It’s a terrible problem is an addiction. I’m not talking cigarettes or alcohol here, but the 20km of smooth black tarmac in the German mountains that I’m beginning to call my second home. Because only a month after returning from the Italian Job tour, I found my self back in Adenau eating pizza again.
Once anybody mentions any details of a ‘Ring trip on Facebook, I find myself almost obliged to attend and fulfill my usual role of tour guide. And this time it was Woz again. For anyone that doesn’t remember or hasn’t read last year’s blog, Woz is the MR2 owner who destroyed his clutch at 150mph on the autobahn. And this year, I’d be sitting in the passenger seat of that same MR2 hoping to get there and back without incident…
Given that the S2000 was still recovering from nearly 3000 miles through the Alps, as was my wallet, I’d decided to go for the cheaper option of sitting as a passenger in Woz’s car. Adam was coming back with us this year is his MR2 also and Rich was going to attend in something, but dropped out at the last minute. Poor show, Rich, poor show.
So the idea here was just a standard long weekend trip, which seemed fine up until a couple of weeks before when it became apparent that Adam couldn’t get the Friday off work. This was a problem as the main reason for choosing this weekend was the full day of Nordschleife on the Saturday. But this wouldn’t stop us!
And so at around 6pm on that Friday I found myself up in Birmingham, leaving the S2000 on Woz’s drive and getting ready for probably the most unusual trip across the continent that I’ve made. Luckily, given that we hadn’t left until around 8pm, the UK motorways were quiet enough to make some progress on and we reached the Dartford crossing minutes before 10pm, slowing slightly to make sure we got over for free. Nicely timed.
We headed east down to the coast, topping up with our last tank of UK V Power, intending to find a services with somewhere to eat and then hopefully get some sleep. This wasn’t to be. 24 hour services in Kent appear to be nothing more than a large open shed with some toilets and no fewer than six restaurants, all closed. So we settled on the nearest 24 hour McDonalds, had our 11pm meal and then completed our journey to Dover, where we were sure we’d find somewhere to sleep. Again, not so.
With two hours before we were due to set off, all the buildings in the port were closed up, bar the uninviting ‘departure lounge’ that consisted of rows of plastic chairs surrounding a concrete floor. And so wet sat in the car instead, slouched into the Recaros, steaming up the windscreen as we tried and failed to get anything like sleep.
Eventually, it was time to board, and we looked for somewhere to sleep, finding some soft rectangular parts of what used to be a kid play area, which were comfy unless you rolled off them. Sleep was still not going to happen. I turned off the TV next to us, but I could still hear the one at the other end of the area we were in, playing an irritating tune on a DVD menu. And even when I tried to block that, the man emptying the fruit machine a coin at a time meant that half an hour of closed eyes was all I was going to get. And so at just past 3am, I wound my watch forward to continental time, purchased an Earl Grey and took a brief wander outside with Woz to ‘wake up’. It most certainly did that… And despite the sleep deprivation we left the boat and hit the French motorway at 5am, getting the mileage in as quickly as possibly to avoid the inevitable morning rush of Brussels.
With Brussels passed with ease and a red sunrise ahead of us, we made it across the Dutch border for 8am, now 12 hours after we’d left the UK, where we stopped for the next fuel stop. Woz spoke some English to the attendant to confirm that the 95 RON V Power wasn’t really 95 RON and I set about some breakfast. By this stage the bodyclock was all over the place and didn’t really understand this meal but I tucked into a cheese sandwich anyway. At this moment we noticed Woz was parked in front of a sign with a tow truck on it, which made us snigger just a little ;-)
Nobody should look this awake at 5am
The sun comes up as we enter Germany
We continued on into Germany with the sky now blue and the day in full swing. This feels incredibly weird when you’ve not been to bed and even worse when you consider that you’re meant to be driving around a race track for the next few hours. But first things first, We check in at the hotel. The usual again, Hotel an der Norschleife, aka Eddy’s. Embarrasingly, Eddy’s mum recognises me (I told you I’m addicted!) and speaks some German to me, which I half understand. Anyway, keys to a garage as our room isn’t ready yet. We are early, mind. So after a Facebook check in (ensuring to tag Rich too) we brim the tanks with 102 RON at the Aral and drive up to the entrance where everything is open and already relatively busy. After a browse of the car park, with highlights including a Radical, a 599 GTO and a McMerc SLR (complete with Mondeo spec duct tape), Woz and Adam both bought their 4 lap cards and got straight to using them.
The first lap was a steady one, gauging how wet the track is, as it had clearly rained overnight. It’s the usual autumnal morning in the Eifel, some definite greasy patches in the spots where the sun is get to find it’s way round to. By the second lap, it had dried a little more and being fairly quiet still Woz was able to make the most of the emerging dry line and get a good lap in. Given that he’d managed two laps this trip, he’d already achieved his goal of more than the single lap he managed last year before the clutch incident. Meanwhile, Adam was struggling with grip from his Toyos on track and an overheating issue off track. With the tannoy announcement that the track is closed for an accident, we head back down to Adenau for a break and collect our keys for room number 4. Adam used the time to catch up on some sleep while me and Woz tried to convince our bodies that it was lunch time with a currywurst order at the Cockpit.
All over that 102 RON!
Duct tape on an SLR? Really?
Once we see cars coming down the track again, that’s our cue to get back up the hill and back on track again. No time to let the rush die down, we get straight out on the track and onto one of the craziest laps I’ve ever seen. See, I usually like the track when it’s quiet and I can take all the lines at my own pace. But this was much more exhilarating, as we joined a group of similarly powered cars including an Evo, a couple of Minis and Meganes and an old skool 911 for a close paced chase. We weren’t hitting the lines for the perfect lap, but it didn’t matter, this was great fun!
As we sat in the car park, cooling Adam’s car again, we heard the familiar announcement that the track was again closed and so we headed back into the town again for another break, this time opting for a supermarket trip. Firstly to the beer supermarket to stock the hotel fridge with Bitburger, then next across the road for curry ketchup to take back to the UK before finally trying to decipher how to buy blue top milk in Lidl for Adam’s Cheerios. At which point I also got stung by a wasp. That wasn’t fun.
