This is the greatest race track in the world. A place where heroes were made and destroyed. Matthew Franey takes a ride around the awesome Nordschleife.
Monza, Monaco, Indianapolis, Le Mans. To these circuits flock congregations of motorsport fans; venues to pay respect to the heroes of their sport, watching in awe as the finest drivers of their day perform to the best of their ability. Yet for all these cathedrals of racing, one circuit stands alone as the mecca of race tracks. A circuit that hasn’t hosted a Grand Prix for nearly a quarter of a century, but is still spoken of in reverential tones. Unarguably the single greatest piece of motor racing architecture in the world: the Nurburgring.
So much is spoken of the Nurburgring it sometimes appears in danger of succumbing to, its own hype. How different can one circuitous ribbon of asphalt be from any other? What did the Nurburgring have that the other great circuits lacked? Certainly not atmosphere. Try telling the tifosi at Monza that to the north lay a track that made some of the best-attended Italian Grands Prix look like a damp day at Snetterton. And would you dare mention to the Automobile Club de Monaco that in the Eifel mountains was a circuit so demanding that Casino Square, by comparison, was like Hyde Park Corner?
The following quote from The Autocar’s 1935 German Grand Prix race report illustrates how far removed race day at the ‘Ring was from anything that had come before.
“The Grosser Preis von Deutschland! The great day for which hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts of all nations have been waiting has arrived. Even yesterday morning the roads around the wonderful Nurburg Ring, the finest road racing circuit in the world, were thick with would-be spectators. Today has dawned with a slow drizzle, attempting vainly to quell the inimitable grandeur of the scene.
“…The cars are pushed up to the start as files of Nazi troopers parade and impressive anthems blare from the loud speakers. They are arrayed upon the grid, while the usual murmur of excitement from the serried crowds grows louder and louder. But soon, as the start approaches, all other sounds are drowned by the roar of the exhausts as engines are started. In a few seconds even these give place to the shrill sound of the Mercedes superchargers, and then an electric signal releases the champing cars.”
Here was an event so unlike anything that race-goers were used to, even frequent visitors were stunned by its magnitude. What’s more, with British reserve continuing to ensure that domestic motor racing remained a pastime of the upper classes, can you imagine how jaws must have dropped when visitors arrived to see the spectacle that beheld them throughout the surrounding towns and villages? Grande Vitesse’s 1937 account in The Motor is equally enlightening:
“The atmosphere inside the hotel is more like a school treat. The teams sit at long tables, and talk at the top of their voices. Auto-Union aces come in and slap Mercedists on the back, pulling their legs and swapping lies about lap speeds, and the air is full of motor racing… motor racing… motor racing…
“On the day before the race the spectators arrive on bicycles, motorcycles, and whole families in cars, all wearing the white linen helmets so typical of German motoring and all fluttering the Nazi flag. They are going to the Ring 24 hours in advance to camp out all night in the forest…
“[After the race] back at the hotel the place is in an uproar. No one can hear what anybody is saying because everyone is shouting. And all the time the human tide rolls by outside… The crowd starts shouting for the drivers by name, and they succeed in sounding to those at the back of the hotel rather like the crowd burning down the Bastille in the worst excesses of the French Revolution.
‘We want Caracciola… Car…ac…ciola… Nuv…ol…ar…i… Nuv…ol…ar…i.’ They are still blocking the street and shouting past one o’clock in the morning.
“And 20,000 people is a good crowd at Brooldands.”
The track had been operating for a decade before Grande Vitesse penned that account, the brainchild of a regional councillor, Otto Creutz. The Eifel mountains were, like so many German regions after the Great War, suffering severe economic deprivation. In racing, Creutz saw a way to attract government funding to the area. Convincing those in power that building a great track would not only benefit the unemployed labourers around Cologne but also help in the promotion of the German motor industry, Creutz set about devising the circuit. Underwhelmed by earlier attempts to run Ejfelrennen meetings on a temporary circuit in the town of Nideggen, the planners thought big. The results were stunning.
Centred around a 12th century castle in the densely wooded village of Nurburg, the plans outlined over 17 miles of track, consisting of two loops: a 4.81-mile southern lap, the Sudschleife, and a leviathan 14.17-mile Nordschleife. Work began in September 1925, with over 20,000 men employed on its construction.
The result pitched and dived, twisted and turned through over 170 distinct corners, sometimes descending and climbing gradients as steep as 1 in 6, at others storming along engine-testing straights nearly two miles in length. At the broad start-finish area stood fifty pits; directly opposite a grandstand and luxury hotel offering spectacular views of the racing.
