Taking our favorite pair of Boxers on a few laps of the Green Hell
Rain pelts our makeshift tent in the Nürburgring paddock. Underneath, a Subaru WRX STI hovers menacingly on jack stands. This is no ordinary STI, however. It’s a beast of a race car built by the motorsport experts at Prodrive. I’m here to witness Subaru’s attempt at a record: to become the fastest four-door ever to achieve a sub-seven-minute run around the legendarily treacherous Nordschleife.
But in order to even come close, the weather needs to cooperate, which it’s not doing. As if a mind-boggling 73 turns weren’t enough of a challenge, the Nordschleife ups the ante by featuring different weather systems at the same time around its generous 12.9-mile (21-km) expanse. One section might be sunny and dry while another is foggy or hailing. Or wet. Right now, it’s all wet.
Pro driver Richie Stanaway sits in the driver’s seat, eyes flicking between his crew chief and the purpose-built interior of the modified Subie. He is not a Nordschleife veteran, just a damn good driver. His goal is to grab the brass ring from the ’Ring in five laps or fewer. In that short time he’ll learn the track, the car, and, hopefully, set a record. No pressure.
He and I are in the same boat, really. After Richie hammers this insanely quick racing version around the Nordschleife, I get to turn some laps in its street-legal counterpart: a 2017 WRX STI. And although I possess a racing license and have been instructing drivers for years, this is my first time ’round the ’Ring. For both racer and casual driver alike, it’s a chance of a lifetime served up with a side of torrential downpour.
Learn about the stock 2018 Subaru WRX right here
The way into Nürburg is like driving into any other quaint German town nestled into the foothills. Exit the autobahn, and find yourself on charming two-lane back roads with scenery that’s impossibly beautiful. But as the narrow roads lead you into the city center, ancient Opels and VWs commingle on the street with classic 911 Turbos, M3s, and Ferraris. It’s a veritable car-spotting bonanza. All of the major auto manufacturers have homes here in shiny industrial buildings that stand in contrast to the homes perched above them on the hill.
Even when the track is dormant, the town thrives with tourists, spectators, and drivers—all contributing to the unique magic of the surroundings. What’s more, the track is right there, viewable from the comfort of your hotel balcony. Instead of shunning the noise of the track, the town embraces it, promotes it.
This is also what makes Nürburg different from practically any other town that has a racetrack. Instead of being separate identities who are at odds with each other, the town and track exist as a symbiotic whole—a nearby gas station offers up one of the most comprehensive collection of model cars for sale anywhere, ranging in the thousands. Walk through a restaurant, and marvel at walls festooned with signatures of both pro racers and fans, chronicling their experiences at the ’Ring. There is a sense of pride in this town that’s directly connected to the track. It’s more than a source of income. It’s a way of life.
And when a town is unfamiliar, it helps to know a local. During the morning before the record attempt, I follow a Nürburgring ambassador as she leads a group of STIs along hidden trails that open directly onto some of the most famous turns on the track. From these vantage points, this legendary roadway becomes compelling in a surprisingly different way. Everywhere I look, I see personal touches that contribute to the track’s reputation as a living entity. The guardrails are painted with flags from around the world. The pavement is adorned with names of and tributes to the drivers who have passed through these corners. I realize now that the Nürburgring is much more than simply a driving challenge; in return, the track also etches memories onto your heart, your soul.
Then it’s time to return to the paddock. The afternoon weather refuses to improve. The temperature drops a few more degrees. Even though there’s little chance of setting a record, the Prodrive crew pushes on, undeterred, checking tire pressures, adjusting settings, and measuring readings. Given their extreme seriousness and diligence, you’d think it was race day.
The Subaru seems to agree. As Richie nudges it across the lot and up to the starting line, the engine is eager, impatient, revving with a belligerent ferocity.
