Deep in the Eifel mountains, in a remote corner of west Germany, I can hear death calling. Weeung, weeung: it sounds like a banshee, waves of high-pitched screaming, calling for me through the trees. This is the sound of the Nürburgring, the longest and most dangerous racetrack in the world. It is where petrolheads come before they die. It is motorsport’s answer to the Cresta Run: a mad, bad and dangerous flight of folly. More than 200 people have lost their lives here since it opened in 1927. Today, it could be my turn.
Only in Germany, home of the autobahn, would you find a 13-mile race circuit that anyone can drive on. The main loop of the Nürburgring is the treacherous Nordschleife, a hair-whitening series of 76 bends through pristine Hansel and Gretel forest. To set that in context, Silverstone – our biggest racetrack – has 12 bends. The course is so long that there are several villages within its perimeter, and a castle on a hill. An extra loop, the Südschleife, originally brought the total possible distance to 17 miles, but this was demolished in the 1980s to make way for a purpose-built Formula One track.
The Nordschleife is narrow. It’s also hilly. And from watching a preparatory video, it’s clear that a drop of rain turns it into a dodgems ride. No wonder Jackie Stewart called it the “green hell”. Formula One stopped racing it after Niki Lauda nearly died when he spun his Ferrari into an embankment here in 1976; the story of that season is being made into a film, Rush, out next year.
And I’m about to tackle it all in an £80,000 supercar, with a professional racing driver leading me round in a car in front. I can’t decide whether this is heaven or hell. But before I depart this world, I’m here to learn of another, more troubling demise on the horizon, rumours of which hang thick in the air: is the Nürburgring itself about to die?
Germany’s most famous racetrack celebrates its 85th birthday this year. But, like many once-prosperous German pensioners, rather than enter comfortable old age, it faces a less-than-rosy future. The problem, as ever, is money. In July, the state-owned company that runs the circuit was declared bankrupt, with debts of €350m. In the months leading up to that, the German government awarded it a series of bail-outs totalling an astonishing €524m. Now, the EU has launched an investigation into whether the German government broke EU competition rules by awarding these rescue packages. It will present its findings next year, and if it rules that the payouts were illegal, the money will have to be returned to the public purse. Meanwhile, on 16 October, six people involved in the track’s management, including the region’s former finance minister, will go on trial to face charges of fraud.
It is all very troubling for council leaders of the Rhineland-Palatinate. But concern for the Nürburgring’s future is not limited to the locals. In motoring history, this is a place of international importance, scene of some of the most historic Formula One races. All the greats, from Tazio Nuvolari to Ayrton Senna, have raced here. But what makes it so special, apart from its length and ferocity, is that anyone can come and drive it. It may be a proper race course, with crash barriers and sandpits, but technically, it’s also a public road. Every year, thousands of Britons make the short pilgrimage through Belgium to try it for themselves, coming in everything from beat-up Astra vans to the finest Italian sportscars. Every weekday evening, at 5pm, the gates open to the public, and for just €26 a lap, anyone can drive the circuit.
Today, I will be driving Jaguars, three of them. Since 2003, Jaguar has run a permanent test centre here, to assess the speed and endurance of its cars. At this weekend’s Paris Motor Show, Jaguar will launch the new F-Type, in an attempt to put the marque back in its 1960s niche, as a maker of great British sports cars such as the E-Type. But never mind that: the first car I’m given is a giant limousine, the sort David Cameron is always getting in and out of. Thank goodness, I think. How fast could a whale like this go?
Trouble is, my instructor is Tim Bergmeister. I hadn’t heard of him either, but Google him, and the first words that appear are “Japan crash”. A tyre on his Porsche blew up during this year’s Fuji Super GT, and you can watch as he smashes into a concrete barrier. Still, it says a lot about his skills that he survived and was behind the wheel within days. In the prerace pep talk, Gordon Snoddy, a Jaguar executive, begs us to be careful. “Don’t go mad!” he laughs. Tim has either ideas.
