Germany's own Brickyard

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‘The Wall’ may be gone, but on a visit to AVUS the mere outline of the terrifyingly steep banking still impresses

On a recent visit to Berlin I naturally made a point of visiting the old AVUS circuit site. The pioneering autobahn-style Automobil Verkehrs und Ubungs Strasse – ‘Automobile Traffic and Practice Road’ – first opened in 1921, in the city’s south-western suburbs from Charlottenberg to Nikolassee and back. Its full lap length was originally 12.2 miles, later shortened to 5.2. For 1937 its shallow-banked North Curve was replaced by a formidably tall and steep 180-degree (planform) banking. It was paved with brick whose exposed facets looked like kitchen tiles and offered about as much grip. Introducing this formidable bowl – despite the South Curve remaining a simple U-turn from the outbound carriageway onto the parallel return section – the 1937 AVUSRennen was won by Hermann Lang’s streamlined Mercedes-Benz at an average speed of over 162mph. Both Lang and Rosemeyer lapped at over 171mph…

So AVUS was formidably quick. That awesome North Wall was torn down in 1968, but its outline survives in the level loop of asphalt which replaced it. And upon seeing it for the first time I was astonished. From outer kerb to outer kerb its diameter is just tiny.

In fact you can get some idea of just how confined ‘the mighty’ North Wall of the AVUS really was when you consider that the entire loop could fit five times into Shelsley Walsh’s 1000 yards. In fact from one outer lip to the other – across the Wall’s diameter – it measured barely 190 metres – that’s 206 yards for the right-minded. This is why the North Wall had to be so steep, and so high, to contain the cars – and to maintain their speed – as they arced from one of AVUS’s parallel carriageways to the other one.

Stand there today by the surviving postwar race control-cum-restaurant building. Gaze across the commercial vehicles parked on the banking’s former infield and the overwhelming impression is just how confined and tight that legendary Wall must really have been.

In fact if you picture the view from the top of Paddock Hill at Brands Hatch to only halfway up Pilgrim’s Rise – not even as far as Druid’s Hairpin – then the AVUS North Wall would fit within that space. Or picture from the middle of the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca to the apex of Turn 9, or from the exit of Laguna’s hairpin to Turn 3’s entry. Same deal. The AVUS North Wall would fit in there.

In stark contrast, France’s Montlhéry speedbowl bankings have a 550-metre diameter, just over 600 yards – while Brooklands’ Byfleet Banking occupies an enormous 980 metres, over 1070 yards. So you get an idea not only of just how tightly packaged AVUS really was, but also some idea of the spectacular velodrome-style action which the Third Reich’s architects created there.

The fastest of America’s old board track speedways, Atlantic City at Amatol near Hammonton, New Jersey, had its bankings struck at a diameter of around 420 metres or 450 yards – tighter than Montlhéry, but more than twice the diameter of the AVUS wall. It had been built for 160mph, and while it was only used for three seasons, 1926-28, the immortal Frank Lockhart set its lap record at 147.727mph in his super-tuned Miller.

Today at AVUS – as you head south-west along the AVUS carriageway towards Nikolassee – there on the right survives the 260-yard-long old grandstand, upon which I understand there is a preservation order. What then surprised me about the AVUS’s parallel carriageway legs is that they are not perfectly flat, as I had pictured. In fact they undulate slightly, producing a couple of relatively blind brows – always fun at 180-plus mph. And then near the old unbanked South Curve location – just before an autobahn interchange junction at Huttenweg – there’s the old slip road slicing off to the right then curving back into the carriageway surface, with a matching layby on the opposite side, providing necessary space to complete the U-turn.

It’s all a very atmospheric site – as much for me as the (again surprisingly small) Reichstag building, and the Bundesrepublik’s treasury building which began life pre-war as Hermann Goering’s Reichsluftsfahrtministerium – the Nazi Air Ministry. Every one sent tingles down my spine – but for very different reasons…