Ever since Niki Lauda's Ferrari exploded in a fireball on the Bergwerk corner in 1976, the Nurburgring circuit has been deemed too dangerous for Formula One, instead hosting car companies putting new models through their paces and amateurs trying to set records on a rush of adrenalin.
But after local politicians loaded it with debt equating to about 50 years worth of profit, the famed and feared track went into administration and is now looking for a new owner.
Completed in 1927, the Ring was built to showcase German auto engineering and racing prowess, and now the country's deep-pocketed carmakers have been cited as potential bidders.
The assets include the track and adjacent amusement park, which features a rollercoaster that mimics the cockpit g-force in an F1 car - although after four years, safety concerns have a delayed its maiden voyage until the end of this month.
There are precedents for such interest.
Porsche bought the Nardo Ring circuit in Italy in May 2012, while Silverstone, the home of the British Grand Prix, is owned by a group of more than 800 drivers including F1 stars such as Lewis Hamilton.
Indicative bids are currently being assessed for the track and park, which typically has an annual revenue of €50-60 million (R670-815 milion) underlying profits of €6-8 million (R80-110 million), making it more profitable than many carmakers. By law, any buyer must keep the circuit open to the public and the motor industry.
Administrator Thomas Schmidt said he had “a sufficient number of legitimate non-binding bids for all the Nurburgring assets” and was hoping for a deal early in 2014.
Daimler , BMW and Volkswagen declined to comment.
Peter Meyer, president of German motoring club ADAC, which has also said it is seriously considering making a bid, commented: “The Nurburgring is without a doubt the cradle of German motorsports; it's an automotive cultural treasure.”
German carmakers in particular have long had an affinity with the track. Daimler traces its “Silver Arrow” heritage back to the 1934 Eifel Race around the Nordschleife, or north loop, which it won after the Mercedes team famously scraped the car's white paintwork off the metal body to shave weight.
Manufacturers still use the Nordschleife to test handling and durability against the gruelling wear-and-tear it inflicts on chassis and suspension.
Setting a new lap record confers ultimate bragging rights on carmakers.
It also brings risks - more than 230 accidents and three deaths in the past two years - mainly involving motor enthusiasts who flock to the track on days when it is open to the paying public.
Barring ice or fog, the track closes only for secretive “industry pool” days staged between April and October, when carmakers rent the course for their own tests and paparazzi lurk in the trees, hoping to snap the latest prototypes.
The rest of the year, the Ring remains open to amateur racing fiends who pay €26 (R350) a lap to put their hot-rods and supercars through its exacting corners.
German police even applaud the practice, arguing the Nordschleife serves as a valuable outlet for speed freaks that otherwise would pose a danger to road safety.
Professionals, however, advise extreme caution.
Vincent Radermecker, a Belgian driver who has raced in the World Touring Car Championship among others, warned: “It's the toughest track by miles. If you make a mistake here, you destroy the car, and yourself.”
It is by far the world's longest racin circuit at 20.832km with a mind-boggling 73 bends, too many for neophytes to remember, and sharp crests that can catapult a car into the air at breakneck speeds.
To help with learning the terrain, drivers bestowed nicknames to sections over time like Bergwerk, where Lauda crashed, Carousel or Gallow's Head, where legend has it a local earl once staged public executions.
‘PRACTICE ON PLAYSTATION FIRST’
In the course of a lap, cars tackle altitude changes equivalent to London's Shard skyscraper and, on a circuit this big, some parts can be slick with rain while others are dry.
Tyre grip is further complicated by the irregular mosaic of rough and smooth surfaces, the result of years of subsidence and repaving.
Undulations in the nearly 90-year-old circuit prompt professional test driver Dirk Schoysman to advise newcomers to first learn the course virtually with the aid of a video game such as Sony's Gran Turismo before taking to the asphalt.
“This area is volcanic and even though it's inactive, the ground is still moving,” said Schoysman, who claims after 16 000 career laps there is “nothing else in the world like it”.
The Nurburgring's mystique only grew once Lauda crashed right after warning fellow drivers of its dangers, and the track's lore holds a particular fascination for carmakers in Asia, where Formula One draws some of its most devoted fans.
South Korean budget brand Hyundai spent nearly €7 million (R95 million) building a new trackside test centre, one of only five carmakers to do so, in the hopes of narrowing a perceived gap with European rivals in ride and handling.
Hyundai's European marketing chief Mark Hall point out: “Anything we can make of that facility and the link between the Nurburgring and Hyundai is fantastically useful for me.”
Nissan strategy chief Andy Palmer believes fame on the Nordschleife can help him sell his GT-R, and wants the $100,000 (R990 000) sports car to go down in the history books as quicker around the Eifel circuit than rivals costing 10 times as much.
Palmer personally tested the GT-R's performance on this most dangerous of proving grounds.
“Hopefully it will be the fastest four-seater around the Nurburgring.”
Ahead of the upcoming launch of its 918 Spyder, Porsche invited witnesses in september to see the $1 million (R9.9 million) hybrid-electric clock a lap time that confirms it as the fastest production car yet using street-legal tyres.
At the other end of the price spectrum, Honda claims its 206kW Civic Type R hatch will claim the Nordschleife speed record for front wheel-drive cars when it debuts in 2015.
Hyundai's Hall, himself a former Toyota manager, said: “The Japanese and Koreans certainly see the Nurburgring as the centre of excellence for driving dynamics.”
Spa Francorchamps, a Formula One circuit 65km away in Belgium, shares the same hilly topography and capricious weather as the Nordschleife. It is still in use, however, because its length - roughly one-third of the Nurburgring - is more easily covered by firefighters and paramedics.
“F1 doesn't race on such long distances any more because it's very difficult to control.”
Lamborghini boss Stephan Winkelmann lost a friend to the Nuerburgring in 2001. Christian Peruzzi, Fiat's head of operations in Germany, died from massive head injuries after his Alfa Romeo 147 barrel-rolled multiple times on the Swedish Cross stretch.
“He lost control of the car on a corner,” Winkelmann said.
Lauda of course was luckier. Although badly scarred in 1976, he went on to win two more Formula One titles before re-inventing himself as an aviation entrepreneur. The eventual buyers of the ‘Ring will be hoping they can turn the track's fortunes around and restore it to its former glory. - Reuters