The Nurburgring is a 13-mile-long race track in located Nurburg, Germany. Nicknamed the "Green Hell", it was built in 1927, has 72 corners, constant elevation changes and is considered one of the most dangerous race tracks ever constructed. And for about $15, anyone can drive on it.
A lot of games have included the Nurburgring on their list of locales to simulate. The latest is "Forza Motorsport 3," which claims to be the most "realistic racing experience ever." "Forza 3" gives Xbox 360 owners the option of taking on the Nurburgring and dozens of other tracks in a collection of SUVs, exotic sportscars and purpose-built racers.
My brother and I had flown to Germany for the express purpose of driving on the legendary track. And we'd do it in a rented Mercedes C230 sedan.
Once you arrive at the public section of the Nurburgring, also called the Nordscliefe, there's an unassuming booth that stands between you and the track. I walked up and handed the attendant 75 euros and received a license that allowed me four laps on the track.
That was it. No lengthy safety lecture. No car inspection. It would have been harder to get on a roller coaster at Universal Studios.
Safety lessons weren't needed, though. On the drive up to the track, we crossed paths with a tow truck carrying the remains of a Porsche 911. The front end was nonexistant, and the roof was crushed from an obvious rollover. While Turn 10 Studios has improved the collision model in "Forza 3" over the previous installments, even on the highest setting, a rollover won't result in the carnage featured on the back of that tow truck. That's the sort of damage Forza 3 doesn't simulate.
I drove to the entrance of the Green Hell and waited for the yellow-clad track worker to give the "go" signal. The gate lifted and I headed down the first straight. This was it. I was on the 'Ring. My brother sat in the passenger seat as we sped by the series of cones that guide the cars down the first part of the track. After I left the coned area, I was tentative about speeding up. Part of me didn't believe I was actually driving on my dream course, and another part kept picturing the metal carcass or the Porsche.
When I got to the top of the first incline and headed into the initial collection of twists and turns, I began to feel at home. I knew the corners well. Games like "Forza 3" take pride in how closely they can recreate real-world tracks. A long downhill straight opened up in front of me and I pressed the accelerator to the floor. The 2.3 liter engine of the Mercedes pulled the car up the hill, gaining speed. The curve at the top looks a lot less severe than it actually is, a lesson learned from "Forza." I lifted off the throttle and eased the car into the corner. It hugged the road perfectly, the body rolling to the outside while the tires stayed planted on the tarmac.
"Nice," my brother said. I agreed. That gave me the confidence to launch into the next corner, a sweeping right-hand 90-degree curve, at full speed.
I aimed for the inside of the turn. What happened next was a sharp reminder of the difference between a game and real life. "Forza 3" gives you the option of putting a colored line on the road, telling you when to hit the brakes. There's even an option to let the game apply the brakes for you, making it accessible to just about anyone who can hold a gamepad.
I didn't have those helpful lines here. Nothing was going to step on the brake pedal for me as I hurtled towards the trees that bordered the turn. I heard the screeching of the rear tires as they struggled for grip. I heard the sound fade away as they lost that struggle and began to slide toward the outside of the corner. The sensation of unexpectantly facing one direction while your body travels in another is eye-opening. Thankfully, the C230 regained its composure quickly. While it doesn't have all the driving assists of "Forza 3," it does have traction control, and that stepped in to cut power to the rear tires, ending the slide.
The sequence only lasted a split second. But for a split second I was drifting on the Nurburgring. For a split second I was out of control on the Nurburging. For a split second -- I was terrified on the Nurburgring.
I maintained my speed down the decline and back up into a set of 'S' turns that I looked forward to tossing the car into. A motorcycle was ahead of me, and I had to rethink attacking the corners. I was right up on his tail as we entered the turn and there was little room to manuever around him. Instead of risking an incident, I decided to just follow his slow lead into the section. When we exited, I pulled out beside him and passed. At anytime, there can be dozens of other vehicles on the Ring. Even though "Forza 3" excels in allowing diversity in its multiplayer offerings, the fact that a maximum of eight racers can share the road is disapointing. Add to that the fact that unless you have enough people to create a private match, your multiplayer experience will be limited to the scant few modes available in the game's matchmaking system.
