The Ersatz 'Ring that never happened
- Jeroen Bruintjes (words), Frank van de Velde (photography)
- October 4, 2005
- Auto Union Type E - The stillborn 1.5-litre car: why it (almost) did exist, by Jeroen Bruintjes
- AVUS - Faster, higher, stronger, by Leif Snellman
- Horses pushing the cart, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Part 1: The pre-war experiments
- Mercedes W154 - The '38/'39 cars, by Leif Snellman/Don Capps
- Nürburgring - Lords of the 'Ring, by Robert Blinkhorn
- The 1939 European Championship - Unfinished symphony, by Richard Armstrong
Motor racing is quite simple. There’s a car, a driver and a circuit. And each corner of this triangle sprouts its own stories. Stories of heroism, of victories. Stories about the endless corners of the Nürburgring or the right crowd at Brooklands. Some tracks, though long gone, have become truly iconic – every nostalgic motorsport enthousiast has seen the pictures of the northern AVUS bend. Other tracks still breathe a unique melancholic atmosphere, like the run-down grandstands in Reims. And then there are tracks that simply never existed. Of were forgotten before they ever saw the wheels of a racing car.
In the 1930s, the government of Nazi-Germany constructed a circuit that was to replace the infamous Nordschleife of the Nürburgring. The new track allowed for much faster speeds and, being exactly 10km in length, was to have much quicker lap times. This in turn meant more fun for the one million spectactors for which the circuit was to provide accomodation. In those days, motor racing drew huge amounts of people. It wasn’t unusual to have several hundred thousands of spectators at a single Grand Prix. This is reflected in the Deutschlandring design. Parking space for over three hundred thousand cars was planned, all of which could leave the area within two hours, thanks to several direct connections to the surrounding road network. The circuit extended from an old hillclimb track near the town of Hohnstein, just a short drive south of Dresden, into a large oval. The designers got their inspiration from a number of legendary racing circuits around the world, including Mellaha at Tripoli, Linas-Monthléry, Monza and of course the Nürburgring. And there was no doubt that propaganda played a key role. This was to be the track to end all tracks. On April 27th, 1939, the circuit was baptised Deutschlandring. Enthousiastic supporters of the 1000-year empire quickly extended this into Grossdeutschlandring. But ironically, the circuit experienced the same fate as the Reich from which it had sprung. After the tarmac was layed, war broke out and nothing came of racing. The upcoming German Grand Prix was cancelled, Mercedes and Auto-Union mothballed their racing cars and nobody ever raced the Deutschlandring. Today, it’s part of the public road network.
The thing with the Deutschlandring is – very few know about it, except for the locals and some anoraks scattered across the world. And that just bogs the mind. A whopping 10km of track, lying dormant somewhere in Europe? Sadly, it took us until the summer of 2005 to visit it. But from the moment we set wheels on it, we regretted having waited that long. Don’t get us wrong: it’s not the arrival itself. Nothing could be more uneventful. One minute you’re on the country road that leads from the beautiful Elbe valley near Dresden to Hohnstein. The next minute you take a right turn somewhere and you’re on the track. Ah well. A road, going downhill into a dark forest. Nice. Is that it?
And then you find out that you’re driving in the wrong direction. When we reached the bottom of the Polenztal (Polenz gorge), we turned the car around and looked on the map. Like almost every other racing circuit in the world, the Deutschlandring is supposed to be driven clockwise. So we drove back up again. And suddenly the twisting roads turned into a very, very challenging hillclimb. It’s like Spa-Francorchamps’ Eau Rouge on steroids. Comfortable family saloons, like the one we were driving, can only mend the narrow hairpins in second gear. It’s breathtaking. You essentially need an overpowered, under-gripped, flame-belching, 1939, sixteen-cylinder hillclimb machine to make some speed here. Nothing else will do. And you would have needed that speed too if you wanted to win the race, as the climb suddenly ends in the plains, some two hundred meters above the bottom of the gorge. From there on, all your competitors in the race would have gone full throttle and top speed all the way for at least three more kilometres. If you lag behind after the hillclimb, you’re doomed.