We drove back up the entrance to be greeted with people running to their cars, a clear indication that the track had just been announced reopen and with no delay, we went straight out to use the last lap of Woz’s card and got straight into another even more crazy lap against similar traffic, with around ten cars bunched up going three abreast into corners. This was excellent again and the sheer adrenaline did a great job of muting the pain of the wasp sting, even just for 15 minutes or so.
Deciding that four laps was just enough and not wanting to take any chances for how the Monday evening session would be, we called it a day from here. We gathered our jittery nerves from the adrenaline rush and finished the day at Pinocchios, opting to sit outside in the mild evening air. By 9pm, 24 hours after getting on the road back in the UK, we were all in bed and ready to finally get some proper sleep.
Sunday morning, after breakfast, with the track closed all day for manufacturer testing we got back on the motorway and headed south to Stuttgart. After the glorious sunshine of Saturday we were glad to be in the cars and indoors today, even if the spray on the autobahn was less than ideal. At the halfway point with the signs to Hockenheim in view we decided to take a brief detour to see if anything was on, as I usually seem to do whenever I’m passing. The traffic we soon encountered led us to believe that something was on. The sign I then spotted advertising the DTM final with today’s date confirmed that fact, and also confirmed that we would not simply be walking into the grandstands today for a quick look. With that option out of the window, we returned to the autobahn and got down to the Porsche museum in Stuttgart. Even in today’s wet weather the pure white underground car park was still immaculate and despite the signs ordering anybody not to back into the spaces (for fear of dirtying the walls with exhaust soot) we did it anyway…
I knew what to expect from the Porsche museum, it’s the stereotypical German precision in a spectacular architectural building. The white theme continues inside with everything crisp and clean and perfect. It’s not so much the exhibits, but the way that they’re presented that really makes this place work. Being that it’s the 50th birthday of the 911, they made up the vast majority of the display, which although great, did seem to be lacking a little of the variety from my previous visit. It was enjoyable none the less and given that I’d tagged Rich in my Facebook check in again, I felt it appropriate to buy the Porsche fan something of a souvenir, a cut out and make GT3RS postcard would do nicely…
The Porsche car park is a spectacle itself
And inside the museum is just as clean
We skipped the Porsche restaurant and after a brief look inside the dealership opposite headed on to our next destination. I advised against Woz’s idea of the Mercedes museum on the opposite side of the city, given that it isn’t as good as Porsche and is also not the easiest route to drive through the city centre. Instead, we set out to investigate something I’ve planned to visit in the past, the Meilenwerk.
The idea is simple and effective. A small area of car themed businesses all in one place where anyone can come and have a look around. Outside there was a cross between a meet and a car show in the car parks, inside there were classic car dealerships, car memorabilia and merchandise for sale, new car dealerships for the likes of McLaren, Bentley and Lamborghini and several large glass cases, used for owners to store and show off their exotic cars. You could even hire some of them, though the €900 daily rate for the Alfa 8C Spider seemed a little out of our reach. There is also the V8 hotel on site, with car themed rooms. The main thing that got me here was the variety. American V8 trucks next to classic Ferraris, brand new Lamborghinis and original Fiat 500s. A Citroen DS sits in the car park next to a hot rod and a McLaren 12C Spider while a BMW Z1 inside is sat between a 2CV and a GT40! And on wandering round the back of the building, I found my favourite car of the day, something I never thought I’d see in the metal, the excess all areas Lamborghini LM002 off roader with it’s £3k a piece bulletproof tyres. Just casually sat in the car park next to a green Mitsubishi Colt!
12C Spiders outside Meilenwerk
The completely bonkers Lamborghini LM002
We finally got some lunch at 4pm, the Tower 66 diner adjoining the Harley showroom was a typical stereotyped American steakhouse but they did serve nice burgers. And the knives were good too… ;-)
As it started to get dark and the day was over, we hit the road for the 3 hour drive back up the autobahn. At some point along this journey I found how comfortable the Recaros were. By that I mean I slouched down and fell asleep, waking up to find I’d slept through a 150mph stint up the derestricted section chasing an AMG Mercedes. I am glad to announce that no clutches were destroyed in the process. I did however wake up just in time for the sat nav to ask us to leave the motorway, this being the point where Woz nearly overcooked it on the slip road, which I’m glad I wasn’t sleeping through! We passed through Kempenich and down the Hohe Acht road back to the hotel, skipping an evening meal after our late lunch.
As Monday morning came and we arrived fashionably late at the breakfast table yet again, we had most of the day to entertain ourselves in the local area before the track would open briefly in the evening. First port of call was the shops and visitor centre at the GP circuit. I refrained from buying anything in the shop, the wallet still crying from the September trip. Instead, we bought ourselves tickets for the museum, karting and ‘backstage tour’ which we then had to hurry downstairs in the next two minutes to join.
This was an unknown quantity and after listening to the guide speak German for five minutes, which I picked up the odd word of, we were relieved when he then started to relay the same information in the English as we took a tour of the historic paddock, followed by the GP paddock and pits before the press rooms, podium and the roof of the tower overlooking the pit straight and Hatzenbach section of the Nordschleife.
Heading to the GP paddock on the backstage tour
View from the top of the GP circuit
Next up, the kart track, all indoor and not quite on par with the Schumacher centre at Kerpen, but cheap enough for our 10 minute stint and the karts sounded good, even if the engine note was synthetic. We were on for an all UK podium right until the last lap when one of the Germans pulled a quick lap out to go second.
Finally we had our quick look around the museum, exactly as it was before. We had a quick game on the bizarre laser gun ride (don’t ask…) and took part in a challenge to change the wheels on a BMW F1 car. Despite me and Woz being a man down against the other three corners, our competitive British nature meant we were just as quick in the practice. We may even have won had it not been for our wheel nut dropping right underneath the car. Fail!
