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Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Nürburgring Nordschleife Is Finally Getting Sorted Out


While it has long been a notorious race circuit, test facility and YouTube gold mine, the Nürburgring has never been without its troubles. This decade it has changed hands and had its debts passed around a lot as people have had different ideas for what to do with it, but things really came to a head on-track earlier this year. In a VLN race that serves as the build-up to May's increasingly high-profile Nürburgring 24 Hours (N24), a GT3 car caught air over a large crest atop Quiddelbächer Höhe nicknamed "Flugplatz." It's named after the German word for airport partly because there's an airfleld nearby and also because cars leaving the earth for a moment is not unusual at this spot. The lead image in this post proves it. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, this time one Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 wasn't lucky enough to land on its wheels, instead catching the breeze and back-flipping into a spectator area on the outside of the fast right-hand bend which immediately follows. Jann Mardenborough - a mere passenger the instant the car was airborne - was protected by the car's safety cell, but one spectator was tragically killed in the crash.

This left everyone involved and the motorsport community at large shocked... but not wholly surprised. The Nordschleife (North Loop) is an old circuit which has survived essentially unchanged from the crazy old days, partly because Formula 1 deemed it too unsafe after Niki Lauda's horrendous fiery crash in 1976 and didn't return to the track until the much smaller Sudschleife section was reinvented as the Grand Prix circuit we have today, thus sparing the 12.95-mile north section from being tamed with tarmac run-off areas and the like. The flip side of preserving the old-school character is that modern racing cars are getting too capable for it, too aero dependent for such a bumpy surface. With a rudimentary spectator area consisting of a grassy hill, some catch fencing and little else, some critics would argue such an incident was going to happen sooner or later, tragic though it was anyway. Hell, a Flugplatz backflip crash has already happened before.


The initial response by the circuit's owners was to impose and strictly enforce speed limits in certain areas. They also temporarily banned cars of GT3 spec or similar during the initial investigation immediately following the crash, although they were later allowed to race in the N24 under these speed limits. In the image above, the red lines refer to racing cars as well as road cars, while green ones apply only to those doing laps when the track's open to the public. The section that runs up Quiddelbächer Höhe is limited to 200km/h (124mph), while the sweeping section afterwards is capped at 250km/h (155mph). Weirdly, the long straight is also limited, despite no incidents happening there. As a byproduct, the limits also put an end to lap record attempts by car companies or indeed anyone else.

This move caused certain amounts of outrage from fans and racing drivers alike, particularly with regards to the straight, because where some cars would have a speed advantage over their rivals and the driver could let the car stretch its legs and compose him/herself for another lap, with the limit in place the racing froze as everyone hit 250km/h, and drivers had to spend the time making doubly sure they didn't edge over the limit and face a harsh penalty. Much like road speeding penalties, the time racers were made to sit in the pits got longer the further over the limit you went. Apparently during a public day, one person went 280km/h (174mph) through a limited section and the whole track was temporarily red-flagged for everybody. So they're not to be toyed with...

SPOILER ALERT: It probably wasn't done in a McLaren P1.
If this leaves you wondering how long the archaic temporary measure will last, you'll want to know that the answer is "until early next year." After a round-table meeting with the other knights, Capricorn Nürburgring GmbH and other relevant organisations have together come up with and approved sixteen changes to be made to the circuit which will improve safety without compromising the character of the iconic race track.

These will include:

  • More security fences along various parts of the circuit.
  • A restricted zone in the Schwedenkreuz area (the fast stretch just after Flugplatz).
  • More guard rails and FIA-approved safety fences in select areas around the circuit.
  • Repaving some sections of road, including a stretch of roughly 500m along Flugplatz to smooth down five large bumps in the surface that have appeared over time.

Seven of the sixteen changes will be made between November and the start of 2016, at which point the speed limits will be taken away. CNG boss man Carsten Schumacher has made clear that "the unique character of the Nordschleife will be preserved. That’s not only important for motor racing but also for the industry, which has been testing its vehicles on this unique race track for decades." To that end, note that Flugplatz isn't being "reprofiled" or "redesigned," merely "repaved," meaning that they're just taking some old tarmac off and putting new stuff on. They're not neutering the mighty crest or anything scary like that. They're just making it the right side of dangerous to still be fun.

You can read the actual press release here.

Once all that's been sorted, we'll just have to wait and see what creative graffiti gets sprayed onto the new tarmac! Then Koenigsegg can return with the One:1 to make the lap record attempt they were denied earlier this year.


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