THE first thing anyone who wants to drive the Nordschleife (North Loop) of Germany’s famous Nürburgring usually does when arriving at the entrance to one of the world’s most famous racetracks is to sit in a seemingly-endless queue of cars. In spite of claiming at least 200 lives over the years – including at least 65 professional racers – the road Formula One legend Sir Jackie Stewart once called the “Green Hell” is still an irresistible draw to those whose blood runs a little faster than most people.
The queue of cars forms ahead of a toll barrier that marks the entrance to the 20.8-kilometer course that loops around the little towns of Nürburg, Quiddelbach, Breidscheid and Herschbroich in western Germany’s Eifel Mountains, about an hour by car south of the city of Cologne.
The Nürburgring today is a purpose-built racing circuit built over the old pit area of the original mountain course and part of the old Südschleife (South Loop); the main part of the old track, the Nordschleife, is actually a public toll road, administered by the state of Rheinland-Palatinate. It is open to the public on most Sundays, and some Saturdays and holidays, except in winter, and anyone with a road legal vehicle – including motorcycles, bicycles, trucks and cars pulling camper trailers – can drive the iconic track, for the relatively steep price of 26 euros per lap.
As a public road, the Nordschleife is governed by a few rules, which are enforced with typical German bureaucratic efficiency. Any form of racing, including attempts to set a speed record, are technically illegal; there are speed limits applied to some sections. Passing on the right is prohibited. Drivers are warned by way of a lengthy list of terms and conditions that one’s insurance may be voided by misbehavior or an accident on the track.
The rules are relaxed a bit if one is with a group who has reserved the whole course for a private run, but only a little; the track monitors stationed around the course will turn a blind eye to those interpreting the rules against speeding and racing to some degree, provided conditions are safe.
And because it is a public road, the normal rules that apply to any other sort of traffic accident in Germany apply; one can be charged for failing to report a wreck or leaving the scene of an accident, and can be held liable for not only damage to the track or facilities (replacing a battered guardrail costs 31 euros per meter), but also towing fees and assistance from emergency personnel.
However, none of those stern conditions can stop anyone from making an attempt to tame the Nordschleife, and the varying levels of skill of those brave or stupid enough to try result in a lot of accidents. The track is frequently closed (although usually for only a brief time, such is the efficiency of the service personnel) for wrecks, some of them quite spectacular; according to the management, there are as many as a dozen fatal accidents per year.
Although it is a public road now, the Nürburgring was actually conceived as a purpose-built racetrack. In the early 1920s, the challenging roads of the Eifel Mountain region were a popular venue for races sponsored by ADAC (the German Automobile Club), but as drivers and cars increased in number, speed and skill, it became increasingly apparent that racing on the existing roads was neither practical nor safe.
Under the supervision of ADAC, construction of the Nürburgring began in September 1925 and was completed in July 1927. The first race held on the new track was a motorcycle race, won by Toni Ulmen; the first car race followed a day later, won by Rudolf Carraciola, who would earn a reputation as one of the early Ringmeisters.
After World War II, the Nürburgring became part of the Formula One series, as well as several other racing series. But it was as a Formula One course that the Nordschleife (the smaller and somewhat less dangerous Sudschleife was mainly used for motorcycle racing) became a legend, as much for the exploits of iconic racers like Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart and Jacky Ickx as it was for its terrifying characteristics: Narrow, with almost no room for error, bumpy, and filled with extreme turns and elevation changes. Add to that the Eifel’s changeable weather – parts of the track are often dry and sunny, while other stretches are covered in rain and fog – and it was only the drivers with extraordinary skills who could finish a race.
Many of them didn’t make it; in Formula One events alone, the track claimed the lives of Peter Collins (1958), Carel Godin de Beaufort (1964) and John Taylor (1966), and nearly killed three-time champion Niki Lauda, whose fiery crash in 1976 happened during the last Formula One race held on the old track. Altogether, 65 racers have lost their lives in races, qualifying, or practice sessions on the Nordschleife, the most recent being German driver Wolf Silvester in June 2013, who apparently had a heart attack either just before or just after he crashed his Opel Astra OPC during 44th Adenauer ADAC Simfy Trophy race.
The drive of your life
No amount of description can quite convey the experience of driving the Nordschleife, which is best experienced during a private session, rather than contending with the traffic during public days. Due to the current layout of the circuit, it is not possible to actually complete a lap at speed; a section which contains the toll barrier forces one to slow down. Drivers testing themselves against the clock now measure their time from “bridge to gantry” – a small bridge just past the toll barrier to a gantry over the road just before – with a time of 10 minutes or less being considered reasonably respectable for non-professionals.
The all-time record is held by the late Stefan Bellof, who turned in an impossible lap of 6:11 in a Porsche 956; due to the present-day layout and some other changes over the years, that record will never be broken.
For one used to relatively smooth tracks with runoff areas at potential danger points, the roller-coaster nature of the Nordschleife is enhanced by the narrowness of the track. Hidden bumps can launch a car and an unsuspecting driver, and constant camber changes, even in relatively straight sections, means that one is constantly fighting the wheel.
Particularly challenging sections include the zigzags just beyond the bridge at Hatzenbach; the dreaded Foxhole, which is relatively straight section with a deceptive left-hand turn at the far end; the sharp right-hand turn at the Bergwerk (near where Niki Lauda came to grief); the double hairpin at the Carraciola Carousel; and the sweeping right-hander at Schwalbenschwanz, which almost put yours truly and a borrowed BMW 850 into the forest at the next turn, which is called the Galgenkopf.