Nürburgring track has captured the imagination of generations of drivers, becoming an automotive icon and standard for production car performance. Built in the 1920s, the course was laid around the village and castle of Nürburg, located in Germany’s Eifel mountains.However, it is only in recent decades that its existence has become widely known. Previously, knowledge of the Ring was retained mostly in Western Europe, with the course being used by European automotive manufacturers and local racing events. Outside of that region, it was regarded as more of a closely guarded secret among racers. But the Nürburgring has steadily seeped into popular culture, making it almost a household name in the production car industry. Car magazines constantly promote the latest Nürburgring lap times. Production car manufacturers tout their lap times as selling points for their newest models. There’s even a constant trend of Nürburgring tourism, since it’s actually quite easy to visit and drive the publicly accessible track for a minimal cost—the course offers both personal driving options and “Ring taxis” with professional drivers taking guests along the route. The area has been built up as a tourist attraction with numerous hotels, restaurants, and shopping centers to bring extra activity to the area.
Over the years, many infamous events have occurred on the Nürburgring, and for anyone who wants to gain a true understanding of the course’s significance and impact on modern motor vehicle racing, it’s worthwhile to journey through the various periods of history that have defined the Nürburgring as it is today.
Now a national monument of Germany, Nürburgring continues to host annual races, music festivals, automotive testing, and more. It has also been used as the site for shows such as BBC’s Top Gear, which brought in the famous Sabine Schmitz to tackle various driving challenges along the course.
–1927-1939 The Founding of the Nürburgring
The 1920s brought a racing challenge to light in the Eifel mountain region—races were being held on public roads, proving to be dangerous to drivers and surrounding communities alike. A proposal was submitted to build a racing course similar to Italy’s Monza track and Berlin’s AVUS course, but with the ultimate goal of being proving grounds for German racers and automotive engineers.
The summer of 1925 held the groundbreaking ceremony, and only two years later, the original course was completed! Over 2,500 workers were assigned to the project, which ended up costing close to 27 million euros. The final course was composed of 174 turns, and averaged 8-9 metres wide.
The course debuted in a 1927 opening ceremony attended by 85,000 people. This was followed up by the first motorcycle race and automotive race. The latter was won by Rudolf Caracciola, one of the most famous Grand Prix drivers of all time. The first World Cycling Championship took place on the Nürburgring that June, as well as the first German Grand Prix. When not being used for racing or testing, the track was opened to the public as a one-way toll road.
The Nürburgring is the source of a 1934 rumor concerning the infamous Silver Arrows, the dominant Mercedes-Benz motor racing cars in Germany at that time. According to the story, the Mercedes-Benz team had attended the Eifelrennen event at Nürburgring, but when they weighed in their car, it was a single kilogram too heavy. In order to qualify for the race, the racing manager and driver conceived a plan to scrape all the white paint off the car—reducing its weight enough for it to qualify. This exposed the silver aluminum body, and when the car went on to win the event, it was nicknamed the Silver Arrow.
In 1939, the full Nürburgring course saw its last use for major racing events. The track was split up into two courses: the Nordschleife and Südschleife. The Nordschleife was used primarily for Grand Prix and automobile races, while the Südschleife—a shorter and safer route—was used for motorcycles and lesser events.
–1940-1970 Let the Racing Resumes
World War II saw the racing at Nürburgring stall out until close to 1947. As events recommenced on the course, beginning with the Eifel Cup Race, the early 1950s heralded the return of the German Grand Prix races to the famous course in conjunction with the Formula One World Championship. Notable racers from this time include: Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart, and Jacky Ickx.
In 1953, an endurance and sports car race called the ADAC 1000 km was added to the events lineup, officially counting towards the World Sportscar Championship.
August 5, 1961 saw a new lap time record established by Phil Hill, during the German Grand Prix. Hill completed a lap of the Nordschleife in just 8 minutes and 55.2 seconds, driving the Ferrari 156 “Sharknose” Formula One car. This set the long-standing limit for the future 8 minute lap times, which many production cars have struggled to break ever since.
The late 60s is also when Nürburgring received its “Green Hell” nickname from Jackie Stewart, which has stuck ever since. It was he who also stated that the course was “the greatest and most challenging race circuit in the world.”
During all this time, as Formula One cars became increasingly faster, the higher speeds also heightened the danger the Nürburgring posed. Some efforts were made to reduce the risks, including reducing pit lane entry speeds. However, this didn’t satisfy the concerns of numerous drivers, who decided to boycott Nürburgring until major updates were made. In the meantime, the Grand Prix races were transferred to the Hockenheimring course, which would prove a popular alternate when Nürburgring was unavailable.
1970 had the 24 Hours Nürburgring touring car race added to the lineup. However, more prominent races were postponed or held on other courses while ongoing renovations were applied to the track.
