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Jim Cameron
29-05-2007, 09:23 PM
‘Is the handbrake on, Ron?’ pipes up Jochen, the photographer, from the back seat.

We're in Ron Simon's M5, rolling out of the pit lane up the Nordschleife circuit entry road. Ron runs the ‘75 Experience!’ at the Nurburgring, where last year alone he clocked up over 1260 laps, having a reputation as one of the quickest men around the world’s ultimate circuit. I groan inwardly. The handbrake, clearly, isn’t on.
Jochen looks embarrassed ‘It’s just… well; the warning light is lit up on the dashboard’

Ron laughs as he pins us back in our seats, accelerating hard onto the circuit. ‘No, the light is on because the car was on track all day yesterday and the brakes are completely shot’. That’s certainly got our attention, and so begins my first passenger lap of the Nurburgring.

It had been bothering me that despite having spent many happy hours on the racing line and in the gravel traps of UK circuits, there was a glaring omission from my petrolhead CV. The Nordschleife beckoned, and it was not going to be a matter of when, but how. PT’s Steve Bennett, amongst others, was quick to recommend the ‘Ring’s resident race school, run by Dutch ex-racer Ron Simons. With a circuit that can take hundreds, or arguably thousands of laps to learn, the head start that comes from quality instruction and true local knowledge is really invaluable. With flexible packages, Ron’s outfit has a reputation for its ability to both school novices and hone professional drivers, and so I found myself joining track novice and PT reader Adam Marchant-Wincott in Germany to experience ‘The Green Hell’

The Alfa 75 is an unlikely looking tool for track work. The Cressoni – designed blocky shape is entirely a product of its time, but it never exactly became a classic in the way the Integrale did. I can’t remember the last time that I saw one on the road in the UK. It’s hard to see why they’ve been chosen, until you take a look underneath. Ron explains:
‘The 75s are ideal for learning the ‘Ring. The rear wheel drive Twin Sparks are really well balanced, with the de Dion set-up and transaxle giving excellent weight distribution. We’ve had a race prepared 75 pull 1.6 lateral Gs – that’s an extraordinary amount for a saloon car’

The 75 Experience fleet – thought to be the largest single collection of 75s in the world - are in differing states of tune. Cars for initial instruction are forgiving, with well telegraphed limits and with the two litre twin sparks giving – at most – about 140 Bhp. Having a relatively light two litre in the front counterbalanced by the five speed gearbox in the back gives excellent balance, although such a set up is not without its peculiarities. The inboard rear brake disks mounted on the side of the gearbox are subject to heat soak, and the additional braking torque that the driveshafts carry halves their expected life. That said, parts are very cheap, and RSR (Ron Simons Racing) have developed a range of racing ‘packs’ for the Alfas, honing damping and geometry, with cages and front coilovers for stiffness, lighter wheels and stickier rubber making the most of the low unsprung weight.

All this sounds pretty convincing. I'm always a fan of modest looking cars that can spring surprises on track but the point is rammed home by two 75s, in tight formation, homing in on the back of the M5. Ron isn't exactly hanging around, either. They are two ex-students of the 75 Experience, who now stable their own cars with him in Dottingen. Having let them past Ron is hard after them, the 400Bhp of the M5 hauling them in down the straights, but in the bends the lighter 75s pull away, just nailed to the line, absolutely nose to tail. The speed that they are carrying into corners is just astonishing.

Also astonishing is the technique that Ron is using to keep up. In the interests of preserving the brakes the M5 is broadside into every bend, launched over the kerbs, utterly committed. My heart is in my mouth, but Ron is effortlessly multitasking, still in conversation, finding time for eye contact. Mid-drift, on the plunge down the mountain towards Adenau he draws the attention of the passengers away from the track to the spectacular views that the circuit affords. We make suitably appreciative noises through clenched cheeks. Such a consummate display of car control just goes to show why Ron’s time is in such demand. The big BMW is balanced on a knife edge, despite surface and fickle camber changes, terminal slides are caught with lightning fast stabs of opposite lock. It occurs to me that I never, as a heterosexual, would have dreamed that this much fun would be possible with a Dutch man.

