Everybody who ever went to the Nürburgring will tell you that you should never let yourself be terrorized by lap-times. There is a magic border at 10 minutes and it has been there ever since the track opened in 1927. Back then it was inconceivable that anybody would ever break the 10-minutes, and it didn’t happen before Bernd Rosemeyer in a lucky and determined punch forced his Autounion 6-liter V16 below this limit just before the second world war.
The Nordschleife was originally paired by a Südschleife; the pits area was right in the middle, at the hilltop rally-point in the shadows of the Nürburg castle, the South Loop dipped all the way down to Müllenbach (7.7 km length) and the North Loop dipped all the way down to Adenau via Hohe Acht and back (22,8 km length). The combined Nürburgring was only used for GP racing until 1929 and the lap record still stands at 15m6s (set by Louis Chiron in a Bugatti 35C). The benchmark time became “Nordschleife Rundenzeit”, but the Südschleife was used regularly until 1973 when the whole North Loop had been fitted with armco instead of just hedges; Jacky Ickx holds the lap record at 2m44s (Ferrari F2 Dino 166). Today the Südschleife only exist in short fragments and is being used for parking area for big events at the new Nürburgring GP-Strecke, but you can get an idea of what the track must have been like by driving clockwise downhill from Nürburg to Müllenbach and uphill again on the present-day twisty roads. It was a true test of machinery!
The Nordschleife was altered a bit for the 1967 season. Race cars had gotten very fast over the last couple of years and from 1966 F1 had changed the rules to 3-liter engines, so a chicane was constructed on the entry to the long (and very wide) pit straight. The pits were still open; there was no pit wall; and the Nürburgring had not been changed in 1955 when the horrible accident at Le Mans did otherwise much to increase safety around the world. But for 1967 the track was lengthened by 25 meters at Hohenrain and the lap times were reduced a bit – or a very short while.
In 1967 the cars still took off in three or four places and that was very much part of the whole spectacle of Nürburgring racing. Coming out of the Hatzenbach woodlands, the cars would fly over the uphill ridge at Quiddelbacher Höhe, and once again in Brünnchen where there was still a steep descent between the two Brünnchen corners – right where the brook that named the place runs under the track. And obviously the cars got airborne on the two consecutive drops in Pflanzgarten. But this was all changed for 1973; during the winter of 1971 the first half of the track (until the Karusell) was changed. Armco was installed, hills were shaven and run-off areas were added at corners with hard braking; such as Aremberg following the very fast Schwedenkreuz section. And over the next winter the rest of the track got the same treatment; the most visible alteration being the flattening of Brünnchen; the brook was laid in concrete pipes and is now concealed. This was also the final end for the Südschleife – it wasn’t deemed profitable to also install armco there as well. The 1973 Nürburgring 1000 km was divided into two 12 hours races, because it wasn’t “politically correct” to race through the night and spend gas during the Oil Crisis years. Much has changed since.
The Nürburgring was originally constructed to aid the German motor industry; the first time it was mentioned was actually after the Kaiserpreisrennen before WW1; and it was actually the Kaiser who, crazy about automobiles, suggested that “we shouldn’t let the Italians and the French win motor races in Germany”. But it wasn’t until the 1920’s that it became reality. And right from the opening in 1927 it was possible to buy a “Turistenfahrt” lap, with much the same rules for entrance and use as today: Your car should be able to uphold a reasonable velocity; it should be of ordinary and approved conception and you should keep in mind that it was a stretch of ordinary road (one way) – and that all driving was in conformity with German traffic laws. You could even buy a sticker for your car back then also.
I first went to the Ring in 2001 when two friends and I passed it on a trip to Italy in my Alfa 164 TS. We had been watching video on the internet; this was way before youtube; where a norwegian guy called Jörund Seim had created a “homepage” where he originally intended to tell about his not so pleasant experience with Motorcycle DK; apparently a dealer that had not given the required service, when he bought an R1 (Yamaha YFZ-1000R) for his pilgrimage to the Nürburgring. He started the whole thing with video equipment hidden away in backpacks and the installation of bullet cams on the bikes – and subsequently other people took up the idea for cars as well. He was sadly killed a few years later when he crashed on oil after Pflanzgarten.
He inspired us to experiment with camera rigs and concealed installation of all kinds. The cameras allowed us to look at lap times – after the event, or in the evening at the Gasthaus. Not racing around the track with a stop watch. And we could sit in the darkness and gloom of winter and analyze our efforts again and again. It somehow prepared us for the next season – and we would have gained new knowledge about the track from combined memory – real life experience and video.
My visit this year was different; in a race car you don’t try to set a lap record. You go as fast as possible in order to get the best possible place in the race. “In order to finish first, first you have to finish”, as they say. I have been driving my 1972 Alfa Romeo 2000 GT Veloce on most of my visits to the Nürburgring, and it has become too fast for my comfort. I was approaching 9-minute Bridge-to-Gantry lap times on semi-slicks and I would have to prepare myself in a whole other way now. In a 1960’s designed car you feels very vulnerable among Nissan GT-R, BMW M3 and Ford Focus panzer wagons with humungous amounts of horsepower and grip. It is much more fun to aim for a 10-minute lap in the 1950’s Giulietta than to aim for a 9-minute lap in the Bertone. Except: I don’t aim for lap times, remember? I aim for speed, flow, balance and finding the right line – again in this new car – and in a whole other way.
On top of that I had the pleasure of testing my drum brakes. I simply love the mechanical nature of this little car, and it is a quite capable package. I had already accustomed myself with having no brake booster, a detail that actually adds to the mechanical feeling, because I can really feel the effort it takes to brake the car. The drums don’t bite like the disc brakes did, they just work progressively while I add more force to the pedal – and then it becomes very evident that I will have to use the gears if the car needs to be stopped properly. But this is easily anticipated if I keep calm. It’s actually a very satisfying way to get faster; in a way it’s not about getting to know how to use an excellent machine. It’s all about learning new techniques in order to get the best out of old and ancient technology.
After WW2 Juan Manual Fangio was the first to get under 10-minutes when he drove the 1.5-liter supercharged Alfa Romeo 159 in the German GP of 1951. And five years later this was almost possible in a Ferrari 860 Monza sports car, as mentioned in my last post (10m5s in the 1956 Nürburgring 1000 km). Including the many alterations of the Nordschleife over time and comparing with present-day BTG (Bridge-to-gantry) videos you can calculate equivalent lap times using this formula:
Old full lap time = BTG / 0,87
BTG = Old full lap time x 0,87
This allows us to calculate that Bernd Rosemeyer with his 9m57s in 1936 did what is equivalent to a 8m5s BTG … and that is still very impressive today, but it can be achieved in a BMW M3 without much sweat by a sufficiently brave and skilled driver. I gather that doesn’t surprise anybody.
Don’t be bullied by the stop watch. Just go as fast as you dare – and enjoy it to the most. I did, and in the afternoon I packed up my gear and went across the Ardennes to Francorchamps, where I and my friend Gert Sterner met with Jan Paustian and Daniele Dezzi from Stelvio Automobili. We had a day at the Spa Francorchamps formula 1 track the next day. All day.