Life can be pretty tough for Britons touring northern Europe in the 1990s. I mean, in August you could actually see people smiling in the queue at the P&O bureau de change because the pound had ‘risen’ to 8.5 French francs . . .
At the same time, a full tank of unleaded for a family-sized saloon would set you back around £40 in Belgium. Then you crossed the border into Germany, and life started to get expensive. . .
Still, there is a part of Germany where you can get extraordinarily good value for money, irrespective of the exchange rate.
Nestling in the Eifel mountains, it’s a place well known to motor racing aficionados.
It’s the Nurburgring.
We’re talking here about the classic original, with its 14 miles of verdant complexity, and not the antiseptic modern racing facility next door which, shamefully, is allowed the carry the same name. Actually, modern racing drivers quite like the new ‘Ring, because it does at least have a few gradients and a little variety. “It allows you to build up a really good rhythm,” opined European F3000 contender Olivier Panis upon arrival. “From a driver’s point of view, it’s a satisfying place.”
To spectators, however, it’s simply soulless. Perhaps that’s why the annual ADAC Formel Festival, which draws an entire sub-F1 single-seater staircase (Formel Junior, Formula Ford, Formula Vauxhall Lotus, F3 and F3000) to the new track, attracts a smaller crowd than its serpentine neighbour over the course of the same weekend . . .
What, you might well ask, are they watching?
The answer, in short, is the general public.
Since Niki Lauda crashed exiting Bergwerk in 1976, the incident which did most to prompt the transfer of the German Grand Prix to Hockenheim, the old Nordschleife has been rather more than 14 miles of misty legend. There is still an annual 24-hour race, in mid-summer, where no fewer than 180 cars take the start (in three batches of 60!). It’s an event in which more or less anything goes, so long as it has a roof. Preceding this round-the-clock festival are twin rounds of the German Touring Car Championship, four laps apiece, on the Thursday. And that’s about it, racing-wise. The rest of the time, the ‘Ring is open for hire to Joe and Josephine Motorist, at 14 deutchsmarks per lap, payable on the gate.
It’s a popular haunt, all year round, for expensively attired motorcyclists, riding machines with telephone number cubic capacities, and for drivers of a wide diversity of cars. When the Formula 3000 championship is in the neighbourhood, the regular mix of ludicrously low-slung BMWs, aggressively conducted Porsche 911s and full Group N-spec VWs and Opels is visibly boosted for a couple of days beforehand by a proliferation of standard 1.1 Corsas, Golfs and Fiestas . . . with Avis, Hertz and Budget stickers in the rear window.
For a first-time driver, the venue is memorable and mesmerising in roughly equal measure. Did they really allow F1 cars to run here as recently as the mid 1970s? Group C sports cars and Formula 2 cars until the early 1980s? Even today, it seems astonishing.
In an otherwise sober, orderly country such as Germany, the way in which this temple of hedonism is still liberally used is quite an eye-opener.
Watching some of the ‘bikers lapping can be just awesome. Ultimately, none of them may be Kevin Schwantz, but their commitment is absolute.
Accidents, inevitably injurious and sometimes fatal, are not uncommon, nor, unsurprisingly, are they deemed to be the responsibility of the circuit management. Those hiring the track are fully aware of the potential consequences of an error, even if that may not appear to be the case from their bravado.
The circuit is potentially at its most lethal whenever it gets busy, for there is always something of a disparity in performance — and ability. Even if you’re knocking at the door of Formula One, there’s not much you can do to avoid getting the way of a well ridden Honda CBR 900 if all you’ve got is a Hertz Nova. The problem for motorcyclists is that few paying punters have such track awareness as the visiting F3000 drivers. Everyone needs to concentrate 110 per cent on where they’re going. . . and 120 per cent on their mirrors. It’s a hazardous cocktail, which might explain why, even on weekdays, there are always knots of people gathered at the most spectacular points on the circuit.