Teaching begins the night before the students are unleashed on the circuit, encompassing both ‘Ring specifics and general theory such as car control and the principles of grip. A relaxed and sociable occasion allows time for the lessons to sink in, for discussion and for the group, if not friends already, to get to know one another. It is wise not to get stuck into the bar, as a very early start the next day allows the most to be made either of expensive private time, or quiet track time on public days. The instructor to student ratio is 1:6, with two students paired up in each car. This enables the students to learn from twice the time on the circuit, with frequent rotation ensuring that concentration is maintained. UK trackday organisers recommend a maximum of 20 minute or 10 lap sessions – but when one lap is over thirteen miles long, you’ll be doing very well to get two laps in without starting to glaze over and make mistakes.

The instructors start by setting the line in a lead car, with radios allowing them to relay instructions to the following students. With the lead car watching in the mirrors for faster traffic and relaying simple instructions, the students can concentrate purely on learning the line. With every conceivable combination of corner, camber and gradient this is an excellent way of simplifying the demands on the student, who is also contending with driving an unfamiliar car.

As confidence builds, one on one in-car instruction progresses to the instructor following behind the student and with ‘solo’ lapping. Ex students of the school, once deemed competent, are able to rent 75 Experience cars at competitive rates when they return to the ‘Ring. Many do. Ron personally oversees each course, instructing himself and augmented by ARDS qualified instructors, but also provides dedicated one to one instruction to individuals keen to shave seconds off a laptime.
Word gets around. Ron is currently in high demand by 911 GT3RS owners, keen to develop their own skills to access more of their car’s performance. The lead in to the annual Nurburgring 24hr race is particularly a busy time for Ron, who has also coached F1 and WRC drivers at the 'Ring. After our classroom instruction, an excellent pizza in Adenau has distracted us, but as we return to the guesthouse Adam has fallen quiet.
‘I’m excited’ he confesses. ‘But in the same breath, I’m also shitting myself’
This is a circuit with a reputation, with scars, ambulances, Armco at €1300 a metre, Lauda’s ears. As we are allocated keys to vehicles the following morning I’m very glad that I’m in someone else’s car for my first attempt. The Alfa feels good straight away, despite the rather random flashing warning lights of the 1980’s electronic dash. Flashing is normal, apparently, it’s when all the lights go out that you start worrying.

Following Ron out onto the circuit for the first time is an incredible sensation. In the stadium section the first corners are largely flat, but through the complex tightening bends and cambers of Hatzenbach and Hocheichen the circuit drops away sharply. “Fifth gear, follow me, don’t lift” and the car is suddenly light over the blind crest at Flugplatz into a double apex right hander. I’m in sensory overload, we’ve barely started and on a UK circuit I would be coming back past the pits now. At Brands Hatch Indy I’d be back at the pits on my second lap. Faster traffic appears terrifyingly quickly in the mirrors, but Ron has already spotted it and judged when we should move out of the way.

After two laps I'm standing back in the carpark, huge grin, still taking it all in. The circuit was closed, briefly, as the recovery trucks hauled two accidents back in. Ron is evidently not allowing himself to be intimidated by the obvious talent that’s just blundered around the track behind him, commenting: 'Not bad Jim, but you are steering too much.'

I know it. So many corners are blind that, even with Ron in front, too often I've dived for the false security of an apex I can see, leaving me with work to do as the corner tightens. I'm frustrated with myself and really, really want to get out there again. Time in the passenger seat while Adam drives allows me the opportunity to think ahead, and to start making sense of the information with which I have been bombarded. As a complete novice, Adam’s time in the passenger seat has greatly helped his understanding and his first laps are smoother and more consistent than he expected. He’s both elated and exhausted, and back in the carpark a relatively serious discussion begins about the purchase of an E30 BMW to keep in Germany. Better add ‘addicted’ to that list.

One lap of the Ring involves climbing gradients of 1 in 9 and descending 1 in 6, where the highest point in the circuit is some 1000ft higher than the compression over the bridge at Adenau. This really puts hiccups such as Paddock Hill Bend, Bombhole, the Old Hairpin and Mountain into sharp perspective. Such serious cambers can induce unwanted handling characteristics in the most benign of cars, as anyone who has seen the 70’s footage of VW Beetles rolling at Adenauer Forst will testify. Thankfully, the basic school Alfa 75 is entirely progressive, the limits telegraphed by tyre squeal leading to mild understeer before the tail is provoked.

