Nostalgia: A thing of the past?


I’ve been playing an old PC game quite a lot recently, one called Grand Prix Legends.

It’s my interpretation of Circuit Training.

Grand Prix Legends is an old Formula One racing sim in the true sense of the word, i.e. it’s a simulator more than a game. Developed by Papyrus Design Group and published in 1998 by Sierra Entertainment, it simulates the 1967 Formula One season and is considered one of the most realistic racing games ever. It is definitely not an arcade experience as there’s not a weapon or a power up in sight. This is definitely for the die hard racing sim fans.

I’ve also been reading quite a lot about some of the racing circuits that have now fallen into decline, some of them have been modernised or even rebuilt and are still in use today, but many of them show few signs that they were once such hubs of activity.

One such example is the German track called Avus which was basically a section of autobahn with a loop at each end.

You can see how the Avus circuit looked at the time with the banked Nordkurve and where the loop rejoined the autobahn.

 Here is how it looks today, still detectable to the educated eye.

The Spa circuit in Belgium is also typical of tracks of a bygone era in that it is built on real roads with houses right at the side of the track, and people would stand on the grass verges and watch the cars fly by. The late 60s and early 70s were also before the days of safety measures and regulations that were really pushed for after Jackie Stewart’s crash here when he found himself upside down in his BRM soaked in fuel and in somebody’s cellar. This was far from the only accident of note too, there was the high profile fiery crash of Lorenzo Bandini at the Monaco chicane in 1967 and then Jim Clark’s death in 1968 at Hockenheim.

Jim Clark was widely regarded as one of the greatest drivers at the time and still one of the best ever, and when he didn’t reappear at the end of his lap people drove round the Hockenheim circuit looking for holes in the trees where he may have gone off the track. They eventually found him.In fact the 1969 race at Spa and the 1970 race at the Nürburgring in Germany didn’t take place because the drivers boycotted them as safety upgrades were not installed as they had demanded.

If you want to gain a taste for what the racing in this era was like, you should watch the 1966 John Frankenheimer film Grand Prix which was released to DVD in 2006. Starring James Garner and featuring actual race footage of the 1966 races at Monaco, Clermont Ferrand, France, Spa in Belgium, Zandvoort on the Dutch coast, Brands Hatch in England and Monza, Italy with the now defunct banked curves, Grand Prix gives a good insight into the dangers and the realities of being a race driver. These classic circuits made for great racing, and in fact Clermont Ferrand was so twisty and undulating that drivers like Jochen Rindt raced there in open faced helmets in case they vomited from motion sickness.

The famous German circuit, the Nürburgring, sometimes known as simply “The Ring”, is near the town of Nurburg in Germany where it was built in the 1920s around the village and medieval castle. It remained largely unchanged until the late 1960s and was nicknamed The Green Hell by Jackie Stewart. It is widely considered, and rightly so, the toughest, most dangerous and most demanding purpose-built race track in the world.

Originally, the track featured four track configurations with a (17.and a half mile Gesamtstrecke (“Whole Course”) made up of the north loop Nordschliefe and the south loop Sudschliefe. The circuit of the same name that is used today is vastly different and positively tame in comparison.

By the late 1960s road circuits like The Nurburgring were becoming increasingly dangerous for the latest generation of F1 cars so they started to add chicanes to bring the speeds down. In 1970 Formula One drivers decided to boycott The Ring unless major changes were made, so the German Grand Prix was moved to Hockenheim which had already been modified.

Even higher demands by the drivers were either too expensive or impossible to meet due to the tracks extraordinary length and the lack of space for new run off areas as it is literally sat on the side of the mountains, so the 1976 race was deemed the last ever, even before it was held.

That year, Nikki Lauda the reigning world champion, and the only person ever to lap the full 22.8km 14.189 mile Nordschleife in under 7 minutes proposed to the other drivers that the circuit should be boycotted again. The other drivers voted against the idea and the race went ahead. Ironically, it was Lauda who crashed in his Ferrari, probably due to failure of the rear suspension, and because it was only lap 2 his car was still loaded with fuel and he was badly burned. It could have been much worse other than for the combined efforts of his fellow drivers rather than by the ill equipped track marshals who came to his aid.

The Lauda crash proved that the circuit’s distances were too long for regular fire engines and ambulances and this crash marked the end of the old Nürburgring. It never hosted another Formula One race again.

If you want a more relaxing look at the Nurburgring, go to youtube and you will see dozens of videos, both professional and amateur, showing in car footage of the circuit. Alternativley you can buy the documentary “In Car 956” by Derek Bell that features Bell driving around these old classic road circuits in a Porsch 956 with turn by turn commentary.

Incidentally the filmed lap of the Nurburgring featured in the documentary was the 4th fastest ever around the circuit.

If you want to experience it for real, then at certain times such as weekday evenings and some weekends the road (for that’s what it is) is given the legal status of a one way road with no speed limit, so you can take your road legal car or motorbike along and drive around the Nordschliefe. Sadly the Sudschliefe is partly abandoned and partly used as an access road to the new F1 circuit though you can still gain access to parts of it.

Drving on the Nürburgring is only permitted using vehicles which comply with the law and which can achieve a minimum speed of 40 km/h. Joining and leaving the circuit is only allowed at the official entrances and exits, and vehicles must drive on the right, in particular when overtaken, when on crests, in bends or in case of breakdown. Stopping is strictly forbidden, including on the grass next to the track. Racing is prohibited and this includes attempting to set speed records with individual vehicles, though you can see in an episode of Top Gear Jeremy Clarkson trying to get around the circuit in under 10 minutes using a diesel saloon car.

Perhaps one of the most famous things about the Nurburgring circuit is the corner known as the Carousel. Although it is one of the slower corners on the Nordschleife, Karussell is perhaps its most iconic because of its banking. It came about when a driver called Rudolf Caracciola used to drive around it by hooking his inside tyres into a drainage ditch allowing him to take the corner more quickly. As more concrete was uncovered and more and more drivers copied his technique the trend took hold, and when the corner was reconstructed it was made with real concrete banking, as it remains to this day. As it is such a slow corner and because of the variation in viewing angle as cars rotate around the banking, it has become one of the circuit’s most popular locations for photographers.

The entrance to the corner is blind, although Juan Manuel Fangio is reputed to have advised a young driver to “aim for the tallest tree” and this tree was built into game versions of the circuit. For more information, pictures (both historic and recent) visit nurburgring.org.uk.

If you want to experience the Nurburgring in game form it is featured in Forza Motorsport on Xbox and Gran Turismo 4 on Playstation 2, but for the real thrill of the circuit you need to experience it in Grand Prix Legends.

For some reason I seem to be sticking to German circuits here, but a good example is the already mentioned Hockenheim circuit which has been remodelled in recent years.

You can see here where the old track used to disappear into the forest where the modern day Formula One cars would reach incredible speeds of over 210mph.

Now the circuit breaks away here and turns sharp right.

 

Sadly though, unlike some circuits like where the road has been left intact and in some cases still in use, the old Hockenheim track has been ripped up and to some extent reclaimed by the forest.

By looking at the treeline you can see where the old forest section ran. The part of the circuit where Jim Clark lost his life, later named the Jim Clark Chicane, had a memorial erected in his memory, this memorial has now been relocated and sits approximately in the centre of the old circuit.

The new Hockenheim circuit layout has been well received, but the new Nurburgring feels pale in comparison. In fact a shadow of its former self which shares only the start-Finish straight with it’s iconic predecessor.

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