NEWS FEATURE

Going back to the Nurburgring

When motor racing people talk of the Nurburgring they do not mean the much-criticized modern circuit, with its constant radius corners and enormous run-off areas, which can be found in the tree-covered Eifel Mountains, 30 miles to the west of the pretty Rhineland town of Koblenz.

Even 11 years after it was built the 2.8-mile Nurburgring Grand Prix Kurs - as it is known - is still referred to as "the new Nurburgring". The old Ring, a place of legendary acts and unbelievable grandeur, is still largely there, to remind the visitor that this was once the greatest racing circuit in the world. Motor racing's Mount Everest.

Built in 1925, the Nurburgring was, literally, a ring of road around the village of Nurburg - which should not be confused with the city of Nurnberg (Nuremburg) which is 200 miles away to the south-east. Nurburg's only claim to fame before the racing track was built was a ruined 12th century castle.

The circuit was the brainchild of the local district controller, a Dr Creutz, who felt the construction would not only reduce the crippling unemployment in the area but also promote tourism and help the German motor industry by providing a remarkable testing facility. He was not wrong.

The initial idea won the support of the Lord Mayor of Cologne Konrad Adenauer, who would later rise to become the Chancellor of Germany and it was Adenauer who convinced the government of the day to supply the 15 million Deutschmarks needed for the project.

The work was finished in time for the grand opening of the Nurburgring in June 1927. The track was wet and the race was won by Rudi Caracciola. A month later the track hosted the German Grand Prix and 100,000 locals turned out to watch Otto Merz win in a Mercedes-Benz.

The old Nurburgring was in fact not one but two circuits which could be used together (making a total of 172 corners) or as separate entities. The Nordschleife (North Loop) was 14.2 glorious miles of tarmac and the Sudschleife (South Loop) was a mere 4.8-miles. Where the two tracks met there was the paddock, the pits, a magnificent wooden grandstand and even a place to stay - the Sporthotel.

The grandstand and the hotel have long disappeared and the Sudschleife was torn up to make way for new roads, but the Nordschliefe remains, bouncing along between the trees, a ribbon of twisting, rising and falling tarmac which was once Grand Prix racing's most difficult challenge but which are today little more than a tourist attraction.

Occasionally the local racers use the old circuit for races, the highpoint of the year being the Nurburgring 24 Hours when hundreds of drivers turn up to race day and night. The fans come too, tens of thousands of them with their tents and camper vans, to barbecue, drink beer and watch the racing. Just as they used to when F1 cars ran on the old circuit. They go to the famous corners which have now faded from racing: Flugplatz - where the cars flew; the dive downhill into Fuchsrohre - the Foxhole; the fast downhill section at Adenau Bridge; the high-speed section after Bergwerk where Niki Lauda Ferrari crashed famously in 1976, bringing an end to Grand Prix racing at the old 'Ring; at the end of the valley the road curls steeply uphill into the Karussell, with its mini-banking in the dip of the road; after the climb to Hohe Acht and the descent to the famed jumps at Pflanzgarten there is the little Karrussel, known also as Schwalbenschwanz.

From there it is downhill to the two-mile main straight - which stretches as far as the eye can see - passing the little inn at Dottinger Hohe, where drivers used to carouse in the days when they used do that sort of thing.

Eventually you reach the sweeping high-speed swerves at Tiergarten, which leads you back to the new track.

This vast circuit was the site of Tazio Nuvolari's greatest victory for Alfa Romeo in 1935; of Juan-Manuel Fangio's greatest drive, fighting back from a delay in his Maserati 250F to win in 1957; and of Jackie Stewart's remarkable win in the fog of 1968, driving with his wrist in plaster.

Such a fast and spectacular track must also have its victims and all around the old Nurburgring there are places where the fast and wild died young. The march of time dictated that safety and television would become important factors. It was virtually impossible to cover the entire track without several hundred TV cameras - and no broadcasting organisation could afford such an operation.

But it was the safety which finally - inevitably - put paid to the old Ring. It was, by its very nature, almost impossible to make safe. Despite a three-year programme in the early 1970s to erect barriers and create run-off areas there were still safety problems and in 1976 Niki Lauda proposed to the drivers that the circuit be boycotted. The other drivers voted against Lauda and the race went ahead on August 1 that year. Lauda crashed and was badly burned, being saved by the combined actions of fellow drivers Arturo Merzario, Guy Edwards, Brett Lunger and Harald Ertl rather than by the ill-equipped fire marshals. At the end of that year the governing body of the sport - then called the CSI - withdrew the Nurburgring's F1 licence.

Other racing went on for another six years but in May 1982 the old circuit held its last international event - a 1000km sportscar race - and work began on the vast new Nurburgring. This extraordinary enterprise was completed in the Spring of 1982 and to celebrate the event the Nurburgring management decided to hold a race with one of the best grids in the history of the sport. The cars were identical Mercedes 190Es and the 20 drivers included Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg, Alain Prost, Alan Jones, Carlos Reutemann, Jacques Laffite, John Watson, Ayrton Senna, Jody Scheckter, James Hunt, Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Phil Hill, Denny Hulme, John Surtees and Elio de Angelis. Senna, a new boy in F1 that year, beat Lauda by just over a second with Reutemann, Rosberg and Watson right behind. A month later - on the same day as the Le Mans 24 Hours - the New Nurburgring held its first international event, a European Formula 3 race and in the field that day were several men who would go on to become F1 stars. Johnny Dumfries won the race, Ivan Capelli was second and Gerhard Berger was third. Gerhard Berger is the only man racing that day who is still in F1 but he will probably remember the feeling of amazement that weekend at what the whole place must have cost to build.

Formula 1 visited the new Nurburgring in October that year for the European Grand Prix, won by Alain Prost in a McLaren and again less than a year later - in August 1985 - when Michele Alboreto won the only German GP to be held at the new track. And then the Nurburgring disappeared from F1 the victim of commercial disputes between promoters and an unpopularity, which was based solely on the track it replaced. The new Ring would never be like the old but it did not deserve the criticism it received when it opened.

Eleven years later the F1 boys, used to the artificial circuits of the 1990s, will probably find the track quite a challenge. And, with Michael Schumacher winning, the vast grandstands will undoubtedly be filled - as will every guesthouse and hotel for probably 50 miles in all directions. Schumacher is a local boy coming from the town of Kerpen, just 40 miles to the north of the Nurburgring.

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