Why The Nürburgring is a Motorsports Obsession

For nearly a century, Germany’s Nürburgring course has proven to be one of the world’s biggest and toughest race tracks. With over 25 kilometers of narrow straightaways, banked corners, and blind hairpins, simply completing a lap takes titanic resolve from even seasoned drivers.

The original “Ring was conceptualized in the early ’20s, and completed in 1927, with a massive 28.27 km (17.56 mi) configuration. The track’s roadways were constructed around the old German village of Nürburg, completely engulfing the small town in the process. Throughout the late 20’s, and early 30’s, the Nürburgring became host to motorcycle races, Grand Prix, public track days, and manufacturer testing. All things that the course is used for to this day.

The remnants of the castle Nuerburg sit within the center of the track Image by Sir Gawain

Throughout much of the 30’s and 40’s, the ‘Ring was closed off to the public, while friendly European competition ground to a halt in the shadow of World War II. The track would however reopen in 1947, a couple years after the surrender of Berlin. Around the same time, the original course configuration was split into northern and southern portions; The 22.8 km (14.2 mi) Nordschleife and the 7.75 km (4.8 mi) Südschleife. The Südschleife served as a less demanding, more traditional track layout for regular Grand Prix events.

The 1947 reopening also coincided with the rise of Formula 1, and this is when the track began to take on legendary status. The Nordschleife quickly became known as one of the most dangerous and demanding courses on the F1 circuit, which brought in media and spectator attention, but also brought issues. Through the 20th century racecars became more advanced, faster every year. On road courses that were built for much slower cars, accidents became frequent, and sometimes fatal. This has led the Nürburgring staff make numerous course modifications through the decades in the name of driver safety. Chicanes were added to reduce corner entry speeds, and many hills had to be smoothed over, as the faster cars could easily catch air on the straights.

Shelby Cobra rounding the ‘carousel’ banked corner, 1960’s Image by Lothar Spurzem

Many of these safety concerns after Niki Lauda’s infamous Nordschleife crash in 1976. His F1 Ferrari spun in the rain and impacted the guardrail. The car soon ignited, and Lauda suffered second degree burns on most of his body. At the time, the driver was no amateur . The previous year, he had set the fastest ever lap at the ‘Ring, of six minutes and 58 seconds. To this day, it is still one of the fastest times at that length of the northern circuit.

In 1984, much of the Südschleife was demolished and replaced with the modern GP circuit. Nowadays, the “full” length of the Nürburgring combines much of the Nordschleife and GP layouts to create a lengthy 25.4 km (15.8 mi) course. This configuration is used for the 24 Hours of Nürburgring endurance race. As well as for manufacturer testing and development.

Speaking of manufacturers, the track has now become the premier venue for automakers to flex their performance credentials. They frequently send pro drivers down the full course in unmodified street cars, all in hopes of posting record times. The modern Nordschleife, at just over 20 kilometers, is considered the current standard for production laps. The current three fastest cars around the ‘Ring are the Porsche 991 GT2 RS, Mercedes AMG GT Black, and the Lamborghini Aventador LP770, with the top time being 6:38.84.

The current Nordschleife layout

Notably, the fastest manual transmission car was the 2017 Viper ACR, at just over seven minutes. The fastest electric lap was claimed by Tesla Model S Plaid in 2021, with 7:35.6. Lastly, the top front wheel drive lap belongs to the 2016 Civic Type R at 8:15. The Honda is no slouch, yet the Nürburgring is demanding enough to separate a fast car, and the fastest car, by over a minute.

Throughout its first century, auto racing has become more formulaic, safer, and sanitized. Mostly for good reason, but people always tend to long for the olden days. The Nürburgring has had to make some safety concessions, but still maintains its recognizable, overwhelming size and shape which harken back to a more dangerous age. Chances are, the Nordschleife’s legendary status won’t falter for decades to come.