No less a legend than Sir Jackie Stewart called it the "greatest and most challenging race circuit in the world." The famed Nordschleife (North Loop) of the legendary Nrburgring is Mecca for driving and high performance auto enthusiasts the world over. The Holy Grail of accomplishment is to lap the circuit in less than eight minutes, a monumental achievement of both man and machine on the world's most unique toll road.
The brainchild of Eifel District Council member Dr. Otto Cruz and Konrad Adenauer, the mayor of Cologne (who would later become the chancellor of post-war West Germany), it was built as a lure to draw tourists to the economically depressed region south of Bonn (for history buffs, the region is situated less than two hours east of the site of WWII's Battle of the Bulge). Their plan was to build a world-class race track and test facility. That they accomplished both goals is an understatement.
Calling the track challenging is like calling the Bugatti Veyron just another 1001-bhp exotic. The original layout consisted of a single 17.5-mile circuit with a total of 174 bends, which could be split into two sections.The Sdschleife (South Loop) was 4.8 miles and the Nordschleife measured 14 miles. The circuit shared two straights, one of which was the start/finish straight for both courses. Construction commenced on April 27, 1925 and the track was completed in time for its first race on June 19, 1927, won by the celebrated Rudolf Caracciola in a Mercedes-Benz.
For many historians, the track's golden age came in the 1950s when the heroes of that era, Alberto Ascari, Sir Stirling Moss and Juan-Manuel Fangio, turned in performances that have become the stuff of legend. Such as Fangio's 1957 win in a Maserati 250F. With eight laps to go, he erased a one-minute deficit to defeat the Ferraris of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins-by three seconds.
In the '60s, names like Phil Hill, Jim Clark, John Surtees and Dan Gurney all left their mark, but it was apparent that, by the close of the decade, the high-power/low-weight cars of Formula One were becoming incompatible with the course, despite real safety barriers finally being installed. In 1976 Nicki Lauda lobbied for a boycott of the German Grand Prix, which, unfortunately for him, didn't happen. Lauda, who turned in the first-ever sub-seven minute lap (6:58:6 in 1975), suffered a near-fatal crash on lap two. It is believed the rear suspension of his Ferrari failed while still almost fully loaded with fuel. The length of the circuit (12.9 miles) combined with the time it took the safety teams to reach Lauda nearly cost him his life. He bears the scars of that day's fiery crash. Formula One's days at the Nordschleife were over.
Most readers of this magazine know it's possible for anyone to drive the Nordschleife on specified days, when it's not being used by the world's manufacturers for testing, or for club events. I've made the pilgrimage three times. The first was in the summer of 2005, when Ford of Europe arranged with 'Ringmaster' Armin Hahne to show me the racing line before giving me a shot at the helm of a Ford GT. Hahne, who is Bridgestone's top tire tester, has more than 10,000 laps of Nordschleife experience under his belt (a distance equal to more than half the distance to the moon), took his best shot. And after showing me what a sub-eight-minute lap felt like, he handed me the wheel.
Since my closest previous encounter with the Nordschleife was with a PlayStation 2 and my TV screen, I carefully negotiated three laps in the driver's seat of Ford's 550-bhp supercar, succeeding in not bending either the car or myself. For the price of 56 euro ($70) for a four-lap ticket, you too can drive among the ghosts of past greats on what has been called 'The Green Hell.' You owe it to yourself to experience the Nordschleife; when you do, you'll know exactly what the hype is about.