POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE

Founded in the arena where Adolf Hitler once saluted his marching Youth brigade, the Norisring is a fast street circuit with a substantial history of Porsche successes. In 2014 I drove a 991 around its hallowed hairpins.

 

‘Have you never driven a racetrack before?’ My colleague’s rhetorical question stung as I swooped the 991 Cabriolet around the Grundigkhere hairpin. ‘I want two wheels on the kerb!’ ‘If that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get,’ I retort. Thing is, the Norisring is fundamentally a road circuit, and although it’s only 7.00am when we do our shoot, there’s still a bit of normal traffic, so I’m being cautious. But I bite the bullet and provide a succession of demon laps, cocking both inside wheels over the red and white kerbs, and he gets his shot.

 

There’s little to match the aura of an international race meeting: the noise, the smells, the cars, the celebs, the crowds; yet it’s also rewarding to wander a racetrack on an off-day without all that razzmatazz, savouring the nature of the circuit, its setting and facilities. We’ve visited several old or redundant tracks in the past where Porsche enjoyed a measure of success, including Dundrod, Rouen, Solitude and the Avus, and now it’s the turn of Nuremberg’s Norisring. Antony and I rendezvous at Harwich to board Stena Line’s SS Hollandica for the overnight crossing, and after disembarking at daybreak at the Hook of Holland we point our brilliant blue 991 Cabriolet southeast and head for Bavaria. How we love those unrestricted autobahns, where everyone behaves themselves – apart from the road-menders who always seem to be digging sections up!

The Cabriolet’s acceleration is silky smooth, and the gearchange nicely notchy. It grips in corners and holds the road perfectly, with nicely weighted steering and predictable turn-in, and while it may not have all the whistles and bells of fully-spec’d Porsches, it is a lovely car to drive. Winding lock on going into the hairpins I can sight the car very nicely, even though we’re in a right-hooker. Some say the Cabriolet ought to have the PDK transmission, but in fact it’s perfect as far as I’m concerned, having a stick shift for our Norisring re-enactment.

 

On the autobahn in our fantastic Blue Streak missile is there is a fairly constant switching between 6th and 7th gears to springboard past the few recalcitrant outside laners – never Germans, always from some other part of Europe - and though the speed limit is governed by overtaking trucks and the dodderers passing them, we’re maximising our kilometre-killing on the three-lane sections like the long stretch around Augsburg, till all too soon we’re plunged back into two-lane dual-carriageway, 100kphcrawl instead of 160kph cruise. Still, top down, we have magnificent scenery and sunshine to bask in, mainly forested hills, and we’re scudding along a mature autobahn, judging by the vegetation in the central reservation. It’s quite an aerodynamic car once we’re up in the higher echelons of the rev band, but it is a base model and,given the hood mechanism, it’s probably as heavy as a 911 coupe.But, all things considered, we are probably going much faster than most people would ever drive it.

 

Arriving in Nuremburg at dusk, we do a recce; we’ve been told by the Motorsport Club that that the all-important start-finish straight of the Norisring racetrack is closed off, so we need to find a way in somehow. Happily there’s a gap just wide enough for the Porsche between the barriers, and we’re in. So, next morning, I’m sitting in the 991 Cabriolet on Beuthenerstrasse, which is the start-finish straight, contemplating the soaring tribunes that dominate the environment. Yellow painted rectangles define the starting grid, and the main straight is delineated by concrete barriers and catch fencing. Behind these barriers is a further expanse of tarmac, with a sports field beyond, all enclosed by tiers of overgrown pre-war seating. To my left is the centrepiece of the former Fascist stadium, a vast monolith apparently constructed from huge blocks of stone. The main building has two main levels where the Nazi hierarchy disported themselves, with a projecting balcony and railings where the Fuhrer and his aides would have stood, and this podium is flanked by no less imposing rows of stone seating. There are wildflowers growing out of it now, but it’s where the Nazi officials would have sat. Since the war this bastion has served as a grandstand for motor racing events, though it’s remarkable that it does still exist, being an overt demonstration of Nazi expressionism,so it’s a wonder the Allies didn’t pull it down. Objectively, the main tribune viewed from the rear actually looks like a giant 1930s art deco Roxy cinema.

