Weather permitting

A packed, if foggy, weekend of historic racing at the Nürburgring Oldtimer event – plus a Nordschleife master-class

By Rob Widdows

The early signs are not good. The sky has descended onto the rooftops at Döttinger Höhe alongside the long, long straight of the Nordschleife, the clouds and drizzle hanging in the cool air. Up to Brunnchen for a glimpse of the first of the day’s historic cars in action from the public viewing area. But there is silence, the majestic circuit brooding under dripping fir trees. Makes you shiver, this place, but restorative and delicious hot soup was being served in the Automobilclub von Deutschland media centre – British promoters, please note.

There is to be just the one day of sport on the Nordschleife, followed by the 35th running of the Oldtimer GP on the new Nürburgring. In the paddocks there is silence, shadows move in the mist and drivers kick their heels. The place resembles a cold sauna. Groping my way through the gloom, a familiar figure looms out of the mist.

“It was like this in 1968 when Jackie Stewart won by miles,” says Christopher Tate from the Masters Series, which has two races scheduled. “We sat in the main grandstand and you couldn’t see the pits on the other side of the track. They started the race, though, and Stewart came by on his own at the end of the opening lap. There was just this sound of a lone DFV coming back through the forest. It was unforgettable, Stewart simply in a class of his own.”

Mr Stewart later described the place as “a green hell”. Certainly it was that day.

The loudspeakers splutter into life to inform us that racing on the Nordschleife has been cancelled, as has practice on the new circuit. Too dangerous, no visibility. We will not see cars on the breathtaking dips and twists through the Eifel forests.

“They’re right to cancel,” says Jackie Oliver, who won the Formula 2 class of the grand prix in 1967 and is due to race his BMW 1800 here. “On the public open days you can come flat out over a crest and there’s a camper van, two bikes and a VW Beetle all in a heap in the dip. And that’s in perfect visibility.”

In the paddock, David Piper recalls coming to grips with the 917 here in 1969. “They wanted me to drive it in the 1000Km – all the works drivers had refused, I think – so I roped in Frank Gardner and we practiced at six in the morning having got to the track at midnight. After his first few laps Frank said ‘If we go off the road in this car they’ll need a compass to come and find us’. Anyway, we won our class and the works drivers gave us a standing ovation at the end!”

What a difference a day makes. From the unforgiving Nordschleife to the politically correct new circuit in the shadow of the medieval castle on the hill at Nürburg, the Oldtimer GP weekend dawned sunny and bright. The mountains of the Vulkaneifel came back into view and a stream of fans came through the gates. Then out came the racers. 

In the Historic Grand Prix Cars Association races the Brits were to the fore, the ever-enthusiastic Tony Smith in fine form in his beautiful Ferrari 246 Dino, winning the pre-1961 class from Allan Miles and Stuart Harper. The HGPCA was celebrating the 50th anniversary of Juan Manuel Fangio’s victory in the 1957 German Grand Prix with Max Werner taking victory in his 250F in a race featuring no fewer than seven of the gorgeous red 250F Maseratis. On the Sunday morning they were let loose on the Nordschleife in homage to Fangio, the best sights and sounds of the weekend.

The Can-Am encounters provided some great racing with Richard Piper, John Grant and Peter Hoffman having a tremendous duel in their McLarens, the M8s sounding and looking as potent as ever, and all three evenly matched.

Next, in the World Sportscar Masters Leo Voyazides and Stefano Rosina both had a cracker of an event, on the podium in both races and providing great entertainment. Rosina won the first of two races while Paul Knapfield took the other in his Ferrari 712, half a second ahead of Voyazides in the Lola, who had lost third gear.

Joaquin Folch ran away and hid in both Grand Prix Masters races, the McLaren M23 the class of the field. But there was plenty of action in his wake. John Crowson had a nasty fright when a wheel fell off his Ensign half way round the first lap of the first race, series promoter Ron Maydon had an engine blow itself to bits in the unique Amon F101 and John Delane was in all sorts of bother with his Tyrrell 002. “Yeah, not a great weekend, the brakes went away, then it was fuel starvation, then it stopped,” he lamented. Team Tyrrell was beautifully turned out, as ever, and Jeff Lewis in 007 had a better time, dicing for a podium place before the gearbox started playing up. Nobody looked like getting anywhere near Folch’s McLaren but it was the Heskeths that caught the eye. Nico Bindels, in a 308C, kept Folch on his toes while 16-year-old Michael Lyons, who bears a striking resemblance to Sebastien Vettel, raced his family’s 308E from the back of the grid to ninth in only four laps before the battery failed. A young man to watch.

