The world’s greatest driving challenge or “the ultimate madness”?
THEY SAY THAT when death is imminent, your whole life flashes before your eyes – but all you’re likely to see during your last few seconds at the Nürburgring is a blur of low guardrails and high rock faces, deep ravines and towering trees. Danger is all around you at this place, lurking in the long shadows cast by the pine forest, hiding in many of the 176 turns, waiting the other side of countless blind brows.
Road maps show the Nürburgring as a long, demented scribble, the apparent scrawl of an epileptic. High in the Eifel mountains, it’s marked as an ‘Einbahnstrasse,’ a one-way street: Anyone with wheels under them can arrive at the gate, pay a modest toll fee, and drive around as quickly (or slowly) as they like. The only speed limits here are those imposed by your desire to grow old.
Professional development drivers make pilgrimages to the ‘Ring to test ride and handling, brakes and tyres. Private individuals come here to test themselves. This race track can be terrifying from the wheel of a road car; God only knows how otherwise sane men could strap themselves to thunderously fragile Formula One machines, gas tanks laden and suspensions strained, and race around here wheel-to-wheel. And yet they did, on occasions through relentless rain and mountain mist, and some of the greatest race drivers in history achieved their finest moments here.
The ‘Ring’s narrow ribbon of asphalt cuts through the trees for 14 mesmerising miles, twisting and turning, climbing and falling, bumpy enough in parts to make cars airborne, sometimes the track surface dull and dry, sometimes the car sliding suddenly where it turns shiny and wet, then climbing higher into the mountains where the watery sheen can turn to ice, then plunging down the other side like a runaway roller coaster, always throwing one unfamiliar turn in your face after another, all the time testing your car control and self-control, your concentration and memory, your reflexes and courage. The final three miles look as though they might allow a welcome rest, running as they do in a straightish line toward the start-finish area, but even here, where engines scream to nearly bursting and tyres swell with the heat, lumps and bumps and humpbacked bridges keep car and driver in a nervous fidget.
Intoxicated by adrenalin, the likes of you and I can flog around the ‘Ring until at dusk it closes. Cursing our errors but savouring our progress, we see how humbly we measure up against the professionals in their Mercedes and BMWs and Porsches – and how ordinary mortals in ordinary road cars cannot even begin to compare with the Racers. In the world’s fastest saloon car of its time, GM’s 360-horsepower Opel Lotus Omega, this writer was elated to lap a 13-mile chunk of the ‘Ring in a little more than 10 minutes, the speedometer needle brushing up against 165 mph on the long main straight. But Honda says its NSX covered that tortuous distance in 8 minutes 30 seconds, and over the full 14-mile course Porsche’s 956 sports racing car was faster still by two full minutes. More than mere lap times, these are definitive values, for the Nürbürgring was the yardstick by which cars and drivers were judged.
When Niki Lauda became the first to break the ‘Ring’s seven minute barrier, qualifying his Ferrari 312T for the 1975 German Grand Prix, rivals were speechless with admiration. Lauda remembers that lap as “the ultimate madness.” In his spellbinding autobiography, Meine Story, he recalls: “I was in a special sort of mood that day and ready to go for broke to an extent I have never permitted myself since. I steeled myself to drive that fast lap, although my brain kept telling me it was sheer stupidity. The antithesis between the modern-day racing car and the Stone Age circuit was such that I knew every driver was taking his life in his hands to the most ludicrous degree.”
Lauda had already criticised the ‘Ring for being unacceptably dangerous, for being so long that it could take an eternity for medical assistance to reach the scene of an accident. Traditionalists disliked Lauda for publicly acknowledging these facts – and disliked him even more for taking his Ferrari to pole position. This was no coward talking and the world began to listen, encouraging Lauda to become more vocal in his complaints until, at a Grand Prix drivers’ meeting in spring 1976, he proposed that the track be boycotted. But the vote went against him.
That summer, in the opening minutes of the German Grand Prix at the ‘Ring, Lauda’s Ferrari veered inexplicably off the track on the left-kink approach to Bergwerk, cannoned into a rocky embankment, and bounced back onto the track in a ball of flame. (Unsteady 8mm film by a 15-year old boy shows the car suddenly snapping right, reinforcing suspicions of a rear suspension failure.) In the absence of corner workers, who had too far to run with heavy extinguisher bottles, it was left to other drivers to drag Lauda from the burning wreckage. They were shocked to discover that, on impact, he had lost his helmet.
