I'm sitting here typing these first few tentative words some 30,000 feet above Europe, on a Ryanair flight to Frankfurt, on a Sunday. I don't usually agree to giving up precious family weekend time for a work trip, but this is very different. Tomorrow I will be at the Nürburgring in Germany, specifically the Nordschleife ('the North Loop') also referred to as Green Hell, or just the Ring. In brief, a lap of the old circuit (there's a brand new Nürburgring track too next to the old and often joined to it to increase the lap length) is about 20.8 kilometres long and includes some 73 corners with extreme camber and elevation changes, plus bumps. I've been there before, driving at one of the crazed public sessions about a decade ago, and more recently to spectate at the annual 24-hour race. But this time I'll be undergoing two intense days of driver training, at the wheel of the new Opel Corsa OPC hot hatch. I'm nervous and excited in equal amounts.
Regular readers will have noticed us mention the Nürburgring on many an occasion and it seems a performance car's vital set of stats these days needs to include a lap time just as importantly as it does a top speed and power output. Why the big fuss we hear you ask? The 'mystique' goes beyond obvious high-performance machines too, as car manufacturers spend an inordinate amount of time and money putting cars through their paces at the Ring, mostly for durability, but also to hone all aspects of the suspension and chassis. It has been suggested that car makers sometimes place too much emphasis on how a new model handles the Ring, to the detriment of real-road competence and enjoyment.
I'm hoping to gain a little insight on that side, as we're guests of the Opel OPC test centre, one of several bespoke engineering operations based close to the Nürburgring. There will be 10 identical and completely standard examples of the Corsa OPC taking part in the driving course, run by Scuderia 7, driven mostly by people, like me, that have little or no experience of the Nordschleife. We'll have 'factory' back-up in case tyres and brakes need attention, but otherwise we'll be treated no different to the other 90 or so participants in the privately run event.
Three days later, I'm back on a plane; the adrenaline has still not fully subsided as I type this and waves of euphoria and utter exhaustion are interspersed with mental replaying of snippets of the experience: a successful sequence of fast corners; the satisfaction of catching and passing supposedly quicker cars; the smells of hard worked tyres and brakes; the squeal of those tyres at speeds approaching 200km/h. It'll take some time to recalibrate myself to reality.
It all begins in earnest on day two, following an evening of briefings and introductions, during which, tellingly, very little alcohol is consumed. It's a perfect morning in the Eifel region, the air cool, but the sky blue and clear. There's a lot of rainfall in this part of Germany and from previous experience here (from the passenger seat) I know the Ring is no fun for a rookie when it's wet. We're assigned a Corsa for the duration and I get comfortable in 'GG OH 118'. The high-backed Recaro seats are lovely to look at and have plenty of adjustment. Amazingly, 800km of track driving later I have no aches and pains in my back and I didn't feel the need to adjust my position during the two days either.
The leather-trimmed steering wheel has a rim of just the right thickness so it's comfortable to grip and the correct hand position is quite natural. Personally I prefer a fully-round wheel, but the flattened bottom on this item isn't too pronounced. The dials behind it are clear and the speedometer promisingly goes to 250km/h. Less successful is the over-sized gear lever - and the vague shift action is one of the few other negatives. The perfectly placed alloy pedals are better and there's real bite from the middle pedal too. Unsurprisingly, our Corsa OPCs are fitted with the optional Performance Pack, which costs €3,000 more in Ireland and includes uprated brakes, a Drexler limited slip differential, more 'focused' dampers and 18-inch alloy wheels in place of the standard 17-inch items. Anyone that is serious about taking their Corsa OPC on track should immediately go for this package, in spite of the price.
Our instructor, Stephan, arrives to lead us to the circuit and he steps out of his 1,000km old Porsche Cayman GT4, which he cannot wait to put through its paces at the Ring. He used to have a 911 GT3 RS and swapped a Cayman GTS ("too much body movement, not scalpel sharp enough") for his new GT4. This is a big hint at what's to come and the mentality regular Ring visitors have. He, like all the professional instructors here, has done not hundreds, but tens of thousands of laps. It's a humbling thought.
