TRACK TESTS SOLITUDE
IT NEVER HELD A CHAMPIONSHIP GRAND PRIX BUT THAT DID NOT STOP THE SOLITUDE CIRCUIT BEING ONE OF THE MOST FEARED IN MOTOR RACING. MATTHEW FRANEY GOES BACK photography by Andrew Yeadon he roads into the centre of Stuttgart take you steeply downhill, twisting through the densely wooded hills that surround the city to the south and west. In winter this natural amphitheatre can leave the inhabitants cocooned in dense fog that sits below the hilltops, just the tips of
winter pines peeking above the gloom.
Before the advent of the autobahn, the approach to this southerly German metropolis must have been an adventure in itself. Now, like any major European city, a network of motorways encircles it, your arrival no more arduous than following the correct road sign, leaving at the right slip road.
Stay away from the major thoroughfares, however, and the environs of Stuttgart are liberally criss-crossed with the sort of roads that somehow look right, even on the map. These are the routes that Mercedes-Benz and Porsche development engineers both marques are based just north of the city use to put their test mules through their paces; a mix of cambered bends, hairpins and sweepers. In other words, the ideal roads for a race track.
Which,of course, is why we are here. For within a few miles of the city centre lies the once great Solitude road circuit, home in the post-war decades to numerous non-championship Formula One and Two races and a host of motorcycle world title rounds. An evocatively named race track for an evocative era.
In fact the Solitude Rennstrecke pre-dates those heady days of Porsches, Ferraris and Lotuses going head to head through the Stuttgart woodland. Its history begins over 90 years ago, when motoring was in its infancy. Then Germany’s earliest drivers would congregate on the dust and gravel roads a few miles to the north of the circuit. There, in what once had been splendid isolation, stands the Schloss Solitude, an 18th century castle with views over the northern reaches of the city. Using the castle’s driveway, a hillclimb was constructed which, as it increased in length, served the motor racing community for the next two decades.
It wasn’t until after The Great War that attentions turned to the possibility of constructing a circuit that would allow drivers to compete directly against each other. With the support of the German motoring club ADAC, a mighty 22-kilometre course was sewn across the landscape, impressive enough to be dubbed the German Targa Florio by journalists at that time, and good enough to attract the biggest doinestic names of the era. Between 192427 drivers of the calibre of Hans Stuck, Otto Merz and Rudolf Caracciola were drawn to Solitude. But despite its popularity with the locals, it never gained the international recognition that seemed to draw overseas stars to the Niirburgring or Avus. This inability to promote itself further afield meant Solitude slipped silently from view at the end of the ’20s, not to reappear for another 20 years. Then in 1948, with Germany recovering from the Second World War, the Stuttgart Motoisport Club looked once again to the woods outside their city to provide them with a potential race track. On this occasion the organisers moved a+ 72 DECEMBER 1999
slightly flirther south, away from the grounds of Schloss Solitude, to an 111un section of roads that featured S-bends, hairpins, and an engine-testing straight. At first host to whatever machinery local racers could lay their hands on, Solitude soon saw the quantity and quality of the grids rise. Motorcycles became an important part of the draw and by the late ’50s the track had finally achieved its original aim: to attract international motorsport to Stuttgart.
You find the final incarnation of the circuit by heading for the Busnau district of the city. Pass through a series of devilishly conceived roundabouts and head down a shallow incline towards a fork in the road. Stay right, heading towards Glemseck and you have joined the Solitude-Strecke. You are, in fact, about two-thirds of the way round the lap, and about to enter what I can only describe as one of the most extraordinary sections of race track ever conceived. Plunging ever
more steeply downhill, the road ahead twists from side to side so frequently that at first I am unable to convince myself this was once part of a circuit. It’s the kind of road you find on a computer game, a Disneyesque rollercoaster ride that makes your head spin and mind play tricks on itself.