Four days later, his poisoned lungs still dependent on assistance from an oxygen mask and his burned and bandaged head swollen to three times its normal size, Lauda was visited at his hospital bed by a priest. Softly, solemnly, he administered Last Rites – and so incensed Lauda he began a determined fight for recovery.
Just four weeks afterwards, Lauda was back in his Ferrari, his raw face sticking with blood to the fabric of his protective balaclava, and lining up to start the Italian Grand Prix. Despite missing two races through his injuries, and despite the world’s press chasing him with headlines such as ‘The Man Who Lost His Face,’ he challenged Englishman James Hunt for the Driver’s Championship all the way to the season’s end. Lauda narrowly lost the world title, by 68 points to 69, but won the world’s admiration. And at the Nürburgring Formula One cars would never race again.
The German Grand Prix is held nowadays at either the Hockenheimring near Heidelberg, dominated by two tediously long straights either side of a fiddly stadium section, or at the emasculated new Nürburgring, a 2.8-mile venue which shares the original’s start-finish area but none of its ambience. If you look down the mountainside at the old ‘Ring, the real ‘Ring, you will see race drivers grinning widely from behind the wheel of rental cars.
So the fastest lap at the real ‘Ring remains forever the possession of brave Stefan Bellof, a young lion whose potential was never fully realised. At the wheel of a Porsche 956 sports racing car at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, in 1985, Bellof made an ambitious attempt to pass Jacky Ickx’x Porsche 962; the two cars collided and Bellof’s speared into the crash barriers, the impact fatally snapping his neck. But Bellof immortalised his name two years earlier by hustling a 956 around the ‘Ring in six minutes 25.91 seconds. That’s an average, over those narrow mountain roads, of 121 mph.
IT’S SOMEHOW APPROPRIATE that the definitive lap at the Nürburgring should stand to a car and driver from Germany, for this is a circuit born of nationalism. Its origins can be traced back as far as Kaiser Wilhelm II, who foresaw the growth of motor racing and its international propaganda value, and who was displeased on the day in 1907 when Italy’s Felice Nazzarro in a Fiat won his trophy, the Kaiserpreis, on the temporary Taunus circuit near Frankfurt. The track was pot-holed and grubby, the result politically incorrect. The Kaiser believed Germany should have a permanent circuit, preferably the world’s best, on which to breed its own race winners.
Nationalism of an altogether more tragic form prevented the Kaiser from fulfilling this wish, but after World War One an identical sentiment was revived. When three friends – Hans Wiederbruck, Hans Pauly, and Franz Weber – attended the 1924 Eifelrennen meeting at Nideggen, between Aachen and Bonn, they were startled by the shabby condition of the make-shift circuit and by the inconvenience brought to inhabitants of the neighbourhood through which it charged. Like the Kaiser before them, they were moved to propose something better, something for which the whole of Germany could be proud.
At a time of mass unemployment, the three men were able to present their idea to local and central government representatives as a sort of social benevolence, a job creation scheme, a far-sighted investment in tourism. In Dr Otto Creutz, a Councillor for the Eifel District, and Dr Erich Klausener, a State Secretary in Berlin, they found two formidable allies who would help win official approval.
Drawings of the track were completed by April 1925, and the foundation stone laid in September, but it would be a long and arduous job: To the astonishment of other European circuit owners, Wiederbruck’s fantastic design incorporated no fewer than 91 left-hand corners and 85 right-handers, encompassing a South circuit of 4.8 miles length and a Nordschleife of 14.2 miles, rising from 1017 feet above sea level at Breidscheid village to 2020 feet at the start-finish point in the shadow of Nürburg’s 12th century castle. Everywhere was the asphalt to be spread exactly 22 feet from edge to edge, except in front of the towering main grandstands, where it would expand to precisely three times that width.
This monumental construction project occupied more than 20,000 labourers for more than two years and cost 15 million Reichmarks, six million from central government. There were dark suggestions, encouraged by opponents of Dr Creutz in the emerging Nazi party, that not all of this fortune reached the circuit. These stories persisted until, in the mid-1930s, Dr Creutz’s enemies had risen to all the wrong places and he turned a gun on himself.
