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By Ben Lovejoy
I made 51 trips to the Nürburgring. So far as I'm concerned, if you love driving or riding, you have to go to the Ring: it's the best 13 miles of tarmac in the world.
But nobody should go there without a full appreciation of the risks. The Ring is an incredibly unforgiving place. With the exception of a handful of bends, there's no run-off: if you fail to make a bend, you're going to hit something hard. Worse, most of the bends and crests are blind, so the chances of one accident leading to a second one are also relatively high.
Getting definitive figures for fatalities and serious injuries is pretty much impossible. On the one hand, 'Ring rumours' abound (to hear some speak, you'd think there were deaths on a daily basis). On the other hand, there is definitely some under-counting: in one case of which I have personal knowledge, one casualty was declared dead at the trackside and the other was declared dead in the helicopter ambulance shortly after taking off: that was recorded as one fatality and one injury.
In an attempt to obtain accurate figures, I visited Adenau police station in September 2002 to ask, and they reported Nordschleife 10 fatalities between January and September that year. A check with nürburgring GmbH for the same period in 2005 provided a figure of two. That suggests somewhere in the three to twelve range in a full year.
I couldn't even begin to count the number of accidents I've seen there. You'll spot a damage-only crash every few laps, and closures due to more serious accidents happen several times a day.
A friend was killed there when he crashed on an oil-spill. He was an enormously skilled rider, and extremely careful - he had decided a few months previously to add 20 seconds or so to his laptimes so that he had greater reserve, but still the worst happened. We chatted in the car-park at 5pm, a couple of hours later he was in ITU and a few hours after that he was dead.
I will also never forget arriving at the scene of what turned out to be a double-fatal crash in Wippermann. One bike went down, a second hit and killed the pillion passenger, and the pillion on the second bike also died. Performing CPR on what you suspect is a hopeless case, and being there when death is declared, brings it home pretty effectively.
Many crashes demonstrate that your fate is not entirely in your own hands: other people's mistakes can kill you just as easily as your own. Dropped oil is always a risk at the Ring. Two Ring regulars were hit by another bike when they slowed for a crash and he didn't; the rider who hit them died. I had a scare myself when following a track-prepped Fiesta which rolled 15 feet in front of me (picture above right)
An instructor's advice
Focusing on lap-times is a particular danger. Here's what former Ring instructor Jon Taylor has to say on the subject:
I stopped timing myself back in about '92 after a few scares. Now I only get the time if someone tells me it, I don't actually try for it. I go for smoothness and having fun. I push myself as far as I'm happy and no more.
I have seen too many deaths (one of them a very good friend of mine) and crippling injuries there. One of our instructors has crashed so many times I've lost count, and he is forever telling us his times, so I have my suspicions the two are connected. Had a doctor not been one of the next people round when he lost it at Pflanzgarten II he says he would have lost his leg! It is an unforgiving track and when you find that out it's too late.
There will always be someone quicker than you out there at some time. I measure myself against others mentally to see if I'm improving or not, but just upping the speed bit by bit will eventually IMHO lead to disaster. I think you're dead right with the smoothness bit, even Helmut Daehne says in his 'Ring video smooth large radius bends are the way to the best laps. You know in yourself when you've got everything dead right, it's just magic, and gives you (me) a high every time even after 13 years, 9 of which instructing. It's what keeps me coming back year after year.
© Jon Taylor
Just be aware
This page is not intended to put you off visiting the Ring - far from it: this whole website is designed to assist people in planning trips to the Ring. But nobody should be complacent about driving/riding the Ring: it can and does bite. Be prepared for anything to be around the next corner.
If you enjoy both driving and riding, I'd urge you to think seriously about the relative risks involved. Although car drivers and passengers are killed there too, the majority of the deaths and serious injuries there are motorcyclists. The difference in vulnerability is immense. Although I loved riding the Ring, I've seen too many bad bike crashes: I now stick to four wheels.
Many bikers think cars are boring because they've only ever driven shopping cars. Get yourself a passenger lap in a track-prepped car driven by someone who knows the Ring well, and you may change your mind.
If renting a track car for your first visit, consider something with modest amounts of power. In your first visit, the limits will be your track knowledge, not the car, and it's much easier to learn the track when you don't have too much power to play with.
Be extremely careful in the wet. Grip levels are massively reduced, and you won't get the same warning of reaching the limits of grip that you might in the dry. Grip levels can and do vary every bend, every lap.
Motorcyclists should (and indeed must) of course wear full protective gear, but it's highly adviseable to wear a helmet in a car also. In one crash, the driver was wearing a helmet and the passenger wasn't: the driver survived, the passenger was killed. One study estimates that 15% of those killed in car crashes would have survived had they been wearing a helmet.
Finally, please consider getting first-aid training: it may one day save a life. Given that many groups of friends go round the Ring together, the life you save may well be someone close to you.