Saturday June 23rd, 2001
By Patrick Vignal
The Nurburgring might be a world class circuit today but to many, its awe-inspiring neighbour is the real thing. The Green Hell, as Jackie Stewart once called the famed 22.835-km track, has become a tourist attraction but it also witnessed the most glorious and tragic pages of the Nurburgring history.
Driving along the Nordschleife, which is not permitted during the European Grand Prix weekend as it becomes a massive camp site, is an experience every motorsport fan relishes.
"I often came here with my mates when I was a teenager," said Juergen Hartmann, a 44-year-old from Cologne camping beside the narrow asphalt ribbon winding through the dark forests of the Eifel hills. "We only had mopeds but we would lean on the handlebars pretending we were Giacomo Agostini."
As for the new state of the art 4.54-km track, Hartman said: "It's not bad but it's not the Ring."
The bumpy circuit with 176 bends and a vertical drop of 300 metres was inaugurated in 1927. Italy's Rudolf Caracciola was the first to win there and then fought memorable duels with German Bernd Rosemeyer throughout the 1930s.
Juan Manuel Fangio made his mark on the Nurburgring by triumphing three times in the 1950s. The Argentine recorded his greatest win at the circuit in 1957 when he broke the lap record 10 times to catch Ferrari rivals Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins.
Stewart also has fond memories of the place, having won in 1968 after driving through fog with his wrist encased in plaster. The accident which almost killed Niki Lauda in 1976 marked the end of the Nordschleife as a Formula One venue. Lauda's famous escape, when he was pulled alive from the blazing wreck of his Ferrari car by fellow driver Guy Edwards, stunned the world. In one crash, the three times world champion found his face and his life altered beyond repair.
"Lauda's accident is part of the legend of the Green Hell," said circuit chief executive Walter Kafitz. "It's a bit of our history."
Poor visibility and the absence of protection, not to mention its unusual length, made the Nordschleife far too dangerous.
The showcase event briefly returned to Nurburgring - but on the new track - in 1984 and 1985 before becoming the home of the European Grand Prix in 1995. The old venue is not merely an open air museum. It is still used for endurance races and remains a challenging circuit - a driver was killed there in a 24-hour race only three weeks ago.
German driver Jochen Mass wrote in a column in Die Welt: "Classic tracks like the Nordschleife sadly belong to the past in a Formula One perspective."
All the drivers who survived the Nurburgring experience have left a part of themselves there, but none as literally as Lauda. The Austrian visited the old track in 1996 for what he called the 25th birthday of his new life. As he was obviously looking for something, somebody asked him what it was.
"My ear," he replied.