Cars are meant to be driven.
While I’m all about choice and individuality, and I’m certainly a strong supporter of a person’s freedom to do what they like with their own vehicle, but only to a point. There is a proverbial line in the sand for me and that is the moment a car stops being drivable, for whatever reason.
You’re free to disagree, and I’m sure some of you will. For clarity, I’m not talking about a car which must be set up to extract its maximum performance, I’m talking about a car that you’re not afraid to undertake a journey in. You’re not worried about your route, road surfaces, speed ramps or car parks. You don’t care about road grime, rain, salt, stone chips or how local enforcement might view it. You can drive it whenever and wherever you wish. It’s legit.
While ride height plays a significant role in a car’s ability to function, it’s not the only consideration. Sometimes, people own cars which they’re too protective of. Immaculate restorations or show cars with perfect paint, but which they are afraid to drive. Instead, they’re loaded onto a trailer, delivered somewhere for other people to admire, and trailered home again. It’s sad, because for the all the enjoyment they might get from other people admiring their car, they’re still missing out on the best part of it all. Driving.
It’s why I built Project GTI the way I did, because I just want to drive.
As explained previously, one of the goals with Project GTI was to drive the Nürburgring Nordschleife. There are a couple of route options from Ireland to the ‘ring, but I ultimately decided on sailing directly to Cherbourg in France, before crossing the French countryside into Belgium and onwards into Germany before arriving at my ultimate destination.
An alternate route would have been to sail from Ireland to Wales, to then drive south across the United Kingdom to Dover before catching a train to Calais and onwards again towards the Nürburgring. When I booked my ferry crossing, Brexit was still very much all up in the air, so I decided to take the safe option and avoid the United Kingdom altogether.
It would take slightly longer than going through the United Kingdom, but as the west of France is a part of the world I’ve never seen before, I figured this route would be more of an adventure, too.
The car had been well prepared in advance of this trip, which was obviously the sensible thing to do when travelling to a different country with a different language. It didn’t need anything specific changing or upgrading for the trip, just a once over to ensure everything was going to stay in place. A lot can potentially go wrong in 2500KMs (1553 miles) particularly when some of the mileage involves the most unforgiving race circuit in the world.
On our day of departure (my father would join me for the trip, the same man responsible for my love of cars & photography) there was nothing to do but pack the car and brim the tank in Dublin port.
Much to my surprise, there was no queue to board the ship, and we were loaded straight on. There’s typically a couple of tricky angles to contend with when driving onto a ship, depending on tide, which previously caught me out in my static E90, but I’ve sailed enough times to the UK over the last few years to know that I can air up high enough to not have to worry about them anymore.
I still get a kick about approaching the first ramp at my low driving height, seeing the look of concern on the ship’s engineer’s face before double-pressing the ‘nose-up’ preset I have on my 3H controller.
It nearly always gets a laugh out of the staff on-board.
Once on-board and parked, we grabbed our luggage, made sure the handbrake was on tight and headed up to the passenger decks. It’ll be 18+ hours before we saw the car again, and it will have a considerable amount of company by the time the ship sets sail.
I much, much prefer travelling by sea than by air. It is slower, but it’s infinitely more relaxing as there’s no luggage limits and you can bring your car with you. I mean, you can bring your car on an airplane, too, but that’s not something most of us normal folk can afford to do.
There’s a lot more to do on a ship compared to an airplane; you can have your own cabin with a bathroom and shower, your choice of restaurants, cafés and shops, a cinema and a top deck to get some fresh air when you want it. While 18 hours is a long time for a relatively short distance (for comparison Dublin to Los Angeles is around 12 hours by air) the time is far more relaxed, and passes by much quicker.
The sailing is also conveniently timed, too. As it leaves Dublin early on Saturday evening, it arrives into France on Sunday morning. After a decent night’s sleep, a shower and a good breakfast, we were eager to hit the road.
The first thing you have to get your head around on arrival is driving on the other side of the road. This isn’t usually a problem when you fly and hire a car, as the rental car is typically left-hand drive, which is a reminder that things aren’t what they normally are, but my GTI was still very much right hand drive when we arrived.
