24-hour party people

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Nürburgring
Circuit first opened: 1927
Combined circuit length (24 Hours): 15.7 miles

2015 event calendar
May 14-17: Nürburgring 24 Hours
Aug 7-9: Oldtimer Grand Prix
Aug 15-17: DTM
Aug 28-30: World Endurance Championship
Sep 18-20: Blancpain Endurance Series

Irrespective of venue, dwindling crowds mean the German Grand Prix no longer rocks to the firecracker symphony of old. The nation’s bygone racing traditions exist still, but you need to look beyond Formula 1
Writer: Damon Cogman

This isn’t so much a racing weekend as an immersive social experience – and it begins in the ferry queue, before you’ve left Dover. That’s partly because my troupe tends to travel in older cars, so strangers are naturally drawn to chat.

And the ferry is definitely recommended for a trip such as this. In a modern car, the Nürburgring is an easy flit. The Eurotunnel service from Folkestone shortens the journey by at least an hour each way, but sea travel somehow makes Calais seem more distant, adding to the sense of adventure and permitting time for a leisurely breakfast while herring gulls peer in hopefully through the window. And besides, there’s no point trying to rush when you’re driving something designed for the roads of the Sixties. However long it takes, the reward justifies the effort.

We’re heading not to the Nürburgring that hosts the German GP every other year, but the adjacent Nordschleife. F1 might have moved away after 1976, but the circuit has rarely lain silent and for one weekend a year is among the most raucous (yet welcoming) places on earth. You’ll know this if ever you’ve attended the Nürburgring 24 Hours…

The recipe has been similar ever since the race began in its present format in 1970, with fields of up to 200 vastly different cars, although the tapestry has changed in the recent past. Moves were made to outlaw some of the slowest entries and the grid has been trimmed to about 170 (cars start in three batches), although the field still ranges from professional teams running cutting-edge Audi R8s, Mercedes SLS GT3s, Aston Martin Vantages and Porsche 911s to optimistic amateurs in Renault Clios. Kissling Motosport’s well-driven B-series Opel Manta is still allowed to race (and remains a crowd favourite), but there is a three-hour mini-enduro on Friday afternoon for all other older cars.

The race, though, is almost a backdrop to an event with an atmosphere that has much in common with a music festival. Most racegoers seem to camp – and it all feels delightfully haphazard. An annual Le Mans pilgrimage remains wonderful, but you have to pre-book a pitch for your tent and such conformism adds sterility. Here, you just turn up and slot in – and many set up their weekend base within a few metres of the track.

Hiking boots are essential – and a bicycle is useful – but getting around is not too much of a drag, despite the circuit’s 15.7-mile length (with the ‘new’ track bolted on to its illustrious antecedent). If you’re not quite sure where you are in the forest, tag along with the next group of locals you meet – they’ll lead you somewhere good. And if you’re walking near a public road, just stick out a thumb: this is a helpful, friendly place and everybody is in it together.

There is no glitz and no glamour (although you can mingle with the stars by joining in the pre-race grid walk that’s open to all): rather, it’s a raw, visceral experience that any enthusiast should experience at least once (although after you’ve done that there’s a fair chance you’ll return – the number of British visitors seems to grow by the year).

The forests contain sounds, sights and scents that would be alien at almost any other venue – and don’t be fooled into thinking the trees have caught fire, it just looks and smells that way. Beer, barbecues and loud music are a given (a fondness for heavy metal will give you a head start), but there are other elements, too.

You are certain to encounter quirky stuff among all the sociable mayhem – in my case it was people dancing around a bus in a forest clearing. It felt a bit like walking into a set from The Wicker Man – but that seems almost normal in a landscape such as this.

And then there are the temporary trackside structures in which groups sit, sleep and carouse. Typically, these involve a few scaffold tubes, with planks inserted at a sort of mezzanine level and plastic sheeting to protect occupants against the probability of rain. Just below the planks will be several crates of beer (or possibly a few kegs) and, obviously, a barbecue. History does not record what health and safety might think about the potentially combustible fusion of lager, fire, gas, wood and plastic, but here nobody bats an eyelid. It’s far less confrontational than the Wild West, but you suspect there might be certain similarities.

And while all this is going on, of course, the bellow of modern GT cars – one of the finest symphonies in modern racing – is seldom far away. Just as the night hours at Le Mans provide one of modern racing’s greatest spectacles, the same applies here.

In a world of constant change, it’s refreshing to know that most of the Nordschleife is just as it has always been. The pit complex – shared with the modern track – might be a giveaway, but out in the forests time stands still.

The word ‘unique’ is very often used incorrectly, but for an event such as the Nürburgring 24 Hours it is most appropriate.

Essential travel guide

Where to stay
The Hotel Dorint is located adjacent to the pit straight, within an easy stroll of the paddock. Favoured by teams and VIPs at Grand Prix time, when you can’t get in without a special pass because of security goons. Worth a punt at other meetings, though it won’t ever be cheap. At the other end of the scale, there are lots of camping options close to the circuit: noise-insulating earplugs recommended, unless you’re partial to the Michael Schenker Group’s back catalogue being played very loudly at 3am. There are reasonably priced hotels in nearby Adenau and Hohe Acht, while you can rent a three-roomed chalet at Center Parcs, Kelberg (about 20 minutes from the track, but likely to feature shrill cabaret singers of an evening). Local houses often have ‘Zimmer frei’ boards outside, even at Grand Prix time – an indication that you may rent a room. The delightfully rural Campingpark Dockweiler Mühle is about 25 minutes away: you can pitch a tent or rent a small cabin (with bed, shower, toilet and kitchen) for a very reasonable price and cook your own chicken curries away from the circuit’s bustle (although ducks might hassle you for leftovers). For provisions, there’s a Lidl twixt track and tent. Note that the site’s credit card machine is usually broken, but a nearby ATM facilitates cash payments.

Route tips
It’s about four hours by road from Calais, via the E40, E42 and B410. The latter is a good road, but is often populated by slow-moving trucks. There are several airports within easy reach, not least Düsseldorf, Cologne/Bonn and Frankfurt. The latter should be little more than an hour by road, but one journalist took nearer eight after confusing the Nürburgring with Nuremberg. It didn’t help that he kept checking his map in a bid to find the town of Ausfahrt, which was clearly huge because it appeared on the signs at every turn-off. He now knows this means ‘exit’…

Interesting diversions
If you’re attending an event on the modern track, the obvious highlight will be a chance to pay €27 to take your road car on a lap of the Nordschleife (although this isn’t always available on Grand Prix weekends, because it can be pressed into service as a car park for officials). Multi-lap options are available at slightly discounted rates. Otherwise, you could pop into your local Spa on the way down. www.nuerburgring.de