"Nowhere was as rewarding as the Nurburgring"
“Nowhere was rewarding as the „ iirburgring
STIRLING MOSS Wnetner el a 7ormu a 1 or sports can tne cna enge of tne ordscn dfe made oved and feared n equa measure BY NIGEL ROEBUCK always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse’… It was somewhat after his time, but Hilaire Belloc might have been writing of the neue Niirburgring. When first we went there, in 1985, it’s fair to say we were appalled, for
the place seemed without distinguishing feature of any kind. A fortnight later I saw Bernie Ecclestone in the paddock at the Osterreichring, and he seemed to speak for all of us: “Good to be back at a proper circuit, isn’t it?” It was indeed. Perhaps, though, we should have kept a-hold of Nurse, for Hermann Tilke was no more than a twinkle in Bernie’s eye back then, and we had no clue as to what was coming down the pike over the next 25 years. ED
Perspectives have inevitably changed, so that now I find the circuit still bland, yes, but only one of many — and better than some. And perhaps, if I’m honest, what always most offended me was that, instead of christening it the Tifelring’ or some such, they had dared to call it the Niirburgring, merely because it was adjacent to perhaps the greatest race circuit ever built. Flugplatz, Aremburg, Pflanzgarten, Schwalbenschwanz… the very corner names make you shiver.
t was known in 1983 that the 1000Kms sports car race would be the last major event ever to be run at the Nordschleife, and thus Keke Rosberg, the reigning
World Champion, turned up to drive a privately-entered Porsche 956. “Compared with the works cars, we were in a different game,” Keke said after finishing third, “but it would have been nice to win the last proper race at my favourite circuit.” Over the generations plenty of drivers said that, and doubtless many meant it, but it’s undeniable that the Niirburgring — the Niirburgring — instilled in a driver respect and fear in equal measure. “Whenever I raced there,” Karl Kling, the ’50s Mercedes driver told me, “I always used to
wonder, when I left my hotel room in the morning, if I would see it again…”
There was good reason to feel that way, particularly in the era before the ‘Ring was — for want of a better word — ‘modernised’ in 1970. Away you went on more than 14 miles of blind brows and apexes, and if you made a mistake you hit a bank or you hit trees or you went down a drop. Over time a great many drivers didn’t see their hotel room again.
“Had I not won a Grand Prix there,” said Jackie Stewart, “there would’ve been something sadly missing from my career — but, really, wasn’t it a ridiculous place? Leaping from one bump to another, 187 corners or whatever it was! The number of times I thanked God when I finished a lap — I can’t remember doing one more balls-out lap at the ‘Ring than I needed to.
“Me, I like that place best when I’m sitting by a log fire on a winter’s night! Clear in my mind are all the braking distances and gearchanges, and that’s surely the only way I’ve ever lapped it without a mistake. The ‘Ring gave you amazing satisfaction, but anyone who says he loved it is either a liar or he wasn’t going fast enough…” Not strictly true. Down the years many a driver claimed it to be his favourite circuit —
and went fast enough around it, too. Juan Manuel Fangio, for one.
By common consent Fangio’s victory at the Niirburgring in 1957 belongs in the Grand Prix pantheon, and it is unlikely that any man ever got more out of a Formula 1 car than did he as he hunted down the Ferraris of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins, making up over a minute on them after a lengthy pitstop. A year earlier Juan Manuel had left the lap record at 9min 41.6sec; now he went round in 9min 17.4sec. I remember the intensity in his eyes as he described that day to me: “The Maserati 250F — I loved that car, and I loved the Niirburgring, too. It was always my favourite circuit, and I think that day I conquered it, but on another it
might have conquered me, who knows? I took myself and my car to the limit, and perhaps a little bit more — I had never driven like that before, and even now, all these years later, when I think of that race I can feel fear…”
“The first time I ever went to the ‘Ring,” the late Phil Hill told me, “[Alfonso de] Portago says he’ll take me round in a road car. He had a certain reputation, and I wasn’t keen, but eventually I said, ‘Well… OK’. We get in this Mercedes sedan, set off — and he spins the thing at the Foxhole! ‘OK, stop the car right here,’ I said. ‘I’m getting out.’ How did I get back to the pits? I walked…
“Hell of an introduction to the Niirburgring, right? But then I went round with Fangio, also in a Mercedes, and that was just total perfection. Nothing flashy, nothing dangerous — and much faster than Portago.” Twelve months after Fangio’s greatest victory, the German Grand Prix was uncannily similar to the one before, save that this time it was Hawthorn and Collins against the Vanwall of Tony Brooks, another devotee of the circuit: “I suppose I loved Spa most of all, and then the ‘Ring. To me they were the essence of true
