There have been many great racing circuits in the history of the automobile but none have compared to the Nurburgring, a 14-mile rollercoaster ride through the wooded hills of the Eifel plateau in the western part of Germany, not far from the Belgian border. Centered on Nurburg village, which is overlooked by the ruins of an old 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 in the mid-1920s but also promote tourism and help the German motor industry by providing a testing facility. The idea won the support of the 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 began in 1925 and was finished in time for a grand opening 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 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.
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 organization 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 program 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 license.
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.
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 one but it did not deserve the criticism it received.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s the new Nurburgring survived without Grand Prix racing. The new track hosted a variety of events, from international level down to club races. Occasionally the local racers used the old circuit for races, the highpoint of the year being the Nurburgring 24 Hours when hundreds of drivers turned up to race day and night. The fans came 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 do when F1 cars flew around the old circuit.
The rise of Michael Schumacher, a local boy from the town of Kerpen, just 40 miles to the north of the track, led to increased pressure for a F1 race and in 1995 the F1 trucks rolled into the circuit once again. The change in all the F1 circuits in the late 1980s and early 1990s meant that it did not seem such a bad place after all and despite poor weather it is now a very popular venue. After hosting the European GP in 1995 and 1996, the race was given the rather exotic title of Luxemburg GP for 1997 and 1998 - to avoid complaints that the Germans were monopolizing the European event, but in 1999 it was back to the European tag.
The track was changed in 2002 to create a stadium-like sectioon at the first corner.
Much of the romance of the old Ring went with the bulldozers. The grandstands now feature strange crane-like support which give the feeling that the whole place has become a dockyard. But at the top of the track there is the comforting sight of the old Nurburg tower, staring out across the hills as it has for the last eight centuries. Out there is the greatest race track that ever existed. and if you pay a few Deutsch Marks you can tour around to the Flugplatz - where the cars flew - along the ridge to the long curling Aremberg and under the bridge, fast downhill to Fuchsrohre (The Foxhole), bottoming out before the sweep uphill again to Adenauer Forst, and on to Kallenhard before the road sweeps off downhill again towards Adenau Bridge. It was up at the righthander before the descent that Onofre Marimon flew off the track during practice for the 1954 GP, crashing to his death below.
Across the bridge at Adenau, the road curls uphill and round behind the hillside towards Bergwerk, and off to the high-speed run along the valley where Lauda crashed. At the top of the valley the track curls to the left and climbs steeply up to the Karussell, the tree which the drivers used to line-up their approach to the corner is still there, as is the mini-banking in a dip in the road - the fastest way through. You are catapulted out and off uphill once more towards Hohe Acht - the highest point on the circuit - before the descent through Wipperman, Eschbach and Brunnchen to the two famous jumps at Pflanzgarten and into Schwalbenschwanz, the little Karrussel, and the fast downhill section, out of the trees by the Dottinger-Hohe hotel and on down the long straight to the kink at Tiergarten and the old pits.
"Nothing gave me more satisfaction than to win at the Nurburgring," said Jackie Stewart, "and yet, I was always afraid. When I left home for the German Grand Prix I always used to pause at the end of the driveway and take a long look back.
"I was never sure I'd come home again."