As a motor-racing circuit, the Nurburgring Nordschleife is without equal. It was once described by the famous racer Jackie Stewart as 'The Green Hell', due to the way the road meanders through the local woodland. It is almost certainly the most feared, most demanding, most awe-inspiring and yet still the most fantastic purpose-built motor-racing circuit in the world. What has given 'The Ring' this status is its sheer size, all 13 miles1 and 73 bends2 of it.
Up until 1927 there were no permanent motor-racing circuits in the whole of Germany, as the sport of motor racing was still in its infancy. However, the German nation has always been at the forefront of car design and development. It had been competing in and winning races ever since the first ones at the turn of the century and obviously this lack of circuits was a situation that could not last. In April, 1925, Dr Otto Creuz from the Eifel District Council proposed building a track that could be used by the fledgling motor manufacturers for testing new car designs and for motorsport. The plan was to build a long and demanding circuit that would expose any faults in a new car. Hence, the Nurburgring was born.
The track was designed so that, if necessary, it could be split into two sections: the 4.8 mile Südschleife3, to be used for testing and small races, and the enormous 14.2 mile Nordschleife4 was intended to test a car and its driver to the absolute limit. The first race to be held there took place on 19 June, 1927, in which the rising star of the German motor racing world, Rudolf Caracciola, had the first win. This was followed shortly afterwards by the first German Grand Prix on a dedicated track. Caracciola lost this race due to a mechanical failure which enabled fellow German Otto Merz to take the top place on the podium.
The Grand Prix
The Nordschleife circuit was used throughout the inter-war years as the home of the German Grand Prix and over time it created some legends. The first of these was the Italian driver Tazio Nuvolari. He dramatically won the 1935 race, beating a hugely powerful field of German cars and drivers on their home turf in front of 300,000 German spectators and many Nazi leaders, including Adolf Hitler. As with many things in pre-Second World War Germany, the Nazi leadership used the dominance of the German teams at the Ring as propaganda. In the 1938 Grand Prix, this propaganda took another beating as the British driver Richard Seaman won at the Ring in front of a crowd of 350,000 fans. However, the outbreak of World War II soon stopped racing and the track was used for military purposes during the war years.
By 1948, the war had finished and (after some reconstruction work) the track was back in use. The 1950s are often thought of as a golden era of motor-racing, as drivers who have become synonymous with motoring and motorsport all graced the track. The great Juan Manuel Fangio won in 1957 in one of the most exciting races ever seen. Fangio was up against great drivers like Mike Hawthorn, Peter Collins and Stirling Moss, all of whom could have won easily, yet he overtook each one in turn in a thrilling and dramatic race.
In the 1960s the Ring was witness to victories by great drivers such as Graham Hill, John Surtees and Jim Clark. However, by 1970 the track was looking worn out. The race was held at Hockenheim while much-needed repairs were carried out. The Grand Prix returned the following year and the race was dominated by the battle between the two Jacks: Jacky Icxe and Jackie Stewart. Icxe won the race of 1972, while Stewart won the races in 1973 and 1974. Then, in the race of 1976, it all went wrong.
Throughout the early 1970s, the drivers had been calling for The Ring to be scrapped from the racing calendar. It is a hugely demanding track that requires 100% concentration at all times and the problem lay in its run-off areas. When designed, the short areas of grass on the outside of the bends were sufficient. However, by the 1970s cars were travelling much faster. Unlike more modern circuits, The Ring's track is very narrow and there is very little space outside of the bends. Instead of the gravel traps which slow down an out-of-control car, The Ring had only a few yards of grass before the armco barrier. One mistake, car failure or other error could easily spell disaster and it all came to a head in the Grand Prix of 1976. The world-famous driver Niki Lauda was only on his second lap when he slid off at the Berkwerk Bend and slammed into a wall. The car burst into flames and Lauda was very nearly killed. With nearby Hochenheim providing a better and more modern track for the German Grand Prix, The Ring's Grand Prix days were over.
The Ring Today
The Grand Prix today does still run at the Nurburgring, but nowadays it runs on a modern Grand Prix circuit built on top of the old Südschleife. The Nordschleife, meanwhile, runs the occasional 24-hour endurance race and is often booked by car manufacturers for their own testing. This may seem a poor end for such a great track, but the modern Nordschleife is far from quiet. The road has been given a classification as a one-way 5 public toll road and the speed limit is controlled by the regulations regarding speed, as defined under Article 3, Section 1 of the German Highway Code. This states that the driver must must be in full control of the vehicle, whatever speed you're travelling at ie, no practical speed limit. All vehicles must be 100% road legal and all normal German road laws apply: for example, you must have normal road insurance6 and your vehicle must be capable of going over 40kph. Other than these restrictions, on a public day anyone can turn up in their car, motorbike, coach, limo, van or scooter7 and pay the €16 fee to drive a lap.
The Thrill and The Danger
The Ring is one of the most technically challenging tracks in the world. Most of the bends are blind and many of them tighten halfway through. There are very few run-off areas and if you get into a slide you are are likely to hit the armco hard. When you add to this the fact that the track sits in a wet and mountainous region of western Germany and that you will be sharing the road with many other drivers of differing levels of ability, it can become very dangerous. The company in charge of the track, Nurburgring GmbH, are reluctant to give out exact figures, but it is thought that between 2 and 12 people are killed at the track every year — and those are just the fatalities. Crashes that destroy beautiful cars and bikes happen everyday.
So why drive across Europe to visit a dangerous track and then pay money to put yourself in such a situation? Well, just for the sheer thrill of it, really. The Ring is one of the few places on Earth that a driver can really test himself. Lap timing by the ordinary public is banned8, but most veterans of the Ring, known as 'Ringers', measure their performance in terms of the quality, smoothness and precision of each lap. Did they hit the apex perfectly, did they get the power down at the right point and so on. If you think of youself as a driver, this is where you'll find out.
But I Can't Drive!
If you cannot drive, you have two options to experience the Ring: one more satisfying, perhaps, than the other. The first are the Ring Taxis. This company runs two V10 BMW M5s which can be hired to take you out as a passenger on a lap of the track. One of the company's drivers is Sabine Schmitz, who raced a Ford Transit van around the track on the BBC Top Gear programme almost as fast as the presenter Jeremy Clarkson, who raced in a Jaguar.
The other alternative for the wannabe Ringer who cannot get to Germany is the computer game. The track appears in a number of games, such as Grand Prix Legends (PC), Project Gotham Racing 2 and Forza Motorsport (Xbox). It also appears in Gran Turismo 4 (Playstation 2), where the makers claim its length is accurate to 25mm.
Have fun, but be safe!