Grand Prix circuits, calling for great precision — and with no margin for error at all. “That day my car was diabolical on full tanks, and by the time it began to handle properly the Ferraris were more than half a minute ahead. Eventually I caught them, but they had me on top speed and could get by again on the long straight at the end of the lap. My only hope was to get ahead early in the lap, and pull out enough that they couldn’t slipstream past me again. Eventually that worked out, and the tragedy was that Peter, trying to stay with me,
overdid it at Pflanzgarten… “Obviously I felt pretty bad about it at the time, although I didn’t feel responsible or anything like that. I think Peter went into the corner a
bit too quickly, perhaps a little off-line — and if you went off at the ‘Ring, you were in the lap of the gods, because it was all ditches and trees.” Collins died in hospital that
night, just a fortnight after winning the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, the greatest victory of his short life. The Niirburgring was exacting like no other circuit, which was why Stirling Moss
adored it. “I believe the art of driving a car is learning the language the car is speaking. It’s that friendship you have with the vehicle that builds up your confidence — and some cars give you that more than others. “There are also days like that, too. I can
remember times going round the Niirburgring, with my adrenalin up, and a car doing what I asked of it, and being able to do things I wouldn’t have been able to do the next day. An ordinary sort of circuit would never do that for me — I mean, Silverstone was good, but you’d never get into that state of mind there. The track was so important in that respect — I didn’t find anywhere as rewarding as the Niirburgring…” If the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix is generally
regarded, not least by the man himself, as Moss’s day of days, his victory at the Niirburgring later that year runs it close. Again it was Stirling’s underpowered Lotus-Climax against the Ferraris, and again it was driving virtuosity that won the day. Interestingly, though, it is the 1000Kms sports car race in 1959 that tops Moss’s personal list of
days at the ‘Ring. Paired with journeyman Jack Fairman in the Aston Martin team, he not only had — twice — to make up well over a minute on the Hill/Gendebien and Behra/Brooks Ferraris, but also drove 41 of the 44 laps — a little over 600 miles, and more than twice the length of a German Grand Prix. “Before that race I couldn’t have said, ‘I can do 41 laps’, but when adrenalin gets hold of you it’s like a drug. You don’t know how strong you are, you have no idea. I was absolutely shot, more tired than at the end of any other race in
my life — and certainly more than at the end of the Mille Miglia.” The Nordschleife was all about feats and legends, and not all of them ended in triumph. As night follows day, Jimmy Clark was inevitably brilliant there, although he won the German Grand Prix only once, in 1965, putting a seal on the World Championship by early August. When I think of Clark and the ‘Ring, though, the first image in my mind is not of Fl but of the 1962 1000Kms, when he drove
the new, tiny Lotus 23 powered by by the 1.5-litre twin-cam engine that would be seen in the Elan. On race day it was damp and slippery, conditions made for
the genius of the driver and the nimbleness of the car. At the end of the first lap Jimmy swept by the pits alone: 27 seconds later the factory Ferraris and Porsches began to arrive. On lap two the Lotus pulled out another 20sec, and by lap eight it led by two full minutes.
Sadly, the day didn’t end well, for Clark’s exhaust pipe broke, and fumes blowing into the cockpit made him groggy. Eventually the little 23 went off the road, but Jimmy’s drive that day belongs in the legends of the Niirburgring. ver time there were so many. In 1935 the ageing Alfa Romeo P3 was wholly uncompetitive with Mercedes and Auto Union, but the was
at a circuit like the Niirburgring ability was all, and if Tazio Nuvolari was lucky in anything in his life it was that he competed at a time when a great driver could win in an inferior car.
As Rene Dreyfus, a team-mate to Nuvolari in the Scuderia Ferrari squad of Alfas put it, “You have to remember that the cars of those times had almost no brakes, almost no grip. Therefore cornering speeds were set much more by the driver than by the car — Tazio would pass me travelling at a different sort of speed…”
Having won the German Grand Prix in 1935 (see page 54), crossing the line to near silence from the stands and leaving an expectant Nazi reception committee stunned, Nuvolari might well have won again the following year at the Eifelrennen (the Niirburgring’s ‘second’ race each season, and a Grand Prix in all but name), had it not been for Bernd Rosemeyer. Conditions that day were as atrocious as ever racing has known — torrential rain, impenetrable fog — yet Rosemeyer, the Gilles Villeneuve of his time, simply drove away from the rest, and in a 6-litre Auto Union on skinny tyres. Visibility was in places as little as 20 yards, and in the last half of the race Rosemeyer — Nebelmeister as they called him — pulled away from Nuvolari at
the rate of 30 seconds a lap. A couple of months later he also won the German Grand Prix.
It was at the Niirburgring, too, that Dick Seaman scored his only Grand Prix victory in 1938. Mercedes driver he might have been, but he was not the winner desired by Korpsfuhrer Adolf Huhnlein — Hitler’s resident thug at the races — who was angered by Seaman’s understandably half-hearted attempt at the requisite Nazi salute.