We took a quick afternoon trip into Adenau next, we had a postcard to send of course, as soon as we found the post office. And we also paid a visit to the paint shop, taking our tin of white spray through town in a clear plastic bag so everybody could see what we planned to get up to that evening…
As the time neared for the track to open to the public, I was dropped off at Galgenkopf for a walk through the mud to get round to Schwalbenschwanz, a corner I knew I could get nice and close to the track for to get some photos of the MR2s on track. I was joined there by a German photographer that I had a slightly awkward German/English conversation with and then soon after by two more Germans. After waiting, I finally got the photos of Adam’s car, but with Woz nowhere in sight. Until a few minutes later when he slowly came round with a saddened face. And upon zooming into the picture I could see why. Rear quarter damage…
I did hang on for a while in case Adam was going out again, but I think in light of the situation they’d called it a day and I headed back towards the entrance on foot where I met up with Woz. He still had a smile on his face luckily and was only too proud to show off his €98 Nurburgring branded invoice. Good lad!
And so he explained how he’d lost it into Metzgesfeld, taking it sideways into the barrier on the left, where there’s very little run off. Luckily, he’d not damaged the barrier, only marked it with red paint, so the majority of his bill was for a hot lap in the safety car Volvo (oh how we have memories of that Volvo, eh?) and half an hour of two marshalls’ time. Could have been much worse.
Adam makes it safely round at Schwalbenschwanz
Woz however, does not...
With that over, we prepared for our evening meal, at of course, the Pistenklause. And by now you should know what we all ordered. Ah, that lovely steak. We spent a little time ogling the seemingly production spec BMW i8 outside, which we were incredibly surprised to see and then I got the honour of driving Adam’s MR2 back to the hotel. I kept it pretty sensible though, last thing I wanted was another damaged MR2! And then we went for our evening track walk at Adenauer Forst where the full moon reflecting off the barriers did nothing to unnerve our Volvo hauntings from a year ago. Down at Metzgesfeld we went hunting for car parts, though rather than the usual race car carbon fibre we were looking for Woz’s indicator… And then it happened again. Lights on the barrier, surely not the moonlight this time? Nope, run! And over the barrier, knocking my head on it in the process to watch a bicycle silently wizz past. I still have no idea now. All I am thankful for is that there were no brambles this time and that the bruise on my head has just about gone two weeks later.
Back up at Adenauer Forst and seemingly shook up from yet another barrier dive, I stood watch on the safe side for Volvos, while Woz took the spray can and quickly left our tag, adding his, Adam’s and my names, but also Rich’s before crossing it out again… With half the can of paint still left, we gave up, opting to sit on the balcony and watch for the 11pm Volvo lap before we did anything more. By the time it had been, half an hour later than expected, we’d already had enough and opted for bed instead.
As Tuesday morning dawned, it was time to pack up and check out, paying for our room and saying goodbye to Eddy’s parents. We had an 8pm sailing so were in no rush, taking time to recycle our empty bottled and use the credit towards new full ones to take back and spending some time at Pflanzgarten and Dottinger Hohe watching the manufacturer testing session again, including an F Type Coupe, a Range Rover Sport that sounded better than anything else on track, a BMW 2 Series getting very sideways and a highly camouflaged Lamborghini.
Lamborghini Carbrera at PF2
F Type Coupe on Dottinger Hohe
We then decided to press on, giving ourselves time to stop along the way. Firstly at Spa, where we watched some R8s on the track on an experience day. With no food on offer in the paddock, we carried on again, with another brief stop at the Strepy Thieu boat lift before the final stint to Calais.
Arriving behind schedule we headed straight into the port, which turned out to be a bad idea. Our ferry was delayed by an hour. A building in front of us had a burger on the side but said ‘Coming soon’. Another on the other side of the port was closed and the big building in the middle that said ‘Restaurant’ on the side was inaccessible. All we could do was sit in the car again for another hour. Note to self: Don’t sail from Calais again.
Assessing the damage
The colossal Strepy Thieu boat lift
Once boarded we headed straight for the restaurant, to be very disappointed by what was on offer. £9 for chicken and chips or fish and chips which looked like they were cooked an hour ago in a school canteen. Nevertheless, we ate it anyway, not that it was that appetising. After a boring crossing, we reached England at around 10pm local time and headed straight up the West Midlands. At which point I found those Recaros just too comfy again and dozed off, waking only to find we were minutes away. Fairly refreshed from my snooze, I opted to head off down to my stop for the night near Ross on Wye, completing the journey in style at 3am, with the roof down, naturally!
All in all, a most unusual trip, a very interesting one and with a lot learned. As for that addiction, well it’s still not fulfilled. Lets just say trip number 12 is already in the planning ;-)
The final day was upon us. In some ways it was sad, in others it was a relief. Two weeks in close quarters was a little too much for some and the call of normality and the daily routine carried a break from what had been magnificent, yet tiring all the same.
A lie in yet again allowed us more time in bed and to let the morning traffic ease before attempting Brussels’ ring road for a second time and from there onwards it was my turn to drive the boring two hours along arrow straight but broken and potholed belgian motorway. We entered France ahead of schedule so took a detour around Dunkerque for a final McDonalds visit.
Carrying on, we made it to the port and through customs, at which point the 306 turned around to get petrol. We were then reunited with a car we’d seen back on way to Spa two weeks ago, a very distinctive 4x4 2CV. Turns out he’d only been to Germany, but his tales of 4000 mile trips around Spain and driving to the Arctic Circle put our ‘mere’ 3000 miles into perspective. And made the leather of the S2000 seem all that more comfortable. A brave man indeed!
On board, we at least had more than fog to watch out of the window, though some of us sat down to watch Rio instead, not that we would hear it. I sort of worked out what it was about anyway… The return journey is always that little longer, the boat having to do a three point turn at either end to be facing the right way and this time on debarking everyone got through customs.