But he quickly allays fears by telling us that we'd learn the track in sections, going over and over the same manageable sector for an hour at a time before moving on. Even so, the morning goes in a blur of late apexes, high kerbs, unseen bumps and lots of lots of perspiration. I reckon I've the first section nailed and feel pretty good about the second and third, but by the time we get to the fourth I can tell my energy and concentration levels are flagging. We refuel the cars and ourselves before heading back out to finish the section training. By the time that's done it's gone 5pm and we've been on track for nigh on nine hours. Time for an early night? Not just yet... We have two hours free practice of the whole circuit with no restrictions other than our own skill and fear.
The first quarter of my first lap is pure joy as I have the instructor's words ringing clearly in my ears still, but the transitions between sections are unchartered territory and soon enough I begin to forget what's coming up next, making for frustrating and sloppy progress, braking too early at times, taking an early apex where it's supposed to be late at others and running wider than is ideal when getting the line and speed all wrong. Back in the car park for a breather it dawns on me how brilliant the Corsa is at soaking up this abuse. It's a cracking car in which to learn such a 'senior' track. Even when I'm ham-fisted it's forgiving and stable. I'm gobsmacked at the level of grip it can generate from its Michelin Super Sport tyres, even when they're pushed beyond the limits time and again and though the Corsa proves agile and incredibly adjustable at the limit it's also tolerant of an unsympathetic right foot. That's hugely useful when I'm trying my best to focus on the correct driving line while trying not to get in the way of the legions of 911 GT3s we're sharing track space with.
I'm mentally and physically drained by the time the track closes, with about 400km of hard-driving under the wheels of the Corsa, but there are no complaints early the next morning when the alarm goes off. I'm a little surprised to discover that the OPC technicians reckoned the tyres were fine, though they did change the front brake pads as a precaution, as today we should be travelling a lot quicker. It starts with guided laps, which means just three of us line astern with the instructor, going as fast as we're able. Via walkie-talkie he begins by talking us through the corners as we drive, but two laps in he's silent and it's clear that we're improving as we string the sections together quicker and quicker. I realise I'm hitting the rev limiter a whole gear higher in places and the brakes are having to work much harder too.
Suddenly the walkie-talkies are gone and we're on our own for two glorious hours of free lapping. I've made a conscious effort to stay hydrated and topped up with sugary snacks and that combines with a little more confidence on the circuit to make the rest of the morning and early afternoon very special - an absolute joy. No longer do I find myself arriving at a bend wondering what's next, while in some sections I am able to make appreciable gains as I learn how the car responds best. And (gear shift aside) I am blown away by the Corsa's ability here, above and beyond what I would have considered a safe limit for such a car. Yes the tyres are hot after two to three hard laps, but they never wilt completely. Same with the brakes, even if there is some shudder through the wheel by the end of the day. Not once did they fade. More than that though, the Corsa outshines far more expensive machinery, regardless of its relatively modest 207hp output. All day our group takes scalps out of meeker drivers at the wheel of much faster machines. What's more, the Corsa looks and sounds great on the move. It's fair to say I am on a complete high by the time we stop to discuss the 'examination' aspect of the day.
In a bid to level the playing field (bear in mind we were on track with several Ferraris, a McLaren and a Corvette among all the Porsches), the competition is to try to set two lap times as close as possible to one another. Great idea, though because of the number of cars on track, and the limitation on time meaning they aren't spread out enough, the two fast laps and one 'cool down' lap (yeah, right...) are a little frustrating, as I pass about eight cars and lose variable amounts of time on each. It's still hugely fun of course, I'm just making excuses for not returning with any silverware! Still, I'm content to note that, with traffic, I managed a time of about 9 minutes 26 in the Corsa. There was no timing gear in the car on the first day, unfortunately, so it's not possible to quantify how much of an improvement I made, but it's undoubtedly huge. For the record, the development drivers working on the Corsa OPC's chassis managed a lap in about eight and a half minutes. Not too shabby for a small hot hatch.
Like our instructors, those guys have done thousands of laps here and they profess to love it more than ever. So why do they keep coming back? Perhaps it's because they started out like me and the addiction grew out of control. Flights to Germany are cheap you know...