More than 150,000 people watched the inaugural race in 1927, won by Rudi Carraciola’s Mercedes. Over the entire circuit his S-type averaged 62mph, but the demands of the new venue were immediately apparent this was a track at which only the very best would succeed. And so it continued, with the likes of Louis Chiron, Hans Stuck, Bernd Rosemeyer, Dick Seaman and Tazio Nuvolari adding their names to the pre-war role of honour. By 1931, the race had been granted full Grand Prix status, and the growth in its popularity continued apace.
Reliable accounts suggested there were 350,000 genuine paying customers when the Second World War put a halt to racing. By then stories of the great battles were becoming legend and when Formula One returned to the circuit in 1951, drivers the world over were eager to learn just what it was that made the Karussell, Flugplatz, lanzgarten and Dattinger-Hohe so very special. And they did so in their hundreds, for the magnitude of the track allowed for grids of up to 80 cars in sportscar or saloon races. The track’s first post-war Grand Prix took place in 1951 and the theme of the finest drivers on the toughest track continued, with Ascari, Farina and then Fangio further proving the point; the latter winning three races straight including his remarkable 1957 victory — considered by many to be his greatest ever.
The story, though well known, bears repeating, for on any other circuit than this, the Argentinian would not have been able to pull off such a feat In qualifying Fangio signalled his intention by lapping a full 16 seconds inside his own lap record set the year before. Come race day more was to come. His Maserati 250F was fast on low fuel tanks but exceedingly thirsty and Fangio knew he would have to stop for fuel, unlike his rivals at Ferrari. Seizing the lead on lap three with a new record, he shattered his best time again and again. Nearly 30 seconds in the lead, he dived for the pits for fuel and rear tyres, rejoining to set off in pursuit of the Ferraris — now half a minute ahead themselves.
Lap after lap, the Maserati closed, five whole seconds shaved from the record on one tour, eight seconds more the next. When, with a lap and a half to run, Fangio burst into the lead, it was the culmination of a drive that left the racing fraternity speechless. He was by then 46 years old.
Nineteen years later the Nordschleife closed to Grand Prix racing following Niki Lauda’s fiery accident, although sportscars continued to compete there for another seven seasons; by the end lapping the 12-mile version of the Nordschlefe in a scarcely imaginable fraction over six minutes. Today it remains a venue for historic racing and a 24-hour touring car race, but in general it sits as the great brooding heart of what is now an equally grand, if over-sanitised motoring arena. Gone are the original pits, grandstand and prominent Continental Tower. Gone, in fact, is the entire Sudschlefi; bulldozed away in the early 1980s for the construction of the modern, gravel-trap pocked circuit used to host the current Luxembourg Grand Prix.
Glance to the north of the new circuit, where modem Fl cars turn onto the start-finish straight, and you will get your first visual reference point There, atop a small hill, sits the Schloss Nurburg, its ‘turrets and towers unmistakable among the heavy green backdrop of mountains.
Today, public demand to sample the circuit has led the owners to construct an incongruous space-aged toll booth half way along the famous Duttinger-Hohe straight There, when the track is not under private hire, you can part with a few deutschmarks and head out onto the track in whatever transport you happen to have pitched up in. Crazy as it may seem you will undoubtedly end up sharing your lap not just with a hoard of Barry Sheene wannabes, but the odd coach, caravan and asthmatically wheezing Trabant
However what lies ahead of you defies the imagination. Run hard from the gate of the toll booth to the end of the long straight, taking time to glimpse behind you the crests of the seemingly unending Dottinger-Hohe. Ahead on the hill sits proud Castle Niirburg, but before you have time to take in more of the scenery you are confronted by the flat-out sweeps of Tiergarten. Each one is tighter than the last — this is a recurring theme on the Nordschleife — and you are soon crossing the junction of old and new circuit and plunging downhill on the start of the lap proper.
Accelerating hard in Motor Sport’s BMW 328Ci, the track lures you into ever greater speed, the car admirably poised as you lean into the right-hander that signals the start of the Hatzenbach. Next is a series of S-bends, flowing and smooth. If you are like me, you will have a grin on your face. Prepare to have it wiped off… For there at the end of the Hatzenbach that familiar Niirburgring refrain: one deceptively tight corner after a series of faster ones. I jumped off the throttle just in time but I knew I had escaped lightly. And that’s the Nurburgring through and through — one long lesson in your own personal driving limits. The consequences of having an accident on the Nordschleife are invariably severe. Jackie Stewart, winner here on three occasions, including that memorable wet race in 1968 when he beat the field by four clear minutes, says that when he left to race at the ‘Ring, he would stop at the end of his drive and look once more to home. He didn’t know whether he would see it again…
Richard Attwood, a competitor there in both Grands Prix and sportscars, also remembers the entire place had a foreboding air:
“Even in the paddock before the start of the race you would hear those fierce tarmoy announcements that had the ring of a POW camp about them. And we raced there so many times in bad weather that it all added up to a daunting prospect. “The fact that it was so long also made it such hard work. Circuits like Spa were also many miles but they tended to be fast with lots of straights. At the ‘Ring we were confronted with comer after comer, jump after jump and nowhere was there any run-off whatsoever. I felt that I worked the first half of the track out relatively well but the section following the Karussell was so difficult.”
