“No race track ever built is as challenging and there is no greater race to win,” offers Sir Jackie Stewart with the conviction of a man who has faced down that challenge and won. He is talking about the Nürburgring, specifically the Nordschleife – 14 miles and 160 corners when Stewart was driving – which soars and dips through 300m of elevation changes in the forests of the Eifel mountains, as brutally unforgiving as it is awe-inspiring. It was Stewart, a winner three times between 1968 and 1973, who dubbed it “The Green Hell” and his admiration and respect for the track is featured in a fascinating documentary released later this month which has taken his phrase as the title.
The film, which will be shown for one night at cinemas across the UK on 21 February, is timed to mark the 90th anniversary of the first race held at the Nürburgring in 1927. It went on to attain legendary status as a test of man and machine and its story is told in the film chronologically using glorious, previously unseen footage. A wealth of drivers bring the human perspective to its unique challenge.
Stirling Moss dubs it “the greatest man-made circuit ever built” and he is joined by Lewis Hamilton, Adrian Newey, Jochen Mass and Nico Rosberg, among others, in admiration. Drive the track – which can still be done on public access days – and it is easy to see why. It is a rollercoaster, a breathtaking thrill ride, where corner seems to follow corner in endless succession while vast swathes of trees arch overhead, turning the tarmac to a tunnel of speed.
Of course it was partly the proximity of these trees that was the downfall of the Ring in terms of Formula One. As the cars became faster, the track simply could not be made safe. Thankfully Niki Lauda also appears in the documentary – a crucial part of the story as it was his horrific accident in 1976 that finally saw the end of grands prix on the Nordschleife. Some mighty racing remained, not least Stefan Bellof’s remarkable lap record of six minutes 11.13 seconds that he set in a Group C Porsche 956 in 1983, a car seen again in the film and a frightening reminder of how power and speed once went alongside fragility and danger.
It is, then, a fine picture, but one let down by a final reel that feels like a promotional piece for the business of the modern circuit. Doubtless this was not the intent but it does serve to highlight the commercial imperative facing F1 and the immense task the new owners have in reshaping the appeal of the sport.
Formula One did return to the Ring in 1984 on the Grand Prix course, not the Nordschleife, but it was the latter that had created the legend and it is why Chase Carey, F1’s new chief executive, specifically mentioned the Nürburgring as one of the European races that the new owners were eager to maintain as part of the rich tradition that helps sell the sport. But beyond the rhetoric the reality for the Formula One Group is one of hard choices.
The Nürburgring has not hosted a grand prix since 2013 and there is no German Grand Prix on the calendar for 2017. Financial mismanagement meant the circuit had to be bailed out from bankruptcy by local government in 2012 and despite the purchase by the Russian Viktor Kharitonin last year it is still able to do no more than talk hopefully about bringing F1 back at some point in the future.
This is of import beyond merely maintaining a race in the European heartland. The film makes it clear how key the track has been to the local economy since its inception and how much it still matters to the district’s business. Indeed, Stewart reveals how he received death threats when trying to have it dropped from the calendar on safety grounds in the early 1970s.
Yet the task facing the Formula One Group is not simply returning F1 to the Nurburgring on the grand prix circuit. When Stewart was driving, as many as 375,000 people thronged around the Nordschliefe. Around 150,000 came to watch Michael Schumacher win on the GP circuit in 2001 but in 2013 – with a German driver, Sebastian Vettel, attempting to win his fourth consecutive world championship – there were just 44,000 in attendance. Hockenheim attracted barely 60,000 to last year’s German GP.
This then, is not just an issue of addressing costs for an already successful event as is the case with Silverstone but in completely revitalising the sport itself in Germany, which is indicative of the complexity of the task Carey and his new team face, and that solutions to the issues facing F1 will require more than one-size fits all soundbites.
They can at least take heart in the enduring popularity of The Green Hell, in its cinematic celebration and that the Nordschleife itself remains dear to German racing fans. Regularly 250,000 attend the 24-hour race held on the old circuit and on Wednesday Hamilton named the banked Karussell corner as his favourite to drive. It is, he says in the movie “the best track in the world, I just wish we could still race on it.” Turning such strong emotions to the sport’s advantage across the world is now an imperative in F1.