said the great man, "but when I concentrated on one of them, I forgot about the rest."
I've driven here before, but my first couple of laps should still be described as "exploratory." The 'Ring is ferociously quick; the late Stephen Bellof's lap record is a scarcely believable 6 minutes, 11.13 seconds at an average speed of 125.6 mph, and there are few times when my speed drops below 70 mph. Run-off areas are noticeable only by their absence and you also have to contend with other traffic.
Anyone is allowed on the 'Ring on a public day and you're not required to wear any form of protective clothing. As I lap, I'm confronted by, among other things, a 911 GT3, a Honda Fireblade motorbike and an old Peugeot 205 with three children in the back. There are also some major disparities in driving/riding standards. It rains mid-afternoon and it isn't long before a biker destroys his pride and joy and then, moments later, a Ford Fiesta smashes into the barriers. Thankfully, both driver and rider escape uninjured.
I decide that discretion is the better part of valor and begin the long trek back to London. Cruising back down the French autoroute at a shade under 100 mph, I'm offered an opportunity to reflect upon the past couple of days.Few cars at any price are better equipped for a jaunt of this type than a 911. After a thousand miles of mixed use, the Michelin Pilot Sports are now looking a little worn, but the car is otherwise in perfect condition. The standard 911 has proved itself a brilliant driving tool, but it's still not a car I'd buy.
Equipped to this level, the standard Carrera relieves the back pocket of nearly $90,000. Instead of paying so much for the standard car, I'd ditch the ceramic brakes, the pricey seats, the telephone pack and the 19-inch alloys and buy myself a Carrera S. You get more performance, a better soundtrack and, for those who care, more kudos. Time and again I've been asked why I haven't bought an S.And having made my purchase, I'd have no qualms about taking on such an ambitious expedition. Track days used to be an anarchic expression of disorganized lunacy, but they've morphed in recent years into something more sensible. The Spa day was well policed and while the Ring still has its moments of madness, a common sense approach alleviates most worries. Both circuits are also absolutely seminal, as Khristopher Olofsson can no doubt testify.