The first of those memorable leaps come at one of the track’s now legendary corners: the Flugplatz. This is one of the most photographed sections, scene of countless 1960s Grand Prix can launched into the air, wheels sagging on their wishbones under their own weight. In the heavier BMW it is no more than a cresting right hander, but for Attwood and Co. in a flimsy single-seater it was hairy stuff.
“At the Flugplatz and later on at Pflanzgarten we were travelling at huge speeds. The road dropped away underneath you and without aerodynamics, if you didn’t get the car positioned absolutely correctly you would simply land off the track. You knew that if you made a mistake you were going to have an accident you probably weren’t going to come out of.”
From Flugplatz you head through a unnervingly quick left-hander into the Arenberg hairpin and from there into one of the finest sections of the track the Fuchsrahre. There is nothing particularly taxing about it, but in aesthetic terms it is unspeakably grand. If you have time, look left to the valleys and peaks of the Eifel mountains before you jink downhill, gently kissing each apex before you arrive at Adenauer-Forst. Another climb, the first serious ascent of the lap, brings you out to Metzgesfeld and the Kallenhardhairpin. A replica of Aremberg, you then begin another descent, at first as fast as the Fuchsriihre, then tighter and tighter, hands hard round the wheel as you squeeze through the left-hander at Weluseffim.
And although your brain may already be beginning to suffer from Nurburgring fatigue’ it is perhaps worth remembering you are not close to completing even half the lap. Things, in fact, are just warming up.
The bridge at Adenau is one of the few points where you are aware of the circuit passing through civilisation. Under the circuit runs the main road into town and for spectators it’s worth stopping and watching from the bank. From inside the BMW the view is equally impressive. The bridge passes underneath you before the road climbs hard to the right, the car loading up as you push the nose into the hill and then suddenly lightening as you rush over the top and down towards Bergwerk.
Although you carry considerable speed into this infamous corner, there is little to mark out this section as the place that claimed the lives of Card l Godin de Beaufort and Herbert Muller and also saw the accident that finally called time on Formula One at the circuit.
Bergwelk itself is a technical right turn, patience the real key to a clean exit. Preceding it is the left kink where Lauda’s accident took place, not a difficult corner but fast and unforgiving; the sort of place where suspension failure can be as costly as it proved that day. After Bergwerk there are two kilometres of blindingly fast, usually not quite flat-out, kinks as you work your way along the semi-straight that is Klostertal
Braking hard for the hairpin at the end brings you to the squirt up to the Karussell. This was a 30mph hairpin running round the outside of a drainage ditch until, in 1931, Caracciola’s mechanics drove his Mercedes along the bank of the ditch itself. Realising the car had enough ground clearance to round it safely, they told Caracciola, who used the banked edge in the race itself. He won.
Soon after the ditch was paved and what confronts drivers today takes some getting used to. Do it right and your turn-in speed will feel far higher than is rational. Go in too fast, however, and you will pop out half way round. At this point you will be trying to round a 30mph hairpin at about 60mph…
By now you are just six kilometres from home, climbing from the Karusselito the start of the last really big test on the Nordschleife. Rising almost 300 feet, the track then begins another series of daunting tight corners at Hohe Acht, running downhill and then up for about a mile before the scene of Peter Collins’ fatal crash in the 1958 race, the Pflanzgarten.
Survive here and you can begin to relax. All that remains between you and the straight is the mini-Karussell known as Schwalbenschwanz and an imperious, right-hander back onto the straight called Galgenkopf. It’s a brute of a final corner, fast and long, but eventually the kink in the road will straighten and you will have time to let the blood return to your knuckles as you make your way back to the tollgate.
There, brakes popping, tyres melting and heart racing, you can for the first time appreciate what makes the Nurburgring exceptional. But before you head out again consider two things. Point one: In the early 1930s winners of the German Grand Prix were already averaging over 70mph here. The last ever winner, James Hunt in 1976, averaged 117mph. Point two: If you even think about trying to set personal records round the Nordschleife, you will, in all probability and like the biker who had a go the day I was there, leave in a body bag. That’s the Nurburgring.