With the years long saga of mismanagement, incompetence, and bankruptcy, fans of the Nürburgring were hoping that the sale of the track and new ownership would lead to a brighter future for the legendary circuit.
Unfortunately, not much in the way of good news has been making its way out of the Eiffel Mountains this year. First we had the horrific fatal Nissan GT-R GT3 crash during the opening round of the VLN and the resulting speed limit zones put in place to slow the fastest GT cars during for the following races. Now, word out of the ‘Ring is that manufacturers are banned from their iconic lap record attempts.
What’s next for the Green Hell? The rumor mills have been running rampant with speculation. 150 horsepower limits! GT3s replaced by spec-Reliant Robins!
Once again, let’s separate fact from fiction and see what is really going on behind all the headlines.
Fact #1: Speed limits
Following the fatal incident in VLN 1, there was some very real concern that all racing on the Nordschleife would be cancelled. After some last minute thrashing by the German motor sport association DMSB, the current track owners and the FIA, the qualifying race for the 24 Hours of Nürburgring was allowed to go on as scheduled.
Just with one small caveat, that is: two (technically three) speed restricted zones would be put in place. The first speed limit zone of 200 kph (about 124 mph) started just past the exit of Hocheichen and continued on past the site of the accident in VLN 1 to the exit of Flugplatz.
At that point the limit was raised to 250 kph (155 mph) until just prior to Schwedenkreuz where it was then removed completely. The second (third) zone was put in place just past the gantry at the start of the 1.5-mile Döttinger Höhe straight where speed was limited to 250 kph. The speed limit was in place until the bridge however it was later moved down the hill to Tiergarten.
Our friends at Bridge to Gantry made a handy map and because my Photoshop skills are horrible, I borrowed it. (Thanks, Dale!)
A few things to understand about the speed restrictions that were put in place at the beginning. First thing is that the speed restricted zones were just that — speed restricted. They were not yellow flag zones therefore passing was still allowed in these areas.
Secondly, the initial speed restrictions were only put in place for the VLN and 24 hour races (including the qualifying races). The World Touring Car Championship race, Tourist sessions, open track days and manufacturer testing were not initially put under the speed restrictions. Unfortunately with the latest announcement the speed restrictions have been expanded to encompass all activity on the Nordschleife.
The response to these speed limits has been, understandably, overwhelmingly negative from all sides. Racers, fans, and visitors alike have been unified in their response “Verpiss dich!”, which roughly translated means “You can take our unrestricted speed limits when you pry them from our cold dead hands!” or something like that. Except louder, and in German.
Unfortunately, there is mud on everyone’s faces in this, from the track to the governing bodies, as they’ve all had a hand in the current situation.
Fact #2: VLN Organizer Official response
Officials from the organizing bodies of the VLN and 24 hour races knew they would have their hands full when they made the announcement of the restricted zones at the drivers’ meeting for the qualifying race. They would be the first ones to have to face the drivers personally after the announcement was made.
So they did one of the smartest things they could do, by opening the drivers’ briefing by stating very clearly that while they understood the reasoning for putting these restrictions in place, they were not fans of the speed limits and they did not believe that they were were a permanent solution. Additionally they said that they would be working hard over the next months to come up with better alternatives that would allow racing to continue at the Nordschleife. This managed to quell the imminent driver revolt and allow the race to go on without any major issues.
Fact #3: DMSB/ FIA (non) response
The group with the most control in this situation have also been some of the quietest during all of this. The DMSB is the governing body for all racing activities in Germany including DTM touring car racing, ADAC Masters and everything else. However, even the always-inquisitive Leo Parente has managed to get the only official response which is this:
Following the tragic accident on 28 March 2015, the German motorsport association (DMSB) introduced speed limits for races at the Nürburgring.
NÜRBURGRING GmbH has decided to extend these speed limits to other activities on the Nordschleife, which is why record drives are currently not permitted on the Nürburgring Nordschleife. We cannot say anything about the plans for 2016 yet.
At the end of this year we will restart our discussions about this matter…
Fact #4: Nürburgring Management Officially (un)responsive
Unfortunately through all of this, the ones that have taken the biggest hits have been the new owners/managers of the track. Judging by Facebook posts almost everyone at this point has assumed that the speed limits and restrictions on manufacturer records were solely put in place by the new owners. The truth is a bit more nuanced then that.
While officially the track has no response, I managed to have a quick chat with the current Managing Director of Nürburgring GmbH (the group that owns the iconic track) Adam Osieka after qualifying for VLN 3. (Adam also happens to be one of the quickest guys in a Porsche GT3 Cup car at the Ring).
Speaking as a driver and not for the track, Adam said the Nürburgring doesn’t have a position on the speed limits for the VLN and other race events, as they were put in place by the DMSB and hence beyond the track’s control. However, he did say that the track was responsible for extending the speed limits to other activities on the track, including manufacturer testing and lap record attempts.
The primary reason for doing this was that questions were starting to be raised by various parties as to why limits were in place for racing — and not for anything else. Most cars that race here at the Ring are limited to around 550 horsepower, and the current crop of hypercars easily double that figure and reach insane speeds of their own, so that point is not as absurd as it may seem on the surface.
Again, speaking as a driver only, Adam then told me that the owners group is united in that they feel that the speed limits are totally the wrong solution. However, the bigger concern for them is that there are currently talks in place to modify the track to allow for the speeds of the current crop of GT cars. Adam, being the racer that he is, said he’s vehemently opposed to any changes to the track itself for many reasons.