–1971-1984 A Safer Sort of Track
From 1971 onwards, great efforts were made to improve the safety standards on the Nordschleife loop, removing various hazards, adding safety barriers, and otherwise. Course sections were straightened and the number of corners was reduced. This allowed the German Grand Prix to return to the course from 1971-1973.
1973 had the dangerous Kallenhard corner fixed, slowing the entry speed by adding an extra left turn beforehand. Jumps along the main stretch and hazardous shrubbery were removed, helping to widen and clear an otherwise obstructed portion.
Up until 1976, several more Formula One races were held there, while drivers and the FIA’s CSI board continued to demand stricter regulations and greater changes. These proved to be too expensive or difficult to enact, and so 1976 was listed as the last F1 race to be run on its length.
The extreme length of the course contributed to other safety concerns as well, such as worries that rescue vehicles wouldn’t be able to reach crashed drivers in an efficient manner. Nikki Lauda, at the time the reigning world racing champion—and only person to lap the course in under 7 minutes—proposed to boycott the 1976 race unless further improvements were made to ensure driver safety. However, the other drivers turned down this proposal and the race went ahead.
During this, Lauda’s Ferrari crashed on the second lap. The fuel in the car ignited, causing severe burns to Lauda, whose life was only saved by the combined actions of fellow racers, Arturo Merzario, Guy Edwards, Brett Lunger, and Harald Ertl. This tragic event highlighted the necessity of safety regulations, and also noted the end of Formula One races at Nürburgring.
Other races continued at Nürburgring, including the German motorcycle Grand Prix up until 1980. In 1981, construction began on a new 4.5km circuit, replacing the old pit area. The Nordschleife circuit was shortened to 20.8km and used for the 1000km Nürburgring endurance race.
While training for that race, Stefan Ballot set the unbroken lap time record, completing the 20.8km in 6 minutes and 11 seconds. Since no major races have been held at Nürburgring since 1984, this record still stands.
Further construction in 1982 and 1983 added more runoff areas, resurfacing of the track, leveling bumps and jumps, and adding racing line markers to all corners. During this time, the southern loop had been mostly abandoned, being used primarily for public access.
The updated Nürburgring was finished in 1984, titled GP-Strecke. It met all the highest safety standards, however fans of the original track often expressed disappointment in the updates, saying it reduced the character of the track. Some even took to calling it Eifelring, Green Party Ring, Ersatzring, saying it didn’t deserve to be named after the original Nürburgring.
–Today Legend Continues to Grow
From 1984 onwards, the Nürburgring has seen occasional Formula One races, European Grand Prix, and others. As the major races moved to other courses, Nürburgring has expanded to host a wider variety of events, including the 1,000 km Nürburgring, DTM, motorcycle racing, truck racing, vintage car racing, music festivals, and more.
The European Grand Prix (also known as the Luxembourg Grand Prix) was held at the Ring between 1995 and 2006. The FIA also announced that Nürburgring and Hockenheimring would be alternate hosts of the German Grand Prix. In 2002, the track was changed further, adding an overtaking opportunity at the end of the start-finish straight, nicknamed Haug-Hook.
Currently, one of the more famous events to be held at the Ring on a regular basis is the ADAC Zurich 24 hour race, with 800 amateurs and professionals entering up to 200 cars to participate.
Despite its popularity, it’s reported that Nürburgring has steadily lost money since 2007 due to increasing licensing fees and ticket prices. This hasn’t stopped it from being a prime location for automotive enthusiasts. As an open access toll road, anyone with a road-legal car or other vehicle can make the drive. German driving laws apply to the stretch, including no speed limit, no passing on the right, and helicopter-enforced policies.
The Ring is not open 24/7, being available mostly on weekends and evenings, depending on weather conditions. It can be closed for weeks at a time during the winter. Here’s the breakdown of the official tourist ride pricing:
The Nürburgring operators revealed a dramatically new pricing scheme for 2017 Nordschleife touristenfahrten. The major changes are bullet-pointed below:
- No more “lap tickets” – instead you have an account you pre-load with €€€
- Monday-Friday laps are cheaper (€25 per lap)
- Saturday/Sunday laps are more expensive (€30 per lap)
- A jahreskarte (season ticket) is an eye-watering €1900!*
- QR-code readers on the entrance
- New IOS and Android app to check and load your lap ticket account
The “Green Hell” also has associated day trips and tours, adding entertainment options for any visitors. The region is known for its lush natural beauty, and hiking, cycling, and camping are common activities through the mountains and along the rivers. An array of hotels, both directly along the track and in the surrounding area, provide a range of accommodations for extended stays.
Beyond the racing and tourism elements, the city of Nürburg has grown to accommodate international interest from racers and enthusiasts alike. However, because of ill-planned development in 2009—including a new shopping mall, further hotels, and an amusement park— Nürburgring faced bankruptcy. This was averted in 2012 when the government provided funds to meet the looming debts.