Brian Lock And The Nürburgring: How The Green Hell Can Humble A Pro

 

Describing Brian Lock’s last year as hectic would be a major understatement. In between building a new Nissan GT-R for next year’s season in NASA, building his own house, and racing his Z cars, he had to keep up with the ceaseless, bread-and-butter shop work. He was spread quite thin, and it was high time for a vacation.

Encouraged largely by his wife Christina, the two flew to Germany. Cruising through the Dolomites, wandering around musty castles, and drinking from steins were all pleasant and rewarding items on their itinerary. However, a true racer never passes up an opportunity to get back in the seat. Amid all the lounging, long lunches, and fresh air, Lock managed to schedule a few laps at a very special track.

After touching down in Zurich, the pair rented a convertible BMW 430i, drove to Munich, sampled the sights and sounds, and then stayed in Luxembourg the following night, less than two hours from the Nordschleife. After years of dreaming and countless laps on the simulator, he was going to put an emphatically drawn checkmark on his bucket list.

The night before the drive, Brian and Christina ate at a nearby restaurant and soaked in the picturesque scenery.

Upon arriving in Nürburg, Brian first met with his friend, Christian, who runs a racing shop just across the street from the track. Eager and jittery being so near to the track, Lock grabbed his friend and the two took the rental car out for a few touristenfahrten laps — where the Nürburgring (technically a public road) is accessible to the public. As Christian had over 150 laps under his belt, he was happy to show Lock the way around on a very congested afternoon.

Fortunately, the weather was on his side that day. “About 80 degrees, sparse but beautiful white clouds, and dry as a bone,” he adds. That simplified the challenge somewhat — though the sighting lap was still an overwhelming experience, to put it mildly. Without a reassuring roof over his head, Lock’s nerves weren’t soothed much, but he was able to take long drags of the clean Eiffel Mountain air.

After picking up a Basic Green Hell Card, Brian loaded it with a few laps — at the cost of just about €20 a lap.

Getting squeezed by Porsche GT3s, Radicals, and well-driven Citroens was humbling, and navigating the numerous rolling roadblocks was frightening. Perhaps it’s called “The Green Hell” because there’s no shortage of green amateurs trying to match their Gran Turismo times — but really it’s because of the verdant scenery. With so much attention dedicated to managing traffic, Lock realized the height of the mountain he had to climb.

He also had to contend with a mushy middle pedal after about half a lap. Obscured sight-lines, limitations in equipment, and no shortage of traffic — all of these concerns quelled any reservations he might’ve had about dropping some coin on a track car at a semi-private track day the following day.

Looking like a kid on Christmas, Lock gets ready for his first ‘Ring laps in a track-ready car.

This semi-private event simplified his task somewhat, by forbidding bikes and full-bore racing cars. Eager to give it a good shot, he rented a BMW M235i from RSR Nürburg, who prepares cars specifically for these sort of events. Their track-day treatment includes KW coilovers, a stripped interior, a half-cage, and a set of go-fast vinyls. With six laps paid for, he set off with an instructor providing the guidance only attained after spending years on the ‘Ring.

While the turbocharged six provided plenty of torque for climbing hills, the DSG gearbox shifted smoothly, and the upgraded brake pads could handle the abuse, but for Brian, the chassis wasn’t up to snuff. Somewhat like an E36 M3, the “ridiculously stable” M235i was a little soft and prone to understeer, and didn’t offer all the agility a racing driver wanted.

Lock (right) and his instructor (left) donning their helmets.

In fact, it was a constant battle between Lock, the mandated driving systems, and the tightening bends. Multiple times in the middle of the corner, he would have to make an abrupt and uncomfortable change. That approachable character is useful for the majority of RSR Nürburg’s customers — even for someone as skilled as Lock. Because of the bevy of blind and decreasing-radius corners at the ‘Ring, a neutral-to-pushy balance is comforting and helps shorten the list of things to think about. When he upgraded to a slightly pointier machine later that day, he was happy he was able to learn the course in such a benign machine.

After four laps and one-too-many warnings from the overheating DSG gearbox, Lock brought the car in and swapped it for a more involving machine: a track-tuned 981 Cayman S. This mid-engined Porsche provided him with a revvy motor, roughly 330 horsepower, more mid-corner accuracy, KW coilovers, Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires, a half-cage, and a harness. Now, Lock had a car that would test his abilities — on a course that punishes the mildest mistake.

Upgrading to track-rat class wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every euro.

“I enjoyed the Cayman much more than the BMW, mainly because of the engine noise, and the fact that it actually could be spun — unlike the overstable BMW. Not much understeer or oversteer on-throttle; pretty neutral, but definitely loose under trail braking. It was hard to give either car a fair shake; both being on street tires that were being slightly overdriven,” he says with a wink.

Considering the cost of the new hardware, Lock contemplated a more conservative approach. “I could keep playing it safe, but I knew I would regret it,” he states. Simply put, you can’t expect a racer with a decade of GT racing experience to fly across the Atlantic for a series of parade laps. Pushing was always part of the plan, but the unique character of the course forced him to make considerations he wouldn’t have to on simpler circuits.

The Compromise Between Commitment and Caution

When he started to charge, the differences between the simulator’s rendition and the real thing became more apparent. “No simulator can do the elevation change justice. It’s hard to get used to the rate of acceleration, as so much of the lap is either steeply uphill or downhill,” he adds. “Even worse—everything is blind. I had to push the fears out of my head, because there were so many sections where, if a car had spun just behind a corner, it would all be over.” This sober realization encouraged Lock to drive with something in reserve.