And we now had to pray for good weather, as the 306 left us and we had nowhere for the tonneau cover to go other than on. With our last goodbyes at the BP in Dover it was straight home for us, though I chose to top up the tank at the Shell further up the road. Matt followed for a while, until we dived off down the M3 towards Taunton.
The weather was kind to us, only a little drizzle half an hour from home and after dropping off Jez I was able to put the car away for a well deserved break.
It now has a large shopping list to be fullfilled in the next two years and I’ve already started pushing pins in the map again, some places that I need to revisit, some new places I want to see. I’ll be going higher, but certainly not further or longer next time. And as I always say, you can make it happen. I’m going to start sticking £50 a month into a savings account ready and all being well in July/August 2015 I’ll be off once more...
Following Matt in the Birthdaymobile
Tucked in to bed after 3000 miles...
Pinocchios remainders on the menu tonight
Waking up in Mannheim we were now far to the north of all the mountains and the remaining driving would be more about getting to places than enjoying the route. The only stint of the day involved a simple non stop Autobahn run towards Cologne before taking the exit to the petrolhead mecca. The name of Adenau on road signs probably means nothing to most people but if you know where it is, you’ll know that this otherwise unimportant and unknown town is the gateway to the most extreme track in the world, the Nurburgring Nordschleife.
The sat nav delighted me as it gave a right turn after the village of Kempenich which I knew was taking me down the excellent Hohe Acht road where after the first few glimpses of red and white barrier through the trees we turned under the track and arrived at our base for the next 24 hours, Hotel an der Nordschleife. We were greeted not only by Eddy’s family who help to run the hotel but by another PoT member who we’d arranged to meet. Matt and his girlfriend, Tamsin had been here most of the week and would now be joining our convoy for the next few days.
Our short drive meant a very early check in, in fact the maid was still cleaning our room, so with the bulk of our baggage emptied we headed down just in front of the hotel to the newly refurbished cafe for currywurst all round before paying a visit to everyone’s favourite shop, the Rewe beer supermarket for a stock up.
Next we drove up to the visitors centre for the usual browse around and while the others looked at stickers to add to their cars after our laps, I searched through the reduced to clear corner and found a Brawn GP cap which after some price haggling from Jez ended up coming back with me. A few of us had a quick race on the Raceroom simulators while the rest had a look around the other end of the centre. As usual, the DBR9 was a good bet and I ended up beating Matt, though it probably wasn’t the cleanest of drives…
We took a visit to the Dottinger Hohe ED petrol station for the 306 to refuel, joining a huge queue of M3s that had been using the track since we arrived and once we got to the entrance car park still about 15 minutes before opening time the loudspeaker annouced that we were good to go, ahead of schedule. It was all fairly quiet, in Nurburgring terms, ie. there were still spaces free in the main car park, but still I gave it ten minutes for the initial rush to die down and went to purchase laps. I nervously handed over the S2000 keys to Jez with the line ‘Bring it back, please. I’d like a lap too...’ and as he took Davo out for the first passenger lap, I jumped in with Steff with the cab’s roof down (naturally) to shout lefts and rights while the Honda followed.
No doubt, the 306 isn’t really cut out for the ‘Ring and Steff had to drive to it’s abilities rather than rely on my ‘you can go really quick through this corner’ instructions. Even a couple of ‘flat out’ commands were met with ‘I am...’. And after following to Breidscheid the S2000 then made a break for freedom, to be fair we were holding it up.
We met up again in the car park, I was pleased to find the S2000 still in one piece and with it cooled for ten minutes we all swapped over. I now took Ed out in the Honda with Matt following in his Clio for a short while until he disappeared from view after a few corners. The 306 went out this time three up, Steff giving Jez and Sean a ride.
The good news is that the S2000 felt much better in the dry than on my previous damp trip last year. The bad news is that it still needs a fair bit of work to the suspension for it to feel properly planted, something that was highlighted even more when just before the final corner I was passed at great speed by Davo, passengering in what turned out to be a ‘standard’ 1.8 MX-5. Oh…
At which point, after seeing the look on Davo’s face it was decided that it wasn’t worth taking our cars out again. Instead, we gave Bren money for fuel and let him use his unlimited laps Jahreskarte to show us all one by one how a veteran of 13,000 laps and a previous bike lap record holder can take a normal car with a dodgy engine around the track in around 8 minutes.
Each passenger returned looking suitably white and in shock and eventually it was my turn. And for the next eight minutes I became nothing more than a grinning idiot in the passenger seat. Perhaps it was because I knew the corners that were coming up at each place but I wasn’t scared, just amazed. It was clear that the car wasn’t fast in a straight line but on the Nordschleife, that doesn’t matter. This car was all about carrying the speed through each corner. I’m not sure how often he braked but in the few places his did it was never for long. And this meant that nothing came past, in fact quite the opposite as this cheap little car was passing the regular Porsches and M3s all the way around.
Bren was happy to have a chilled out conversation whilst he was doing this and with his explanation of sticky rubber, polybushes and shocks and springs I could feel my shopping list getting longer and longer. My first thought on my return was that I wanted that MX-5, or at least one specced like for like. Although on second thoughts what I really wanted was my S2000 to handle like that MX-5 and that’s the lasting thought that I came away with from that day.
Now at well past 7pm with the car park emptying and everybody back from passenger rides we were already late for our booked table for tea though it was only a five minute drive into Nurburg to another ‘usual’ spot. The Pistenklause restaurant is famous for one major reason, which is the reason that we were also served incredibly quickly. I don’t think anyone looked at the menu. When Tamsin ordered fillet steak everybody just looked at each other, nodded and I said ‘Yep, ten of those please’. And only five minutes later, ten raw cuts of steak arrived on ten piping hot slabs of stone. Ah, the lovely Steak auf Stein. It gets very warm around the table very quickly. And if you look up your eyes will water for the smoke filling the air. But this gorgeous meal is well worth it and a true Nurburgring tradition. And with the plates cleared and approval from the waiter we even added our tour sticker to the grafitti’d roof of the restaurant. Top job from Steff!
