This legendary circuit is an enduring wonder of the automotive world

A lowdown on Nürburgring Nordschleife

By George Kuruvilla

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Published: Thu 21 Sep 2023, 7:32 PM

Nestled in the picturesque Eifel Mountains of western Germany lies a mecca, for both motorsport enthusiasts and automotive aficionados, called the Nürburgring Nordschleife. This iconic race circuit has earned a legendary status over the years and the rightful nickname ‘Green Hell’, thanks to its challenging layout, rich motoring heritage, and its notorious ability to test the mettle of both drivers and their wheeled machines. Let us delve into the storied history, unique characteristics, and enduring allure of the Nürburgring Nordschleife.

Historical highlights

The Nürburgring is a sprawling motorsports complex located in the town of Nurburg, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany with an approximate capacity of 150,000 spectators. It features a Grand Prix racetrack constructed in 1984, and a long Nordschleife track, built in 1927, around the village and mediaeval castle of Nürburg.

In its early years, the Nürburgring gained renown as a demanding and unforgiving track. It served as a proving ground for both drivers and manufacturers where legendary racers like Rudolf Caracciola and Tazio Nuvolari etched their names into the annals of motorsport history with daring victories on the Nordschleife.

But then came World War II, and all forms of racing were brought to a halt between 1940 and 1946. And during the war years, the sports hotel Tribüne was used as a military hospital, which also served as the division headquarters.

More than a decade later, the world witnessed one of the greatest races of all time. The Grand Prix of Germany 1957 saw Juan Manuel Fangio win his third and final victory at the Nürburgring. Fangio, who in the course of the race found himself in a hopeless position, far behind the leading Ferraris of Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn, clawed his way back in emphatic fashion and eventually won the race.

The Grand Prix of Germany on August 1 1976 also gained notoriety due to the tragic accident of Niki Lauda. In his attempt to catch up with James Hunt, Lauda lost control of his car in the fast left-hand corner crashing his Ferrari 312 onto a rock face causing it to burst into flames. That year marked the end of F1 on the Nürburgring and it took until 1995 for F1 to return, with Michael Schumacher winning the inaugural race on October 1.

A technical challenge

The Nürburgring was originally a 4-configuration track that included the 28.265km-long Gesamtstrecke, which translates to ‘Whole Course’, the 20.832km Nordschleife or ‘North loop’ and the 7.747km Südschleife or the ‘South Loop’. There was also a 2.281km warm-up loop called Zielschleife which translates to ‘Finish Loop’ or Betonschleife which stands for ‘Concrete Loop’ which circles around the pit area.

The Nürburgring Nordschleife’s claim to fame is its astounding length and complexity. Unlike modern circuits that are typically shorter and more forgiving, the Nordschleife remains a beast of a track, which winds its way through the densely forested Eifel region, combining dramatic elevation changes, fast straights, and challenging corners. For comparison, the Suzuka Circuit in Japan is just 5.807km long and the Buddh International Circuit in India measures similarly at 5.125km. And both are relatively flat.

Besides the North Loop’s lengthy track, it also contains more than 300m of elevation change from its lowest to highest points, and daunting sections like the famous ‘Karussell’, which features banked, concrete surface turns that put tremendous strain on both the car and driver. The Nürburgring’s atypical track also requires a diverse set of skills from drivers, testing their ability to adapt to varying conditions and maintain focus over the course of a lap that can exceed eight minutes even in high-performance supercars.

Moreover, the track lacks many of the safety features found in modern racing circuits. Guardrails are sparse, and the tarmac often runs perilously close to the forest’s edge. This unforgiving nature has led to countless tales of heroics, as well as unfortunate incidents over the years. It was no surprise then why the famed F1 champion Jackie Stewart called it ‘The Green Hell’.

Record-breaking attempts

The Nürburgring Nordschleife has long been a benchmark for automotive performance, and manufacturers have frequently used it to test and showcase their latest creations, to help advertise their capabilities. This has led to fierce competition amongst automakers to clock the fastest lap times around the circuit. Be it F1 cars, Le Mans racers, production hypercars or even SUVs, all have been put to the test around the Nordschleife chasing ultimate glory.

Currently, the Porsche 919 Hybrid EVO, holds the overall lap record at the Ring with a mind-boggling time of 5:19.55 minutes, during which it also managed to clock 369km/h top speed. While the production car record of 6:35.183s is held by Mercedes-AMG ONE, an F1-engined road-going hypercar with a turbocharged 1.6-litre V6 petrol engine and 4 electric motors that produce 1063 PS. Also worth mentioning is the 680 PS all-wheel-drive Volkswagen ID. R racecar which lapped the 20.7km circuit in 6:05.34, making it the fastest electric vehicle. As for production EVs, Tesla claimed an unmodified Model S Plaid lapped the circuit in 7:25.23 in June 2023.

Racing for everyone

While the Nürburgring Nordschleife hosts numerous professional racing events, it is unique in that it has democratised racing by welcoming the general public for what is known as ‘Touristenfahrten’ or tourist drives. During designated times, anyone with a road-legal vehicle can pay a fee of about €30-35 and take a lap around the legendary circuit. This accessibility has created a vibrant and diverse community of enthusiasts, seasoned racers, and casual visitors from around the world who make the pilgrimage to the Green Hell every now and then.

The Queen of the Nurburgring

Sabine Schmitz, often hailed as the ‘Queen of the Nürburgring,’ was a German racing driver and television personality. Born on May 14, 1969, in Adenau, Germany, Schmitz became a beloved figure in the world of motorsport for her mastery behind the wheel and her endearing personality. Her deep connection to the Nürburgring was thanks to her having grown up near the circuit.

Sabine Schmitz
Sabine Schmitz

The German first came to fame as the ‘fastest taxi driver in the world’, a title she gained for driving passengers around the full 20.8km circuit at very high speeds first piloting a white E60 M5 and later an E90 M3 sedan. Schmitz gained worldwide popularity after she appeared on the BBC television show Top Gear, where she attempted to beat a lap time set by Jeremy Clarkson’s in the Jaguar S-Type Diesel in a Ford Transit diesel, only to fall short by a mere 9 seconds.

One of Schmitz’s most iconic achievements was her two victories in the Nürburgring 24 Hours endurance race. Her first win came in 1996 behind the wheel of a BMW M3, a success which she repeated in 1997, solidifying her status as a Nürburgring legend.

Her untimely passing on March 16, 2021, following a battle with cancer, left a void in the motorsport community, and she is remembered as an inspiration not just for women but all aspiring racers.

Enduring legacy

Despite its challenges, battling safety concerns, ownership, and environmental debates, the Nürburgring Nordschleife continues to be a symbol of automotive excellence and a rite of passage for both drivers and automakers. As long as there are cars and people who love to drive them, the Nürburgring Nordschleife will continue to be seen as a hallowed ribbon of asphalt that will challenge all who dare to take on its fearsome embrace.

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