Despite the sunshine of Sunday, ghosts were still appearing. Wasn’t that Gordon Coppuck examining James Hunt’s McLaren M26 in the pit lane? The car belongs to Frank Lyons but it is Coppuck, back with the GP and Can-Am cars he penned for McLaren.

“Yes, it’s nice to see the cars again, especially the M8D CanAm. They’re so beautifully turned out, they haven’t got all those bolt-on goodies and bits we stuck on at the last moment to revolutionise that week’s performance, you know,” he smiles. 

“And then here’s James’s car, great memories. Takes me back to ’74 and ’76 when we twice won both the world championship and the Indy 500 in the same year, with Fittipaldi and Hunt and Johnny Rutherford with the M16-Offy in the States.”

Yet the Oldtimer weekend is somehow devoid of atmosphere. There are upwards of 60,000 people here but the grandstands are strangely empty, the Germans preferring to promenade the paddocks, wander through the vast array of trade stands and drift among the pit garages. They cram into the bars and cafes, consuming vast quantities of currywurst and Bitburg to get them through the day. Schumacher T-shirts are much in evidence – the seven-times champion is not forgotten here. 

Fine, but the races are run in front of empty seats and victorious racers on the podium are confronted by sparsely populated stands while, below, the paddocks, shops and bars are packed to the rafters.

After 35 years the Oldtimer Grand Prix is a worthy highlight of the German historic calendar. But it’s hard to resist looking over your shoulder, to the forests beyond the Nürburg castle, to a time before safety issues forced the closure of arguably the greatest race track in the world. Yes, marshalling would be something of a challenge but it comes down to this – historic cars are at their best on a historic circuit. It’s regrettable that the Earl of March did not inherit the real estate upon which the Nordschleife was constructed.

“It’s very quick here...”

Jackie Oliver takes our man on a flying lap of the Nordschleife – in the mist and fog

Jackie Oliver has driven down from England in his Jaguar S-type R. This gives me an idea: can we tackle the Nordschleife, and the mist, in the comfort of the Jag? Yes, you can, says the extremely helpful AvD Clerk of the Course, but we will lead you round in a pace car. So we venture forth, the tail lights of a 911 Carrera somewhere ahead in the greyness.

“When I first came here to do the grand prix in ’67, with the F2 Lotus, Jimmy Clark showed me the way round. Right here,” he says, diving down from Brunnchen towards the Eiskurve and the Pflanzgartens, “he showed me how to gain some time by using the camber of the road, the slope holding the car into the corner and allowing you to come out quicker. Then, after a lap, he waved and was gone, away into the distance. 

“This place takes a lot of learning, believe me – all these corners with the last one tightening up on you, taking you by surprise. At the Flugplatz, you have to get it absolutely right or you land sideways. Then, in these tighter corners [as we come to Breidscheid, Ex-Muhle and Bergwerk] you can’t see the apexes until you’re right on them, and it was worse then because there were none of these kerbs and guardrails, just the grass and the trees. Here’s where Lauda lost it…” he finger-tips the Jag through a light left-hander,. “It’s very quick here.” 

And now we come to the smaller of the two jumps, a lesser version of the Flugplatz, downhill and hard right at the bottom. “This is where I got it wrong and landed on one wheel in the F2 car. There’s a famous photograph – everyone thinks it’s Clark as we both had dark helmets, but it’s me, arriving off-line and landing out of shape.” Onto the seemingly endless Döttinger Höhe then, and Jackie remembers this in the Porsche 917. “Over 200mph down here in the 917,” he says, approaching the kink at Antoniusbuche. “You aimed for a tree on the outside here, and then you had to be so precise, just the slightest movements of the wheel, checking for grip. Great circuit, one that needs lots of lifts, big ones and small ones, and not too much heavy braking. It’s all about balance.”

As we cruised this mighty circuit, built to keep the workers employed in the depression of the 1920s, I sensed the ghosts of races, and drivers, past, imagining them standing beneath the fir trees in the dripping mist, all of them with such stories of bravery and skill. 

This circuit is part of motor racing education. Denis Jenkinson loved the place, of course, and when I asked him about the best places to watch a race there he told me: ‘Well, anywhere really, it’s all wonderful, especially up high where you can see down into the cockpits.’ He was right, as ever. RW