Lords of the Ring
There are places you can visit many times, yet they never get old. The Nürburgring is one such place. The legendary Eifel circuit – in one form or another – has hosted no fewer than 80 DTM races, and the 2019 double-header, the penultimate weekend of the 2019 season, will mark its 81st and 82nd race at the venue.
Less a racetrack than a motorsport legend, we took a moment to understand what makes Germany’s oldest racetrack tick, and why it has played such an enduring role in the story of international motorsport.
The 1920s: Let’s build a racetrack!
With unemployment high in the German Eifel region, visionary regional politician, Dr. Otto Creutz, became the driving force behind an initiative to build a permanent race and test track.
Creutz was convinced that it would give the economy in the region a significant boost: up to 2,300 people, most of them previously unemployed, were involved in the construction of the new track that included several lay-outs, including the mighty Nordschleife, which coursed around the hills, valleys and forests of the local area.
After two years of hard work, the circuit was officially opened, with the inaugural Eifelrennen taking place on 18th and 19th June 1927. Driving for Mercedes-Benz, Rudolf Caracciola became the first race winner at the circuit that was named after the Nürburg – a foreboding medieval castle in the eponymous village overlooking the paddock.
The 1930s: the Silver Arrows arrive
Considerably funded by the Nazi regime, who had chosen motorsport as a way to showcase the quality of German technology, Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union entered mighty factory race teams with their silver-coloured race cars in Grand Prix competition and other prestigious events.
On 3 June 1934, Manfred von Brauchitsch won the Eifelrennen, giving Mercedes-Benz another success as the Nürburgring, but six weeks later, it was Hans Stuck – the father of 1990 DTM champion Hans-Joachim Stuck – who secured victory for Auto Union in the German Grand Prix at the same venue.
Italy’s Tazio Nuvolari won the German Grand Prix behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo in 1935, a painful affair for the German party bigwigs who had come out in full force. Ironically, Dick Seaman, a British driver employed by Mercedes-Benz, was victorious in 1938 – and his Nazi salute after crossing the finish line was half-hearted at best.
Auto Union’s Bernd Rosemeyer also became an early ‘Ring Master’, taking Eifelrennen victories in 1936 and ’37, and the German Grand Prix in ’36. Rudolf Caracciola won the Grand Prix for Mercedes in 1937 and ’39, his stablemate Herman Lang won the Eifelrennen in 1939 as German automotive marques flourished in pre-war Europe.
The 1950s: Formula 1 writes its first chapter at the Nurburgring
In 1951, the second year of the newly established Formula 1 World Championship, the German Grand Prix became part of the calendar for the first time.
Having won at the Nürburgring in a Formula 2 car the previous year, Italian Ferrari driver Alberto Ascari became the first winner of a world championship round at the ‘Ring, adding another victory in ’52. In 1954, Juan Manuel Fangio won with Mercedes and repeated this success in 1956 and 1957 with Ferrari and Maserati respectively – the latter passing into motorsport folklore by virtue of the Argentine’s terrific fight back into the lead after a tardy tyre-stop. In ’58 and ’59, British driver Tony Brooks scored back-to-back wins for Vanwall and Ferrari.
A long-distance love affair
Alongside its F1 races, the Nürburgring also hosted endurance race events. The inaugural 1000km race was held in 1953, with Alberto Ascari and Giuseppe Farina the winners for the Ferrari works team.
Ferrari scored several more wins through the 1960s and early ’70s; but in ’67, Porsche began to flex its sports car muscle, winning consistently until as recently as 2017, when the World Endurance Championship visited the ‘New’ Nurburgring, the grand prix circuit built in the early 1980s, and Porsche’s 919 hybrid took three consecutive wins between 2015 and ’17.
Other winning Porsche models included the 908, the 910 and the 935. Interestingly, the legendary 917 never won at the ‘Ring, as the more compact 908/03 proved to be better suited to the twisty Eifel circuit.
The legendary 956 was successful in the halcyon Group C days of the early 1980s, with Stefan Bellof’s time of 6m11.13s in qualifying for the 1983 race further embellishing the German driver’s reputation for sheer speed and outright bravura.
Sauber, Mercedes and Jaguar all enjoyed success in the second half of the 1980s, until sports car racing took a lengthy hiatus from the ‘Ring, finally resuming in 2000.