By then, the success of the Nürburgring was confirmed. Belittling the banked ovals of Brooklands, England, or Montlhéry, France, or Monza, Italy, or even Indianapolis, USA, this was a purpose-built track beyond comparison, and the German people knew it: the ‘Ring’s first car race, on 18th June 1927, attracted 150,000 spectators. They returned home pleased, because victory had gone to Rudolf Carraciola’s S-type Mercedes-Benz, and for the German Grand Prix the following month 150,000 turned out again. This race was also won by a Mercedes, driven by Otto Merz, as was the 1929 Grand Prix, in which Christian Werner shared the driving with Carraciola.
Through the Thirties, Carraciola won four more Grands Prix at the ‘Ring, all but one for Mercedes, and was accorded the applause, the adulation, the celebrity status, of a national hero. Similar approval was lavished on Hans Stuck and Bernd Rosemeyer, who in 1934 and 1936 steered to victory in those thunderous Auto Unions, with rear-mounted V-16s, designed by Professor Ferry Porsche.
When the Auto Union had its first ever run, at the ‘Ring’s Sudschleife in November 1933, would-be spies and spectators were prevented from getting anywhere near the track by Stormtroopers: Adolf Hitler had that January become Germany’s Chancellor, and both Auto Union and Mercedes were promptly granted State subsidies. Their racing machines were painted silver, and against the red cars of Italy, blue of France, and green of Britain, were expected to win at any cost. The German greed for conquest, so soon to take a murderous turn, already stared disbelieving Europeans in the face.
As the British weekly magazine Motor reported in 1937, spectators “with fluttering Nazi flags” would arrive early at the ‘Ring for the annual Grand Prix and camp in the hills – “All 127 car parks are full hours before the race” – while “up at the Startplatz the concrete seethes with uniforms – police, army, and Nazi party uniforms.”
Two years earlier, Adrian Conan Doyle (son of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur) reported in Britain’s Motor Sport magazine: “Every hotel, large and small, within a radius of 35 miles is completely filled and, in Adenau, whole families are sleeping on the pavements. Near Altenahr a regiment of Nazis are resting and eating around their cookers. They have marched 350 miles to see the race!” They would see little Tazio Nuvolari give the most inspired performance of his life, beating the best of Germany in an outpaced Alfa Romeo. Though the Mercedes of Manfred von Brauchitsch lead to within five miles of the flag, it burst a tyre at the Karussell hairpin.
Of all the 176 corners, the Karussell is the most spectacular. A 180-degree left-hander which originally wrapped tightly around the outer edge of a deep drainage ditch, it is preceded by a half-mile incline so steep that to walk it makes your calves ache. Reverberating loudly, Grand Prix cars approached under full-throttle acceleration, but were then obliged to slow to a crawl, losing precious momentum during a climb which continued for another mile.
One evening before the 1931 Grand Prix, Carraciola’s mechanic took a racing Mercedes and a colleague onto the race track and, on the rush up to the Karussell, glanced across at his passenger, took a deep breath, and steered into the ditch. As he’d hoped, the steeply banked side of the ditch supported the car, which swung around the curve more quickly than it could on the flat asphalt surface, before centrifugal force threw it back onto the track. Using this method, Carraciola won the race – and not long afterwards, the ditch’s steeply banked side and flat bottom were covered with giant slabs of concrete.
Ever since, the Karussell has been a place where almost any car, even a skinny-tyred rental car, will corner like a train: The g-forces stretch a wide grin on your face, the firm grip required at the steering wheel hurts your forearms, the slab joints send sharp jolts up your spine, and on its bumpstops the car rat-atat-tats its way higher and higher on the banking until finally it’s spat out on a trajectory which leads perfectly to the next right-hander. In a road car, this is one of the highlights of the lap; in a racer, it’s a nuisance which, like the fast downhill section to Fuchsrohre (Foxhole), must compromise ride-height settings. Otherwise, the car will smack its underside on the track.
