This should be #1 on every gearhead's bucket list.
I'd had enough of driving cars on the street. Enough of traffic lights and pedestrians forcing me to stop. Of speed cameras and police radar guns keeping me under the speed limit. I had to break free of the shackles of the road. So I got on the phone with my pals at RSRSpa to arrange a long overdue trip to Europe. Being the amazing guys that they are, a three-day trip to the Nurburgring and Spa-Francorchamps was soon arranged, where a selection of some very special cars would be waiting.
Wherever you see yourself on the car-loving scale, you should make driving on the Nurburgring and Spa a top priority. But don't even think about doing this for the first time without instruction. These legendary circuits are separated by less than 100 km of beautiful B-roads and a barely recognizable border. And both are serviced by Ron Simons Racing, better known as RSR. These guys are the best in the business, offering tuition to all levels of ability and a range of cars from a Renault Twingo to a McLaren 12C. After a three-hour late night drive from Brussels to Nurburg and a few hours kip, we arrived at the RSRNurburg HQ less than a mile away from the track for an early morning briefing.
Essentially, the 20-minute rundown of what to expect at Green Hell is designed to keep drivers safe and cars firmly on the gray stuff by providing constant reminders of the inherent dangers the 12.9-mile course possesses. With 150 or so corners (depending on how you look at it), most of which are blind, 300 meters of elevation, meaning every turn is accompanied by a rise or fall of road, and the only limit to vehicles being allowed on track is that they have wheels and can reach 80 km/h, there's a lot that can go wrong. Oh, and the Ring is "extremely slippery in the wet" we are told as all eyes turn to the rain sheeting down from the bruised Bavarian skies.
Thankfully I have a spare pair of trousers in the trunk of my Ford Focus Black Edition that Ford Brussels kindly loaned me for the duration of my trip. "Don't be that dick that crashes on his first lap of the Ring." After hearing these sage words from the RSR instructor, there was no doubt his colleague would be by my side when tackling the legendary track for the very first time. For my maiden run, a BMW M235i was the recommended weapon of choice, a 300-hp RWD throwback to the E46 M3. Powerful, nimble, lightweight and with enough nannies to ensure a successful completion of the ultimate one-lap test. It wasn't fast, but I made it round in one piece with "don't be that dick" ringing in my ears.
After another lap with professional guidance, it was time for a few solo runs. "If you see a wall of trees (these are endless on the Eifel mountains in which the circuit has been cut), there's a sharp turn coming up." Got it. "If you see a large pole, there's a sharp turn coming up." Gottya. If you see a red and white safety wall, beware a sharp turn." Noted. "If you see a photographer in the bushes… he's hoping you're gonna crash." Bastard. A public day at the Ring brought new meaning to the term Sunday drivers. My solo run was temporarily halted as the clean-up crew shoveled up the remains of a crash. Beware frequent delays if you're arriving on a public day, as amateurs and rain can make for a deadly cocktail.
The all-clear siren finally rung out, and within minutes I was back on the Ring where I remained steadfast and focused for a further four laps, slowing only to clock back in, a requirement before each lap. A hot lap in a Nissan GT-R followed by a well-earned feast of chicken cordon bleu at Sabine Schmitz's mum's restaurant (I kid you not) a stone's throw away from the Ring, and it was off to Malmedy for an afternoon of sinking local Trappist beers in preparation for two days conquering the world's most challenging F1 racing circuit. Pit box nine on the F1 pit lane at Spa was where RSRSpa's premium trackdays were run. A safety briefing was followed by a detailed track walk, hosted by Ron Simons, for those new to the track.
Standing at the top of Eau Rouge and at the breaking point ahead of the double left at Pouhon described by Simons as "500 meters of sex" absorbing the expert advice was the best possible way to get pumped for what was to come. On the mouth-watering menu was a stock and modified Renault Megane RS265 as a tasty aperitif, a stock and modified BMW M235i and BMW M3 for the main course. And for desert? A Porsche Cayman S and Porsche 911 GT3. After dinner treats came in the shape of a couple of hot laps with Ron Simons in his Ferrari F12. Two days gorging on these delicious machines and my appetite never waned, not even for a second.
Expert tuition from one of RSRSpa's top drivers ensured rapid progress. By day two, my feel for the ideal wet and dry lines was instinctive; the ever changing conditions meant starting with the sun overhead and finishing the lap with a Gallardo GT3's rear wheels spraying rain into my line of sight. With sixty laps or so under my belt in a range of different cars, I had mastered the basics: braking zone, turn-in, apex and exit points, and developed smoothness of inputs. For anyone serious about driving, and being able to critique a car's handling and performance, a couple of days with a pro driving school like RSRSpa is a must.
And the moment you step away from behind the wheel, you're immediately surrounded by awesome machines in the pit lanes and blasting towards La Source on the other side of the wall. 2017 Nissan GT-Rs were being tested out by prospective buyers, pro racing drivers were pushing race cars like the Bentley Continental GT3 to their limits all day, while customer cars at the track ranged from a brand new Porsche Cayman GT4 and Ford GT to a Lamborghini Huracan and Ferrari 488 GTB. There was even an experimental track car codenamed the XP-CR1, whose owner treated me to a couple of eardrum-killing laps in. 190 mph down the straight, the sound akin to an electric drill boring my ears out, trust me, two laps was plenty.
All-day refreshments and lunch overlooking the track is included, and there's no end of banter with the RSR crew and other punters. Key to ensuring everyone's enjoyment is RSR's top-class organization. Cars are prepped and readied for the 10 am start, and someone was always on hand to discuss my latest lap and provide some insight. I haven't been to other driving schools, but it's obvious why RSR is considered the best in the business. And before I could take stock of what a thrilling couple of days I'd just had, I was back in the Focus heading to Brussels airport. Despite being shackled once again by the road, something had changed.
In two short days, I had grown as a driver and was a better man for it. Trying to perfect Eau Rouge (stay tight to the right-left on the curb-tap on the brakes- accelerate-right turn-blind left and full throttle down the Kemmel Straight) will do that. So will overtaking a Ford GT in the process. Yes, an open road beats a congested highway, but both pale in comparison to what I experienced at Spa and the Ring. Which is where my soul drifts whenever the daily commute tries to crush it. Driving on the road has become a whole lot more bearable, and when it does occasionally open up, my newfound skills can be put to the test. Within the speed limit, naturally.