Khristopher Olofsson has ridden 1,500 miles from northern Sweden to the Nurburgring 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 Nurburgring 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.
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.
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.