Before long we were out the door and all that was left was another ‘usual’, an after dark walk from Breidscheid up to Wehrseifen where the fresh tarmac was in need of decoration and the repainted tyre barrier was given another spare sticker.
S2000 on Karussell
The real master takes Davo for a ride
Three up fun in the cab
Steff applies the finishing touches to our sticker
After waking up in Mulhouse and weighing up the options we decided to stick to our original plan and not to detour via the Porsche museum at Stuttgart. This meant that after a quick Lidl trip we made the short journey across the town to the French national motor museum, the Schlumpf collection.
It certainly exceeded my expectations, the work of two obsessive brothers, the 400 cars in this old mill warehouse worth in excess of £100m with two of the original Type 41 Royales making up a large proportion of that. Jez even had a passenger ride in a 206 with Zoe at the wheel, she only managed to roll it twice ;-) Certainly worth a recommendation from me if you're anywhere nearby.
With that done by lunchtime we got on the motorway for a short stinit, given that Mannheim was only a couple of hours away. We tried to cut across to join up with our intended route, but given a closed motorway exit we ended up on the Black Forest high road somewhere near it's mid point where we found a sheltered spot to make sandwiches before we headed off to Baden Baden. It would be unfair to dismiss the road as a disappointment given that we only drove half of it in yet more cold drizzle, but even with the scenery overlooking the Vosges across the border Germany's 'ultimate biking road' seemed unremarkable.
Back on the Autobahn with some derestricted miles we made rapid progress towards our final stop of the day before the hotel. Hockenheim was yet again, wet. There were cars going around the circuit, so we tried our luck and were soon let into the paddock side. The track day was packing up but with some broken English from a marshall we understood that the police would soon turn up and let people go out behind them. Apparently.
We saw none of thee that and even after nearly an hour of waiting and only seeing some driver training cars out on the track we made tracks instead. After checking in, we went out to explore the centre of Mannheim, parking under a large water tower and finding most restaurants either full or expensive. We settled in the end on an Italian bar which turned out to be pretty good, and reasonably priced.
One of six. Value, £10m plus.
Paddock side at Hockenheim
Classic GP cars at the Schlumpf collection
Jez found his room for the night!
As we woke up from our night in the pyramid an initially gloomy start to the day quickly turned into blue sky and sunshine as the clouds lifted. With nowhere booked for the night and all the Zurich hotels fully booked our destination was changed and we booked four rooms just over the French border in Mulhouse.
Davo and Steff set off for more 306 exhaust repairs while me and Jez sampled the delights of a McDonalds breakfast Swiss style. Bread and jam was both surprisingly filling and surprisingly tasty. And after a lost in translation conversation about tea I even ended up with a posh teabag full of Earl Grey, making the best McDonalds cup of tea I've ever had. The other room meanwhile slept in til the last minute.
We got moving after the daily detour to the nearest Shell and got onto our first of four planned passes for the day. The Oberalp doesn't seem to get the exposure of some of the others in the vicinity but again it was a pleasure to drive in the dry and the steep snaking section going down the west side gave a great view out into the Urseren valley. You don't even see the lovely alpine town of Andermatt down below until you are almost level with it.
As pretty as the town is, most of us had seen it before and we had time to make up and so we carried on, through the valley to the next pass. Here, we saw our first sign of bad news. Big red signs declaring the Furka Pass as closed. Memories of 2011 all over again, was it really going to beat us a second time? We thought we'd see how far we could get, so we carried on anyway...
And about three quarters of the way up, there was the barrier across the road. Time to turn round and head back. But not until we'd had a snowball fight of course! In the meantime, an official looking van came down the pass to us, announcing that in 10 minutes the pass would open. It was actually going to happen then! Or not, as the case would be, when a second official in a Dacia Duster came down to tell us that the pass would now not open. Gutted.
We hung around anyway, taking photos of the scenery and playing in the snow, until a further half hour had passed and now bikes began to come down from the summit. The dutch bikers told us that the other side was perfectly clear and with that we dropped the barrier and proceeded, the only four cars on that road having it all to ourselves. And it was just awesome! Obviously the weather plays a huge part in these passes and today it was all perfect. Dry enough for driving, but with the snow covered mountain sides making for the most stunning backdrop. We skipped stopping at the summit and instead stopped on the western side for some photos alongside the glacier at the source of the Rhone.
From our viewpoint here, the next decision was made for us. The Grimsel Pass was going to be completely inaccessible going by the large white cloud hanging right over the top of it. Without this link we wouldn't be doing the Susten Pass either. We could only head further west out of the small deserted village of Gletsch and from here it took an hour of ignoring the sat nav before we got rerouted, the day's driving getting longer and longer all the time.
The weather was pleasant enough but the slow drive through the next valley to Brig was uneventful and we were just getting too far out of the way, until we found another pass, or so we thought. It wasn't until we reached the top it became apparent that this was a dead end road to a railway station. We drove back out and back down the windy hillside into the valley whilst I frantically tried to work out where we were and where to go. And once at the bottom I realised the train was the easiest option. We would have to wait for the next one, but it would cut out an hour of driving and nearly 100 miles worth of fuel, even if we had already wasted both by going up and down already.
Back up it was then, with a quick stop at the apricot shop half way up. CHF22 per car and we were sat ready to board the Lotschberg railway from Goppenstein to Kanderstag. We drove onto a rusty old looking carriage, put the roof up and turned the engine off as for the next 15 minutes were whisked quickly through 10 miles of mountain to emerge on the north side now bound for Bern and beyond
Our motorway journey from here overlapped us with our second day as we found ourselves giggling at the signs for Wankdorf once more. Further up, we all had a run in with the Swiss speed cameras, getting all four cars flashed for doing 70mph in an apparently 60kph section of motorway. Oops.
Nevertheless, we weren't stopped as we reached the border crossing and it was only a short drive into France where we found our hotel for the night. Despite having spotted a Domino's delivery bike nearby, the receptionist was able to recommend a restaurant in walking distance and given that everybody had done enough driving that was a sensible option. We spent the evening in the Petit Resto wondering how we could smuggle out a life sized wooden carved man. I don't think Zoe's special handbag was big enough though.
