circuit driving the old nurburgring
a test with a difference this, not of a car but of a circuit, germany's fearsome 20.8km old nurburgring. anyone can drive the world's greatest racetrack if they're brave enough. jonathan crouch reports from behind the wheel of five great performance cars
If you enjoy driving, you'll enjoy great roads. And if you enjoy great roads, you'll enjoy a great racetrack.
The problem with great racetracks is that there aren't many left. All the great circuits of the past are now either overgrown with weeds or sanitised out of all recognition for the modern safety era. All but one.
Nestling in the Eifel Mountains in the heart of Germany, the 20.8km Nordschliefe circuit at the N??rburgring alone remains as a testament to the dangers and challenges faced by racing drivers in motor racing's earliest days.
Construction began in the First World War as a means of occupying Italian prisoners of war and it wasn't until 1925 that the circuit was finally opened by the German Reich. It quickly established a fearsome reputation amongst even hardened drivers. Jackie Stewart used to say that before racing at the old N??rburgring, he used to pause outside the gate of his house before leaving and look back: "I never knew if I'd see it again."
With changeable weather, blind brows and a complete absence of run-off areas, the track exacted a heavy penalty from those unfortunate enough to make a mistake, or have something break. With the death toll mounting, the owners were forced to spend 17 million deutschmarks in improvements, followed by several million more in 1974 after a driver's boycott. It made little difference. In 1976, World Champion Niki Lauda almost died in a Ferrari fireball and the safety campaigners needed no further encouragement. The circuit's licence to hold Formula One Grand Prix's was withdrawn and other branches of International motorsport deserted the place shortly after.
Seeing the writing on the wall, the circuit owners began work on a new, separate 4.5km track, dull and safe enough to persuade international motor racing to return to the Eifel Mountains. With its opening in 1984, the giant old Nordschliefe circuit was announced officially dead. In any other country, the tarmac would have been pulled up and the land packaged off and sold to developers. But this was Germany, land of the unrestricted autobahn. Moreover, the Nordschliefe was in an area of great natural beauty: nobody was about to be allowed to develop it. On top of all this, the State of Rheinland-Pfalz which owned the track was receiving more and more requests from people who wanted to drive around the old circuit for themselves, just for the experience. The upshot of it all was that with true German logic, the Nordschliefe, deemed too dangerous for motorsport, was opened freely to the general public.
The Nordschliefe Circuit Today:
For 26 Euros a lap (around £22), anyone can complete a lap of the old 20.8km track, assuming it's open. It's wise to check first, for the circuit is still extensively used by car manufacturers for development of new models: nothing at their own multi-million pound test facilities and no computer simulation can accurately duplicate the challenges here. There are no restrictions on the type of vehicles allowed on, so motorbikes mix with cars, mixing with the occasional motorhome, coach and van. Adding to this potentially disastrous cocktail, race teams from lower saloon car formulae often use the public sessions for a spot of impromptu testing. And there's the famous 'Ring Taxi', constantly circulating at high speed, giving visitors a hair-raising ride through the 73 bends (33 left and 40 right) that make up the 20.8kms.
Hardly surprising then that the circuit's death and injury toll remains considerable. Choose to go round and you generally do it at your own risk. Even motorsport insurance companies often won't touch it and those that do will charge inordinate premiums for even a few hours. All of which is not to say that you shouldn't give it a try if you're brave enough and are prepared to show a bit of restraint. There are few driving challenges left in the world that don't reside on a Playstation. Who knows how much longer this one will be freely available?
To truly test the world's greatest race circuit, we felt we needed five of the world's greatest cars, a vehicle to represent every facet of performance motoring. For the high-tech approach, we chose Mitsubishi's awesome Lancer EVO VIII and Porsche's 450bhp 911 Turbo. For a more traditional approach, we opted for a more traditional sportscar, Caterham's Superlight R400. With a power to weight ratio matching the number on its badge (performance the equivalent of something producing 400bhp) it offers enough pulling power to satisfy the most demanding enthusiast. What's more, it was built and developed for hard track use and was made for this place.
For our final choices, we wanted two variations on a successful theme - Lotus's Elise, here in track-orientated 135R form and Vauxhall's Elise-based VX220, here in Turbo Sprint guise with an awesome 240bhp.
Would that we had the space here to properly describe how each car felt on this fantastic circuit. Suffice to say that each provided its own particular challenge, offering its own individual reward. In the dry - and in the right hands - the VX220 Turbo Sprint was marginally the fastest, and the most satisfying to master. In damp conditions however, the balance of power changed, something which particularly affected the Caterham, a car which in rainy conditions felt so awful that we left it in the car park. With its four-wheel drive, the Porsche and the Mitsubishi of course were in their element here, by far the easiest to drive quickly. To experience the N??rburgring at ultimate speed in ultimate safety, these are the cars to have. It says much for the Lotus that, pitched against some of the greatest cars of all time, it held its own remarkably well. It wasn't much slower than the others, had the best handling and was the car we all wanted to learn the circuit with.
If driving's in your blood, you have to visit this place. It's an experience you'll never forget.
VISITING THE OLD NURBURGRING THE FACTS:
*THE CIRCUIT: 20.8km (73 corners)
*WHERE: 2hrs across the German border at Aachen, south of Bonn, west of Koblenz
*CONTACTS: (Tourist Info and Accommodation) 00-49-2691-302-610
(Circuit Info) 00-49-2691-3020