There is a part of the Nürburgring that few have even heard of. Paul Fearnley drives it and discovers that it’s used to being ignored
photography by Walter Bäumer
Nürburgrings northern loop, the Nordschleife: the most venerated, the most talked about, most photographed circuit in the world — even today, 28 years after the last grand prix was held there. The 14.18-mile ‘Green Hell’ — at least until its pruning update of 1971 — overshadows all other tracks, and none more so than its little brother.
Nürburgring’s Südschleife: one of the least venerated, least talked about, least photographed circuits in the world. At 4.82 miles, and with 30 corners, teetering descents and torque-busting climbs, it can hardly be labelled a runt. But in its context, that’s exactly how it was seen: a club circuit, a testing venue, a loop too far, possessing neither the charisma nor kudos that made the Nordschleife’s challenge worth the risk. Instead drivers spoke warily of the Südschleife ghosts which, they said, swooped from between the trees to force cars off the road and into unexplained accidents. The organisers may have mocked, but the circuit was rarely used.
And when it was the racing gods rarely smiled down upon it. Its only German Grand Prix, 1960, run to F2 regs (and Porsche’s benefit!), was held in thick fog and torrential rain. The race was dull, too. The F2 Eifelrennens of 1964 and ’65 were also lost in the mists. It snowed at the ’67 meeting (in April). And the ’68 start was delayed by a forest fire.
It just wasn’t meant to be. Every race fan mourned the loss of the Nordschleife to top-level racing by 1984; the Südschleife hadn’t held a meeting of note since 1971 and nobody cared a jot.
Which is a shame, because it was a test worthy of the Nürburgring name. Indeed, it’s where the legend began. The first sod of unproductive Eifel soil was turned on the Südschleife when the ‘Ring’s construction got under way in April 1925. Sources suggest that existing roads were incorporated in its layout and, as such, progress was swift. This was invaluable. Germany’s economy was unstable and a longterm project with a distinctly odd end product was highly vulnerable. To stand any chance of survival the track had to be breathtaking — and built at breakneck speed. The Südschleife meant that the movers and shakers soon had something to show for the 14 million Reichmarks of public money poured in. Their grandiose spirit — and backbreaking but uplifting slog for a local people ground down by unemployment — is still paying dividends today.
Less than two years after the laying of the pits foundation stone on September 27,1925, the track was ready for action. The bikes got first dibs, and on Saturday June 18, 1927, Toni Ulmen won the opening five-lapper astride a 350 Velocette. The cars took their bow on the Sunday, young Rudi Caracciola and Christian Werner respectively winning the 12-lap sportscar and 14 lap racing car events for Mercedes.
Mighty 17.5-mile laps, that is, for Nord and Süd were used to form the Gesamtstrecke — ‘complete lap’ — as they would be for the German Grand Prix of the following month. And also for the GPs of 1928 and ’29. But after Louis Chiron’s cyclewinged Bugatti T35C had broken Mercedes’ stranglehold on this race run for sportscars — Otto Merz and Wemer/Caracciola had won the first two — the northern loop began to exert its future dominance. The Südschleife had enjoyed some brief spells of autonomy — hosting the Eifelrennens of 1928-31 — but in the subsequent Golden Age of the Silver Arrows what lustre it had was allowed to tarnish. There are, however, two important footnotes: Auto Union team manager Willy Walb tested the ground-breaking P-Wagen there in November 1933, and Bernd Rosemeyer got his first taste of Silver Arrows power at the track in October ’34. The latter occasion was during an Auto Union search-for-a-star: it found one. But Rosemeyer was not the quickest at this two-day assessment; the vastly more experienced Paul Pietsch was fastest first on the Südschleife and then the Nordschleife.
In the main, however, cars would loop 270 degrees to the right at the Südkehre and back into the meat of the ‘Ring rather than plunge left onto its offcut. This entire section was bulldozed into oblivion in the early 1980s. The huge scale of this restructuring is evinced by the fact that the 258, the road that arrows parallel to the Nordschleife’s long return straight, passes underneath the circuit, whereas the Südschleife once passed under the 258. Indeed, those bridge parapets, butted to the track’s edge, were its first hazard — followed by an over-the-crest left, which in turn triggered a sequence of downhill bends. Looking back from the K92, which runs southeast to Welcherath, it’s tempting to think that today’s tunnel under the track, which leads you up into the paddock, follows the same line as its predecessor. It looks about right— but the changes have been too great to tell for sure.
It’s only when you slot 90 right onto the K72, which dips for 3km towards Müllenbach, that it all falls into place. Two 45 lefts lead into a tight left-right sequence made even more awkward by a steepening of the road. This is Bränkekopf. The looming modern grandstands have disappeared from view… welcome to the old Nürburgring. The track, nine metres wide, is hemmed in by tall trees beyond this point, as it was in its heyday: the Green Hell, albeit softened by an autumnal hue.
It’s cloaking, choking — and ghostly.
There are very real dangers, too. It’s a seriously fast stretch, opening out after a longish left and sharper right onto the 400-metre straight past Müllenbach Campingplatz. The only remnant of circuit furniture stands here: a concrete post that once secreted a phone behind a metal door. Now bare wires jut forlornly from it: nothing to report.