 

Along this main straight, the available width of paved asphalt is probably twice as wide as the majority of racetracks. The streets comprising the rest of the circuit are also bounded by three layers of Armco barrier, much of it lined with high mesh fencing to catch wayward debris, or posts offering the possibility of erecting it for race days. From the grid, the circuit disappears clock-wise ahead of me down a half-mile straight to the Grundigkhere, one of the circuit’s two hairpins, where I end up riding the kerb in the Porsche for my colleague’s benefit. I should imagine on the first lap this has seen some almighty shunts. Then a few hundred yards back the other way towards the tribune, the course jinks sharp right, then sharp left through the Schöller-S, with a long, slightly curving stretch of broad straightaway behind the Steintribüne, easing right before suddenly arcing left into the second hairpin – and hairpins do not come with more tarmac than this – the Dutzendteichkhere. It’s an ad-hoc car park during the day, but the scorched tyre marks, red and white kerbing and Armco declare its true purpose. With the lake to the right, the circuit then rushes back into the Zeppelin plaza and onto the start-finish line beneath the gaze of a thousand fascist ghosts.

 

But what about this giant slab of architecture? In the next millennium will it be as curious as a Mayan pyramid or the temple of Angkor Watt? It’s an extraordinary building to find at a racetrack, by any standards; at Dundrod there’s the Joey Dunlop grandstand, at Reims there are the 1950s pits and grandstand, and at Solitude the Mercedes race control building. Cerda also has the ancient Targa Florio pits and control tower, all purpose-built for racing. But here, at the Norisring the nucleus of the circuit is the Nazi pile. In any other context it would be magnificent, now it’s both outrageous as well as intriguing, given the ambitions of the faction who built it. There’s no subtlety about it; it’s austere, in-your-face, with no exuberant embellishments in the way of a refined gothic building; just slabs of blockwork.

 

The main wedge is called the Zeppelinhaupttribüne or Steintribüne, the focal point of the Zeppelin field, named after the inaugural landing site of the eponymous Count’s airship in 1909. It’s this area that’s bounded by the tribunes forming the stadium. From 1933 the National Socialist party used the arena for their increasingly bellicose rallies. The tall colonnades that originally flanked it and provided a backdrop to the rows of seating were pulled down sometime in the late ’60s. Architect Albert Speer went back to Greek antiquity and chose the altar of the temple of Pergamon as his model for the Steintribüne, which was erected between 1935 and 1937, comprised of concrete and brickwork and faced with a cladding of limestone slabs. The original temple of 200BC was excavated by German archaeologists in the 1870s and reconstructed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, so there was clearly an obsession with its place in antiquity. We don’t have to go that far back in time to get an idea of what it would have looked like in the 1930s, just think away the tall neon lampposts and the Armco barrier and the posts for the safety netting. The railings along the top of the tribunes probably weren’t there in period, so people would have accessed the tiers of grandstand from the outside, descending seven flights of steps to get into their seats. Standing on the very dais from which Hitler saluted his cohorts it is hard to resist asking the obvious questions, like, ‘how tall?’ ‘Lived where?’ My colleague warns me I’ll get arrested, and in that instant four police vans drive onto the start-finish line and park up. Happily it’s just a coincidence; they are merely here to use the sports field. And then at 8.30am sharp, to emphasise the draw this place still holds, six tourist busses arrive, spewing out hoards of international sightseers. Luckily, we’re done.

