The majesty of the old ’Ring
Any music lover will instantly tell you that the greatest band in the world was, is, and always will be, The Beatles. Equally, any true motorsport fan will tell you there is only one racetrack that safely deserves the title of ‘the greatest’: the Nurburgring Nordschleife.
Just as all other bands are judged against the might of the Fab Four, all circuits must face comparison with the mighty German circuit. You can drop the likes of Spa-Francorchamps, Suzuka, Monaco or Le Mans into the conversation, but there will only ever be one Nordschleife.
And as the focus of the motorsport world pivots from its greatest 24-hour race to its next-biggest day-long enduro, the Nurburgring 24 Hours – a race which attracts the great and good of the current DTM crop – we ask why the ‘Green Hell’ still fuels the collective imagination of the racing world.
The birth of a legend
The Nordschleife is one of the world’s oldest racetracks – completed in 1927. Unlike the majority of early 20th century circuits, which closed existing public roads to create a loop, the Nurburgring’s designers aped the likes of Italy’s Monza circuit –finished in 1922 – by creating a fully enclosed, purpose-built track for racing.
Modelling itself on the epic town-to-town tracks – such as the original configuration of Le Mans, or the mighty Targa Florio – the Nordschleife was built to epic scale: more than 20km long and comprising more than 170 corners.
Such a fearsome track would always reward the greatest competitors. And the Nordschleife’s greatest races are invariably those which feature stand-out achievements from supreme drivers.
Juan Manuel Fangio’s legendary recovery drive after a mid-race tyre-stop in the 1957 German Grand Prix is rightly lauded – the Argentine famously breaking the lap record as he clawed back his previous advantage and passed Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins to record his most famous – and final – grand prix victory.
Jackie Stewart’s famous rain-soaked win, aboard a Tyrrell-run Matra, when he dominated the race, winning by more than four minutes in 1968, is also held in esteem as one of the sport’s all-time greatest wet-weather victories.
A giant among us
By the second half of the 20th century, motorsport had begun to gravitate towards shorter, more compact tracks that were more efficient to host and manage. Mexico’s Carrera Panamericana lasted until 1955, Italy’s Mille Miglia and Targa Florio were kept alive until 1957 and ’77 respectively – and were all ended by fatal accidents that prompted serious re-evaluations of driver and spectator safety.
The Nordschleife finally succumbed to sanity in 1976 – not, as is widely believed, due to Niki Lauda’s fiery accident, but because the track had become too large and unwieldy to manage safely – it required an army of marshals to police it, and a comprehensive television network to cover the length and breadth of the circuit. As a result, the German Grand Prix moved to Hockenheim permanently from 1977 onwards.
An icon for the modern age
Following the departure of Formula, sports cars continued to use the old track. Safety concerns once again brought the curtain down, in 1983, but not before a memorable 1000km WEC race in which the late Stefan Bellof, driving a Porsche 956, established a jaw-dropping lap-record in qualifying of 6m11.13s – an achievement that would stand until 2018.
But the track refused to die.
It had become too iconic to be left unloved and overgrown, so the circuit entered its second life. The 24-hour race become the Nordschleife’s principal racing activity, but the vebue quickly developed into a road-car Mecca – the track is open all year round, and, for a nominal fee, can be driven by anyone with the bravery – or foolhardiness – to challenge it.
It has also developed into a road-car proving ground par excellence. Almost all the world’s super-car manufacturers have used the circuit as a venue for high-speed test and evaluation location, with lap-times regularly published to showcase the ongoing development of automotive technology.
The magic of a name
Equally, the circuit’s corners are richly evocative.
They possess a magic and a majesty that few circuits could hope to match. If most modern grand prix track corners are remembered mainly for their number – “Waved yellows at Turn Four, Sebastian; etc, the Nordschleife has never been one for numbers. Which isn’t a bad thing, as being told on the radio that there’s ‘debris on the outside of Turn 146’ might not be the most convenient aide-memoire when you’re barrelling through a concrete-banked corner at 140mph…
No, the Nurburgring’s corners are distinctly old-school: Flugplatz (‘air field’ – the track ramps up, causing cars to briefly become airborne as they crest the rise); Fuchsröhre (‘fox hole’ – a high-speed sequence at the base of a small valley); Karussell – perhaps the most famous corner on the circuit, a concrete, banked left-hander; Pflanzgarten – a high-speed sequence where cars can become airborne; and Schwalbenschwanz (‘swallow tail’).
The lure of the lap-time
The pursuit of speed around the Norschleife has always been compelling: Lauda sparked the public’s imagination when he became the first man to dip below the seven-minute barrier in both 1974 and ’75.
And Bellof’s ’83 lap has become part of motor racing folklore, renowned as much for its sheer ballsy bravery as for the fact that the German, equally committed on race day, totalled his car after just a handful of laps.
Bellof’s staggering time would only be beaten in 2018 – and even that took a supremely special effort from Porsche, which brought its specially modified 919 Hybrid Evo, a tweaked version of the discontinued WEC car, to attempt a record-breaking flying lap.
Driver Timo Bernhard’s lap was a magical 5m19.546s – a time more familiar to those fearlessly blasting round the circuit in Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport than to a real-life driver in a priceless prototype racecar.
More recently, Romain Dumas achieved a lap-time of 6m05.336s – the second fastest-ever – aboard Volkswagen’s 671hp ID R, an all-electric prototype vehicle. It demonstrated, once again, that the public’s taste for daring and adventure is somehow satisfied by the unique challenge of the twisting German track.