Parts of the circuit are starting to make some sense to me now. The odd series of corners are beginning to flow, and I am definitely starting to enjoy myself. The speed is increasing too, but I’m very mindful of a warning from a seasoned ‘Ringer’ not to relax and become overconfident. That doesn’t stop me from getting very sideways over the top of the hill coming into Eschbach through my desire to maintain momentum. The 140 Italian horses in my 75 may be only equivalent to about 100 German ones, but that just helps to focus the mind on the importance of the right line and on corner exit speeds. Where many of the corners at the Nurburgring apex blind and late, resisting the desire to turn in early takes circuit knowledge, discipline, and practise. “Bingo” shouts Adam suddenly, not in homage to my driving, but my spirited line at the Mini-Karussel has resulted in a record 4 warning lights all blinking in a row.

Later, reflecting on a hard day's work over a beer in the Pistenklause I replay 13 miles in my head. There's no doubt, insightful instruction of such high quality is the safest and most efficient method of experiencing the world's ultimate circuit. It occurs to me that I do still have a basic knowledge gap - I've never seen a neat line at Adenauer Forst. Inexplicably, Ron has been massively broadside every time through the complex left - right. Ron shrugs.
'It's a long hard climb up the hill from the carpark for the spectators there. I just like to reward them for their efforts'. Awesome.

I bought the E30, by the way. Adam is also off to look at one this weekend…

Useless without pictures.... so buy the mag for the full article, you cheapskates. Performance Tuner Issue 4, in WHS, Sainsburys, Tescos!

Dave Malings
29-05-2007, 09:30 PM
:thumb:

A good read.

GVK
30-05-2007, 03:46 AM
Excellent Jim :thumb:

Gary Kinghorn
30-05-2007, 06:07 AM
A good read that Jim :thumb:

I have to say for someone with limited experience on the Nordschleife you can pedal a car pretty well sir ;)

Duncan
30-05-2007, 06:40 AM
Great write up Jim :D

Not sure that sideways into Escbach would be my choice of places to try that though ;)

Simon
30-05-2007, 07:45 AM
Nice write up Jim. Have you ever thought of doing it for a living :lol:

alclark
30-05-2007, 09:45 AM
Great read!

Jim Cameron
30-05-2007, 11:04 AM
Thanks chaps, new to journalism as well as the Ring, so was virginal in more than one way! :blink:

Gary K, cheers mate, I try my best. Poor Ian Howell was paxing when I was getting more.... experimental :whistle: during my first proper afternoon.

Hats off to those who really do it for a living, writing is harder work than I thought.

Bill Smith
30-05-2007, 12:45 PM
You perfectly sum-up my first visit to the 'Ring! :D :D :D :thumb:

I was sh1tting myself after the classroom and first famil lap with Ron, but the smelliest ride by far was the "demo" in his 75 racecar. I described it later as being like "horizontal bungee jumping - think same amount of G-force and fear".

Got me hooked, though. :D

Gary Kinghorn
30-05-2007, 01:09 PM
I had a nice lap following Ron when he was taking a couple of customers round. I had the power to catch him on the straights and he could pull a slight gap out on the some corners. Great to sit behind and watch him purposely nail every curb in order to flick the back out with sparks flying everywhere.

Thumbs up and hand shake at the end of the lap :thumb:

Jim Cameron
30-05-2007, 01:36 PM
As a result - my lines include lots and lots of kerb through the tail end of Wipperman, into AF (bit too much sometimes :rolleyes:) and a hop over the kerbs in PfG 2.

Fine in the dry...

jf_cole
21-09-2007, 10:49 AM
How many laps did you get at the wheel Jim?

Floyd
21-09-2007, 11:36 AM
I've not really taken any notice of the 75's before. I will now, thanks :thumb:

A good write up for sure! B) Can I change my vote to you now?

F

Andrew
21-09-2007, 11:48 AM
Fantastic read - I wondered whether you were a journalist! :)

jon_r
21-09-2007, 12:27 PM
Enjoyable read! :thumb:

Jim Cameron
23-09-2007, 05:07 PM
JF - it varies, people get anywhere between 8 and 15. Depends how busy things are.

Floyd, sure, but to be fair I have already been paid for that particular bit of writing!

Andy, cheers mate, and I'm not.... most of the time ;) :D

Jon :thumb: