PLAYING SOLITAIRE


‘You’re on your own now,’ declares my colleague. Well, he’s not wrong there as, fittingly, I am about to drive Solitude Circuit in a solo capacity as I helm our snarling Cayman 718 T around some of the twistier bits of Solitude Circuit. We are here to celebrate some of Porsche’s biggest achievements as it consolidated its burgeoning reputation on the international scene as a maker of competitive sports racing cars. They didn’t have far to come; Solitude, named after the 18th century Schloss Solitude - a Rococo palace 2km to the north - is but 20km from Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen. Like a home game, then.

In use from 1935 to 1965, the 11.4km (7.1 mile) long circuit consisted of an irregular triangle of closed-off public roads, passing through the wooded countryside to the west of Stuttgart. It was – still is - a fabulous mixture of steep inclines, ups and downs, with hairpins, twisty sections and a few straights: something to test all talents. Solitude’s competition history actually goes back to 1903 when a hillclimb ran up to the Castle. The circuit dates from 1925, when it was a 23km loop starting and finishing at the Castle, and the heyday of the layout that we’re interested in, when it hosted events that Porsche participated in, was the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Even the top guns considered it an awesome challenge. In a Motor Sport interview, Dan Gurney - a winner for Porsche in 1962 - commented: ‘You had to be right on the money there. You didn't have the luxury of breathing space anywhere on the track, as you do at some places. It took a lot of concentration, and it was easy to make a serious mistake. It wasn't as simple as it might look when you're driving around it in two-way traffic.’ Fellow Le Mans winner Richard Attwood told me recently, ‘I did one race at Solitude in a Formula Junior in '63. It was a typical road circuit, fraught with danger - as they all were - with lots of obstacles to hit. There was a great series of corners going to the right then left, then right then left, then right and left again, all taken at around 100mph. It was a great challenge with a wary eye on a margin should you require it.’ No isolation here: the Solitude crowd was estimated at an astonishing 350,000, spread around the circuit, which, being public roads was free to access for large percentage of them.

Porsche’s biggest win at Solitude was, indisputably, Dan Gurney’s victory in the non-title Formula 2 race in 1962. Preferring to concentrate on endurance racing and hillclimbs, Porsche spent just two seasons competing in Formula 1 with the 1.5 flat-four 718/2 and 1.5 flat-eight 804, and if you count entries of the 718 in sportscar format with full enveloping bodywork but with passenger seat removed, then five years in Formula 2 racing. The veteran tubular spaceframe 718/2 was a winner in F2, but its successor, the 804, was reckoned to be twice as expensive to produce as the rival ‘garagistes’ offerings from Lotus, Lola and Cooper, and this proved a financial disincentive to continuing with Formula 1, when, at the same time, Porsche was also gearing up for the volume production of the 911.

Graham Hill, who has the distinction of winning the F1 title (twice), Le Mans and Indianapolis, also had considerable success with 718 RSKs between 1960 and’62. Writing about his experiences with 718 RS60s and RS61s in his1969 autobiography Life at the Limit, Hill states, ‘it (the 718) was entirely different from the normal run of British cars such as Lotus or BRM, and it felt a lot different. It had a super engine, very smooth and reliable, which fairly purred along. I am not sure that the roadholding was as good as the British cars, but the car felt solid and always seemed as though it was one unit and not a collection of parts.’ Another thing in its favour: it was more reliable than the opposition.

The change in F1 regulations for 1961, from 2.5-litre F2 engines to 1.5-litres, levelled the playing-field, and the combination of small-capacity, rear-mounted engine suited Porsche perfectly. The 718 was up and running, while rival teams were obliged to start from scratch or adapt Formula Junior models. Five Porsche 718/2s were entered for the 1961 Solitude F1 race, making up the 20-strong grid alongside all the regular Grand Prix regulars – apart from Ferrari. Jo Bonnier, Dan Gurney and Hans Herrmann had the existing cars while Edgar Barth handled a new model sporting disc brakes and the horizontal cooling fan atop the engine for the first time. Gurney’s 718/2 was Graham Hill’s car from 1960. The fifth 718/2 was that of Dutch privateer Godin de Beaufort, the ex-Stirling Moss Rob Walker car. The Porsches were evenly matched with the Lotuses of Ireland, Moss and Clark and the Coopers of McLaren and Brabham, and after a race-long (25 laps) scrap, Ireland beat Bonnier and Gurney by literally 3 metres, described by Denis Jenkinson as ‘one of the best motor races for many years.’ Dan Gurney set the lap record at 172.2kph (107mph) in his 718/2.

The following year Porsche made it stick. Now, Gurney, fresh from his Rouen F1 victory and Bonnier had the new flat-eight powered 804s with disc brakes at their disposal. Though there were fewer entries because of Solitude’s non-championship race being bookmarked by the French and Britch GPs, there were still two significant top drivers running against them in the shape of Jim Clark and Trevor Taylor. It turned out to be a straight contest between Porsche and Lotus, with Gurney making it two wins in successive weekends, and after both Lotuses spun off and were damaged, the Porsche pair took a relatively straightforward 1-2 victory. Like other road circuits – Dundrod, for instance – Solitude’s days were numbered. Maybe all such circuits were seen as transitory. It was relatively long, half the length of the Nurburgring Nordschleife, and, like much of the old Spa-Francorchamps, there was no run-off area, and in pre-Armco days (which doesn’t do errant motorcyclists any good anyway), the venue fell victim to safety considerations. Solitude’s last F1 race was staged in 1964, when Jim Clark’s Lotus 33 beat John Surtees’ dominant Ferrari 158 on a drying surface, with a fastest lap of 3m 49.6s, averaging 111.62mph. Competition activities were wound up in 1965, and action shifted to the permanent Hockenheimring site, where early races were called the Solitude GP. But we are here to re-live the halcyon days, when 718s led the field.

Appropriately enough, our press car is the new Cayman 718 T, powered by the turbocharged 2.0-litre flat-four, which develops 300bhp and sprints from 0 – to 62mph in 4.7s. On the Autobahn we travelled in excess of 130mph for a good while on the unrestricted A8 Autobahn between Cologne and Karlsruhe on our way south, and were never blocked by traffic because slower vehicles dutifully pull over to the inside lanes, though Stuttgart is inevitably clogged, and ongoing roadworks that bedevil much of the Autobahn network don’t help either. However, it is up at those sorts of high speeds that Porsches really come into their own and feel truly invincible. You’d argue that the downside must be soaring fuel consumption at these velocities, but to be fair I wouldn’t say that I noticed the gauge going down particularly quickly. For our return journey we elected to pick up the French Autoroutes near Verdun, enabling steady cruising at 85mph on smooth, uncrowded blacktop, and consumption was about the same. I do think, though, that when it comes to motorway service areas, the Germans have the French licked for quality of refreshments and snacks these days. But I digress.

The roads comprising the circuit were resurfaced as a joint venture between the State of Baden-Württemberg, the State Capital Stuttgart, the County of Leonberg and the Automobil Club of ADAC-Gau Württemberg in 1952 to serve as a test- and racetrack for local manufacturers – to wit, Porsche Mercedes-Benz and NSU.

Let’s go for a lap, then. Er, spoiler alert: being public roads, intersections are controlled by traffic lights, making a fluent lap not legally possible. Nevertheless, I will give it my best shot. The Cayman is now in Sport mode – it would be rude to traverse a racetrack and not make the most appropriate soundtrack. it’s also tauter, the steering more acute and turn-in sharper.

The start-finish straight at Mahdental has the oval Bosch control tower to the left, with a former collecting area now given over to the ADAC Verkehrsübungsplatz for young people’s driver training. This Bosch and Mercedes-Benz logo’d building – the Zeitnehmerhaus - is certainly the most obvious legacy of the former circuit. On the right of the ‘track’ is the hard standing where the pits used to be, with the former paddock suffocated by greenery. Unusually, the pits were angled in such a way as to give all teams a long view of the track their cars were about to rejoin after servicing. There were also sizeable grandstands flanking the track, here a short straight blasting past the Seehaus and immediately pitches sharp left into Glemseck corner, nowadays completely compromised by traffic lights and a long island that bisects the road. Over to the right at this point is the Glemseck tavern, another iconic trackside edifice, quickly followed by a left-hander and a 250m rising straight, pitching cars (and bikes) into the righthanded uphill off-camber Hadersbach hairpin. The asphalt is broad enough to allow me to drive it with little reduction in speed, and such is the Cayman’s adherence that the whole thing is accomplished efficiently – while quite possibly it was a daunting corner back in the day. The gradient levels out into a left sweep called Elend, climbing again around a fast right-hander to the top of the hill at Hadersbachbene. A straight stretch allows a spurt of speed, into a long, fast left-hander cresting Frauenkreuz, plunging down into Lettenlöcher, another fast, right-hand curve, and drops down after a sharp brow into a tight-ish left-hand corner in dense forest. There’s absolutely no doubting the Cayman’s abilities, and on some of these corners I’m foot to the floor and it’s just going around as if on rails, which you wouldn’t be able to do in a 911. The PDK does all the work if left to its own devices, and it’s invariably in the right gear, blipping the throttle to get the revs right for the downshift, all the time accompanied by the guttural flat-four exhaust note. As the road levels out fairly suddenly, there’s the sense of the car bottoming out – it doesn’t of course, but the impression is there. There’s then the long Lettenlöcher straight, which would be flat out in a race, but is now compromised by desultory urban vehicles and traffic signals. Passing the Steinbachsee lake and Büsnau village, the straight culminates in a right-hand hairpin, Schatten, casting traffic into a broad, downhill left-hand sweep. Serendipitously, we’d spent the previous night here at the Relexa Hotel, overlooking Schatten Kurve, though there is no evidence bedecking the hotel’s walls of its local racing history in terms of archive photos, in what is otherwise a perfectly decent hostelry, and which must have been a prominent resort establishment in days gone by.

