Tradition and change at Nurburgring

The historic Nürburgring is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The course has been reconfigured again and is now more scenic than ever before. Nowhere are tradition and change so closely linked than at the Nürburgring. The Ring has undergone ...

The historic Nürburgring is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The course has been reconfigured again and is now more scenic than ever before. Nowhere are tradition and change so closely linked than at the Nürburgring.

The Ring has undergone continuous change since its opening in 1927, when it was billed as a 28.2km "mountain, racing, and test track": from the Nordschleife, or "northern loop", which is eight kilometres shorter and was still used for races in the sixties and seventies, to today's Grand Prix circuit which was launched with much fanfare in 1984. Located in the Eifel region of Germany, the circuit has been modernised in recent years - for instance, new pitlane facilities were opened in 2000.

And because standing still in Formula One means moving backwards, restructuring work continues today. Cars will race on a completely new stretch of track at this year's race. The Castrol S-bend at the end of the start/finish straight has been turned into a motorsport arena, with new grandstands providing space for an extra 8,000 to 10,000 spectators.

Dr. Walter Kafitz, CEO of the Nürburgring GmbH, lists four reasons for the restructuring work: "Spectator comfort, better visibility, more room for passing manoeuvres, and therefore more exciting races". This is unusual, given that the main reason for restructuring racing circuits in recent years has been to improve safety - for instance, at Spa-Francorchamps, Suzuka or in Montreal, where run-off zones in corners have been enlarged. The new Nürburgring, in contrast, has been considered one of the safest of all Formula One tracks since 1984. All of the FIA recommendations for race courses have been implemented in full on this circuit:

Modifying dangerous track sectors. For example, the chicane before the bend leading into the start/finish straight.
Making the circuit safer with guard rails, safety fences and tyre barriers.
Adding wide run-off zones.

All these recommendations have become mandatory when courses are first built. They have been met on the new part of the track, of course, which was designed by Hermann Tilke. (designer of Sepang circuit in Malaysia). The new Hockenheimring also put safety first in restructuring the first corner after the start – while also making it more attractive for the spectators. The new asphalt track is 14 to 15 metres wide, with a camber of 2.5 percent and a height range of 7.7 metres.

The racing line through this sector is 710m long and is marked off by wide run-off zones. As an interesting point of comparison, the reconstruction project, which costs seven million euros, included 2.5 new hectares of asphalt racing track whereas the surface area of the safety zone was expanded by 3 hectares.

The edges of the run-off zones are lined with several rows of tyre barriers, which have been bolted together and lined with conveyor belting in accordance with FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) specifications. These help to absorb impact forces in the event of a collision. Behind the tyre barriers, safety fences protect the fans. From the new grandstands, spectators can now see the cars for more than 16 seconds per lap.

Tradition and modernity also meet when it comes to making the streets of Germany safer. Planners have an array of measures at their disposal, including speed limits, reduced-traffic zones in urban areas and Armco barriers. These have become indispensable, particularly in motorway construction.

There is a debate currently about the tree-lined country roads that are found in some parts of East Germany. The problem is that while old trees should clearly be protected, they can pose a hazard to drivers by creating sudden changes in lighting conditions. This is especially true when drivers exceed the speed limits. "Experience has shown that warning signs and speed limits are not enough to make people aware of the danger," notes Dr. Hartmuth Wolff from the Allianz Center for Technology (AZT).

Erecting Armco barriers is a far more promising approach to the problem. Efforts are focussing on a new system of flexible road boundaries, which can absorb a significant proportion of collision force in the event of an impact. These barriers are currently being tested for the first time throughout Europe - on country roads in East German provinces.

The barriers' high degree of flexibility has been achieved by the use of plastic damping elements and integrated plastic zones that create a "bumper effect". A further advantage of the system is that whereas conventional barriers always have to be erected over long stretches, the new version can be limited to a few metres, or even to individual trees.

As Wolff explains: "This allows room for cyclists and breakdown vehicles to swerve out of danger if necessary." And he also notes that it avoids the so-called "tunnel effect": Tests have shown that barriers on both sides of a road tend to encourage drivers to increase their speed.

Both racing circuits and normal roads should be as safe as possible. There's no room for complacency in their design, so restructuring work is ongoing to incorporate changes recommended by the latest risk studies. Safety, after all, should always be the priority.


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Series Formula 1