More than 30 years on I stood with Denis Jenkinson near the old podium in the pitlane at the Nordschleife, and if he loved the circuit it was all too easy to understand when he murmured something about the faint echo of the jackboot.
Of all the German drivers, none was more anti-Nazi than the immortal Rudolf Caracciola. By 1939, as war approached, Caracciola — considered by Alfred Neubauer to be the greatest driver of all time — was 38 and past his best, but it was no more than fitting that he should win the last German GP of the era. In more recent times the race that lingers most in the mind is the 1968 Grand Prix, run in conditions perhaps not quite as dire as those
confronted by Rosemeyer, but not far removed. It was won — by four minutes — by Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell-run Matra MS10 [see p591.
“We had a problem with the car in the only dry session, and I qualified sixth. I made an awful good start, though — I can remember going down the pitlane (no barrier in front of it, of course) which was concrete and gave a hell of a lot of grip! That got me up to third, and on the first lap I passed Chris Amon and Graham Hill, and built quite a lead. “The rain was one thing, but the fog was ridiculous. Along the main straight visibility was less than 100 yards — and you were doing over 180mph. I was driving with a wrist brace, after my injury at Jarama, and I don’t think I’d
have won if the race had been dry — I wouldn’t have had the strength, because I was mostly steering with my left hand. I remember being very tired…” The previous year Stewart, struggling with the cumbersome BRM H16, set the third-fastest time — of the Fl cars — in qualifying, but was more than a second slower than Tyrrell’s F2 Matra, driven by one Jacky Ickx. The young man was more than 20 seconds faster than the next F2 driver — Jackie Oliver — and so concerned was JYS for his safety that he suggested that Ken slow
him down. The advice was apparently declined.
The ‘Ring was always Ickx’s chosen circuit, even above his beloved Spa, and he became one of its consummate masters, winning conclusively for Brabham in 1969, for Ferrari in ’72. By now, though, the Nordschleife was entering its twilight years as a GP circuit. In the summer of 1970, when they were all in London to attend — on consecutive days — the memorial service for Bruce McLaren and the funeral of Piers Courage, the drivers met to discuss safety in general, the Niirburgring in particular. Not surprisingly, in light of recent events, feelings were running high, but it was the least likely man in the room
— Jack Brabham — who settled the issue of the ‘Ring by quietly saying that, in his opinion, there should be no race there unless or until longrequested circuit changes were made. For years the Niirburgring authorities had believed themselves above this sort of thing, confident that their race would remain on the calendar because… well, because it was the Nurburgring, and sacrosanct. At short notice the Grand Prix was transferred to Hockenheim — and in the Eifel mountains they began felling trees and installing guard rails. 11111)
Safer though the place became some of its inherent challenge was inevitably lost, for now it was ‘opened up’, in the sense that removing trees greatly improved visibility, and corners once blind were no longer so. “When we went back there, I’ll admit I had mixed feelings,” said Chris Amon. “Thank God it was safer than before — but at the same time it wasn’t as satisfying as it had been…”
When the 1976 race was stopped, though, after Niki Lauda’s fiery accident at Bergwerk on the second lap, Amon it was who declined to take the restart. Appalled by the length of time it took for medical help to reach Lauda, and driving a car — the Ensign — which had already broken on him twice that season, Chris decided he had seen enough: “I’d never really thought about it before, but I guess it’s impossible to marshal 14 miles properly. [Hans] Stuck and I had to find a field telephone, to let Race Control know what had happened to Niki.”
Much later, after the race — won by James Hunt — had been run, a group of us gathered at one of the team caravans, drinking wine and quietly mulling over the events of the day. Lauda, we knew, had been alive when he reached hospital, but the word was that he was unlikely to survive. “Let’s raise a glass to him,” said Jenks, ever understated on such occasions. “He was the best of this lot…”
Mercifully, though, Niki did survive — indeed miraculously somehow raced at Monza six weeks later. The Niirburgring, though, was done in terms of Fl, and I think, as we stood around on that evening of August 1, that was something unspoken in the air. more time passes, the more your perceptions change. Back in 1974, the year after he retired, Jackie Stewart drove me round the
Nordschleife in a Cologne Capri, and it need hardly be said that I was impressed. At the time, though, the circuit had a place in the World Championship; as well as that, I had driven many laps of it myself, and it was… familiar, a part of my racing year.
Twenty-five or so years later I was driven round again, this time by Bernd Schneider in a hot Mercedes, and the experience was utterly different, for now the place had nothing to do with today, and it seemed faintly surreal that Grand Prix cars could ever have raced here. I’ll always rejoice that I saw them when they did.
The record book never tells the whole story, of course, but study a list of those who won at the Niirburgring: Caracciola, Rosemeyer, Nuvolari, Ascari, Fangio, Brooks, Moss, Surtees, Clark, Stewart, Ickx…