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High Speed on German Roads

Yes, I crashed the Z4. A beautiful car. I know, I know, I know. Forty thousand dollars worth of curved steel and soft leather. What am I, an idiot?Okay. There, I said it. I'm an idiot.

At least Martin Klanner wasn't there to see it. I'd never met a man so in love with a machine. Martin had handed me the keys to the small sports car just four days earlier, when I met him at the BMW research center on the outskirts of Munich. Martin heads the design team that built the Z4, and it was obvious he took the car personally. "In Germany, it's not so common to express emotion," he told me. "But with a car you can do that. There are a lot of us who don't drive just for transportation. We drive as a way of expressing our feeling for life." Of course, that sentiment isn't unique to Germans, but the focused seriousness with which they handle their cars sets them apart: here, driving is something of a sport—both hands are always on the wheel.

Indeed, I was in Germany to experience Fahrvergnügen, the Teutonic sense of satisfaction that occurs when fine automotive engineering is put to the test on perfectly maintained roads and highways. At high speeds. For five days, I'd make my way through the car heartland of southern Germany, from the BMW headquarters in Munich to the Mercedes museum in Stuttgart, and beyond. I would stop being an American driver, coddled by soft suspension and plush seats and cup holders, and become a German one, in thrall to horsepower and precision machinery. By the end of my trip I hoped to be ready for the Nürburgring, the ultimate German driving destination, where ordinary Germans come to race their own cars on one of the world's most fearsome tracks—sometimes with unhappy, Z4-damaging results.

That first afternoon, I parked the borrowed Z4 at my hotel and strolled to one of Munich's famous beer gardens, where I shared a long wooden table with fellow diners lifting steins of beer beneath branches of chestnut and oak trees. Two of my tablemates explained to me the tribal significance of automobiles in Germany. "There are Mercedes fans, and there are BMW fans, and they don't change," Joachim said. "Mercedes people are more traditional. BMW drivers are more sporty, progressive, and modern." Obviously, I was a BMW person.

The next morning I got on the autobahn, heading north and west. Puffy clouds chased their shadows across fields heavy with wheat—a perfect day for speeding. Once I was outside the city, the speed limit rose to infinity, and the Z4, as if freed from its cage, became an athletic beast, powerful and precise. A hundred miles per hour came to seem a relaxing pace. No matter how fast I drove, though, a faster car—usually a Porsche—would soon loom inbound in my rearview mirror. Not wanting to get hit from behind, I scooted to the right with alacrity.

A night at the whimsical hotel Der Zauberlehrling in downtown Stuttgart left me strategically positioned the next morning to hit the Mercedes-Benz Museum, a brand-new steel-and-glass cathedral dedicated to the worship of die Technik. Inside, row upon row of elegant cars made it easy to see how Mercedes got its reputation for flash: along with a Popemobile (can you ask for a better endorsement than God?) there are massive limos that were used by Kaiser Wilhelm II and Emperor Hirohito. The kaiser had a system: if he wanted the driver to turn right, he'd tell the aide-de-camp sitting next to him in the backseat, who would push a button that would send a message to the aide-de-camp sitting in the front passenger seat, who would relay the request to the driver. Hirohito was so impressed he ordered one for himself.

In addition to excellent fast roads, the Germans have superb slow ones: scenic routes that wind through memorable territory. There's the Romantic Road, which links Baroque palaces and medieval towns in the south of the country, and the Fairy Tale Road, which runs through the forests of the west. In my case, I took the Burgenstrasse, or Castle Road, part of which threads along the Neckar Valley from Bad Wimpfen, a village of cobblestoned streets and half-timbered houses, to Heidelberg, whose epic castle ruins helped inspire German Romanticism. After a drive like that, it seemed appropriate to spend the night up the highway a bit at the Burghotel auf Schönburg, an 800-year-old fort with rambling battlements overlooking the Rhine.

True driving, however, is not about sightseeing, it's about the application of will to the mastery of machine and road—an imperative that led me on to Hockenheim, home to the second of Germany's two great tracks. Best known as the site of the country's Formula One Grand Prix, the 2.84-mile circuit also hosts various driving classes and other events open to the public, including a "race taxi" session I had signed up for: an opportunity to run the circuit with a pro at the wheel. At the track, I put on a helmet and fire-resistant coveralls and was introduced to Gerd Lenhard, the 15-year racing veteran who would be driving the Porsche GT3 while I sat in the passenger seat.

Everything was fine until we slipped out of the pit lane and Lenhard lay down the gas pedal. The acceleration pinned me against the seat as the first curve whipped past; then we barreled down a straightaway and plunged into a second turn. "Brake! Brake!" I screamed inwardly, jamming my right foot instinctively against the firewall, but Lenhard kept accelerating—the car a few inches from skidding off the track, tires screeching—and we shot down another straightaway. Now we were headed toward a wall, an impossibly tight turn bending to our right, and at 160 mph there was simply no way we were going to avoid flying off into oblivion—a swift and brutal end to a frivolous life. Then Lenhard was standing on the brakes and I was hanging forward in my harness as the car slowed to 40 mph in less than 100 yards.

Two laps later, I extricated myself from the passenger seat and stumbled from the car. It was punishing being subjected to all those g-forces, much more so than I'd imagined. Lenhard, for his part, looked more refreshed than when we started. Since I was on my way to the Nürburgring, where I intended (now somewhat reluctantly) to push the Z4 to its limits, I asked Lenhard for advice.

"You must learn to have feeling for the car," he told me in cryptic German fashion. "To have this feeling, you must learn it. You must learn your physical limits and personal limits."

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