The fast rights at Aschenschlag, Seifgen and Boxberg pass by almost unnoticed — at normal road speed. Aboard Helmut Kelleners’ 7.6-litre March 707 they would have called for your utmost attention, a hefty dab of brakes and possibly a downshift. Kelleners’ FL — a 109.2mph 2min 38.6sec — during the two-heat Rundstreckenrennen of 1970 is an outright record that will never be broken, and bears comparison with Willi Kauhsen’s 115mph lap of the Nordschleife set two years later in a far more powerful Porsche 917/10. The Südschleife was quick.
But the bulk of that speed had to be shed for the 90 right directly in front of Müllenbach. At 480 metres, this is the lowest point of the entire Nürburgring, and it was here that floods delayed the start of the 1960 GP. It was a popular vantage point due to its proximity to the village; it was also the site of one of the three public vehicular access gates onto the ‘Ring. You would never guess it today, though.
The K72 diverges from the old layout at Bocksberg, following a tighter and more raised course, and so the scene of bike racer Dickie Dale’s fatal 1961 crash is today a loose-surface track hidden behind the tree line. Follow this path, however, and it eventually opens out — and gains a sealed surface — as it slips through a small industrial estate and past a scrapyard. A plethora of divergent Südschleife street signs causes some confusion, but it eventually becomes clear that the tight turning circle at the road’s end is the old Müllenbach right-hander. The ‘track’ then disappears beyond a chain-link fence and under heaps of road-repairing materials, a couple of rusting pieces of JCB-yellow plant and a Trabbie Estate.
It re-emerges 250 metres northeast on the other side of the new road. This Räsruck section is the old Nürburgring at its most unadulterated. Leap over a ditch, pick through some brambles, scrabble over a redoubt of broken Tarmac, and you’ll find yourself at the foot of time-capsule piece of road. The sun is bright, but the air between the trees is chill — and eerily still. Those ghosts again.
The steady climb north is steeper (approx 1-in-10) than the southward descent, and it’s hard to imagine its slight lefts and rights causing more than the occasional lift at anything less than Can-Am speeds. There’s a big stop at the top, though, a cambered hairpin right forced upon the track by a heavily wooded, steepsided protuberance called Scharfer Kopf. This geographical feature is then circumnavigated by a neverending left… that ends when it runs slap into a large earth bank. We are back at the new track, the top of its pits peeking up and over.
From here the Südschleife used to continue its climb, passing under the 258 for a second time. Once back on the Nordschleife, it darted behind the old pits and then, just before Hatzenbach, nipped hairpin right at the concrete Betonkehre before returning, via a 90 right, in front of the pits and across the line. But this section, too, has all gone, buried beneath a featureless, windswept paddock and the second-gear squiggles of Schumacherland. It’s an ironic twist that the Südschleife is the car park.
The track had been torn up once before: by advancing US tanks in 1945. Its surface was badly chewed, but again the Südschleife’s shorter lap came to the rescue. The French government (the entire Eifel area was under its jurisdiction) decided that rebuilding the track would be good for morale: the southern loop was up and running by 1947, when it hosted the Nürburging’s first postwar event — for bikes and sidecars.
Once again, though, the layout was given short shrift: another bike meeting, a 10-lap F3 race and a rally being its lot until 1958. At which point it was reborn thanks to the rise of junior formulae. That year’s Eifelrennen saw Swiss engineer/racer Michael May victorious in a Stanguellini. The following year Wolfgang von Trips beat him, but he notched up another victory in the national Eifelpokalrennen that October. Thereafter, from 1960 to ’63, Dennis Taylor and Dick Prior, both in Lola Mk2s, John Harwood (Mallock), Jo Siffert (Lotus), Peter Warr (see panel), the Coopers of Kurt Ahrens Jnr and Curt Bardi-Barry, and Gerhard Mitter (Lotus) enjoyed small slices of Nürburgring fame. From 1964 to 1968, F2 topped the Eifelrennen’s bill: Jim Clark (Lotus), Paul Hawkins (last-gasp win in an Alexis), Jochen Rindt (back-to-back Brabham successes) and Chris Irwin (Lola).
The latter race was watched by 200,000. Increases in disposable income and car ownership, allied to the Nürburgring’s pull, were again causing demand to outstrip the Südschleife’s primitive infrastructure. It survived just long enough for James Hunt to win an F3 race (1971), but thereafter it was left to its fate. Gone. And forgotten.
A GOOD START UND LOTS OF ZEAL
Best remembered for his role as Lotus team manager during the JPS glory days. Peter Warr was also a handy race driver. One of his best results was a flag-to-flag victory In the 1962 Eifelrennen aboard a Formula Junior Lotus 20. Ironically, though, it was this race that helped persuade him his future lay on the other side of the pitwall.
“My job that weekend was made easier when Bob Anderson was disqualified before the race.” says Warr. “A scrutineer had dared to lay a hand on his car [the works Lotus] and Bob punched him!
“The Südschleife was a serious circuit. I guess that drivers today would put it on a par with Spa. Except that the Sudschleife was bordered by ditches, hedges and trees. Not a place to go off.
“I remember that I made a superb start, and that set me up for the rest of the race. Kurt Ahrens. who knew the circuit very well, closed at one point, but I was able to pull away again. It was just one of those days when everything happened in slow-motion: every gearchange was just right, my lines were spot-on, and my focus never wavered.
“It was only later that I realised this was the state of mind the top guys fell into every time they drove: I’d felt it just once or twice .”
He now knew he was good but not quite good enough.