 

Outside Germany, the Norisring circuit is not that well known, though from the late ’60s through the ’80s it hosted major international sportscar races and still puts on rounds of the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft), European F3 and German Porsche Carrera Cup. In terms of seniority it’s somewhere behind other German circuits founded pre-war - Nürburgring, Avus, Sachsenring and Hockenheim - though older than the Lausitzring and Oscherschleben. As a street circuit its character is more akin to Monaco, Porto and Long Beach, with nothing in the way of gravel or grass run-off areas. Not even any tyre barriers – at least during our visit – just unforgiving Armco. Whereas those three are seaside circuits, the Norisring is on the periphery of a major city, flanked by the Dutzendteich parkland, with fairground in full swing as we arrive. Just before the beginning of the start-finish straight, to the right hand side is a large lake, and some geese have strayed out of the water onto the circuit, and indeed there is a goose stepping towards me now. Nearby is the Nazi congress hall, modelled on the Coliseum in Rome, unfinished, though an equally imposing building. Though the area was bombed in WW2, most of Albert Speer’s monumental Third Reich architecture survived, providing a readymade setting for a racetrack. It was named the Norisring – the medieval name for the city was Noris – rather than Nurembergring, or indeed its other name, Nürnberg, which does catch out would-be race-goers heading to the Nürburgring - so as to avoid confusion with the more famous circuit. When competition kicked off in 1947 with motorcycle races (there were six rival manufacturers in the city at the time, including Zundapp) the crowd on the terraces numbered 25,000 with attendance totalling 60,000, which is not far off Silverstone on F1 Grand Prix day. The occupying US forces even supplied fuel, and the track was in business. Car racing began in 1954, and soon the Norisring was one of the top circuits on the German motorsport calendar. As domestic motorcycle production declined, bike racing stopped in 1976, but from the mid-’60s to the late-’80s sports prototypes and GTs ruled the roost, majoring on the annual 200-mile Norisringrennen (two 100-mile heats as there was no refuelling facility) with top names tempted by a lavish purse, followed from the ’90s to the present day by DTM touring cars and the F3 European Championship. During the course of five decades the track layout changed five times, going from 2km in 1950 to 4km in 1961, including an underpass and flyover, and back to 2km in 1972 following the death of Gulf-Porsche star Pedro Rodriguez, who was leading an Interserie race when his borrowed Ferrari 512 struck the Armco at the esses, most likely due to a puncture, bounced across the track and caught fire. Undoubtedly one of the fastest endurance drivers of his day, Pedro’s crash site is marked by a memorial plaque.

 

The races for sports prototypes and GTs during the 1960s saw plenty of Porsche action, with the likes of Gerhard Mitter, Hans Herrmann, Udo Schutz, Sepp Greger and Heini Walter battling it out in 904s and 356 Carrera-Abarths with Lotus Elans and Elva-BMWs, and as the decade progressed we find Jo Siffert, Ben Pon, Vic Elford, Rico Steinemann and Toine Hezemans piloting 906s, 910s and 908s, fighting with Lola T70s, Alfa T33s and GT40s crewed by the likes of Frank Gardner, Brian Muir, Jo Bonnier and Paul Hawkins. In ’68 it was the turn of Brian Redman in a Lola T70 to narrowly win from Elford and Rolf Stommelen in their 3.0-litre 908 Spyders and Richard Attwood in another Lola. As well as Interserie (Can-Am-style) races featuring Porsche 917 Spyders, DTM events during the 1970s witnessed battles between 911 RSRs and BMW CSLs. The cast changed subtly, and the 1980 DRM field consisted of Porsche 935s led by John Fitzpatrick and Stommelen against Hans Stuck and Jan Lammers in BMW M1s. ‘I used to love the place, ’ says Fitz. ‘Great atmosphere, and the Race Director was a real gentleman called Gernot Leistner. We became good friends. It looked like a fairly simple track, but there were a few tricks to learn. It was always good to me.’