#topalwaysdown on the Furka Pass
Brief stop at the Rhone glacier
Grimsel Pass on the right of shot was a no go
Lotschberg train was 'different'
Day 7 was all about one thing, a long hard slog into the mountains with only one goal, the Stelvio Pass.
I was up at the crack of dawn ready with a toolkit to replace my worn tensioner with the one I'd refurbed the night before, then we took the daily supermarket trip to stock up. To get ourselves driving in the right direction we had to get around Lake Como, which meant nearly half an hour driving south on the road we came in on. With that out of the way it was a series of tunnels that took us above the shore line and north to follow just south of the Swiss border.
We made our first stop of the day just over the border in Campocologno where the fuel (in Swiss Francs) was about a quarter cheaper and we sat half way up a valley making our sandwiches.
From there it was onwards and upwards. The sign were all green and said the pass was open, so we made our way up before taking an unintentional wrong turn somewhere on the south side. The opportunity was taken to check everything that was affected by the air pressure, so bottles of fizzy drink were opened up as was Ed’s massive bag of crisps which now looked like a pillow. As we sat on the side we also had a convoy of supercars pass us. Unexpected, but nice!
The final ascent was very quick, even though not on the famous side of the pass, there were still hairpins everywhere and the drop on the side was massive. After not too long, the sight of hotels and the small village at the top came into view. We reached the 2760m summit and parked facing the well known stretch of hairpins we’d come to see.
It was quite bleak at the top, with flurries of snow from the cloud sat at the top and although the sun was trying it’s hardest to break through we were all consigned to our warm coats and hats as we milled about the gift shops. Meanwhile, Steff decided to take the 306 back down the south side to drive the part that Davo had driven up. So we had some time to spare.
I spent this by adding my sticker to the famous pass sign and then posing for a selfie and getting the car in position for a shot too. Not long after, loud noises came from behind, and in this case it wasn’t the blowing exhaust of the cab, but yet more of the same convoy we’d passed earlier and soon the deserted mountain top was congested with SLSs, FFs, a 12C and around 15 other super cars. What brilliant timing!
They didn’t stop long before roaring off down the 48 hairpins and then after an absence of close to an hour with us thinking we were continuing a car short, the 306 broke the silence again. Me and Steff waited around at the top of the pass while the others climbed to the very top of the peak, just over the border into Switzerland, where at over 2800m they raised the Swiss flag on the refuge hut.
Next, it was all about the drive back down, which after only a couple of the hairpins was already drying out as we were descending very rapidly. In honesty, I’ll agree with the reviews on this stretch, it’s not the ultimate driving road that Top Gear make it out to be. It’s spectacular, it’s incredible, but a succession of 48 super tight 1st gear corners gets tiring quite quickly. The southern side, which I’d been a passenger for, was a lot more fun.
Upon reaching the bottom, we now had our next problem, if you can call it that. The north east side of the pass leaves you miles from anywhere, which given the dreary weather made for a boring drive back west and over the border into Switzerland and over the Ofen Pass, a bit of a bonus that we weren't expecting but just happened to be on route. We entertained ourselves in the style of Dumb and Dumber by getting a train driver to sound his whistle as we passed the railway but the highlight of the next two hour stint would come in the shape of the next mountain pass.
The Fluela Pass should have been brilliant. It had all the right corners to make for a fast, flowing drive, with the perfect open bends to see what was coming and it culminated in another 2000+m summit with an alpine lake at the top. Instead, it was soaked and slippery, had a jackknifed lorry halfway up it and a disgruntled local at the top.
Any normal person would think that the large open layby beside the lake would be the perfect place to stop, run to the bushes for a call of nature and find the remains of one of Jez’s now infamous sandwiches. We were chased away before we could have a toilet break and told ‘I don’t come to your house to eat sandwiches’ when I got my food out of the boot. And I thought Switzerland was supposed to be a peaceful country? We swapped drivers and Jez gave the angry lady a couple of donuts before heading down the other side, chasing the clouds as they made their way down the valley.
All that was left was a breif stop at the entrance of Davos for Davo to have his picture taken at the sign and then we hit the motorway for 15 minutes before arriving in the regional capital of Chur, still high up in the Alps and still wet and miserable. Our hotel was an easy find, being a large white pyramid with a McDonalds underneath it. Once parked in the heated underground car park, we booked a couple of fairly expensive rooms and made our way to the top of the pyramid where they were located. It was certainly an unusual hotel, with the rooms all taking the sloping outside shape meaning it was far too easy to keep banging your head on the pillars. We each had a room for four, meaning that me and Jez shared a double bed with Davo and Steff taking the singles in our room. It was nice to have a bit more company for the night as we’d all been in pairs all week.
The other room ventured out into the town for a meal but given the weather we plumped for the ground floor and another visit to McDonalds, as the easy option. With that out of the way, we took an early night and found ourself something to watch on TV… Dumm and Dummer. Yes, in German. Luckily, between me and Jez (especially Jez), we were able to give a full translation into English, the sign of misspent youths watching the video on repeat I think…
A couple of plans were made, but it was to be up to the weather in the morning to see where we’d end up.
Every petrolhead knows this view...
Davo's true home
Find the #topalwaysdown sticker!
Rooms in the Ibis pyramid were certainly unusual!
Today was a day of lots of motorway driving, and with it lots of tolls. We'd got the weather spot on for our day at Monaco as it now started out grey and murky. We topped up the Honda with some 98 RON thought we were out of luck with our food as the local supermarket was closed on a Sunday.
We decided not to hang around and got on the motorway to our first stop at a services near Genoa. Which meant as soon as we had crossed the border we were onto one of the best motorways in the world - the Autostrada dei Fiori - a series of viaducts with views across the Mediterranean separated by tunnels. What more could you want?