The Le Mans Series – in its various guises – saw endurance competition return to the ’Ring, with wins for the likes of Audi and Peugeot, but also Zytek and Pescarolo.
The 1960s: the reign of the British Empire
Drivers from the British Empire largely dominated Grand Prix racing in the Eifel in the 1960s. Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, John Surtees and Jackie Stewart all became Grand Prix winners at the Nürburgring during this time.
The 1964 world champion Surtees was the most victorious, taking back-to-back victories for Ferrari in 1963 and ’64. The ’68 event was a particularly memorable one: in torrential rain and thick fog, the treacherous conditions almost stopped the event. But Scotland’s Jackie Stewart made the best of it and emphatically triumphed, finishing over four minutes clear of Graham Hill.
The Scot never hid his dislike of the track, famously dubbing it ‘The Green Hell’, claiming that, as he drove off to the track each year, he would always take one glance back at his home and family, wondering if he would see them again after a weekend at the ’Ring…
The 1970s: end of the road for F1
During the 1970s, it became increasingly difficult to excuse the ’Ring’s lack of safety compared to many of the newer, shorter tracks that were starting to join the grand prix calendar.
Stewart, in particular, was particularly vocal, claiming that it was impossibly to adequately marshal a track that was nearly 15 miles long. Despite his reservations, the Tyrrell driver still took two further victories at the track.
In 1976, grand prix drivers considered a boycott of the track, but were convinced to contest the race one final time. On August 1, world champion Niki Lauda crashed his Ferrari, suffering terrible burns and smoke inhalation when the car burst into flames.
While the Austrian would recover, and memorably return to challenge McLaren’s James Hunt for the world title, his accident was the final straw for the mighty track, and the German Grand Prix transferred to Hockenheim thereafter.
1970-2019: All day and all of the night
In 1970, the inaugural 24-hour race was held at the Nürburgring, with Hans Joachim Stuck the first winner, sharing his Koepchen BMW 2002 TI with Clemens Schickentanz.
Apart from 1974 and 1975 (oil crisis) and 1983 (reconstruction of the circuit), the 24-hour race has been held every year since. Legendary drivers like Niki Lauda, Klaus Ludwig, Roberto Ravaglia, Marc Duez, Bernd Schneider, Marc Lieb, Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas are all on the winners’ list, as are current DTM drivers Mike Rockenfeller, René Rast and Nico Müller.
There was also DTM-related success with victory for the Phoenix Racing Team’s Opel Astra V8 Coupé, an adapted DTM car, with Manuel Reuter, Timo Scheider, Marcel Tiemann and Volker Strycek as its drivers.
BMW, meanwhile, is the most successful brand in the event’s history with 19 wins. Audi has won the event five times since GT3 regulations came into force in 2012. The event usually attracts well over 200,000 spectators, making it one of the biggest sporting events in Germany.
1984: a new home and a return for F1
When Formula 1 turned its back on the Nordschleife in the mid-’70s, it wouldn’t mark the permanent end for grand prix racing in the region.
Construction of a new shorter Grand Prix circuit, tucked alongside the old track, started in the early 1980s, and the new track was opened in May 1984.
The modern era: a home for DTM
Just one month after its reopening in May ’84, the Nürburgring Grand Prix circuit featured on the calendar of the inaugural DTM season, and the series has held rounds there every year since, sometimes with up to three visits per season!
Indeed, after Hockenheim, the Nürburgring (with long Grand Prix track, short track and Nordschleife together) is the venue with the second-highest number of DTM races to its name.
It will come as no surprise that three-time DTM champion Klaus Ludwig remains the DTM’s most successful driver, having taken a total of 14 race wins at his local track. He’s followed by Bernd Schneider with six, and Manuel Reuter with five victories. Two other great drivers, Nicola Larini and Steve Soper, each racked up four DTM race wins at the ‘Ring.
The world’s fastest toll road
Technically, the Nordschleife is considered a public toll-road, operating as a one-way traffic system!
When there are no testing or racing activities, the track is open for the public to drive – for a nominal fee. The fascination of being able to drive the 20km long track yourself is not lost on motoring fans from all over the world and the so-called ‘tourist drives’ are a considerable source of income – not only for the track itself, but also for local hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, cafés, workshops, petrol stations and shops in the region.