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JUNE 22, 2001

Nurburgring feels the pressure as Silverstone updates

A handful of deutchmarks buys you a drive in your road car round what has for generations was hailed as the most challenging grand prix circuit in the world, yet the old Nurburgring Nordschleife has not been used by formula one cars for 25 years since Niki Lauda was almost burnt to death after crashing his Ferrari in the 1976 German grand prix.

The old 14-mile track through the tortuous curves, plunged and drops of the Eifel mountains now stands silent and brooding as its younger sibling - the neue Nurburgring - prepares for tomorrow's European grand prix.

The present Nurburgring circuit carries a weighty heritage. Regarded by many as a bland and uninspiring facility, it first hosted a formula one race in 1984, eight years after its big brother was abandoned to club events and national level touring car races.

The old Nurburgring was regarded as the ultimate challenge in motor racing, an almost primeval contest between man and machine in conditions where - as Lauda discovered - the slightest slip could have disastrous consequences.

Yet safety considerations, and the fact that a race lasting a mere 15 laps of an ultra-long circuit offered poor value for the fans in the grandstands, sounded the death knell for what was this last epic motor racing adventure.

The abandoned circuit still provides a stark and uncompromising backdrop to the present circuit, the pine forests harboring armies of enthusiastic campers just as they did before the classic track was replaced with its pale ersatz substitute.

Yet formula one is now preoccupied with the race amongst circuits owners to have the best track in the world. This week Nurburgring owners announced plans to extend its track layout in a bid to provide better entertainment for the paying public. The Nurburgring has been mentioned as a possible casualty when plans for a Moscow Grand Prix are completed but the owners of the track insist they are confident the circuit has a long-term future on the world championship calendar. "We're carrying on until our present contract expires at the end of 2004," said a circuit spokesman. "We're not under time pressure to get a new contract just yet."

Yet several European circuits promoters are now deeply concerned that their future fixtures could be jeopardized by the threat of new races outside Europe.

Both Russia and Dubai have been mentioned as possible future grand prix locations and with the sport's governing body reluctant to sanction more than the current maximum of 17 races, established European fixtures may have to be sacrificed.

For next year's race, the circuit organizers plan to incorporate an extra half-mile loop curve back behind the pits designed to enhance the possibilities for overtaking.

The news came just two days after Silverstone lifted itself from the bottom of the formula one league with details of a 40 million pound makeover in preparation for the 2003 British grand prix.

The design work for the updated Silverstone circuit has been carried out by Hermann Tillke, the Stuttgart-based architect who has specialized on race track design for the past decade.

Most recently Tillke has been responsible for the impressive Sepang circuit at Kuala Lumpur and the revisions to the old Osterreichring - now dubbed the A1-Ring - which has been home to the Austrian grand prix since 1997.

"We are obviously constrained by the FIA's safety regulations, in terms of specific elements such as track width and run-off areas, but with that in mind we are trying to make our designs good for overtaking," said Tillke who started his engineering office 18 years ago when he himself retired from active racing.

Tillke explains that his company deals not only with the track layout, but also the entire supporting infrastructure. "We can carry out everything in terms not just of architecture, but of civil engineering and all the associated electrical and electronic requirements for the pit complexes and other buildings," he explained.

All these developments also come at a time when many grand prix circuits are looking nervously over their shoulder in an effort to anticipate what will be required for the next round of upgrading.

Max Mosley, the FIA president, and formula one powerbroker Bernie Ecclestone are relentless and uncompromising in their determination to ensure that every circuit on the grand prix trail works tirelessly to improve its facilities. Both from the viewpoint of safety and suitability for corporate hospitality, an increasingly significant factor in this highly commercial era.

There are now multiple pressures on race promoters who are faced not just with the challenge of entertaining the public, but also ensuring that safety facilities match up to exacting standards and that the multi-million dollar sponsors who bankroll the sport can entertain their guests in suitably upmarker surroundings.

Yet some would argue that the Nurburgring in particular represents the starkest possible reminder of how motor racing's priorities have become oddly juxtaposed. The raw challenge and the undiluted danger which for so many years were an integral part of the sport's appeal now take second place to global television ratings.

The current Nurburgring is a pretty dismal facility in terms of track layout and the real challenge for the future is to balance safety and security with the need to ensure the essential magic of formula one competition is not diluted any further.

Yet increasingly political considerations must also be taken into account when deciding where grands prix take place. In 1986 the Hungaroring, near Budapest, hosted the first Hungarian grand prix and it remains on the calendar to this day because of the international prestige it brings to this former eastern block state.

Similarly, China has been angling for a grand prix for several years. Its Zuhai circuit has already hosted an international sports car race and there is speculation that a grand prix could fulfil an ideal role in setting up the country's image in advance of the Olympic games.