Someone once said that having a libido is like being handcuffed to a maniac – it’s such a relief when you lose it. Following Tim around the Nürburgring is worse. I can’t afford to let him out of my sight, or I’ll be left adrift in a sea of demented racing drivers. But to keep up means tailgating a very expensive new car at ludicrously high speeds. The thing is, I love cars. And I love driving. But in the 12 years since I passed my test, 10 of them were spent nursing a Morris Minor. Speed is a stranger to me. “Please, close the gap,” comes Tim’s voice over the radio.
A blip of the throttle and the engine roars into life. We surge down a straight to the first bend. “Short braking, late turn, early throttle…” The car corners as if on rails. My palms are clamped to the steering wheel, a light sweat pricks my skin. I’ve never driven so fast in my life. This is absurdly fun.
No wonder the campaign to “Save the Ring” is so vigorous. Led by localborn enthusiast Michael Frison, 47, speed freaks from around the world have launched petitions, Facebook groups, blogs and websites dedicated to keeping this show on the road. What makes them angry is that as a racetrack, the Nürburgring is a perfectly profitable business.
The trouble began when the local government decided to expand it into a bigger tourist attraction by building a leisure park and retail complex. From the outset, critics warned that there would be insufficient appetite for such an ambitious project, but it went ahead all the same. Construction began in 2007, and added an indoor gokarting school, roller-coaster, hotel and restaurants. It was all completed in time for Michael Schumacher to open it at the 2009 Grand Prix with a ride on the roller-coaster.
And that was the last time the roller-coaster was used. Soon after, technical problems meant it had to be temporarily suspended, then health and safety inspectors ruled it unsafe for public use. The trouble is, because it’s built into the main complex building, it can’t be demolished, so it stands there unused, looming over the complex as a monument to its own folly.
Part of the reason the theme park never took off is the same reason the Nürburgring was built here: this is a remote and unpopulated part of rural Germany. The nearest major airport is Frankfurt, 70 miles to the east. The area’s empty roads and gently mountainous landscape lured racing drivers here in the early 1920s, though soon it was decided that racing on public roads was too dangerous, and a purpose-built track was proposed. Worried about the poverty of the local area, the government of the time saw it as an opportunity to bring it tourists and boost the economy.
And while today it does attract an international following, people come here for one thing only: to drive the ring. Indoor karting could never compete with that. There is clearly plenty of money around, as evidenced by the supercars scattered around the start line. Any playboy with ambitions to do more than screech between traffic lights in the City comes here to have fun with his Porsche. But one of the charms of the Nürburgring is the open-gate policy: it’s not about the bling, it’s about getting the most out of your car, whatever crock it may be. The pure enthusiasts are the ones in the second-hand hot hatches, who stay in the campsite down the road. The terrifying thing is that, in the evenings, everyone shares the circuit all at once.
By day, the main users are car manufacturers, who test new models on the track. Major sports-car makers such as Jaguar and Aston Martin have built permanent centres here, and up to 20 major marques regularly test here. In recent years, Nürburgring endurance has increasingly been seen as a benchmark within the industry, and tyre and brake manufacturers have also set up shop. “The Nürburgring has been through a difficult few years,” says Jaguar’s Gordon Snoddy. “But testing here is a critical part of what we do.”
And boy, do the cars get tested. A lap of the Nürburgring puts a vehicle through 10 times the intensity of a normal road. We throw the poor cars into each bend, braking hard and accelerating early. Just as I start to get cocky, there’s a smash up ahead. Another journalist has clipped a barrier and careered on to a verge, where his car has stopped, a crumple of blue metal and airbags. We’re first on the scene and pull over. The driver’s fine but the car is a mess.
After the first two laps we change cars. This time, knowing what I’m letting myself in for, I’m petrified. My hands shake as I’m shown to a real sports car: a low black convertible with drug-dealer wheels, called the XKR-S. This is too beautiful to smash up. But once on the track, I know better what to do: just point the wheel at the car in front and stay heavy on the throttle. Encouraged by this, Tim takes us faster and faster. We even overtake other cars. This is racing!
