Circuit ringmeister

Perilously narrow and prodigiously long, with blind crests and 73 bends, the former German Grand Prix track at Nürburgring is the world’s most challenging – and it’s open to petrolheads like Simon de Burton

Jackie Stewart drives his BRM 261 past a crashed touring car in the 1966 German Grand Prix
Jackie Stewart drives his BRM 261 past a crashed touring car in the 1966 German Grand Prix | Image: Rainer W Schlegelmilch/Getty Images

When the drivers line up on July 7 for the start of the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, near Cologne, they will be prepared for a very different challenge from that faced by the legendary Argentinian ace Juan Manuel Fangio in 1954 when he won the race at the wheel of the Mercedes W196. Aside from the fact that Formula One technology has taken many a quantum leap during the intervening decades, the modern Nürburgring F1 circuit is far tamer than the one of old.

The “Nordschleife”, or “north loop”, of Fangio’s day ceased to be considered viable for Formula One back in 1976, after Niki Lauda – at the time the fastest driver around the circuit – suffered a near-fatal accident when a suspected suspension failure caused his car to slide off the track, overturn and burst into flames on the second lap of the grand prix. Aside from its limited run-off and relative narrowness, it is the sheer length that makes it so difficult to adequately marshal and therefore highly dangerous. Even in its shortest of several configurations, it measures an exhausting 20.8km – but when Fangio won in 1954 the course was almost 2km longer and the race lasted a gruelling 22 laps.

The circuit that will be used for July's grand prix was opened in 1984 and measures a more manageable 5.1km. Some have deemed it “dull”, but these are mostly people who haven’t had the experience of racing on it. Virtually any racetrack seems on the mild side compared with the Nordschleife, which forms the major part of the original Nürburgring as it was inaugurated in 1927.

A BMW M3 Coupé on the Nordschleife
A BMW M3 Coupé on the Nordschleife | Image: Max Earey

Ironically, the original circuit was built to improve safety in the Eifelrennen races that, earlier in the decade, had taken place on public roads running through the Eifel mountains. Intended both to provide thrilling competition and to showcase German engineering talent, the Nürburgring quickly became legendary and the drivers who mastered it came to be known as the “Ringmeisters”, counting among their number names such as Tazio Nuvolari, Rudolf Caracciola and, postwar, Alberto Ascari, Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart.

But despite his skill at the venue, Stewart famously dubbed the Nürburgring Nordschleife – which snakes its way through verdant woodland – “the Green Hell”, a place that you only felt good about when “you were a long way away, curled up at home in front of a warm fire on a long winter’s night”.

Indeed, the Nordschleife has established a firm reputation as the world’s most challenging circuit, but not merely because of its prodigious length. Drivers must also cope with more than 300m of elevation change between its lowest and highest points, as well as blind crests and no fewer than 73 bends with exotic names such as Fuchsrörhe (Foxhole), Flugplatz (Airfield or Flight Place), Wehrseifen (Defence Valley) and Bergwerk (the Mine) – the one at which Lauda suffered his crash.

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No place for an amateur, then? Well, it shouldn’t be – but by a peculiar quirk of history and highway regulations, the Nordschleife has always been a public, one-way toll road on which, when no official competition is happening, anyone with a street-legal, wheeled vehicle and a valid licence is allowed to drive as quickly as they are able.

These “touristenfahrten” days are hugely popular with petrolheads, hordes of whom converge on the place to take advantage of the opportunity to push themselves and their cars, motorcycles, vans (you name it, people will thrash it) to the absolute limit – and frequently beyond – for the small charge of €26 per lap.

The composer Sir Thomas Beecham famously said: “In this life, try everything once, except for incest and folk dancing” – to which I have always mentally appended “and free-fall parachuting, and driving at the ‘ring’.” Yet taking up the Nürburgring gauntlet has become almost a rite of passage for any self-respecting fan of high-speed driving, and not doing so is akin to an opera lover ignoring Glyndebourne or an oenophile avoiding Château Pétrus.

Jacky Ickx (No 6), Jackie Stewart (7) and Jochen Rindt (2) line up in the 1969 German Grand Prix
Jacky Ickx (No 6), Jackie Stewart (7) and Jochen Rindt (2) line up in the 1969 German Grand Prix | Image: Rainer W Schlegelmilch/Getty Images

But while overindulging in Château Pétrus may have its dangers, that’s where the comparison ends. Accurate statistics are impossible to obtain, but estimates suggest that between three and 12 deaths per year occur during public days, and it is almost inevitable that you will see at least one accident per lap.

BMW, however, has made it possible to “ride the ring” in relative safety through its aptly named “Fascination Nordschleife” two-day training courses, in which instructors with thousands of Nordschleife laps under their belts tutor newcomers using the marque’s high-performance “M-Power” cars, the M3 and M6 Coupés.

If you’re a motoring hooligan hell-bent on grabbing the ring by the scruff of its neck and showing it who’s boss, this course is probably not for you. But if you are smart enough to know that this is a circuit that demands the utmost respect and learning, then Fascination Nordschleife should prove highly rewarding.

