Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Field of Dreams

Hats off, I think, to BMW for letting Nick Heidfeld loose around the old Nurburgring in a modern F1 car. To my knowledge, its the first time a contemporary F1 car has been driven round the 'Ring since James Hunt won the last German Grand Prix to be held there, back in 1976. OK, so Nick admits that this was no banzai attempt to smash the lap record. BMW had put him on 'demonstration' tyres which were around 10% slower than the race rubber, even at the highest possible ride height, the car couldn't get around Karussel and it was geared to go no faster than 275kph down the fearsomely long Dottinger Hohe.

The end result was that his 8m 34s time was in no way representative of what a modern F1 car could do, given free rein. Even allowing for the demonstration rubber, even allowing for the fact he had to slow down for the cameras in a few places, and even allowing for a certain sense of self preservation, there is little doubt that Heidfeld was never attempting to run at a really quick pace. After all, Stefan Bellof managed to get a heavy, and by modern standards, slow and primitive Porsche 956 round the circuit in a little over 6 minutes, at the last really serious race to be held at the old 'Ring, back in 1983.

On the one hand, I'm disappointed that Heidfeld wasn't let off the leash a little more. I'm sure that a modern F1 car would have little trouble breaking the 6, if not perhaps, the 5 minute barrier without the driver having to take any undue risks. And the onboard footage would have been absolutely breathtaking . On the other hand though, perhaps it is more appropriate that the outright records remain in the hands of drivers who were pushing to the limits in competition, to Bellof (outright) and Lauda (F1), rather than going to an F1 driver doing a press stunt in a car vastly superior to anything that ever raced there in anger. And we'll always have Derek Bell's 'In Car 956' footage. (A poor quality version can be found on Youtube.)

Sometimes, I think F1 goes too far in compromising the essential spectacle of the sport in the name of safety, whether it be the slowing of the final corner at Barcelona, the removal of the walls from some parts of Monte Carlo or the vogue for absurdly huge tarmac run-offs at new circuits in Bahrain and Turkey which fundamentally trivialise the consequences of driver error. I cannot, however, argue that the old Nordschleife is in any way a suitable circuit for a modern F1 car. There is no way that a circuit which used to see single seaters regularly airborne, which has so many blind crests and which is, after all, 14 miles long could host a Grand Prix now. As Anthony Davidson pointed out in an article for Autosport a couple of years back, in a contemporary F1 car, there is every chance that the driver could be flat out for minutes on end around the 'Ring.

No, I'm just glad that there was a time when it was possible to race state of the art racing cars round so daunting, so beautiful a circuit. That, even if it was all over before I was born, it was possible to go racing at such a mad venue. There may be nothing like it on the calendar now, but at least there are the stories: of Jackie Stewart's 4 minute winning margin in the rain in 1968, or Juan Manuel Fangio's comeback drive in 1957. And there's the pictures - most iconically - of all manner of single seaters airborne at the aptly named Flugplatz.

There is something though, which was a massive part of what made the Nurburgring so special, which I really wish was emulated more in modern F1 circuit design. Elevation change. I grew up watching F3, touring cars and even, on one occasion, truck racing, at Brands Hatch and Oulton Park. These were circuits with some pretty serious undulations, and finding the limit at, say, Deer Leap or Paddock Hill Bend was something which really separated the men from the boys. For the most part, Herman Tilke's efforts have been disappointingly flat (though I've always liked Sepang anyway) but there is a sign that with Turkey, he has begun to understand what can be gained from including a hill or two. Lets hope there's more of the same at Singapore and Dubai.

If you really want to see something truly in the spirit of the original Nordschleife though, forget cars and look instead to those crazy guys on motorbikes. Specifically, look to the Isle of Man at the end of the month. The TT is over 100 years old, and the Snae Fell Mountain Course is 37 miles long - or 2.5 Nordschleifes! The big names may stay away these days - World Champions Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini won the event many times, but Valentino Rossi et al have never shown any interest - but this is perhaps the purest road race left in the sport. See it before they ban it.

Post-script: As many of you will no doubt be aware, it is possible for anyone to turn up in their own car and drive the Nordschleife. A friend went round it in his Mazda RX-8 recently and spoke glowingly of the experience. Even if he did end up getting rather scared by the bikers...

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Anonymous Richard said...

I don't think you can necessarilly blame Tilke for the lack of elevation change in modern circuits. For a start, many flat circuits joined the calendar before he was the 'official FIA designer'. More importantly though, he doesn't get any say in where circuits are constructed. If the developers can only get a patch of desert or reclaimed swamp, there's not going to be many interesting geographical features to work with.

Although Bahrain is pretty bland as a circuit, it does have some elevation change and I gather Tilke did have some say over the buldozing of hundreds of tons of sand to achieve that. But with Sepang and Shanghai, there's not much he could do.

Turkey is highly rated in large part due to the elevation changes, but that is merely a consequence of when the Turkish motorsport federation looked for a site for a circuit, all they could find was some waste ground on the side of a hill.

5:32 PM  
Blogger Nicebloke said...

When I did a somewhat "scientific" analysis of what makes for a great track last year, gradient was one of the five factors I considered. Of the top 11 tracks, only two (Le Mans and Monza) could be considered flat. Come visit us here in California and you'll love Laguna Seca and Sears Point!

9:03 PM  

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