I sped around the cyclist and headed into the next set of curves. I glanced to the left and was greeted by a bright blue sky. It was a beautiful scene. "Forza 3" has some of the best graphics ever seen on the Xbox 360, but even they wouldn't have compared to the vista that spread out from the edge of the mountain. Then it dawned on me that I wasn't just driving on a road or a track. Beside me was a cliff. A cliff elevated a few hundred feet into the air. And there wasn't a lot to stop me from going over the side of that cliff.
I checked the rental car's rear-view mirror and saw an A-Class Mercedes storming up behind me. I figured I'd just need to stay in front of the minuscule vehicle for the next few turns, and once we hit the upcoming straight, I'd easily pull away. I was wrong. The nimble car was on my bumper before I reached the final turn entering the next straight. My ego tried to convince me that the tiny A-Class had more than the standard 100hp that it's born with. Maybe the owner had taken a page from the "Forza 3" book and modified the engine with a large turbo, added racing tires, and tuned suspension parts, transforming what was once a normal automobile into a fire-breathing racing machine. But it was more likely that the Mercedes A160 was simply being driven by a better, more experienced driver. I clicked on my right turn signal and moved over to let him pass.
Up next was the Karussell, a banked section of the track that almost begs you dip into it. It's a turn that can do one of two thinggs: Help you traverse it's hairpin radius at an insane speed aided by centrifugal force, or launch you up and over the guardrail like a ramp.
I knew this turn was coming, and I knew how dangerous it was. I told myself earlier that if I didn't feel comfortable, I could always stay on the outer, non-banked section of the turn. I didn't feel comfortable. Still, I dove into the banked section of the Karussell. I could feel the suspension compressing and pushing the car into the road as it was cradled around the curve. My brother and I both let out a scream of joy. "That was awesome!"
Again I checked the rearview mirror. In the distance, I was able to make out the distinctive white silhouette of the "Ring Taxi." The Ring Taxi is a service run by BMW, where for 200 euros, you can be a passenger in a 500hp V10 BMW M5 driven by a professional race driver. Currently, the Taxi was far behind me, but the race-prepped M5 would be on top of my borrowed C-Class grocery hauler soon. I concentrated on the sharp corners ahead, hitting the apexes and accelerating out of each one. The motions were smooth and fast. I checked the position of the Ring Taxi again, expecting him to be a few corners behind me. Instead, the shark-like grill of the BMW loomed impossibly large in the mirror. It was right behind me. How fast was that car? I knew I had to get out of the way as soon as possible.
The next turn was a narrow left-hander and afterwards was a fairly straight section that would make it easy for the Taxi to get around me. I planned on taking the corner as fast as I dared, staying wide, setting myself up to end the turn on the outside edge and thus, giving the fierce BMW a lot of room to pass. But halfway through the maneuver, I looked to my left. There, I was surprised to see the white and blue markings of the BMW M5, taking the inside of turn at twice my speed. I didn't see the driver, or the passengers. I was looking at the rear of the M5.
It was going through the corner sideways.
I can't explain the feeling that went through me. What I can do is describe how my brother and I both yelled as we saw the BMW beside us. I can explain how the instant rush of adrenaline felt and how my accelerated heart rate made time seem to slow to a crawl. But the feeling itself? I was in Germany, on the Nurburging, in a Mercedes, on the edge of traction, and less than 3 feet beside me was a roaring BMW M5 with the combined power of 500 horses harnessed by a professional driver going double my speed, sideways.
It felt ... incredible.
And we still had 5 miles left to go in the lap.
"Forza 3" has a lot to offer driving enthusiasts. It's as close to a simulation that you can find on the Xbox 360. It goes to great lengths to welcome players in with numerous assists and customization options. Theres still something missing that I don't believe any game will be able to capture -- the visceral look and sounds of driving on the edge. I doesn't convey the fear of knowing that you cant lose concentration for a second. For many people, that's probably a good thing. But I remember the feeling of losing control for a moment while heading toward a tree, glancing over the side of a cliff and knowing only a quarter-inch thick guardrail was protecting me, and seeing that BMW sliding past me close enough to touch. You can't simulate that.
We drove a total of four laps during the trip. We had flown 4000 miles, and driven another 150 miles on the autobahn, just to go around a 90-year-old stretch of road four times.
I would do it again.