Racing history: the greatest Nurbürgring moments

With the latest Oldtimer Grand Prix historic event at the Nurbürgring this weekend, we look at the key moments from the circuit’s past with stunning Motorsport Images photography

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The Oldtimer Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, the 46th of which takes place this weekend (10-12 August, 2018), is one of the key events on the historic racing calendar. Around 500 cars from a variety of eras will be in attendance.

And there hardly could be a better place to pay homage to motorsport’s past than the Nurbürgring and particularly its 14-mile Nordschleife – one of the very most challenging, revered and fearsome circuits in all of racing. Appropriately too its history is extensive, stretching back to 1925.

Thanks to Motorsport Images, AutoClassics looks at some memorable moments that have taken place at the track.

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1935: Rosemeyer rises

The Nurbürgring as nature intended was a towering challenge at the best of times. Imagine adding that it’s the scene of only your second car race ever. This was the predicament facing Bernd Rosemeyer in the 1935 Eifelrennen, an annual race at the circuit. Rosemeyer perhaps more than any driver in history had a skill that was natural and instinctive. And it’s underlined by his first steps in car racing.

After success as a motorcycle racer, early in 1935 Auto Union tested him looking for a star to reinforce the reliable Hans Stuck and fading Achille Varzi. Immediately for Rosemeyer it clicked as he quickly became the team’s leader and mastered the difficult Auto Union like no one else could, perhaps benefitting from having no experience to unlearn. And in that sophomore car race mentioned he somehow came within a few hundred yards of victory, only being pipped by Rudolf Caracciola in sight of the flag. But Rosemeyer made up for it by winning three subsequent races at the circuit.

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1957: The maestro’s final bow

The best laid plans… For this one Juan Manuel Fangio in a Maserati 250F planned a mid-race fuel and tyre stop, and built a sufficient advantage early on. But the stop was botched. It left him with 48 seconds to make up in 10 laps on the leading Ferrari pair of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins – even allowing for the length of the circuit the deficit appeared unbridgeable.

But not to Fangio, who summoned up a level of performance that, from his words years later, he appeared to not understand himself. ‘Even now I can feel fear when I think of that race,’ he said. ‘The Nurbürgring was always my favourite circuit, and I think that day I conquered it. On another day it might have conquered me, who knows?’ It included him breaking his own lap record by 24s, and he got the lead back on the penultimate tour. And like all great performers Fangio saved his best for the curtain call. This was his final Formula 1 win.

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1958: Brooks was here

Coincidence can be disquieting – one year on from Fangio’s maestro showing we had a near replica. Again the winner chased down the Ferrari pair Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn from a scarcely credible distance to win in a masterful drive. This time it was Tony Brooks in a Vanwall playing the Fangio role, in his case recovering after struggling with handling on full tanks. He made up 32s in 70 miles and passed to lead at two-thirds’ distance.

It’s not nearly as readily remembered as Fangio’s triumph, perhaps as Brooks with all his grand talent has always been utterly modest and unassuming – and with it grossly underrated. Likely it reflects also that this race was touched by tragedy, Collins perishing in a crash shortly after Brooks went by. Whatever was the case, from Brooks this was a drive from the Gods.

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1960: Driving south

Anyone with a basic motorsport interest knows that what with the Nordschleife the Nurbürgring isn’t only about the modern track. But there’s a third circuit less widely known about – the Sudschleife, which as the name indicates used to stretch to the south of the place, sharing its start-finish straight with its more famous 14-mile cousin. By reputation it was even more fearsome.

Even in its time it was used far less than the Nordschleife, in part reflecting drivers’ wariness of the place. In 1960 it should though have had its day of days, as it hosted the German Grand Prix for the only time, albeit that year held under Formula 2 regulations. However thick fog and persistent driving rain made it an even more daunting affair than it would have been anyway. Still Porsche got a home win in Jo Bonnier’s hands. The Sudschleife was largely lost to history when the modern track was built, yet the odd clue of the old circuit can still be spotted.

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1961: Moss floors the Ferraris

Perhaps the race that defines Sir Stirling Moss in the popular consciousness is his Monaco triumph in 1961 – wherein he beat Ferraris that had something like 20% more power than his privateer Rob Walker entered Lotus 18. Yet he performed a similar trick at the Nurbürgring later that season – likely it’s no coincidence that they came at two ultimate drivers’ tracks.

His experience told too – as a shower hit an hour before the start, but nearer to start time the sun had re-emerged and tyre supplier Dunlop suggested everyone bolt dry weather tyres back on. Ferrari complied; Moss didn’t. This helped him move into the lead on lap one and draw clear. The Ferrari pair clawed him in, but then late on more rain fell and Moss moved away again. Just like in Monaco the Scuderia had to make do with second and third. Moss also had success at the circuit in sportscar racing, winning the 1000km event four times in total and three times in a row between 1958 and 1960.

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1968: Stewart stuns

Sir Jackie Stewart’s relationship with the Nurbürgring went a long way to sum him up. A pioneer in safety, it was Stewart who came up with its ‘Green Hell’ nickname; he who was instrumental in getting safety improvements made, including via having the 1970 Grand Prix moved elsewhere. But in his driving there he did not relent one bit, and never better demonstrated it than in the 1968 race.

It had rained since the preceding Thursday and on race day morning fog joined it. Yet it was the self-same Stewart who seized the race. From sixth on the grid he was third at turn one; partway around that lap he’d penetrated the thick wall of spray and fog to lead. And he was never seen again and not just due to the conditions as he won by four minutes. Chris Amon in the Ferrari though, playing bad fairy at the christening, suggested that it wasn’t all down to skill, stating Stewart’s Dunlop tyres offered much more grip than the Firestones of most of his rivals.

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1983: Bellof makes his mark

By 1983 for the Nordschleife the sands of time were shifting. Formula 1 had not retuned since Niki Lauda’s notorious fiery accident in 1976 while the ‘83 1000km World Sportscar Championship event was its last international race of any stripe until 2015. Indeed the track’s shift was reflected physically in this Group C gathering, as it was held on a slightly shortened version due to the old start-finish loop making way for construction of the current Grand Prix circuit.

Yet it wasn’t just due to this that the final event is remembered. Moreover the brilliant Stefan Bellof in a Porsche 956 set an astonishing 6m 11.13s pole time as well as a subsequent race best lap of 6m 16.85s. His marks were never beaten until – unofficially anyway – earlier this year when Timo Bernhard set a 5m 19.546s in an uprated Porsche 919 Hybrid Evo, part of the car’s farewell tour. Bellof crashed out of the ’83 race, but as far as folklore was concerned it hardly mattered.

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1995: Schumacher strikes

The modern Nurbürgring track is by consensus rather a pale show of the previous. Nevertheless in 1995 local hero Michael Schumacher put in the sort of comeback drive that had clear echoes of the revered ones from the Nordschleife’s past. The race started in damp conditions and as Schumacher struggled among the Williams pair it looked that Jean Alesi in the Ferrari 412T2 would rout the field. Performing his party piece on a greasy track after, almost alone, starting on slicks he built by half distance what appeared an insurmountable lead. And whatever designs Schumacher had on chasing him were complicated by that he was planning three pitstops to Alesi’s one.

But chase him he did to the point that with three laps left at a chicane he’d helped design Schumacher elbowed his way by around the outside to take the lead and victory. Indeed it was a race that likely wouldn’t have happened without Schumacher, this being the ‘European Grand Prix’ – a second German race on the calendar reflecting the surge in Schumi-mania. And Alan Henry called it ‘the day on which he crossed the indistinct dividing line separating the good from the great’.

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Images courtesy of Motorsport Images

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