Three men, three countries and a 3-Series: Eurotrip 2014

Summer, despite its usual connotations of fun and relaxation, can actually be a pretty stressful time of year. Once you’ve actually booked your holiday, there still lies ahead the logistical purgatory of sorting out accommodation, transport, travel insurance and spending money. In my last post, I extolled the compelling elements of the road trip ideal as a must-do for any true petrolhead. Now that my trip’s been completed, I’ve proudly struck off a couple must-dos from my motoring bucket list. Our six days spanning the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany were exhilarating, hilarious, frustrating and tiring, but entirely worth every minute of pre-trip organisation.
Taking an overnight ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam left us not only in the company of a rowdy hen party (much like a nautical version of Geordie Shore), but also with apprehensions about landing in Holland. Would driving on the right be too weird? Where will I be going when we depart the ferry? What if my car starts a fight with the lorries parked sandwiching it in the hold? These questions dominated my thoughts as I confined myself to my top-bunk prison in our bottom-deck room. I could hear the creaks and groans of the vehicles parked above our room, but I eventually fell asleep rueing the smart choices of those who could afford such luxuries as cabin windows and clean shower curtains.
                                                BMW E46 320i |
Those who have never visited the country say that the Netherlands is defined by windmills, the canals of Amsterdam and the landscape’s utter refusal to offer up anything even remotely resembling a natural hill or mountain. Whilst I’m not one to readily accept stereotypes, my abiding memory of the Netherlands will be the flat, featureless expanse of motorways south of Amsterdam where I stayed in fifth gear for over fifty miles. If you’ve ever played arcade racers where your car appears to stand still whilst the straight road underneath it incessantly moves forward, you’ll understand this feeling of total and utter disconnection. Within a couple of hours, we’d made it to Brussels by Friday afternoon, and I hadn’t killed anyone unlucky enough to be in my blind spot at the wrong time.
Brussels was to be our base for the weekend, as it offered us the benefits of city-living whilst still being relatively close to Spa-Francorchamps; the picturesque host circuit of the Shell Belgian Grand Prix. We visited the track on the Saturday and caught the Porsche Supercup, GP2 and GP3 race series, as well as Formula One’s final practice and qualifying sessions. Nestled within a forested valley in the Stavelot region of Belgium, the circuit’s dramatic inclines and fast sweepers are challenges that cannot be grasped via a TV screen. When it inevitably rained on the Saturday, the water torrented down Eau Rouge and the Kemmel straight, whilst Blanchimont remained dry. I began to fear that the flat old Netherlands might flood until things eased off, with the GP2 cars vacuum-drying the racing line for the Formula One cars later that afternoon.
There was action on track for most of the day, with the turbocharged F1 cars eerily quiet compared to their bassier V8 and yelpy V10 powerplants of before. Often a Lotus, Williams or Mercedes would breeze into a corner quietly, with only the faintest of chirps from the front tyres and occasional wooshes from the turbo expelling excess pressure. It was only when the cars passed you or were in groups that you heard the lower-pitched grumble of the engine. For aural entertainment alone, the GP2 cars were in another league of deafeningly high-pitched shrieking. Each downshift was accompanied by a whip-crack of noise and a bassy thump that shook the chest. For all of contemporary F1’s technological advancements, the ceding of its distinctive noise to lower formulae is a definite drawback. Whilst standing on the outside of Pouhon, we could hear the GP2 cars downshifting for the final chicane before the pit-straight, despite being 1.5km away and with a forest absorbing some of the sound.
F1 - Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps - Belgium - Eau Rouge |
A damp Eau Rouge made cars twitchy and snappy
Belgium F1 Spa-Francorchamps |
It had been sunny earlier; over 20 identical 991’s took advantage of dry conditions
Spa-Francorchamps - F1 - Mercedes |
Effortless hooning
Race day dawned sunny and dry in Brussels, and continued that way at the circuit. As holders of General Admission tickets, we were lucky in that Spa-Francorchamps has some of the largest general admission zones of any F1 circuit. Despite this, it was a struggle to bag a decent viewing location for the day’s action, despite getting there relatively early. We returned to the outside of Pouhon, as through the sweeping left-hander we’d grab a great view of the cars entering and exiting the corner. By midday the festival atmosphere was palpable; we were pitched up on foldaway chairs with beers in hand, Belgian waffles bought and sunglasses on. A group of Germans beside us blasted out Taylor Swift, Scooter and Rammstein from a massive amp on a trailer, whilst a bunch of Magnussen-supporting Danes had brought along a full-size park bench. I had on my newly-bought Ferrari T-shirt and remained hopeful at the start, especially when Hamilton’s puncture dropped him down the field. Whilst it wasn’t to be Ferrari’s day/race/season, it was still thrilling to watch each man battle it out through the corners on a gorgeous summer afternoon.
Belgian Grand Prix - F1  |
Someone, somewhere, has to clean this mess up afterwards…