Innes Ireland reckoned the greatest race he ever competed in was the non-championship Fl Grand Prix held there in 1961 and that the secret to his success he fought furiously with Jo Bonnier and Dan Gurney to win by just 0.1 second was this final section of the lap. Some 25 times Ireland screamed his Lotus-Climax through those eighteen consecutive S-bends, all so close to flatout that it makes my skin crawl just thinking about it. The entire time he had to withstand the sort of pressure that could induce a mistake the consequences of which do not bear thinking about.
Our BMW 328Ci has already proven to be a highly efficient European tourer on the long trip through France and Belgium into Germany. Now it deals with each turn as confidently as you could wish; its road-holding worthy of cam purpose-built for such roads. It would have been far less comfortable in Ireland’s day. Then, in a Lotus as flimsy as the BMW is strong, he would have had the full width of the the road to use, a narrow tyre dropping into the ruts that line the asphalt edge as he clipped apex after apex in his attempts to take and then keep a lead. Then as now, his eyes would have been firmly fixed on the line ahead, but somewhere, deep within his subconscious, the warning bells must have been ringing. For the line between road’s edge and the edge of beyond was just that: a line.
No crash barriers followed the route, except a short stretch rather pointlessly deposited on the start-finish straight. Around the entire circuit loom pine trees that at times form a tunnel down which to race, and then seem to blend into one another as your eye searches desperately for the next bend. I asked John Surtees, who tackled Solitude on two wheels and four, whether the thought of racing on so dangerous a circuit made him stop and think twice. Undoubtedly made of sterner stuff than I, he seemed to shrug as if he didn’t understand the point of the question, although did admit that on his first visit he came a cropper while contesting the lead of the 350cc motorcycle GP through those same corners. Out for the rest of the season with a broken arm, he suffered a nervous wait to see if his lead in the championship would be over-hauled. It wasn’t, and he won the first world tide of his career. Commenting on the same series of corners in an American
interview ten years ago, Dan Gurney summed it up perfectly:
“You had to be right on the money there… You didn’t have the luxury of breathing space anywhere on the track as you do at some places. It took a lot of concentration and it was easy to make a serious mistake. It wasn’t as simple as it might look when you’re driving around it in two-way traffic.”
Understandably, Solitude is now a popular haunt for modern bikers. Some come knowing of the place’s history, others are just seizing the moment, but I defy you to pass along those eighteen incessant comers without glimpsing the small bunches of flowers placed gently at the side of the road and not realise how difficult they really are. I counted seven tributes in no more than a mile.
Make it through to the end of the lap and you burst at speed onto the Mahdental Strasse. Tucked away on the left-hand side stands a peculiar building, ovoid in shape and liberally decorated with Mercedes-Benz, Bosch and ADAC insignia. A glance through old Solitude race reports identifies this as the circuit’s former control tower, now the only remaining clue, along with a highly uninspiring pit counter, as to what once took place here. The building is curiously well kept, 30 years after racing stopped at Solitude, and in the morning sun, during a lull in the traffic, it is easy to look across to the pits and imagine how it might have looked. Where now stand trees and overgrown shrubbery on either side of the pitlane once were grandstands packed to the brim with just a handful of the 300,000 people who took advantage of every conceivable viewpoint around the come. From there they would have seen the cars scorch clear of the startline and dive headlong
into the fast, tightening, left-hander at Glemseck ; a wide corner that allowed cars to battle for position but still gave them time to sort themselves out before the pack headed out into the forest.
Now modern road planners have got their hands on Glemseck. A filter lane and island stands between the BMW and a full tilt assault on Solitude’s first corner and while, for the sake of pictures, I have a go at rounding the turn at a respectable speed, it is a futile effort. It does, however, provide the locals sipping a lunchtime beer in the Gasthaus that stands on the exit of the corner with a chance to scratch moustaches and crack autive jokes to their friends about strange Englishmen, so at least some good came out.
