July 5, 2013

Green Hell

Jackie Stewart won three times at the Nurburgring © Sutton Images

Awesome is an overworked word these days. But it has its place when describing the Nürburgring Nordschleife. This is a race track that simply takes your breath away. It’s as difficult to do justice in words as it is to memorise the relentless 14-mile journey through part of the Eifel Mountains.

Drivers such as Jacky Ickx knew every metre. Others said they thought they did until a fast left over a blind brow actually curved right simply because the driver was not where thought he was as the dips, sweeps and bends invited more speed in a perilously hypnotic manner.

This asphalt leviathan sits mockingly beside the ersatz Nürburgring that hosts this weekend’s German Grand Prix. Stand at the back of the paddock and you can see the former F1 venue disappear into the woods and dare you to explore an adventure that would cause apoplexy among those who think Turn 10 at Bahrain is ‘difficult’.

I have been round the Nordschleife several times and my respect for the place and the drivers who conquered it increased with every trip. The first run was in 1976 with Jackie Stewart as he did promotional work for Elf Oil and chauffeured a group of us in a 7 Series BMW. The point of the exercise was not to show speed but to demonstrate through Stewart’s eloquence the enormity of the challenge. I remember many of his descriptions as if he had spoken them yesterday.

Stewart on the downhill charge into Fuchsröhre [Foxhole]. "This is flat out; 170 mph. And see this dip at the bottom? When you go in there and bottom out, you’ve got to try and stop your feet from flying off the pedals. Because you go immediately uphill and need to brake for this left-hander."

The descent to Adenau Bridge: "This is the trickiest part of the circuit. It’s downhill, very fast and some, but not all, of the corners have adverse camber. You’ve got to remember which ones."

On Kesselchen, the flat-out, slightly uphill and curving run towards the Karussell: "D’you see those small trees on the right? Well, they’re not small trees. They’re the tops of very tall trees. If you go over there, they’ll never find the car, never mind the driver."

The approach to Karussell: "See those trees on the horizon? Choose the tallest one, aim for that as you straight line these curves. It drops you straight into the [banked] Karussell [which is completely blind on the approach]."

On the Tiergarten Straight: "Now this may look simple because it’s near the end of the lap and you think you can relax. You’re flat out, 175 mph plus, and there’s a gap in the trees…just there! A gust of wind through there can catch you out and unsettle the car if you’re not ready."

I got out of that BMW totally lost in wonder over how Stewart won this race in 1968, driving through rain and fog when the track truly lived up to its nickname ‘Green Hell’. Stewart finished so far ahead that he was standing on the podium when the second man, Graham Hill, crossed the line.

"The problem was," recalled Stewart, "the lap is so long that rivers of water, which weren’t there the last time you came round, had suddenly appeared and you could aquaplane straight off the road. One or two drivers did, in fact."

Having begun to appreciate the colossal nature of the challenge, I received a new perspective many years later when riding with Bernd Schneider in an AMG Mercedes 63. The DTM champion was not hanging about and you understood from his thrilling commitment just how important it is to know exactly what comes next.

The bit that blew my mind was when his mobile phone went off – just as we pulled top gear rushing into the Foxhole. And the bugger answered the call as we went up the hill and slid, one-handed, through Adenauer-Forst.

I was told later that’s one of Bernd’s party tricks. Whatever! It was impressive. Just like everything else on the Nürburgring Nordschleife.

Awesome, indeed.


Posted by Brian on 07/07/2013

Too bad with all the money available now that the FIA could not put enough marshalls around the track to make it safe and run a GP there again. That would prove how big the spheres on the present drivers are in comparison to those of the 50's through the 70's.

Posted by Henrik on 06/07/2013

Absolutetly wonderful article, thank you! I vividly remember the last handful of races in the 70s and to win here proved that you were a truly Great Driver. Unlike Sir Jackie, Rindt and Hunt, to name three, later drivers such as Senna, Schumacher, Prost or Vettel never had the opportunity to prove themselves more than simply multiple world champions.

Posted by Laurie on 06/07/2013

The picture and the detail of the circuit described by Sir Jackie explain why he was F1 world champion 3 times. Without doubt one of the best ever.

Posted by Ronnie Bass on 05/07/2013

Now that is the best motoring article I have ever read, especially the part about the phone! I could clearly visualise the track, the situations and the fear.
Thank you Mr Hamilton.

Posted by yves ferrer on 05/07/2013

Clermont-Ferrand was not as fearsome but the memories of the Matra V12s wailing are still with me 45 years on! I wonder what the 'tiddlers' will Sound like next year:only one way to fond out, see you at Spa!

Posted by Bruce Jones on 05/07/2013

Great stuff, thanks.

Posted by Samraat Dash on 05/07/2013

While the 'Nürburgring' of the F1 circus bears a startling resemblance to a go-kart track.

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A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live 6. Maurice Hamilton