Not surprisingly, the Nürburgring is still a major race venue. One of the most popular is the 24-hour touring car championship, which takes place in May. And though Formula One stopped using the Nordschleife in 1976, by 1984, once that dedicated circuit was built in the Südschleife, the F1 circus returned. Since 2007, the German Grand Prix has alternated between Hockenheim and here; next year it’s the Nürburgring’s turn again.
But the financial crisis has thrown all that in doubt, not least as the circuit doesn’t have the funds to pay the considerable fees needed to host an F1 race. The F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone is reported to be a fan of the Nürburgring, and there have been rumours he might save the track by buying it. But Michael Frison is horrified at the idea. “No! We’re very opposed to that,” he says firmly. “The Nürburgring has always been publicly owned. It’s would be like privatising water. The ring is a national monument, and deserves special protection.”
Certainly, the circuit has a cultish following. Frison, an IT project manager for Ford, lives in Cologne now, but comes to the ring every weekend. Regulars are known as “ringers”, and it’s not unusual for groups of Britons to travel over every weekend during the season, which runs from April to October. Many have notched up more than 1,000 laps. The freedom to take any machine you want on so fast and varied a track for the price of a round of drinks is clearly addictive.
And all this despite reminders of the track’s dark side everywhere. Ambulances and rescue lorries wait ominously at the start. Tracts of the circuit are covered in brightly coloured graffiti, some of which are tributes to the dead. Most fatalities are motorcyclists, but exact figures are hard to ascertain. For example, a death at the scene of the accident will be recorded as such; but there are stories of people who die later in hospital being recorded as just injuries. Perhaps the constant risk of death is what makes this such a close-knit tribe. There is also the sense of achievement that comes with any endurance event. “I grew up here and have done everything that you can do on that track,” says Frison. “We camped there at the 24 hours [championship]. I started the Save the Ring campaign, but I don’t want to lay ownership of that. I want the ring to be a community. The ring is a national monument, and deserves special protection.”
When I call Ecclestone’s office to ask whether he might be interested in a purchase, he rules it out, stating categorically, “I will not be buying the Nürburgring.” However, he adds that he is currently in negotiations for the German Grand Prix to go ahead, and has already offered to waive the fee in exchange for 100 per cent of the revenues.
The story of the Nürburgring is one of greed and financial mismanagement. It may also be one of fraud and corruption, as next month’s trial will reveal. A spokesman for the EU says they have nothing to add to their statement about their investigation into the German government bail-out, though its wording is unusually pointed: “The Commission has doubts whether these measures promote services of general economic interest or alleviate a funding default caused by the financial and economic crisis.” It adds that: “At this stage the Commission has strong doubts that infrastructure for motorsport can be exempted from state aid rules and that a leisure park and race circuit could be considered as services of general economic interest that would not be provided by market forces alone.
The Commission cannot also exclude that the beneficiaries were in financial difficulty at the time when the measures were granted. If confirmed, this would mean that none of the measures could be found compatible under the then applicable temporary rules for supporting business during the crisis.” When I ask whether the money would have to be repaid if the commission finds Germany has broken the rules, a spokesman says it would. But there is no money in the pot. Already, liquidators have been appointed, who may carve up the site and sell off some assets to get some return for creditors. The fact is, it’s in nobody’s interest to close the Nordschleife. Some locals might be happy never to hear the sound of a V8 engine accelerating out of the Flugplatz crest again. But after 85 years, the noise pollution argument hardly stands. As for me, by the time I’m on my sixth lap, I’m furious nobody has told me about the Nürburgring before. This is the most fun I’ve had in a car. I finally emerge, a stone lighter, my clothes a bain-marie of sweat. Flashbacks of the hairiest moments haunt me for days after. The only low point comes when I agree to be shown how it’s really done. I hop into Tim’s car, and he does what’s known as a “hot lap”, which immediately became the most frightening experience of my life. Stomach churning, it takes all my resolve not to give him a hot lap. Still, at least I’ve lived to tell the tale.
For more on the campaign to save the Nürburgring, visit savethering.org