The Nürburgring: The One Ring to Rule Them All

Source: Nurburging/Facebook
Source: Nurburging/Facebook

The Nürburgring. A name well known to motorsport enthusiasts and video game racers around the world. Most people are aware that this name represents one of the most formidable racing facilities in the world, where a large number of automakers test and refine their new cars, much to the dismay of James May.

It’s located in western Germany in the town of Nürburg, which is derived from the Latin term for “black castle” due to the color of the volcanic basalt that was used to build the, well, Nürburg Castle. The name of the track literally means the ring, or racetrack, of the city of Nürburg. You might think that a racetrack located near a quaint German town with a permanent population of only 180, with corners named things like Schwalbenschwanz (Swallow’s tail) and Pflanzgarten (Planting garden) would be relatively subdued. In this case, you would be very wrong.

The Nürburgring was completed in 1927 after the idea was conceived by Dr. Otto Creuz, a member of the Eifel District Council (the town of Nürburg is located near the Eifel mountain range). He petitioned the government and received a grant of $14.1 million Reichsmarks, which is approximately $45 million in today’s dollars.

The concept for the facility was to not only serve as a test facility for cars, but also to be key racing facility for races hosted by Germany. The initial design of the track was 17.6 miles of challenging racing through the Eifel foothills. This distance, covering 172 turns, combined the formidable 14.2 mile northern loop (the Nordschleife) and the 4.8 mile southern loop (Südschleife) to make the “whole course” (Gesamtstrecke). Obviously, the two numbers I have listed don’t add up: There was a section of the track that was skipped when the Whole Course was raced that resulted in the 17.6 mile distance.

Source: Nurburging/Facebook

The first car race was held on June 19, 1927. The Gesamtstrecke was used for the German Grand Prix for only three years (1927-1929). Starting in 1931, after the 1930 iteration was cancelled, the Nordschleife became the site of the Grand Prix races. This continued until 1938, when World War II brought frivolities like racing to a grinding halt. A decade of rest for the Nürburgring was ended with reconstruction efforts, and the track became live again in 1948.

Grand Prix races continued to be held at the ring for nearly two decades until changes to Formula 1 rules started to expose the risks of the ‘ring. In 1966, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) increased the engine size for Formula 1 cars from 1.5 liters to 3.0 liters for naturally-aspirated engines. They also allowed for superchargers to be used again on engines that were up to 1.5 liters. This meant that the horsepower range for cars during races jumped from 150-225 horsepower to 500-900 horsepower. This had a huge increase on speed and the risk posed to drivers and spectators.

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In response to a driver strike, the German Grand Prix was moved to the Hockenheimring for 1970 and changes were made to the Nürburgring to make it safer for modern races. The changes were completed in time for the 1971 Grand Prix to return to the ‘Ring, and it continued there for five more years.

In 1976, the race suffered a tragedy when Nikki Lauda, who was leading in Drivers’ Championship points going into the race and who was the only driver to break the seven-minute mark during the 1975 Grand Prix, lost control and went off the track to collide with an earth bank wall just before the Bergwerk right-hander. His car caught fire and came back onto the track, where he was severely burned.

The story of this event, and the entire 1976 season, was covered in the movie Rush. This event was the death knell for the Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. In 1977, it moved back to the Hockenheimring, and it remained there until the new Grand Prix circuit, the Großer Preis-Strecke (literally “Grand Prix Course” and often abbreviated GP Strecke) was opened in 1984. Over the past 30 years, Formula 1 has come and gone from the Nürburgring. It has alternated with the Hockenheimring, even as Formula 1 has struggled to make Grand Prixs financially viable in Germany.

These days, the ‘Ring is used for a variety of different races (including the 24 Hours Nürburgring), manufacturer testing (the current production lap record is held by the Pagani Zonda R), and track days. It’s still a dangerous course, and it is becoming even more risky with the rising attendance levels. There are many accidents and often several fatalities each year as people attempt to tackle “The Green Hell.” Regardless of whether or not you feel compelled to take the trip to the ‘ring to test your own skills, one can’t help but appreciate the part it has played in the history of racing.

Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.