After our baguette stop at Spotorno and a chance for a soggy cheese sandwich we turned north and followed the windy motorway upwards towards Turin, where the rain decided to come down heavy, forcing us to get the roof up at the next toll booth.
The drive into Turin was straightforward enough and we were soon parked in the Lingotto car park ready to explore the old Fiat factory, another location from the Italian Job. We first found the north ramp where the cars went from level to level but were soon barred from going higher up. At the other end of the shopping centre was a lift to the former restaurant giving us a glimpse of the rooftop test track and it's banked corners. Still no further, I then spotted another glass lift this time to the rooftop art gallery, where we got right to the top and found an open door, then to be told we weren't allowed out. So near and yet so far... We did get a good view of what we came for though, so we left fairly happy.
We headed off towards Milan, our first mission to do as per the Minis and escape Turin. The place was a dump, with beggars on the street junctions and shantys on the road side. The day's comedy moment was watching a Citroen DS overtake us over some speed bumps, taking them all in it's stride and completely soaking them up. I now want one as a daily...
The next two hours of motorway was more of the same and another heavy downpour meant a quick hard shoulder stop to get the roof up again. After being split up again in the traffic and low visibility we all eventually made it to Monza where we had another stop for a look around.
Like Spa, it was all very open with us first walking into the Ascari grandstand before looking for the old original banking. Trying to run up that in the wet was not fun! It was a case of clinging to the fence and climbing up, it's steeper than you can imagine! It was even worse trying to get back down... We had a general exlpore around T1 and then set off in search for fuel for the Honda which was now on vapours. Firstly I found a station that wouldn't accept my car, so I stuck a note in and bent over as it cost me £1.95 a liter, secondly we found a Shell and had the same problem, this time to the tune of £2.07! In the meantime, Lee beached the Clio on a kerb and had to be pushed off.
We then set off on the final half hour of the journey to the hotel, until we spotted a DIY store, still just about open at 7pm on a Sunday, where we stopped for parts to fit my refurbed TCT. We quickly checked in and then fixed the spare back together, ready to replace in the morning in the (hopefully) drier weather.
We then had a ride into Como for our evening meal at the familiar restaurant on the shore of the lake that we had eaten at two years ago. The food was great and decently priced and the beer came in litres. The waitress was a bit of a clown though, pretending to spill everything on us.
Having found the cars again, with the rain now gone and the sky clearing it's just a hope that it stays good for tomorrow, though I'll be checking the Stelvio Pass webcam again in the morning I reckon!
Viaduct, tunnel, viaduct, tunnel, repeat x100. Autostrada di Fiori
Lingotto's famous Rampa Nord
Lingotto's even more famous rooftop, as far as we were going to get onto it
Insanely steep old Monza banking
Today was a rest day, a well deserved break after a long four days of driving. Our destination of Monaco was less than an hour away and there was no rush for the usual 9am start.
After the daily supermarket trip and a visit to the local car wash to get the cars looking more suitable for the principality we eventually got going. The traffic through Nice was a pig and it didn't take long for us to lose the Polo from the convoy, thought it was found a little later on and we reconvened somewhere just north of Casino Square before dropping down to St Devote for our first lap.
This lap went slightly wrong as I managed to miss Casino Square altogether, though we went round for another in full at which point I decided to engage the VTEC up the hill and make an entire bus load of tourists turn and look. A guy in the tunnel seemed equally impressed filming the 306 going through...
With our second cheeky one way street manoeuvre of the trip we found our way into the car park and left to explore on foot. First up was food and McDonalds was decided as the easiest and cheapest way to eat, so we made our way to the tunnel entrance where we knew we'd find one.
After lunch everyone was keen to cool down in the baking 27 degrees sun so we hit the beach, Davo stood guard on the kit and we all went for a swim. I could have stayed in the water all day, in fact we did spend most of the day in and around the jetty before drying off, grabbing some multicoloured slush puppies and heading to Casino Square via the McLaren, Rolls Royce and Ferrari dealerships. At which point Jez checked his Euromillions. Not enough unfortunately...
After ogling the supercars at the casino, watching the valet parking and dreaming of being incredibly wealthy we were ready for more food and wandered down to the pit lane exit to a reasonably priced outdoor restaurant. The waiter warned us not to have the cheeseburgers but me and Davo ignored his advice. We probably should have listened... Never mind, we were fed and ready to complete our on foot lap and make our way to the car park.
Steff's dodgy ticket became an issue when the pay machine wouldn't read it and we thought we'd have to run the cab straight through the barrier. But in the end it worked and we were all paid up. We drove up another couple of storeys to see what cars were about and I parked in next to another S2000 that I'd seen on the CCTV on the ground floor for a photo.
The traffic back to the hotel was much lighter and the roads seemed a lot more fun, my only concern being a familiar sound from the Honda as we stopped at some traffic lights. So once back, I was hunting in the boot for my spare timing chain tensioner and then set about making a massive oily mess in the hotel room whilst I refurbed it ready to change them over...
Cars washed and ready to head to Monaco
Convoy on the Loews Hairpin
Perfect weather for a dip in the Med
Supercars galore in Casino Square
I'm running a little behind with these, so I'm going to try to keep it brief...
Day 4 saw us waking up in Annecy to clear blue skies and getting on the road right on schedule. Toll motorways were the first item of the day and other than the usual confusion at how to pay (stick a credit card in seems to be the easiest) they allowed us to get to miles done before we reached the main attraction of the day - Route Napoleon.
Lunch was served in the usual fashion in a layby at the top of the Col du Bayard, just north of Gap and after just half an hour we pressed on again. The scenery all day was purely stunning, mountains in every direction.
As we got near to Digne, where I'm sure the route should have taken us, the TomTom wanted me to turn a right. A large white sign on this turning was written in French but I could understand the words 'dangeroux' and 'difficile' so it sounded like a good idea to me! What came next was the equivalent of a rally stage, all single track complete with some lovely uphill hairpins. Whilst the Polo and Clio crawled along and the 306 went off roading through the field, I gave the Honda a pasting and had five minutes at the top to remove my hoodie, it was now getting warm.