At the bottom of the hill descending from Schatten is a roundabout where the circuit veered sharp left and tracks through Mahdental valley alongside Glems creek. From here to the start-finish line, the road wriggles entertainingly through ten left-handers and eight right-handers, for 3.5km along the valley floor. It’s flanked by forest and a high bank on the right, now resplendent in gorgeous autumnal hues, gold, orange and yellow. I motor as fast as reasonably possible, mostly sticking to the correct side, and it is one of the most exhilarating sections on the course as there’s no intersection to worry about till the beginning of the start-finish straight at Krumbachtalkurve. And that’s about it; blast onto the start finish straight and go round again. But don’t hold your breath: whereas Dan Gurney’s best lap in 1962 was 3m 55.6s, we’ve taken a quarter of an hour!

Stats wise, there are 26 left-handers and 19 right-handers, 45 turns in total. The longest straight is 550m between Steinbachsee and Büsnau, and the highest elevation reaches 200m beyond Frauenkreuz, 3km into the lap, at 506m, while the lowest point is at Glems Bridge in the Mahdental valley at 383m, giving an elevation difference of 123.33m. Steepest rise is 15% from Glemseck to Hedersbachebene, with an 11% drop from Frauenkreuz down to Dreispitz. In 1998, an original section of track between Frauenkreuz and Dreispitz was re-planted by way of ecological mitigation for trees felled during construction of the nearby Autobahn service area at Sindelfinger Wald. A half-mile diversion bypasses this bit, re-joining the old circuit at Dreispitz. As at Northern Ireland’s similar Dundrod circuit – where bikes reach 150mph in races – bleak memorials to fallen riders are poignant reminders of how tricky country road circuits have always been.

We have been here before. Eight years ago, Antony and I attended the Solitude Revival, a thriving event with much of the bonhomie of Goodwood, but way less commercial; in fact, it was almost like being at a 1960s race meeting. Having said that, Dan Gurney reported that, back in 1961, the German car accessory companies turned out in such numbers that the paddock resembled an engineering exhibition. They didn’t use much more of the circuit than the start-finish straight and the first couple of kilometres, so it was more like a hillclimb, but it was still a cool event and we interviewed several aces from the past including Sir John Surtees, Hans Herrmann and Herbert Linge. Later on, we attended Hans Herrmann’s 80th birthday party – he lives nearby at Magstadt. During the Revival they made demonstration runs in Porsche 550 Spyder, 356B 1600GS Carrera GTL Abarth, and Mercedes-Benz W196. Speaking of his Porsche outings, 356 Carrera owner John Surtees recalled driving Rob Walker’s 718/2 at the 1960 Solitude Grand Prix (as Stirling Moss was not available): ‘Solitude was like a fast-flowing Nürburgring with trees all around, climbing up and swooping up and down at the back, and diving down through the hairpins where the Schatten (Relexa) Hotel is. It was prodigiously quick, with a 100mph average lap. I missed a gear during practice and put it in the ditch coming out of Glemseck.’ To complete that story, sixteen laps into the race, Big John’s 718/2 had gear selector issues, and he ran wide on a corner, trying to take it in a high gear to save the recalcitrant gear selectors, but spun on gravel and stalled. Though von Trips’ Ferrari took the win by just 4sec, Porsche 718/2s filled the next four places - Herrmann, Bonnier, Graham Hill and Gurney beating the Lotuses of Jim Clark, Trevor Taylor and Innes Ireland and Phil Hill’s Ferrari. Solitude certainly saw plenty of Porsche action and not a few successes in its day.

Given today’s traffic issues, my penchant for fast, hassle free motoring is to travel at night, and even though Solitude didn’t go in for nocturnal stuff, it would be a way of getting a quick lap in. Cue the loneliness of the long-distance runner.


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