There’s a one-way toll road in the Eifel region of western Germany. It’s 12.9 miles long with 90 corners—40 left-handers and 50 right-handers. Almost every combination of gradient, camber, and radius is contained within these bends. The highest point of the road is 1,000 feet above the lowest. And if drivers could tackle the longest straight without having to pull into the toll booth and rest area halfway along, their cars could probably hit top speed. This is the Nürburgring.
It’s a wonder it exists, especially in this day and age when risk-averse bureaucrats are always doing their best to take the fun out of everything. But exist it does: as a race track, a proving ground for car manufacturers (not just German companies) and a public road. Nowhere else on Earth is there anything quite like this.
The ‘Ring is equal parts breathtaking and underwear-threatening. It’s a perpetual challenge to those who attempt to attack all those corners with as much speed and vehicle control as they can muster. Not only will there be faster cars and motorbikes filling up the mirrors, but you could charge around a blind bend on a dry surface only to find that it’s been raining on the next part of this huge course. And there’s a slow-moving tourist bus just off the perfect line.
When people talk about the Nürburgring, they usually mean its north loop, or Nordschleife. The whole thing used to be bigger and with more corners, but a renovation in the early 1970s brought us the track we know now, wider than the original and (thankfully) with a few more run-off areas. The south loop, or Südschleife, was rebuilt in the early ’80s to accommodate contemporary Formula One races and other events. The 24-hour race that takes place here incorporates both loops.
Encircling the village of Nürburg, this track came into being when motorsport was still in its infancy, when dedicated facilities were few and far between. Inspired by the mountainous route of Sicily’s Targa Florio and constructed to bring jobs and tourism to the region, the ‘Ring included several public roads where racing would take place, and things took off from there. Sometimes literally. The Flugplatz (airfield) section is where an airfield once stood, but it’s possible to get all four wheels off the ground.
The day after its official opening in June 1927, the ‘Ring got down to business with its first car race. The following month came the German Grand Prix, won on that occasion by Otto Merz. Herr Merz’s previous day job was as Archduke Ferdinand of Austria’s chauffeur, including that fateful day in Sarajevo when the Archduke’s assassination precipitated the First World War.
This sense of history remains. Legends have driven here, such as Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark and Tazio Nuvolari. The name of Rudolf Caracciola will be linked forever to the famous Karussel banked curve. Jackie Stewart’s description of the place, Green Hell, has stuck. The horrific crash at the 1976 German GP, where Niki Lauda was engulfed in flames and led to Formula One abandoning the Nordschleife, still springs to mind around the Bergwerk turn.
In a strange way, Lauda’s crash could be seen as a positive thing for the Nordschleife. Formula One’s many stipulations would have sterilized the track, stripping away its individuality. Nowadays, tourists and car companies bring in the revenue.
This is the perfect place to tune a chassis, since there are jumps, places that will compress the springs, off-camber lines to challenge steering and stability, and enough corners to cook the brakes. There are always spy photographers around the ‘Ring, hoping to get a shot of the latest newsworthy machine.
On the Nordschleife, fast lap times for a road car are under eight minutes. The fastest-ever time in a race car remains Stefan Bellof’s six minutes and 11.13 seconds, accomplished in 1983, driving a Porsche 956C. For the regular driving enthusiast, it’s not worth bringing the stopwatch. Just enjoy the place for what it is. In the rest area there will probably be several Porsches to drool over, more than enough examples of the BMW M3, plus a whole load of other rides to warrant getting the camera out. Visitors from further afield can hire specially prepared cars. Or just use a run-of-the-mill rental (but don’t tell the company your plans to run the ‘Ring).
Even a site as mythical and exciting as the Nürburgring is not immune to the current financial depression that seems to plague the whole world right now. If there’s a German term for “deep trouble” (tief Schwierigkeiten, according to online translation sites), the company that owns the ‘Ring is in it.
Back in 2004, someone had the harebrained idea to make the place into a Disneyland for car nuts, complete with amusement park. The government and some private investors agreed to stump up the cash. The government paid, the private money never materialized. Cue the global market meltdown and those clouds over the track look darker than ever.
It would be a travesty as well as a tragedy if some speculator bought the land and turned the place into a golf course with a bunch of condos plus retail and office space (as if there isn’t enough of that stuff already). But since it’s such a useful resource for so many car makers and tuning houses, chances are the two loops will remain while the amusement park will close. And everyday drivers like you and I should still be able to shell out some euros for a lap or three.
There are many online resources offering recommendations and plenty of smart advice, including the fact that this can be a dangerous place, sometimes deadly. Some familiarization playing Gran Turismo wouldn’t go amiss, even though the sheer physicality of the track is missing. The stress of a very real car crash at any time can be surprisingly tiring. By all means, follow a local who seems to have all the right lines down. Racing him, however, is probably a bad idea.