BMW M3 Coupés in convoy on the Nordschleife
BMW M3 Coupés in convoy on the Nordschleife | Image: Max Earey

To ensure an early start, clients arrive the night before. They are divided into groups of eight and undergo an intensive, hour-long briefing session about driving dynamics before enjoying a decent, alcohol-free dinner and a good night’s sleep.

The following morning is spent perfecting each driver’s seating position (a vital detail which, if incorrect, can dramatically hamper progress) and learning the various steering techniques that might need to be employed in order to tackle the Nordschleife’s many and varied technicalities. After that, it’s time to undertake your first laps. These happen behind a pace car, which enables fledglings to follow the correct lines at the correct speed and therefore remain, literally, “on track”.

Day two sees more of the same, plus multiple runs on individual sections of the track that are famously difficult to master. As someone who freely admitted to being too scared to go it alone in my own car (without the untold benefits of insurance, since few companies will cover a driver on the ring), the fully insured BMW course seemed ideal – so, after a 90-minute flight from Heathrow to Frankfurt and an autobahn blast to the circuit 100-odd miles away, it was time for what my instructor worryingly described as my Nordschleife “blooding”.

Niki Lauda (in car) talks to his Ferrari teammate Clay Regazzoni at the 1976 German Grand Prix
Niki Lauda (in car) talks to his Ferrari teammate Clay Regazzoni at the 1976 German Grand Prix | Image: Rainer W Schlegelmilch/Getty Images

But before getting behind the wheel, I was advised to partake of another service – one that enables absolute beginners to experience the circuit from the back of a taxi. It might sound a bit tame, but the Nordschleife “Ring Taxis” are 560hp, 190mph BMW M5 saloons with extra-throaty exhaust pipes.

There was only time to discover that my taxi driver was called Philip, that his full-time job was as a BMW development engineer and that he had been around the Nordschleife “more than 3,000 times” – and then he was waving his access pass at the control barrier and we were embarking on our first lap under gut-wrenching acceleration.

“I sort of expected there to be some kind of warm-up,” I quavered.

BMW M3 Coupés in high‑speed convoy under instruction on the Nordschleife
BMW M3 Coupés in high‑speed convoy under instruction on the Nordschleife | Image: Max Earey

“Er, this is the warm-up,” replied Philip. “But do let me know if you feel uncomfortable.”

Discomfort was certainly among the sensations but, for the first couple of moments, it was the general feeling of fear that was overriding, as we flashed past lesser drivers in Porsches, Ferraris and other exotica, who might have had the right wheels but clearly lacked Philip’s “Ringmeister” credentials. The usual thing to do in such situations is to console oneself with the fact that it will soon be over – but that doesn’t really apply at the Nordschleife because it is so darned long.

Being a public day, hundreds of onlookers had turned out to spectate from the grass banking above the most famous corners, around which Philip piloted the M5 in a series of casually controlled, sideways drifts. “Well, they expect it, you know – it makes for good photographs,” he said.

Niki Lauda in a Ferrari 312T during practice for the 1976 German Grand Prix
Niki Lauda in a Ferrari 312T during practice for the 1976 German Grand Prix | Image: Getty Images

We arrived back at the “taxi rank” after about eight of the longest minutes of my life and relinquished the M5’s passenger seats to three Chinese tourists. I wished them the best of luck, and headed for the car in which I would be making my ring debut, the latest M6 Gran Coupé, a £97,490 continent-crosser with a top speed restricted to 155mph.

With BMW UK’s Gavin Ward on hand to show me the lines (he’s a Nordschleife veteran who knows the track’s every kink and curve), I grabbed the bull by the horns and gave it a go. The sight of three fairly significant crashes within the first 5km helped to temper any excess of enthusiasm, and once I’d got halfway around without incident and discovered that the majority of ring racers are surprisingly gentlemanly in their attitude to overtaking and – less often, in my case – being overtaken, then the lure of the place quickly became apparent.

After 10 or so laps, a few of the dozens of corners became vaguely familiar and I began to see how it would, after several hours of practice, be possible to learn the circuit in a way that would result in reasonably fast and safe progress. My “personal best” was around the nine-minute mark, somewhat slower than the demonstration lap completed by Michael Schumacher back in May at the wheel of a Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One car – and a world away from the fastest-ever officially recorded lap, which was achieved in 1983 by Stefan Bellof in a Porsche 956 at six minutes, 11 seconds.

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Aiming for a genuinely impressive time is, in effect, utterly pointless because slower vehicles inevitably hold one up and it’s necessary to stop and pass through a barrier at the end of each lap to prevent collisions with other cars merging onto the track.

But, perhaps ironically, recording a heroic run is not really what the Nordschleife is all about. It’s more to do with learning to allay the demons of the world’s most challenging race circuit and to master the art of dealing with its myriad crests, dips and swooping curves with delicacy and aplomb.

And when you get it right, there can be few greater thrills to be had from behind a steering wheel.

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