The most practical reason is the Nürburgring currently has FIA homologation (this homologation is what allowed the thrilling WTCC race to take place on the Nordschleife this year). The FIA homologation does not just look at sections of the track, but the track as a whole. If a change was made to one section of the track the FIA would need to examine to see what effect that would have on the preceding and following sections of the track and then re-homologate the entire circuit. This is not only time consuming and expensive but there is also the possibility that the FIA rejects the changes that have been made and refuses to re-certify the track.
Rock, meet hard place.
Fact #5: Taki Inoue is still a dick
Just in case you forgot from last time.
Where does this leave us?
Well, the first thing is to kill the reports that it’s been ‘Ring management that has implemented these limits and proposed the changes. From what I have been told, that is clearly not that case and the limits have come primarily from the DMSB, with the track following suit.
One of the things that may have been a factor in the track putting limits in place for manufacturer records was the badly-kept rumor of an attempt from Koenigsegg with their One:1. If I had to guess (and for the sake of this post I do), the powers that be took one look at the 1360hp One:1 and saw potential disaster written all over the place.
If anything were to go wrong during that attempt it would most likely be at speeds well north of 250kph and would almost certainly be fatal. Even if it wasn’t fatal, throwing a car off the track at those speeds would potentially expose other issues with the track that could make getting a consensus on changes more problematic.
Politically it would have been a relatively easy call. Koenigsegg is not a major manufacturer of the same league as Porsche or Ferrari, so preventing them from making an attempt would not have the same repercussions as trying to stop Porsche or one of the other industry pool members.
For their part Koenigsegg released a statement sympathizing with the position of the track while simultaneously expressing their frustration at not being able to make the attempt.
As I haven’t been able to reach anyone at the DMSB directly, it is difficult to speculate as to what is driving their moves, but I can guess that some of it is pushed by the need to manage public perception after a crash killed a spectator. Drivers willingly go into a race with the understanding of the potential of not surviving it. Spectators do not go to a race with the same thoughts. Here’s a solid business tip: don’t kill the paying customer.
Secondarily, I think the DMSB could be looking at dealing with new insurance issues as the track is no longer owned by the German government and no longer carries the immunity (or perception of immunity) that being government-owned brings.
I also think that the main reason there hasn’t been much information coming from any camp is that the politics of this issue are going to dwarf any theatrics we will see in the 2016 presidential election (unless you include Donald Trump, then all bets are off.)
In the past few years the Nürburgring has seen massive fraud, mismanagement, hundreds of millions of Euros in lost public investment, elected officials indicted, and now the death of a spectator. The insane political fine line that needs to be tread in order to make sure that the Ring still exists in a year makes Richard Matt’s dick look like a carbon nanotube.
Where do we go from here?
My first thought on this is that no matter what, the current generation of GT3 cars is simply too fast for the Nordschleife.
The next generation cars, due next year, will be even faster and less suited to competition on the track. There is simply no way, given the physical limitations of the track, to make the track safe enough to carry on at these speeds (average speed of almost 110mph on a track that resembles a glorified goat path in sections) and changing the track to suit the racecar d’jour means changing the very thing that makes the Nordschleife the legend that it is.
Accepting that reality leads us to two options:
- Banning GT3 cars outright.
- Slowing GT3 cars to acceptable speeds.
Before you have a major freakout over the prospect of banning cars, realize that there is a long history for cars being banned from the Nürburgring for being too fast. F1, Prototypes, GT1, the list goes on. There comes a period where our ability to make insanely fast cars outstrips our ability to control them safely.
Slowing the GT cars seems to be the best and simplest option. There are four basic ways to slow a race car: engine restrictors, weight, aerodynamics, and tires. Changing aero on a modern car is a vastly complex and expensive option, so this is pretty much a non-starter. Weight can be used to a degree but it is not hugely effective and usually brings more problems with it (higher stress on components, over taxed braking systems and tires, etc.) That’s not really worth exploring. This leaves engine restrictors as the most straightforward way to get the GT cars under control in a short period of time. Pull 75-100 HP from the cars and boom, everybody is happy.
The last way of slowing cars down is tires. There is a very timely article in this month’s Racecar Engineering magazine that talks specifically about tire development at the Nürburgring. The main point of the article was that even though most manufacturers have stopped development on their current cars because of the new-gen cars coming in 2016, times in this year’s 24 hour race were almost as quick as last year — and that’s with the speed limits in place now! (The limits cost about 12-13 seconds a lap over last year’s times.) So basically tire development alone has made the cars 2-3 percent quicker over a years span of time. It’s absolutely amazing what four bits of rubber can do.
The Nürburgring is the best momentum track in the world. If you can increase or decrease the amount of grip a car has in any given corner then you then can effectively control the speed at which the car can exit that corner at. If you come off a corner just 12 mph slower then you will be that much slower down the straight to the next corner… and then slower through that corner, and so on and so on.
Tires use and development are currently unrestricted in the VLN and 24 hour race unlike almost every other series in the world, most of whom have a sole tire supplier. The single best way to control speeds at the ‘Ring is to have a single tire manufacturer supply a tire to the GT field that is designed to get cars to run within a range of laps times deemed acceptable by the powers that be.
The upside for the VLN is that there would be a bidding war from tire manufacturers to be that supplier. Additionally lap times between the classes would get tighter, leading to better racing and more chance of an surprise winner from another, non GT3, class car.
So here we are again. Still a troubling time for the ‘Ring but there are still options. Picking the right ones to take the ‘Ring into the future without destroying its past is a monumental challenge. It’s one I hope that all those involved are up to.
Robb Holland is a professional race car driver for Rotek Racing and Jalopnik contributor who basically lives at the Nürburgring most of the year. He is also the tallest man in Germany.