You adjust pretty quickly, but it does help to have a passenger as your view is limited from the right hand side of the car when driving on the right.
Before getting too far up the road, we stopped for a quick fluids and tyre pressure check as we had a long day ahead of us, and didn’t need anything unexpected slowing us down. From Cherbourg to the Nürburgring is over 800KMs (500+ miles) across three different countries.
Happy that everything was perfect, we navigated our way back onto the motorway, set the cruise control to an, er, comfortable speed and started our journey in earnest.
Even from the wrong side of the car on the motorway, this part of France was a joy to cross. The weather obviously made this even more enjoyable, but the green and yellow fields, along with road rising and falling away always kept us entertained.
The toll booths, not so much.
Anyone who has driven across France will know the pain of these regular tolls, along with the fact that they’re only designed for left-hand drive cars. If you’re solo in a right-hand drive car, you’re going to have a bad time.
One of the more striking things I noticed on our drive was the complete lack of modified cars or even just interesting cars on and off the road. I know our French Speedhunters have a tough time with rules and regulations here, but I don’t think I really appreciated it until I spent so much time looking.
Even stopping for a quick lunch at Le McDonald’s, the GTI attracted an amount of attention that I had never experienced with it before. It was just surreal.
Also, it was probably because I air it down at every opportunity which still confuses people.
It was only as we approached the Belgium border that we spotted the first car of note, a Seat Leon Supercopa on the back of a transporter.
Remember folks, racecar backwards is still racecar, but racecar upside down is expensive.
We hadn’t quite crossed the Belgian border before the first fuel stop was required. At €1.78 per litre or approximately $7.54 per US gallon, petrol is most certainly not cheap in France. Once I had a little cry, and a cold snack, we were back on the road once more.
If you sat down and looked at just this photograph for a couple of hours, that’s what it felt like driving at this stage of the journey. To be fair, while it’s the quickest route, motorways are also the most boring and soul destroying, too.
Needs must, however, as dusk was approaching and we still had two more countries to cross.
Before we could leave France, we had to pay another toll, which also came with a pretty decent tailback, too. Cheers.
Once in Belgium, finally, we were greeted with more traffic although without the tolls. I guess that’s kind of a win?
A few weeks before we set out, I asked some people on Instagram if I should swap back in the stock GTI driver’s seat or persevere with the Recaro Pole Position on this trip, and I’m genuinely glad that people voted to keep the Recaro installed. I’ve genuinely never had a more supportive seat on such a long journey, and could comfortably do hours and hours of driving in it, without even thinking about it.
The only downside is that you can’t recline in it for a nap, but there wasn’t much time for sleeping on this journey anyways.
Belgium quite suddenly became Germany, and we were finally in sight of our destination.
So far, we had no interaction with the local constabulary and this was the way it stayed throughout the trip. I will add, that I did take particular enjoyment of passing a convoy of Polizei vans at a perfectly legal 200km/h (124mph) a couple of minutes after this was taken, courtesy of a de-restricted section of autobahn.
It’s the little things in life.
There wasn’t much time that night spent on autobahns, as we turned off onto the backroads towards the Nürburgring. The roads were twisty, undulating and generally amazing, but it required a lot of focus after such a long day and in the dark.
Despite watching the ‘Time of Arrival’ count down all day on Waze, our arrival still kind of snuck up on me. There was a slow realisation as I started to recognise points along the road as we got closer before passing beneath the grand prix circuit.
What should have been an approximate eight hour drive, had turned into an almost 11 hour journey courtesy of the traffic in France & Belgium. At this point, though, it really didn’t matter to us.
We made it, and we were here.
…to Green Hell
Before I go into day two (three?) of this journey, I have a confession to make.
After breakfast, we left the hotel and went straight out onto the Nordschleife, nice and early and without any cameras. It was a hugely personal thing to do, particularly with my Dad beside me, and I didn’t want the distraction of worrying about documenting it.
I also didn’t want that first lap in the GTI hanging over me all day, so wanted to get it done early doors. Traffic was light, I overtook some cars, I was overtaken, but I brought it around in 9 minutes something and more importantly in one piece.
