Aston Powers Around the Green Hell
Nürburg, Germany—Sir Jackie Stewart, the three-time World Drivers’ Champion, gave the place its unforgettable nickname. The Green Hell, the tartan-clad one dubbed the iconic Nürburgring Nordschleife, referring to its verdant and evil nature.
“Nothing gave me more satisfaction than to win at the Nürburgring and yet, I was always afraid,” Stewart said after retiring from the sport in 1973. “When I left home for the German Grand Prix, I always used to pause at the end of the driveway and take a long look back. I was never sure I’d come home again.”
But this was not a case of the famously safety-conscious driver shying away from flying over the notorious Flugplatz crest or barreling down towards Bergwerk—in 1968, while driving with a broken wrist, Stewart put in possibly his best performance ever, winning the rain- and fog-lashed German Grand Prix by over four minutes.
More history: Beginning in 1927, the German Grand Prix was staged at the Nordschleife, on and off, until 1976. Prior to that final year, the governing body had already ruled that there were too many safety concerns and the track was unsuited to the high speeds generated by Formula One cars. The decision had been made: The race was to be held at the more modern Hockenheimring from 1977 on—but there was one F1 race left to run on the Nordschleife.
Coming into that race, Niki Lauda was prompting all the drivers to boycott the event due to safety issues, but it went ahead as scheduled. Cruelly, the Ferrari star crashed on lap two in the fast left-hand kink just before Bergwerk, a difficult area for the track marshals to reach. Trapped in the wreckage for an excruciating amount of time, Lauda narrowly escaped with his life, but suffered serious burns and damage to his lungs.
Since then, this intimidating ribbon of pavement, winding its way through the Eifel Mountains of central Germany like a dark secret, has only gained in notoriety. Professional car races are still held there—for example, the 24 Hours Nürburgring, arguably the most important production car race in the world, takes place there every May.
But the circuit is equally noted for two other reasons. First, the general public can drive the 20.8-km track as fast they dare, in any street-legal vehicle they dare bring, for just 22 euro per lap. Second, the Nordschleife has become home away from home for 25 separate car manufacturers including Aston Martin, BMW and Jaguar. In its current configuration, the track features 33 left- and 40 right-hand turns of varying degrees of difficulty, as well as near-constant elevation changes, so it’s the perfect test centre for manufacturers seeking to fine-tune their vehicles.
Despite knowing all these admittedly intimidating facts about the ‘Ring, the place remained a mystery to me prior to my first-ever visit earlier this summer—a visit to drive the 2011 Aston Martin V12 Vantage around the track at speed.
To introduce the car, the manufacturer reserved the Nordschleife, where we would be in the company of their Nürburgring 24 race teams, testing in the days leading up to the annual round-the-clock affair. A number of Astons would be present, including the brand new Rapide to be raced by a foursome that included company CEO Dr. Ulrich Bez.
When we first arrived at the track, we were greeted by a dreaded sight: fog. Despite its hellish reputation, there are rules for driving quickly on the Nordschleife and, these days, no one is allowed to do so in foggy conditions. This situation set many people on edge, including the fine people at Aston Martin who had spent considerable time in arranging for our group to be allowed on the track. Luckily, the fog lifted later in the day and the action began in earnest.
The first two laps were spent with an instructor from the track driving school behind the wheel of the V12 Vantage. Right from the very first downhill left-hander following the old pit garage, the driver was pushing the car, coasting only slightly through the bends that defined Hatzenbach and Hocheichen.
He maintained a strong clip the rest of the way and I could feel the car going light over the many rises and the suspension compressing through the countless downhill sections. It felt like he was going as quickly as possible and any more speed in any type of car would be a dance with disaster. But then we were passed by one of the Vantage race cars almost immediately after the infamous Karussell and were dropped like a bad transmission. That was impressive.
Two laps riding shotgun around the Nordschleife is not nearly enough to learn the track. But this live view from the passenger seat served to reinforce most of the information I’d gathered from other sources: I was ready to drive fast and I had the perfect car for the job. The V12 Vantage boasts a 6.0-litre engine that develops 510 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque at 5750 rpm. The manufacturer estimates that the car will complete the sprint from 0 to 100 km/h in 4.2 seconds and achieve a terminal velocity of 306 km/h, so it’s quick.
Yet, despite these entirely worthy figures, the defining characteristic of the Aston is not its sheer pace, but rather its sublime handling—and the Nordschleife was the perfect venue to experience this enticing characteristic. Of course, the V12 supplied enough power to accelerate from one corner to the next, but we were following an instructor who was controlling the pace, so maximum-speed runs in the straight sections were discouraged.
For good reason: Even the track’s single extra-long straight that passes by the castle of Nürburg is a tricky bit of work. Although this section is three lanes wide, the pavement is heavily grooved and the car tended to wander when left to its own devices, as any car would. Here, we managed a top speed of about 280 km/h, but the V12 Vantage had plenty left in the tank.
The car turned out to be deceptively easy to drive quickly, courtesy of well-managed airflow, precise steering and expert suspension tuning. When confronted with the track’s countless humps, bumps, dips and drops, all were managed with so little drama, it was scarcely believable. Around every one of the track’s 73 turns, the Aston generated serious cornering force. And when a particular obstacle was approached with excess speed, the massive carbon-ceramic brakes were always right there, creating equal measures of stopping force and confidence.
Other impressions: The driving position is low-slung and darn near perfect, apart from the high position of the torque tube between the seats; this interferes with the chunky shift lever connected to the 6-speed manual transmission. The cabin is replete with metal, carbon fibre, faux suede and double-stitched leather, but it’s far more business-like than luxurious. And the sound emanating from the V12 is an example of guttural excellence.
As far as the track is concerned: The guardrails are, for sure, disconcertingly close in many places. The descents, likewise, can be truly spin-tingling. There are literally countless areas where real skill is required to generate speed. To sum up, the Nordschleife makes all other racetracks seem like second-rate amusement park rides by comparison—it’s just that good.
After ten adrenaline-fuelled laps and approximately 90 minutes of track time, this special event was brought to a close. The V12 Vantage ran flawlessly the entire time, despite the high speeds and the truly punishing track surface. And this small taste of life around the Nordschleife created new respect for the place—and a strong desire for a return engagement.