The grid marshal gives a nod, and Richie launches onto the track for a warm-up lap. Minutes later the car appears on the straight, its headlights piercing the relentless density of moisture. The STI streaks by, throwing up massive plumes of water, the iconic sound of its flat-four at full wail. The clock is ticking. The mood is still hopeful. Richie crosses the starting line, and the official timing begins.
At the end of the run, Mother Nature prevails. The tires never have a chance to warm up on the cold, wet pavement, and the abundant rain creates puddles capable of flinging a car at speed into the wall. Still, Richie pushes the car to net a lap time in the low eight-minute range. That’s impressive in its own right, considering many cars can’t achieve this number in the dry, but it’s far from record setting.
But the day’s not over. Now it’s my turn.
My instructor is Killian, a compact, sinewy fellow with a mean-looking mohawk and a mischievous grin. He’s probably done more laps on this track than I’ve done laps in my entire racing career.
“It’s raining,” he says, demonstrating good observation skills as fat drops splatter the windshield.
“It’s also my first time on the ’Ring,” I say.
He smiles. “We go slow.”
Nothing can truly prepare you for your first drive on the Nürburgring. No matter how many YouTube videos you watch or video games you play, there’s no substitute for the sheer number of surprises that wait around every blind corner. Other tracks inspire, conspire. This one taunts with no patience for mistakes. Hesitate, even for a split second, and you’re one with the barrier. The rain’s not helping, not one bit.
Despite my mellow speed, the turns come fast. Killian is ready for them. His instructing style is designed to transcend language barriers and rely on simple yet effective words. Right, left, follow, go, brake. As I pay attention to his commands, I realize how happy I am to be in an STI while navigating a rain-soaked Green Hell. It has enough power to make things interesting, yet the Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive keeps me planted. Four driven wheels are much better than two at this moment. I roll on the throttle coming out of a turn and push it as fast as I dare down the straight. The warbly, metallic bark of the flat-four morphs into a wicked, snorting thrum as the revs rise.
The turn-in points are wildly unpredictable, especially to a ’Ring novice like me. Normally I pride myself on my smooth inputs, but here I feel like a newborn giraffe trying to stay upright. How does Richie learn this in five laps? As we approach a series of right-handers, Killian adds to his vocabulary by pointing down at the track and saying, “This turn. Slippery.” Well, they’ve all been slippery.
But he isn’t kidding. Given the immense distance of this track, the surface is composed of a patchwork of new and old tarmac compounds that all feature varying grip (and slip) properties. The apex arrives downhill—and all of a sudden the Subaru skates from the right side of the track to the left as if shoved by an unseen force, settling down just as we reach the end of the berm.
Killian smiles. “See? Slippery.”
By the time I exhale, we round the final corner, and it’s straight all the way to the finish. Somehow it’s been both the longest and shortest 12 minutes of my life. Killian congratulates me on making it through, but I’m already revisiting the course in my head, wanting to blow past the exit and start another run.
We roll into the pit entrance, and I reluctantly hand off the STI to the next driver. For now, anyway. I have two more chances that afternoon to navigate the track, and my confidence grows around each turn. But my goal today is of a different nature. I’ve now joined the multitudes of people who have experienced this Teutonic mecca, shiny-side up.
I look back at the STI before it takes off once again. There’s a reason this formula has endured. Even on one of the most treacherous tracks in the world, even in a massive downpour, I drive with a lot more confidence than I would in a rear-wheel-drive car. The turbo greedily sucks in the dense, cold air (score one for the weather). Granular and visceral, the STI is a decidedly analog tool in an increasingly digital age. Even the power steering remains hydraulic for 2017. I can feel what’s going on at all four corners instead of being isolated and guided by technology, and in the end, that’s what makes the drive most rewarding.
As I leave the track, soaking wet, one thing is clear: The Subaru team will be back to try again—but ideally on a clear, sunny day, when the only obstacle they’ll face is time. That kind of weather would make the return trip just about perfect. Keep me posted, Subaru.