Since I drove the last of my 215 F1 races on November 24, 2013, my life has changed, but not in a bad way. A lot of former racers fail when it comes to a dignified retirement. They make themselves scarce for a couple of years, have a good time, pay no attention to their waistline and by the time they’re ready to get back in touch with the world, no one wants to know any more. I didn’t want that to happen.
When I was still in F1, Porsche offered me a position as works driver for the World Endurance Championship (WEC). The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the highlight. The series consists of eight races on classic circuits and we’re driving these hybrid prototypes, which have been incredibly souped-up technically. They’re only a couple of seconds slower per lap than F1 cars, but they have to keep that speed up for a full 24 hours. If you have an opportunity to get your hands on one of these things, you automatically keep your driving up to scratch and there was no way I was ever going to let myself get out of shape anyway.
I discovered my love of Porsche road cars towards the end of my career in F1. A cute but classic 356, an early 1970s Carrera 2.7 and two 911 GT RSs from the last production series-but-one have all found their way into my hands.
As you can’t drive Porsches the way they are meant to be driven in regular traffic, especially not in England, where I live, the call from The Red Bulletin couldn’t have come at a better time: Germany’s Nürburgring, on its legendary Nordschleife circuit, with no one else around. Plus I was promised a priceless pre-production 911 GT3 RS to play with. I asked what colour it was before saying yes, just to be on the safe side.
The options were slate grey or bright orange. I said yes anyway. I’m one of those people who buys the right colour car. And the right colour depends on the model. Red is perfect for the hyper-sporty 918. But, I thought to myself as I made my way to the Nürburgring, I’d want a GT3 RS in bilious green if I was to buy one at all.
The day would surely give me an answer to that question.
Every single Porsche model has a Nordschleife record, set by a Nordschleife specialist in perfect conditions. The 887bhp 918 holds the absolute record at 6 minutes 57 seconds. No one can get near it. More than 10 years ago now, German racer Walter Röhrl set a time of 7 minutes 28 seconds for the 20.8km lap in the 612bhp Carrera GT. That was the second-fastest consumer model Porsche lap ever. The lap record for the mere 493bhp orange piece of kit in front of me, which looks so much like a regular 911, is 7 minutes, 20 seconds.
I’m not renowned for my expertise on the Nordschleife, even though I’ve driven here a good few times. I spent my time on other race circuits, such as the grand prix course next to this one. I only have good memories of it, as it’s where I took my first-ever F1 race win. I like coming to the Eifel. The German fans were always very fair to me, even if some years I was up against their great home favourite. I don’t sign fewer autographs in Germany than I do elsewhere. I sign more, if anything.
I generally find it easy to memorise new tracks in detail. A couple of laps and then it’s usually stored in my head. But you’d be delusional if you think you could have total recall on the 20.8km Nordschleife. Plus the ideal line on this circuit isn’t usually where you’d expect it to be. You have to avoid bumps in the road surface just to get by, put together a number of corners in one go and turn unnaturally late to pick up momentum for the many uphill sections. It’s a bloody rollercoaster here and is nothing like a regular racetrack, not even Le Mans.
Teaching yourself everything you need to know about the layout of the track takes time. As does learning all its secrets, like which kerb you can touch with which car without destroying the wheel rims, or whether you should shift down before you hit the crest of that hill you take off from, or whether you can do it while airborne… You need experienced guys to learn all that.
And that’s the special thing about the Porsche development team; they’re basically at home on the Nordschleife. So if they say that it’s foot to the floor at the Antoniusbuche and then turn at 280kph, that’s valid information. When I come out of the turn I might crane my neck because I’m really interested to know if the right front wheel stayed on the road surface the whole time or just became the fastest lawnmower in Germany; but basically the guys have always been right up to now. You just have to do what they say.
Still, I was happy that no one was expecting me to break any records that day. I fully expected to be able to do 7 minutes 40 seconds and by the same token fully expected to go under 7 minutes 30 in this car after a day’s testing. But to do any better than that, I’d have to invest a lot more time.
At the start, there was music on the radio that only people in Germany listen to, the Scorpions or something like that. Amazing, I thought to myself, that in the second-fastest road car Porsche has ever built you can have such an ill-fitting soundtrack. I turned it off. Even if it’s technically possible, I don’t need to try everything once. The radio and the Nordschleife would be a bad combination, and not just because it was the Scorpions.
The 911 GT3 RS comes with a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission which you operate via shift paddles. There’s no clutch or gearstick and you have both hands on the steering wheel. I can cope with that. Why bother using my hands when the Porsche dual-clutch transmission does it better and quicker than even I can after 215 F1 races? Once the engine and oil had warmed up, I asked what I should look out for. The brakes? The tyres? Nothing, the Porsche guys said. Just have fun.
The first potential pitfall on the Nordschleife comes right at the start; on the first right-hand turn there’s a bump that you have to move to the inside of the track to avoid, and then you head down to Hatzenbach. You swing right so that you can really go for it on the straight and then take the double right turn after that with plenty of momentum. Perfect. I carry on. Keep the rims away from the kerbs after Hocheichen. Now the fun really starts. Before flying over the blind crest at Flugplatz, the car has to be right over on the left-hand side of the track. You have to be pinpoint accurate while in fifth gear going at over 200kph. Then it’s back into fourth as soon as you land. The Porsche automatically double-declutches. The engine is roaring behind me. I deliberately brake straight away. Coming out of the triple right-hand turn, the little digital part of the large analogue speedometer is back up to 180kph.
From the cockpit, the steep uphill of the Fuchsröhre looks like a multitude of little curves but it’s a false impression. The Porsche guys say it’s just something called the line of greatest slope. Go straight down. And they’re right. It’s full compression on the way down, 260kph on the clock, and as soon as you see the counter-slope, you slam on the brakes, which is really lovely for your sinuses. I can’t remember the name of every section. I recognise the place where Niki Lauda had his accident and the two carousels, of course, where the car rattles and clatters. And then the gutsy sections, the blind bends, which you go into at 200kph and come out of still going 170kph.
It’s bloody delightful how precisely and willingly the 911 GT3 RS plays along. This is a completely normal car you could drive on the road, remember, and one that picks up the Scorpions on the radio. Just before Brünnchen there’s a horrible noise. The front spoiler touches the ground when I go into the compression. It doesn’t matter. It’s all made of carbon, just like the bonnet and the front wings.
The long, long straight on the Döttinger Höhe is just as bumpy and uneven as ever, yet despite the almighty 20in 325 tyres at the rear – ie tyres that would work on an SUV – the 911 holds its line with minimal effort. Another couple of curves to finish and it’s back into the temporary pit lane. You can smell the brakes and the tyres have warmed up. I don’t even want to know the time. Today wasn’t about records. I’m thinking about something else. Should I really buy a green GT3 RS, or is this orange one even better?
A LEGEND UP CLOSE
The Nürburgring Nordschleife’s 20.832km of legendary track sections like Schwedenkreuz and Caracciola-Karussell, plus 73 challenging curves, add up to a unique experience for any driver. So it isn’t just every racing driver’s dream to tame the ‘Green Hell’, as Jackie Stewart dubbed it. And that’s why the Nordschleife offers fans the opportunity to live the dream in their own car: it’s open to tourists year-round. For further information visit nuerburgring.de