It is, thankfully, one of only two places on the circuit where the demands of 1990s motoring have led to changes. For the next third of the lap at least, you can tackle Solitude pretty much as Clark, Brabham, McLaren et a/would have found it in the 1960s.
Sweep past the hotel and the circuit starts its climb to the highest part of the course, turning left, then right through the tight Hedersbach Kurve hairpin and then cresting on to the Sandstrasse where, for the fist time since the start of the lap, you get an opportunity to crack the throttles wide open. The BMW pulls strongly throughout the ascent, body roll no more than noticeable as you exit the hairpin, the engine then smooth and flexible as you accelerate away. Here traction and grip levels would have been at a premium, as Surtees found to his disadvantage in July of 1964. The thought of driving through rain at Solitude must have filled the stoutest racer with trepidation but in the non-championship Grand Prix of that year, that is exactly what those lined up on the
grid had to contend with. From the start Surtees in his Ferrari and Jim Clark’s Lotus were untouchable, heading into a lead the rest of the field could not dent. The same could not be said of their cars. Hill, Bandit* Brabharn, Amon and Ireland made the start but not one of them made it to the end of the first lap. Denisienkinson’s MOTOR SPOKr report gives you some idea of the conditions:
“In view of the rain, the organisers let everyone do a reconnaissance lap, and they all returned visibly shaken, for the surface of the Solitude circuit is very smooth and with three full days of high-speed running it was coated with oil and rubber. What had started off with the potential of being a very exciting race turned into a veritable holocaust.” At the front, however, Clark and Surtees enjoyed a supreme battle, the Ferrari driver proving the equal of the Scotsman in the atrocious conditions. But, over 20 laps, the circuit began to thy a-,
and in mixed conditions the Lotus proved the better car. Despite Su rtees’ best efforts, Clark passed him as he struggled with violent wheelspin on the climb out of the Hedersbach Kurve.
After reaching its high point, Solitude falls away to Ftvuenkreuz, a flowing double left-hander, now just an overgrown pathway through the forest. The road takes you away from the circuit for a few hundred yards, but it is worth stopping and making the trek into the woods on fbot. Here, perhaps more than anywhere on the circuit, even though there isn’t a piece of tarmac in sight, the area is at its most atmospheric. The curving path where the cars once sped is slowly returning to nature, but enough remains to lead the eye down to bottom of the hill where you rejoin the road and the fastest section of the race track, a twO kilometre straight that left little to the imagination should something fail. An unwelcome thought if you happened to be tucked in a rival’s slipstream hoping to get an overtaking chance at the circuit’s most accommodating corner. It was at this very bend that lnnes Ireland pulled off the most almighty of attacks on Jo Bonnier to win his greatest race. In the pitlane Colin Chapman turned to his crew and said “Well, either Inne_s is going to win or we’ll never see him again.” And, as Ireland once recalled, he wasn’t that far from the truth:
“The thing was going to be decided in the braking area. I knew I could outbrake Jo but I didn’t want to show my hand too soon. Just as we got to the point where Jo should be getting on the brakes, I pulled out to the right, my foot still hard on the floorjo was watching my every move, and as I pulled out so did he. But I had to go on, for there wasn’t time to swing back to his inside.
With my foot still on the floor, I was on the grass on the right of the road wondering when in heaven Jo was going to get on the brakes!
“It was panic stations all right. I locked the wheels and stewed about in the most alarming manner. Bonnier must have thought that I was about to have a really good shunt, and from where I was sitting I would have agreed with him!”
Ireland somehow made it through the narrow right-hander that leads the cars back down to that extraordinary series of Sbends and the finish line that he must have been desperate to see. It is a story heavy with bravado and derring-do, one you can now smile about but of which the consequences might well have been very different. Four years later, with safety not yet at the forefront of motor racing but definitely on the minds of a growing band of drivers Solitude held its last race, too dangerous to continue. It left behind 60 years of racing history; one city’s attempts to bring the sport to its doorstep. CI