F1 returns to the 'Ring

Nick Heidfeld was determined to make the most of a unique opportunity – to lap the legendary Nordschleife in a current-generation Formula One car

On April 28, Nick Heidfeld drove a BMW Sauber around the Nordschleife, the old Nürburgring track in the forests behind the new grand prix circuit. It was the first time since 1976 that a current F1 driver in an (almost) current F1 car had tackled its twists and turns. A daunting experience to those familiar with the legendary circuit that winds through the Eifel mountains, but, for a man of Heidfeld’s ability, a task to enjoy and to savour. 

“It was the most exciting thing I have ever done in a racing car. A simply incredible feeling,” said ‘Quick Nick’.

The team used last year’s F106 for this demo organised by BMW Motorsport. “They begged me to be careful, not to go too fast,” said Nick. “But once I got out there, I had to give it a bit of a go. I knew it would be a great experience, but it was even better than I’d expected. Just fantastic.”

Because the circuit is totally unsuited to a modern grand prix machine, BMW’s engineers raised its ride heights to their maximum – 4cm at the front, 8cm at the back. They also cranked on ‘Monaco’ downforce and fitted Bridgestone ‘demonstration’ tyres, which Heidfeld reckons to be 10 per cent slower than their race cousins.

“The car was bottoming badly and there were three places where it was really a disaster. I got badly shaken up on the Bergwerk section [scene of Niki Lauda’s crash in 1976] and the long straight at Döttinger Hohe,” said Heidfeld. “It was frustrating on the big straight as seventh gear was far too short and I was on the rev-limiter too much. But I saw 175mph along there on my quickest lap. 

“I could not go low around the Karussell corner either. It’s banked too steeply for a modern F1 car. And I had to lift off over the worst of the crests or the car would have flown.

 “But still, my fastest lap was 7min 25sec [he also tackled a section of the new track]. That’s not bad. Niki Lauda had told me that a modern F1 car would fall apart over such a circuit, but it was fine, really, as long as I backed off over the worst bumps and jumps.

“After three laps I really wanted more. But they called me in. I would have gone round until the fuel ran out. I tell you, the experience made me jealous of the old guys who used to race here, it must have been amazing. I think I would have loved the racing in the old days.”

“I knew where the fans were and I think they loved the noise of a Formula One car coming through the forest.” 

This was not the first time Heidfeld has driven a modern grand prix car in unusual circumstances. He still holds the Goodwood Festival of Speed hillclimb record, covering the 1.16-mile ascent in 41.6sec in a McLaren MP4-13. 

“Yes, not as good as the BMW at the Nordschleife,” he said, “but still a fantastic experience. It looks pretty scary on the video, but I could have gone quicker. I could have gone faster at the Nürburgring too, but, hey, it was the experience of a lifetime, a memory that will last forever.”