Corners like the Karussell, and the ‘mini-Karussell’ or Schwalbenschwanz (Swallow’s tail) three miles further on, were a talking point even in the Thirties. So too was the narrow twistiness of the track. By 1937, English driver Dick Seaman had arrived at the conclusion that the ‘Ring was “too slow for modern Grand Prix cars” – though he took it less slowly than most and, in 1938, dashed Nazi hopes there by becoming the one Mercedes drivers, the other six being Germans, to win the Grand Prix. The following year’s race ran according to script, The Fatherland’s Carraciola taking victory, but one year later the track stood empty and silent: The men in uniforms had gone to make noise in other people’s countries.
The second War and its aftermath prevented the ‘Ring from hosting another Grand Prix until 1950, which was won, like the next two there, by Alberto Ascari’s Ferrari. Then in 1955 the most accomplished racer of them all embarked on his Nürburgring hat-trick: Juan-Manual Fangio scored his opening German GP success in a Mercedes, and the next with Ferrari, but it was his third, in an outclassed Maserati at the age of 46, which was most remarkable. It was the five-time World Champion’s 24th Grand Prix victory and, as it turned out, his last. And it had the spectators in the Eifel forests leaning over the fences in admiration.
Fangio knew that his Maserati couldn’t keep pace with the more powerful Ferraris without wearing its tyres bald, but that didn’t prevent him from passing the scarlet cars of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins for the lead on the third of the 22 laps, or from pulling away, to onlookers’ astonishment, at a rate of one second every two miles. Realising that he would have to stop for fresh rubber, which he did after lap 12, Fangio had turned handicap to advantage: by also taking-on fuel at the stop, he was able to start the race with the tank half-empty. Lightened by 170 pounds, the Maserati’s handling and acceleration were sharpened.
The pit stop required Fangio to sit stationary for nearly a minute, so that when he rejoined the track the Ferraris were 45 seconds ahead. But this day more than any other, the world’s greatest driver chose to perform without a net. In blind determination, he squeezed the throttle a fraction earlier, got on the brakes a moment later, and drifted through corners one gear higher, than he had ever done before. “I drove myself and my car to the limit and perhaps a little bit more,” he recalled, “and I knew I would never drive like that again. The Maserati was not very powerful, but it was beautifully balanced, a lovely car to drive. I felt I could do anything with it, and that day I did. Even now I feel fear when I think about it.” He broke the track record ten times, and the Ferrari drivers were caught and passed.
Because days like this were possible, because “the skill of a driver could overcome the shortcomings of his car,” Fangio praised the ‘Ring as “the most interesting of all tracks.” Yet he also remembered it, from his days of racing in open-face helmets and short-sleeve shirts without safety belts, as “too dangerous . . . I loved it, all of it, and that day in 1957 I think I conquered it, but another day it might have conquered me, as it did poor Marimon and many others.”
Onofre Marimon was Fangio’s friend and protégé, a young and talented driver he’d encouraged to come to Europe. Of his death in a Maserati at the ‘Ring, Fangio said simply: “He mixed up one bend with another.” Fangio’s absolute mastery of the track in 1957 was all the more impressive because Marimon had perished only three years before. The year after, Fangio’s rival Peter Collins also crashed there with fatal consequences.
Collins’ widow, Erica, reflected four decades later that life for young men was different then, because they hadn’t expected it to last very long: After going to war, each additional day seemed a bonus, and the familiarity with risk bred contempt. But perspectives shift, and by the 1960s racing’s mortality rate was less acceptable. As three-time World Champion Jackie Stewart observed: “As a racing driver, death was a regular visitor, often in very close proximity to your home. The statistics showed that if you stayed in Grand Prix racing five years, there was a two out of three chance you were going to die.”
As part of a wider-reaching safety crusade, Stewart became the Nürburgring’s first prominent critic – and answered his critics by winning Grands Prix there four times. His 1973 ‘Ring victory was his 27th and last, a tally which would stand unbeaten for 14 years, but his 1968 win was the most emphatic of them all: In torrential rain and clammy fog, he crossed the line first by more than four minutes.
It’s true that Stewart was the first businessman-racer to make a fortune from the sport, just as it’s true that the tragedies of Grand Prix racing increased the take-home pay of the survivors. But Stewart always argued that racing drivers should be richly rewarded for the magnitude of their driving skills, not their testicles. The ‘Ring, which wouldn’t last much longer in this new age of reason, was so special because it unashamedly demanded both.