We rejoined the N85 and continued towards our second stop of the day in Castellane but first were given a gem of a road. Overtaken at first by a crazy local in a Yaris, we did our best to keep up as the S2000 and 306 did battle through the twisties, only stopping on the descent to cool both car's brakes (the 306's more so!) whilst everything we'd overtaken went past again.
In Castellane we had free parking so took an hour to wander round and get ice cream before getting on the road for the final stint down to the coast. Near to Antibes we hit the rush hour traffic and as I went in search of the Total garage I had planned to stop at, we lost two of the cars. After filling up it seemed that they had got onto the toll motorway, so we headed off to the hotel alone, only to sit doing the last five miles in an hour, reaching the final stop over an hour after the others. Never mind...
For the evening, we walked along the beach into Villeneuve Loubet harbour and found a decent bar to sit outside for the rest of the evening, with it eventually shutting up while we were still outside. 411 Euros later we were walking back, we thought at that price the glasses must come included, so most of them came back with us ;-)
The sign convinced me to take this road...
Time to cool the brakes above Castellane
Riding in the 306 as we neared the coast
Leaving our mark on Villeneuve Loubet beach
Waking up in Fribourg the weather looked more promising. It had rained overnight but there were patches of blue in the sky that were looking unusual to us. Another supermarket trip was first on the agenda. Lee decided not to take us straight into the one in view of the hotel but to take a short tour of the outskirts of the town instead before pulling into the Coop carpark. With more bread, cheese and salami bought we then decided to have a ‘quick’ stop at the golden arches for breakfast. Turns out Swiss Maccies don’t do breakfast and they don’t do quick as the food comes hot enough to melt the inside of your mouth. The barbeque fries were good though and the cup of tea tasted more like tea than the English version and was enough to make me feel more awake.
Finally at nearly 11am and two hours behind schedule we hit the motorway following the signs to Grand St Bernhard and seemingly always heading towards the clear blue patch in between the clouds. This was looking promising!
After a quick ‘play’ with a GT3RS on the motorway (which the 306 cab completely annihilated) it was time for the daily fuel stop. The garage was meant to be a shell, but a BP selling 98 RON was good enough and after an attempt as rocker cover toast we got on our way again.
Once off the motorway we started to climb the Grand St Bernhard Pass. Not steeply but when you looked back you could see we were getting higher. And fuel shouldn’t have been an issue, the next 15 miles must have had over 30 petrol stations before we parted with the main traffic (including the 458 Italia that had joined the convoy) that went for the tunnel. We went straight up, everything showing green open signs and the sun now strong enough to make even the cold alpine air seem appealing.
I’d heard the Swiss side was the less interesting and with that in mind I was confused, considering that this road was pretty breathtaking. We ended up following a bus most of the way to the summit and once there had a break and took some photos and then when it began to snow, with the roofs still down we started on the Italian side.
And the reviews I’d read were right. I donned my sunglasses, put Matt Munro on repeat and grinned all the way down the amazing bit of road that I’d watched that Lamborghini drive so many times. This was like heaven. Nearer to the bottom I spotted a familiar sight and we pulled in for the some photos of the bridge from the Italian Job’s opening scene, while the 306 carried on further down… I’m sure we’d find them later on.
Sure enough, once we were done we found the cab with Steff laid across the bootlid and once they’d sorted themselves out we were going down again and on to our next pass. But before that I had one more diversion in mind. Blatantly ignoring the woman on the sat nav I found another location of another scene from the film that I’d researched and we pulled in for some photos.
From here it was back through the last village and now up the next pass, the Petite St Bernhard. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, as it wasn’t as high as the previous pass but once it started with hairpin after hairpin I was quickly enjoying myself. We even passed through the famous tunnel without encountering any bulldozers… I passed an Aygo, then slowed for the others to catch up at which point it past me again. Once together and moving again I passed it a second time and from this point I decided to carry on. I was simply having too much fun!
At the top we parked up and waited for the others, taking the opportunity to sticker up the pass sign. Once they arrived it was time for sandwiches another break and driver change and watching some classic BMWs coming up from the opposite (French) side.
After the very long descent from the pass and now on our final leg, I decided on something different. Given that we were about to hit the main roads at 5pm and I had no desire to be sat in rush hour traffic, I plugged an extra point in the sat nav and we soon on our way up a third pass, the Cormet de Roselend, adding only 20 minutes to the journey time. And what a good decision it was! A real tight and twisty road making a steep ascent, yet we had it all to ourselves and were all having a lot of fun! That is until we reached the top where we drove into yet another cloud and more general dampness. Bugger!
We carried on until it got too bad and after getting a massive soaking had to pull over, ditch the tonneau cover that we’d fitted earlier in the day and get the roof up as quickly as possible. And soon after we did that, it dried up again. So of course, the roof went back down. Ah, I’m so glad I pulled that speed sensor wire out of the switch now!
We found ourselves back on the normal roads and then following the shoreline around Lake Annecy until we reached our hotel, a very pleasant Ibis Budget just outside the town centre. And once checked in it was meal time again.
Today, Davo was our driver and yet again, the £400 Peugeot provided the entertainment, fully loaded with the roof down of course! He only took the wrong exit twice and proceeded to get us as lost as possible. Eventually we found a car park within walking distance from the very picturesque town centre where we settled on the first restaurant with a menu in English. Steaks and burgers were the main orders of the day and Jez even included a pudding.
With that done, we took in some more sights, spent 10 minutes in a childs play area and then promptly left before the locals threw us out. And eventually we found our hotel, not that Davo’s TomTom was a lot of help. That done, we’re finished for the day and settled down for a big drive tomorrow. The mediterranean awaits...
Convoy on the Grand St Bernard
Mont Blanc from the Italian Job filming point
Gorgeous weather at last at the top of the Grand St Bernard
Crossing into Italy at 2473m
Another border crossing at the Petit St Bernard
The air pressure up here is pretty low!