You cannot win touristenfahrten, but you can definitely lose.
From the track, we headed down to Ed’s Tankstelle, the famous petrol station beside Dottinger Höhe. This was Easter Monday, and the area was recovering from the madness of Germany’s strange (and unofficial) national holiday, Car Friday. Apparently, over 20,000 people showed up a few days before us and it was absolutely bedlam everywhere.
Thankfully, we missed it, and were instead treated to what is considered by many to be one of the best days of the year to visit the Nürburgring.
There’s always a decent flow of cars around, which are accompanied by the auditory glory of cars lapping the Nordschleife all day long.
Conscious that this was my father’s first time at the Nürburgring, I was keen on ensuring he got to experience as much of the place as possible, which included a visit to the much maligned Nürburgring Boulevard.
It’s such a huge place, which makes it feel all the more empty outside of a race weekend. Still, there are somethings to see including ring°werk , the track’s official museum. It’s nice to visit, but as they insist on putting ropes around the cars, it’s a pain to photograph.
For the most part, it’s just a big ol’ gift shop. Which is fine, especially when you find a decent bargain like Stefan Bellof’s 1983 record setting Porsche 956K in 1/43 scale for €20.
From the Boulevard of broken dreams, we headed back to ED’s to see what was around. Really, it was because my father has a terrible addiction to scale die-cast cars and wanted to go through the shop’s considerable model section for the second time that day.
After he returned empty handed (if my mother is reading this), we drove out to the parking area Pflanzgarten to watch some of the other cars run on the track, and to gauge how busy it was. It’s never not amusing to see unimpressed wives and girlfriends in the passenger seat of a car on a hot lap, a family saloon with people taking pictures out the windows and a GT3 on a mission sharing track at the same time.
Despite a boot full of camera equipment in complete disarray, I packed everything away and secured them in place with velcro holders, checked tyre pressures, switched my phone to airplane mode and headed out for another handy lap or two.
It’s like that Initial D smoothness trick, but instead of a cup of water, it’s €20,000 worth of fragile cameras.
Those minutes on track are amongst some of the greatest times of my driving life. I wasn’t out setting records or anything, but just the challenge of learning the place and trying to go a little bit quicker here and there was such a joy.
Nothing is a substitute for driving the Nordschleife, but you have to leave your ego at the gate. Unless your name is Timo Bernhard, there’s always someone quicker coming behind you and you have to respect those who aren’t out there trying to go maximum attack. It’s a fine balancing act, but it’s so rewarding when you make it around cleanly.
The car couldn’t have behaved better either. It was reliable, predictable and just good fun to drive. Any shortcomings in my pace were entirely down to me, but I know it’s something I’m going to spend more time on improving in the future.
If I could (someday) manage a sub-8 minute BTG with the Project GTI, I would be absolutely made up.
Celebratory dinner that night was had in the famed Pistenklause, I’m not sure if there’s even anywhere else to eat at the Nürburgring as I’ve never tried. To those who frequent, no, I didn’t have the steak on a stone, but I did have a Diavolo pizza instead.
I tell you what, never mind it being hot going in…
In 2011, during my second Nürburgring 24HR race, Andy Blackmore & I placed this Team Need for Speed sticker on the back of a seat, which is still there eight years later. I wonder what another eight years will bring?
I’ve only included this as it excited me greatly upon leaving the restaurant; a Golf R Variant, something even more practical-fast than the GTI. Fantastic, but never sold in Ireland.
At the end of our first proper day at the Nürburgring, I’m over 2,500 words into it, along with an amount of photographs which may or may not arouse the suspicion of the Speedhunters server guardians, so I’m going to split this story into two pieces before I give everyone an RSI from scrolling.
The second half will include more from the Nürburgring, along with our journey south to Stuttgart before turning back west and starting our journey home. There’s still a lot more speed to come from this trip, but it’ll have to wait until after Wörthersee before I can finish this particular tale.
In the mean time, does anyone want to take any guesses on what our top speed on the autobahn was? I ask, because it surprised even me.
This journey is being brought to you in association with Air Lift Performance, an official Speedhunters Supplier.