Another worry was the abundance of fast sections littered with bumps. At some of the faster sections like Schwedenkreuz, he had to hold back or risk putting the Porsche in the barriers. After all, nothing would sour the vacation like a steep repair bill.

“I thought that the scary part would be the rise in the middle of Schwedenkreuz (2:04), but it wasn’t, it was the bump before it — just one of the many things the simulator doesn’t prepare you for,” Lock begins. “With zero downforce and soft suspension, the car went light over the bump, and almost didn’t settle for Schwedenkreuz, so I backed off in that area after that,” he adds with a nervous chuckle. 

The sections which combined camber, tightening corners, and blind apexes were the most dangerous. Kallenhard (3:20) lures the gullible driver in too early, and the bumpy chicane following it is an area that catches out plenty of drivers.

Ten seconds later, after hopping the bump in the middle of the chicane (3:27) is the long, deceptive right known as Miss-Hit-Miss. Though apparently a triple-apex corner, the first and last apexes ought to be missed, hence the name.

On entry, this quick section has the same initial appearance as Kallenhard but is much faster, and due to the aforementioned bump after Kallenhard, the car never quite settles. “This is another — guess what — fast, decreasing-radius corner that requires a lot of trail braking — another place where downforce would be awesome,” Lock quips.

Criticizing the Cars

Any racer worth their salt recognizes how a car can be better suited to a track. Due to the Nürburgring’s unique configuration, and its frighteningly fast corners — something not many of Lock’s local tracks offer — he realized how valuable real downforce is at the ‘Ring. “At higher speeds, both cars weren’t great. No wings, no splitters, and 160 miles an hour don’t mix. There are so many high-speed sections at the ‘Ring, I have to imagine the fun factor would go way up with some downforce,” Lock notes.

As would proper racing suspension. For someone as comfortable pushing a car over tricky surface changes, the relatively plush suspension worked against Lock in the fastest sections of the course. Approaching Pflatzgarten (7:13), he had to bide his time and wait until the suspension compressed after going airborne momentarily. Lock says, “It went very light there. I was just making sure the car was settled before losing grip with the ground. Race suspension would have been so much easier to deal with there. It’s funny how, in my opinion, soft suspension is actually more dangerous than stiff suspension.”

 

Certainly, when trying to negotiate complex sections with lots of load changes as quickly as possible, having a fast-acting suspension is a serious plus. Upgrading to a set of competition-spec coilovers pays dividends on smooth tracks, and at a circuit as uneven and bumpy as the ‘Ring, the improvements in body control and settling make a world of difference.

Courting Danger

“It’s hard not to sound cocky saying this, but I’ve been able to count all my off-track excursions in a decade of racing on two hands, but it only took five laps of the Nürburgring before I got it all wrong!” Lock says sheepishly. “Greasy street tires, OEM ABS, and — OK, there are my excuses — and the car panicked mid-corner. I could only lift.”

Approaching Eschbach, Lock was clearly comfortable with the car; getting on the throttle early and riding out the understeer with a delicate right foot. The bumps certainly made life a little more difficult there, as did the greasy tires. Fortunately, there were about six feet of grass between the edge of the track and the guardrail, and Lock avoided an expensive incident and a definite damper on his vacation. Though, it must’ve been thrilling — and humbling.

The Indelible Impression Left

Flirting with danger in an expensive car belonging to someone else, he had to assess exactly how much risk he was willing to take. Fortunately, the skies, the level of traffic, and even the car’s benign setup worked in his favor. All of the cars from RSR Nürburg were set up with a slight amount of understeer to keep the greener drivers out of the shrubs. “I was in denial of this, and pushed the street tires a little harder then I should have. But, when’s the next time I will be at the Ring!?” he asks.

With that in mind, it seems he squeezed as much as he could from his foray at the ‘Ring without injury or exorbitant expense, and got to live a dream he’d had since he was a boy. “After the first few laps, I was pinching myself. I just couldn’t believe what was happening,” Lock starts. “Very rarely does an experience with so much weight behind it live completely up to expectations — and this surpassed them.”

Immediately, he was planning a return to Germany in a more competitive capacity. “I was racking my brain on how I could barter a VLN race out of Christian. Maybe he’d be interested in a trade for a ride in NASA? That would be nuts. I could not imagine the experience of racing this track at night, or in the rain,” he waxes lyrically.

Most impressive, he — a man with more than a decade of serious racing under his belt — had his eyes opened wide by the experience.The relentless and unique challenges of the course, as well as the humbling near-brush with the barriers, forced Lock to heed all the advice he disregarded at first. “Now I believe them completely,” he says, humbled.

“Some suggested I should rent a Suzuki Swift because I’d be able to push harder,” he says. “Some even say, it’s not worth asking the professionals for advice before 500 laps at the ‘Ring, since it’s so complicated, but I didn’t listen to them.” After the experience, however, he realized that nobody — not even Schumacher — masters the Nürburgring completely.

“All I can think about whenever I watch my onboard footage from the ‘Ring is, ‘I just want one more lap — just one more to get a perfect lap.’ But the reality is, the perfect lap will never happen. Not even with another thousand laps.”

(Left to right) Mark White, Brian, and Christina pose for a beautiful shot.

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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