The ‘Greatest of the Great’ N\u00fcrburgring also has a Dark Side

There have been many great racing circuits in the history of motor racing, but none compare to the 17.5-mile roller coaster ride through the wooded hills of the Eifel plateau in the western part of Germany, not far from the Belgian border. It wasn’t a circuit that grew from public roads—as was so often the case in the early years of the sport.

The Nürburgring was designed and built for racing cars.

Formula 1 returns to the fabled circuit on Oct. 11 for the F1 Eifel Grand Prix.

Centered on Nurburg village, overlooked by the ruins of an old 12th century castle, the race track was the brainchild of the local district administrator, Otto Creutz, who wanted to find ways to improve the impoverished and remote Eifel region. He established a silver fox farm and a wood processing plant, but these achieved little. Then he heard that there was a possibility that the German government might be willing to fund an automobile test track to help the industry grow.

With the support of the Mayor of Cologne—Konrad Adenauer (the future Chancellor of Germany)—Creutz convinced officials that the hills around Adenau were the perfect place. It would employ thousands of workers at a time when work was needed and it would generate revenues from the visitors who would visit to see racing cars on such a grand circuit. He was right on both counts. It took two years to build, employing 2,500 workers, and the first big race in 1927 saw 100,000 fans turn up to watch.

The old Nürburgring was not one but two circuits which could be used together (making a total of 172 corners) or as separate tracks. 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.

If you pay a few Euros you can tour the old circuit and marvel at the place. You can see the Flugplatz where the cars flew. You can then run along a ridge to the long curling Aremberg and under a bridge dropping through a fast downhill to Fuchsrohre (The Foxhole), bottoming out before the sweep uphill again to Adenauer Forst, and on to Kallenhard before the track sweeps downhill again into the valley and over Adenau Bridge.

After that, the road curls around the hillside and on a high-speed run along the valley until the track curls to the left and climbs steeply up to the Karussell, a banked turn, which catapults the car out onto the climb up to Hohe Acht—the highest point on the circuit—before the twisting 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 Dottinger-Hohe hotel to the long straight that leads up to the Tiergarten kink and the old pits.

“Nothing gave me more satisfaction than to win at the Nürburgring,” 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 because I was never sure I’d come home again.”

The track was the site of some of the sport’s most incredible performances: it was where Tazio Nuvolari’s took his Enzo Ferrari-run Alfa Romeo to an improbable victory against AutoUnio and Mercedes-Benz in the rain in 1935, despite dropping to sixth with a slow pit stop but fighting back to win on he last lap, leaving the fans in stunned silence in the grandstands.

In 1957 Juan Manuel Fangio drove his finest race at the ‘Ring, fighting back from a delay in his Maserati 250F to win and then there was Jackie Stewart’s victory in the rain and fog in 1968, winning by four minutes, despite having his wrist in plaster. It was, he reckoned, his greatest win.

But there was a dark side as well to the Nürburgring because it could never be made safe. The list of victims was celebrated and terrible.

“I’m frightened, I don’t mind telling you,” said James Hunt, after qualifying in 1976. “I’m glad to see the finish line. But whether they’re frightened of the ‘Ring or not, everybody wants to win here. When it comes down down to it, you either don’t come, or you get on with the job of racing.”

The track authorities did what they could to improve safety but it was impossible to keep up with the demands and after Niki Lauda’s fiery crash in 1976 F1 departed, leaving the track to host other races until 1982 when it was closed and work began to build a new Nürburgring, a modern 2.8-mile track that many felt was an insult to the name, but as time went on and attitudes changed more the track eventually rejoined the F1 ranks, aided by the success of local hero Michael Schumacher, who grew up just 40 miles from the track.

Much of the romance of the old ‘Ring went with the bulldozers and the new constructions gave the new circuit the feel of a dockyard, although out in the woods the old tarmac remained.

Perhaps one can argue that building the Nürburgring was folly, but it served its purpose. It helped generate money for the local economy and even today hundreds of thousands of fans go every year to watch the Nürburgring Langstrecken Serie, an endurance racing championship which uses the original track. They camp in the woods, as their fathers did before them, and drink beer and cheer their heroes. It doesn’t matter if it is raining. This is the Nurburgring—and there is nothing like it.

“The Nürburgring was the most majestic stretch of asphalt on which Grand Prix cars have ever raced,” says Emerson Fittipaldi. “I never won, nor even had a podium there, but the memory of racing an F1 car there will stay with me forever. Truly it was the greatest of the great.”

Where does the Nurburgring and the majestic Nurburgring Nordschleif rank on your list of dream tracks? Start the discussion. We’d love to see what you have to say!

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