Whatever the perils, there are always those who will argue, quite rightly, that it’s better to let Wannabe Sennas and Schwantzes have such freedom within the confines of a racing circuit rather than on the public road.
Guided tours (on four wheels, though you do see the odd pillion passenger) are not hard to come by.
My first, back in 1985, was courtesy of Christian Danner, then on his way to winning the inaugural European F3000 title, nowadays one of Alfa Romeo’s leading lights in the GTCC. It was a weekend when several incidents stood out, notably Mike Thackwell lightly rumpling his VW Golf by misjudging Adenau Bridge during an exploratory tour of the old circuit and the scheduled racing debut (in an Alfa Romeo GTV6) of downhill skiing legend Franz Klammer. . . which had to be postponed as the meeting was abandoned due to heavy snow!
Danner’s invitation came on the Friday afternoon, long before the white powdery invasion. “Ever been round the old track?” he queried, as we sat ruminating on the handling niceties of his March 85B. “Come on,” he beamed as I shook my head. “I’ll show you. Just let me find a car . . .”
A few minutes later he was back in a BMW 320. “It’s Gerhard Berger’s,” he grinned, “shouldn’t think he’ll mind.”
The running commentary that ensued wasn’t geared to inspire passenger confidence.
“You see the tops of those trees just over the barriers there?”
“Yes . . “
“I rolled my Renault 5 into those during my first season. Really big crash. Oh, and that barrier there?
“Yes . . .
“Put my Formula Two March into that a couple of years ago. Head on. Really big crash. Biggest of my career. Look! There. You see that kerb?”
“Yes . . . “
“Rolled my Renault there as well. Missed the apex by miles.”
You resist asking whether there are any corners where he hadn’t crashed. Much of the time he was steering one-handed. Relaxed. Confident. An assurance borne of familiarity accrued through experience, some of it not always pleasant.
It was a memorable 12 minutes or so, though it might have been rather shorter had Berger left any fuel in the car. Two-thirds of the way around, Danner backed off as he felt the first signs of starvation under heavy cornering loads.
His low-key approach was a marked contrast to that of my most recent such chauffeur, F3000 front-runner Gil de Ferran, whose eagerness to learn the place was tempered with caution, the Brazilian never having never been before. While Gil was one of several drivers who enjoyed the new circuit, the challenge presented by the latter was put firmly into perspective when he ventured onto the Nordschleife.
A tape recorder ran for the duration of the lap, in an effort to capture his thoughts. Normally, a racing driver talks his way around a circuit in something of a structured manner. Braking points, revs, gear changes and significant surface alterations are usually recounted parrot fashion.
The ‘Ring had a different effect on the habitually loquacious de Ferran, who was strapped for coherent comment for much of the lap, other than his repeated grumble that “This thing’s too soft, really.”
In fairness, the Volvo 850 GLT estate was not conceived with sub-11 minute laps of the Nordschleife in mind.
Leastways, not five up.
While de Ferran’s observations were, by necessity, given the concentration factor, sporadic, his enthusiasm for the place was total. He’d been around the previous day, in a couple of cars, and was looking forward to passengering team patron Jackie Stewart the next. Some 20 years after his retirement, JYS said he could still remember every nook and cranny. De Ferran was understandably keen to acquire a slice of such knowledge.
Subsequently listening to the recorded cassette of de Ferran’s own lap, several themes recur: frequent puzzlement over what lay beyond blind brows, whoops of delight whenever positive ID meant that the Volvo could be committed accurately to a given part of the circuit . . . and the unmistakable, fizzing sound of motorcycles on heat, flashing past yet another car full of awestruck visitors,
Like the remnants of the old Grand Prix circuit at Reims (MOTOR SPORT, October 1992), the Nordschleife is something that anyone with a soul ought to experience at least once.
All it requires is a little common-sense and, of course, sufficient deutschmarks to satisfy your curiosity.
It is unlikely that 14 will be enough . . .