 

Time for a lap. I hunker down in the Cab cockpit, and for a few glorious moments I’m Jo Siffert in the Hart-Ski 910, snarling my way in amongst the big banger Lolas, GT40s and P3 Ferrari, fending off Quick Vic and Rico Steinemann in their similar 910s. I rush down to the far end of the circuit and take a wide line into the Grundig hairpin - quite tight with three or four cars trying to share it – kiss the apex and blast out wide onto the mad rush for the Esses. The nimble Porsche zigzags neatly here, clipping the blue and white rumble strips, but brute power tells on the long run behind the Steintribüne along to the expansive Dutzendteich hairpin, leaning on the tyres and charging out onto the start-finish straight again. That last hairpin was the trickiest bit, according to Fitzpatrick: ‘you approached it at such high speed around a fast corner, and it was easy to miss the braking point.’

 

Intensity of racing here has been episodic. Through the 1980s there were high-profile DRM (Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft) and DTM races, and World Cup events staged in ’86 and ’87, featuring the cream of works and privateer 956 and 962 squads, with wins for Mauro Baldi/Jonathan Palmer from Oscar Larrauri/Jochen Mass and "John Winter"/Stanley Dickens. A new era for DTM touring cars began in 1990, raising the game in 1995 with the short-lived International Touring Cars Championship (ITCC). More pertinently for us, the Norisring also hosts rounds of the Porsche Carrera Cup, where the likes of Sean Edwards and Nick Tandy strutted their stuff. Nuremberg’s not so far from Stuttgart so the Norisring is a natural on the Porsche calendar.This year’s two-heat round on July 4th was won by Michael Ammermüller from the Walter Lechner Racing Team, despite multiple crashes in wet race two.

 

No such issues for us. We’ve paid our dues, and it’s time to head north for our rendezvous with the Stena liner. As for our Blue Streaker, it’s very competent and a lovely machine to drive, so it’s a relaxed run up through northeast Germany, passing close to Koblenz and the Nürburgring. Leaving Germany at Aachen and easing through Belgium and Holland, we keep the top on for ease of conversation on the autobahn, though it gets retracted as we approach the Hook of Holland, ostensibly in ‘holiday’ mode. We need some shots of the car on quay to round off the trip. The chief stevedore greets us like old friends. No pomp and circumstance here; ‘sure, just get on with it!’ Once more the 991 is dwarfed by a monolithic structure; this time it’s the gigantic hull of the SS Hollandica. Whilst this itinerant will be sailing away later in the evening, the vast monument back at the Norisring will still be in place a thousand years from now.

 Ends

 

Sidebar:

Is Vic there?

Quick Vic Elford raced a Porsche 910 in a DRM event at the Norisring in June 1968, and described a lap of the circuit, as recounted byAutosport’s Mike Kettlewell: ‘The start and finish line is right under the balcony where Hitler made his speeches. There follows the temporary pits structure, which is just where Vic Elford snatches 5th gear in his 2.0-litre Porsche 910. Then the previously wide road narrows appreciably and curves gradually to the right for over half a mile. Vic holds his top ratio for this section, which is flat out, and then comes a 1st-gear left-hand hairpin and it is flat-out through the gears again along a road running parallel, curving to the left. On reaching the tribunes area again Vic changes down from 5th to 2nd for the esses - a right followed immediately by a left. In heat 1 Vic was troubled by a sticking throttle and gradually lost ground, hitting the bales at both hairpins trying to master the situation. He was superb at the esses though, commenting: "It was just like a special stage on a rally, very slippery, going from opposite lock to opposite lock!" Then it is up to 4th behind the tribunes before a slight right-hander and then a 2nd-gear hairpin by the railway station. From this the Porsche accelerates flat-out along a short straight bordering the Grosser Dutzendteich lake and through a left-hand kink which joins the main straight back past the start-finish area.’ Here’s a nice coincidence: Vic’s 910 belonged to Bill Bradley, and is the very same car that we drove at Chobham a few years ago for a feature in 911 & Porsche World.

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