Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Nordschleife

At mid-morning on Saturday the rain had stopped but down the Foxhole the road was still streaming wet. Shallow sheets of rainwater were rippling down diagonally from kerb to kerb across the kinks of the track. Down here among the dripping firs it was impossible to hear anything of activities at the start/finish, but one could visualize the drivers running round and round the pits loop taking the pulse of their cars and heating themselves up for the plunge out around the mountains. Not a timed session, this, no real necessity for doing a full lap. But not unwise to try one, at least, just to see...

It was many long minutes into the session before an engine could be heard nearing the Fuchsrohre section. It came through thinly at first and intermittently, isolated bursts of power modulated by passage over hill crests and across valleys and filtered through the shaggy limbs of millions of trees, but each time it was nearer and clearer, until with abruptness it was here, just up over the top of the ridge on the entrance to Schwedenkreuz. The sudden straining of the engine was cut off, there were cracklings and blippings. Then from a new direction, around the shoulder of the hill, the car came powersliding out of the Aremberg hairpin. It was little and slithered on its tyres, and spray was rising up behind. The driver's helmet bobbed as the car lunged over humps and waggled between the kerbs. It hurled itself forward under the road bridge - throwing ahead of it a brief reflection of noise from the concrete surfaces - and dropped down the hill. But the smoothness of the descent was interrupted as once, twice, three times and more the driver slacked off his foot on the way down to the bottom. The black shape of the car dissolved in the boiling grey water thrown up by the tyres. Then even that vanished, and there was nothing left but the hard horn of the engine: moments of strong driving power, then tentative slackenings and cracklings. Up the swerving hill to Adenauer Forst; away through the gears to Metzgesfeld and down around Kallenhard; the loom of the hills above Wehrseifen cutting off the noise finally almost completely. The moan of full power still came back occasionally, but across miles now.

Minutes passed. The twin paths left by the rain tyres gradually filled in, and the road glistened again. The silence of the forest crept back slowly, like the confidence of a frightened wild animal.

But a new noise was crashing through the wood. Another car, the second, and this was running harder. It cried defiance over the ridgetop and its deceleration into the hairpin was briefer. The car swung around into sight with its wheels running up on the kerbing; then it squatted and burst out under the bridge. Down the valley a wet metallic blur, the turmoil of vapour streaking along behind. From kerb to kerb, running nearly straight as the road weaved, down to the distant bottom of the dip, and not for an instant did the driver's foot ease. The strident engine howled unchecked as the car became a comet of water spray up the other side, arcing quickly out of sight under the trees. Hard, long, confident bursts of power through the swerves; hard, sharp deceleration at the next crest; hard, quick sure acceleration away. The noise hung in the air angrily, abandoned by the speeding machine.

Halfway down the Foxhole, in the long grass behind the guardrail at one side, a pair of rubber suited marshals moved their shoulders and spoke at once. They used the word Konig, and laughed. The sense of their remarks was that they guessed they knew now who was the king of the 'Ring.
The most northerly corner on the 'Ring is Bergwerk, a tight right-hander around a blink bank with a house on the outside. Approaching this is a downhill bit of road, which kinks slightly to the left. This kink can't really be considered a corner, and in normal conditions a driver wouldn't have a problem there. But for some reason never resolved Lauda lost control of the Ferrari,

His left side wheels appeared to brush the kerbing at the apex and the tail snapped out to the right. Then, like lightning, it snapped the other way, and without any further correction the car plunged head-on toward the right of the track. It spun clockwise as it went, so that it was travelling backwards when it finally contacted the catch-fencing on the outside verge. There were two rows of fencing, quite close together, and just beyond was a steep grassy hillside.

Both left side wheels were torn off the car, and the left side fuel tankage was ripped open as well, as the Ferrari went through the fencing, careered off the embankment, and went on through the fencing again. At the same time, according to filmed evidence, the catch-fencing, pulling over the driver's head from a rearward direction, snagged his helmet and plucked it off his head - depositing it neatly in his lap and leaving him protected only by his fireproof balaclava.

There was fire, according to witnesses, from the time it was through the fences against the bank, and as it went back down it trailed a river of burning petrol across the road. One rubber fuel cell was torn loose from the monocoque and went some distance on along the road on its own.

Edwards, braking heavily, made it through the gap to the left of the burning wreckage with just a glancing blow. Lunger was aiming for the same gap, but saw the Hesketh slowing and tried to change to the right. His front tyres lost their grip on the combination of mud and petrol and the Surtees went head on into the Ferrari. This impact pushed both cars into a little whirling dance, which was stopped by Ertl's car hitting the Ferrari hard, and bouncing it back against Lunger's.

Everyone along behind managed to stop without further shunting, and the drivers nearest waded into the low thicket of flames to Lauda's cockpit. They could see him moving, "sort of waving his hands around his head as if he was trying to beat the flames away." Lunger, Edwards, Ertl and Merzario worked over him for a moment, but couldn't lift him out. Ertl went away to fetch a fire bottle. Lunger jumped up to straddle the cockpit and pull on Lauda's shoulders, while Merzario reached into the cockpit and released the harness. Then as Brett heaved upward, whatever his left foot was on gave way; Lauda was partially out and the two tumbled together sideways to the ground

(Pete Lyons, Autocourse 1976-77, p144 and p148).

In-car, a lap of the Nordschleife with Hubert Hahne in 1967. "It's hairy stuff, alright":

In-car with Derek Bell, a lap of the Nordschleife in 1983:

Fabulous footage of the 1967 German Grand Prix:

Lauda's crash:

He was back 6 weeks later:

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