Ferrari - Red Bull - Mercedes-Benz - McLaren - F1|
Our view for much of the race

Once Nico Rosberg had dominated the race, spectators were allowed onto the circuit. Having never taken advantage of this at Silverstone in 2002 and 2004, I got onto the circuit at Eau Rouge and was more than a little starstruck. Whilst walking uphill through the corner, I could see where the corner’s pummeling compressions had forced each car into the ground. Diffusers had gouged out chunks of tarmac from the racing line, whilst each corner was blackened by tyre treads. I somehow managed to blag my way up into the control box for the old start-finish straight (still complete with working race light controls) and snapped a few photos, before walking back up to La Source and onto the pit straight. What a day it had been.

F1 - Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps - Race |
Add caption

Belgian Grand Prix - Eau Rouge - F1 |

F1 - Belgian Grand Prix - Race |
I pressed them all. You would have, too.

Mercedes-Benz - AMG - F1 - Spa-Francorchamps |

Monday morning brought a four-hour slog into south-western Germany, but with a brilliant reward ahead of us. Whilst cruising along the A1 Autobahn towards Cologne at 120km/h, we passed the famous derestriction sign. Still in doubt, we cautiously gained speed, until a diesel A4 rapidly became a dot on the horizon ahead. My co-driver Rod dropped to fourth and stood on the throttle. Despite sporadic moments of traffic and spits of rain, Rod managed to turn 120km/h into 120mph after a couple of kilometres. 
It was soon my turn to attempt V-max in the E46. Whilst anyone can stamp on a throttle and hope for the best, I was very grateful for the good road manners of Germans. As we settled into a cruising speed of around 90mph, overtakers and the overtaken left a respectable distance between cars – much more so than in the UK. Eventually, I joined a group of other cars who were pressing on. In between traffic and with more than a little flashing of my full-beams, I eventually held the car at 130mph for several seconds. Despite this, I still got obliterated by a fully-lit X5 moments later. 
There will always be someone faster than you in Germany, especially if they’re also in a BMW.
BMW - E46 - Autobahn - Unrestricted |

Once that had been ticked off my list, we headed to the Green Hell for the Touristenfahrten session, or ‘tourist drive’. For those of you unaware of the basic concept, the Touristenfahrten allows any road-legal driver and vehicle access to the Nürburgring Nordschleife for a fee. During these open sessions, drivers can be faced with any number of vehicles on track, from supercars to minibuses. Having only driven Crail Raceway in Fife before, I was about to take my car and myself around 12.3 miles and 147 turns of narrow, undulating track, in the damp, with my only reference points being multiple YouTube videos and several years of experience playing Gran Turismo. I wasn’t looking to set a lap record; I was merely aiming to say that I’d managed one of motorsport’s most intimidating challenges. It was here that Niki Lauda had his fiery crash so vibrantly recalled in Rush, and this circuit is estimated to kill just under ten people per year. I paid my 27 euros and set off for a lap, but not before the car started and immediately stalled twice without even being in gear. Perhaps my car was trying to warn me off our little challenge…

Nurburgring Nordschliefe - Touristenfahrten - lap |

Nurburgring Nordschleife - Touristenfahrten - lap |
Stay off the wet kerbs if you value your car

Nordschleife - BMW - 320i |

Carousel - Karussel - Nurburgring |
The 270-degree banking of the Carousel
Once we got it running, Rod and I remembered the layout of the track sufficiently to follow the racing line through the corners, but at a greatly reduced speed. Whilst we weren’t timing the lap, I managed to get round in just over 14 minutes. Had it been drier, I really don’t know if I’d have been any braver. Nevertheless, we profited from a quiet evening session as by letting a GT3 and GT-R through, I had a relatively clear path ahead. At Brunnchen, I noted the hordes of photographers just waiting for someone to lost control. Just past Mutkurve, I nearly succumbed to a slide I’d seen end in disaster countless times on YouTube before. I opened the steering, backed off the throttle a touch and with a new change of underwear needed, continued on without much of a loss in speed. Like Spa, the Nordschleife’s insane undulations were something that no video game could prepare you for. What a buzz my lap had been. My only wish is that I can someday return in something faster and more focused.
With two of my ambitions ticked off in one day, we pointed the car north-west and ended up back in Amsterdam by 11pm, ready for the ferry the next day. We’d covered over 1,254 miles on our trip, with the only hiccup from the 320i being that brief hissy fit in the ‘Ring car park, which was entirely forgivable for a car with north of 100,000 miles under its wheels. It took two years to finally act on my long-held Eurotripping dreams, but only six days to enjoy them to the fullest. Gran Premio D’Italia 2015, anyone?
BMW - Testcenter - Nurburg |
Where BMW-shaped awesomeness is ‘Ring-tested and developed


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