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Race Day : September 28th 1997


"When I left home for the German Grand Prix, I always used to pause at the end of the driveway and take a long look back. I was never sure I’d come home again..." Jackie Stewart talking about the old Nurburgring

Michael Schumacher heads for the second of his ‘home’ circuits his 10 point advantage over Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve decimated by his untimely ‘stop go’ penalty at the Austrian Grand Prix. A place on the podium was his for the taking had he not inadvertently passed Heinz Harald Frentzen under the yellow caution flag. The Germans will all be there shouting and cheering him on, camping out in the woods that surround the Northern end of the circuit. Many will realise how close they are to history with the old circuit hidden in the dense Adenau forest, now just a host to the boy racers and tourists who come throughout the year to drive ‘The Nordschleife’.

The Nurburgring probably ranks as the greatest track ever built, monumental in it’s spectacle and awesome in it’s challenge. Originally a 14.2 mile loop that plunged and soared, twisted and turned through dense forest hedges and trees. Cars would breast the rise at the Flugplatz and leave the ground for 50 yards before landing hard and tearing down hill to Fuchsrhre (Fox Throat), bottoming out before the sharp incline to Adenauer Forst to continue the switch back ride for mile after mile culminating in a mile and a half straight leading to the start finish line.

Built in 1925 to provide work in the depressed area around Cologne, the first German GP took place there the following year. The authorities however, were aware of the dangers it presented and after the deaths of so many drivers including Herbie Muller, John Taylor, Ernst Von Delius and Gerhard Mitter the circuit was remodelled in 1970 and thought by many to be ruined but it still provided spectacle and excitement and was no less dangerous. The culmination of these renewed fears was Niki Lauda’s near fatal accident when he was badly burned in his Ferrari.

Once off the Formula 1 calendar the old circuit went into decline. Used occasionally until 1983 by Formula 2 and World Sportscar Championship rounds, it’s reputation however, never dwindled and it has become a circuit of legend and derring do. The great races are numerous. Nuvolari beating the might of the Auto Unions and the Mercedes’ in his outdated Alfa Romeo in 1935. In 1938 a year before the outbreak of war, young Englishman Dick Seaman won the first Grand Prix for a Nazi sponsored Mercedes Benz and in 1968 Jackie Stewart won in the gloom and wet by over 4 minutes. But while the supercharged ghosts of the great Marques still echoed in the valley, construction started on a newer, shorter and ‘safer’ circuit alongside the old ‘Ring’ road circuit. Greeted with contempt originally, as was the recent emasculation of the Osterreichring, it played host to it first Grand Prix in 1984. Called the European Grand Prix, as Hockenheim was in favour for the national race, it was won by Alan Prost in what was regarded as a rather dull affair and the following year it staged the German race, Michele Alboreto taking his last win for Ferrari.

The Grand Prix reverted to Hockenheim for the next ten years but with the need for further European fixtures and a lack of tracks deemed suitable by the FIA the new 2.83 mile Nurburgring with it huge run off areas and ‘friendly’ corners was the ideal solution. It’s 12 corners provide little challenge or opportunity for drivers to extend themselves and the only fast part of the circuit that runs close to the old track, is slowed by the Veedol Schikane. Taken by some as a sad reflection of the modern racing era, it is, like the A1-Ring, now more eminently suitable to today’s breed of cars than it was 10 years ago and with next year bringing in further instabilities to check speed and increase spectator enjoyment.

It did however provide an interesting race last year again in the guise of the European Grand Prix when it became the first victory for Jacques Villeneuve in his rookie year as no 2 to current Champion Damon Hill.

Ferrari can be expected to mount a huge effort to claw back the points lost in Austria and regain their performance advantage that they enjoyed mid-season. Williams are seemingly back in contention after a non competitive interlude for both team and driver and have managed to regain their hold on the constructors championship with a 12 point advantage.

The task of Williams and Ferrari is now even greater with the increased competitiveness of the rest of the grid, notably Jordan and McLaren. Little more than two seconds covered the starting grid in Austria and the smallest mistake can be catastrophic.

The battle for tyre supremacy is also affecting the grid with more of the mid-field runners using the extremely effective Bridgestones appearing higher up the grid than ever before. It only needs a few top teams to switch loyalties from Goodyear to the Japanese company and Bridgestone could easily become a commanding and indispensable force in team strategy.

The level of racing will be high this weekend and whilst the circuit may lack the heroic proportions of it’s mother this bastard offspring could throw up a few surprises. Its not all cut and dried for the Ferrari or Williams. The snakes are in the grass and the tartan ribbons will flutter in someone’s eyes before the day is out.


Chris Richardson

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