This is the only part of the track that has seen some real action. On May 30, 1926, the Auto-Sport-Club 1904 Dresden and the ADAC set up a hillclimb called Erste Hohnstein-Rennen (First Hohnstein Race). It was run again a year later as Hohnstein-Rennen, but no races were held in 1928 and 1929, due to the economical crisis of the time. On October 5, 1930, a young Caracciola won the sports car hillclimb in a Mercedes-Benz. He set a time of 2 minutes 12 seconds. He wasn’t the only driver who became a celebrity in later years. Ernst von Delius, Hans Stuck and Bernd Rosemeyer all tried the Hohnstein race. Rosemeyer drove an NSU motorcycle during the next race, which was held on September 18, 1932. Bobby Kohlrausch won the 750 cc racing-car class in an Austin, Walter Bäumer took the lead in the 750 cc sports-car class, also in an Austin. The last race took place on September 10, 1933. Not only did this race attract over 50,000 spectators to the hills and banks, it also became the first Hohnstein race to be organised under the supervision of the NSKK. But even if the Nazis had big plans with the track: it didn’t see action again for another 18 years. Only in October 1951 did another race take place. A small part of the original hillclimb was used. Apparently, two drivers were killed. Since then, no other races have been recorded. Either the resources or the interest failed to appear in the new communist state of East-Germany. The track, basically a bunch of country roads, deteriorated for almost 40 years.
Still, something had happened between 1933 and 1951. Enter 1940, a year in which nobody expected a divided Germany and a Deutschlandring on Soviet-controlled territory. Optimistic plans for a 1940 Grand Prix season were already underway. They took shape at the Meerano meeting, held in January that year, with Italian and German race teams and government officials present. The 3-litre formula was more or less put to the grave. Europe would see a whole new class of cars, built around supercharged 1.5-litre engines. The German Grand Prix was to move to the new Deutschlandring and the Germans proposed a race in October. It totalled 250 to 300km, meaning 25 to 30 laps. When asked, Mercedes team boss Neubauer said he expected speeds on the new circuit to be at least 280kph on the straight, averaging 152-160kph (95-100mph) on the entire 10km.
But that upcoming Grand Prix left quite some work to be done. Granted, the circuit had been inaugurated. The tarmac measured 12 meters from left to right shoulder (Nürburgring’s roads are 8 metres wide). Curves showed a width of 20 metres. There were now 16 hairpins in the hillclimb section, some of them with a radius of only 15 metres. All in all, the circuit counted 35 bends. The highest point was about 200 meters above the lowest point. The maximum uphill slope was 8.8 percent, the maximum downhill grade 5.7 percent. The wide, northern curve had a banking of 8 percent. Impressive, yes, but this tarmac still had to see its first racing car. And there were no grandstands, no pits, no extra hotels, no parking lots, let alone the proposed housing for live TV and radio broadcasts. And they were never built either. Somewhere in 1940, European racing teams stopped dreaming and faced the war-struck reality. Their cars were put to rest. None of them ever raced the Deutschlandring.
Since then, mysteries remain. And some of them are quite gruesome. Like the answer to the obvious question: who built it? And who supervised the work? Was it the Nazi motor sport division, the NSKK? By 1932, construction plans were in place, but men and resources only became available a year later, when the Nazis had seized power. Those men didn’t volunteer for the job. On the contrary: most of them came from the Jugendburg Hohnstein, a small castle nearby in which one of the first concentration camps in Germany was established in March 1933. It would also become one of the worst. Every day, long lines of prisoners were forced to march into the Polenztal and work on the new circuit. The camp was gruesome. It closed again on August 15, 1934, but 140 dead bodies were discovered afterwards. The killings triggered an outrage in the press and several guards, many of them former criminals themselves, were put on trial. They received harsh sentences for abusing and killing prisoners. But by then, the climate in Germany had already changed and those men were immediately pardoned. It is a dark and scarcely documented episode in the circuit’s history.
After 1934, private contractors were sent to the Deutschlandring. However, work slowed to a crawl. Why did it take until 1940 to complete the track? Wasn’t the project important enough? This sounds strange, it was the Golden Age of Grand Prix racing after all, with both German teams becoming the fastest in the world. All that was left to desire was this brand new übercircuit. Could it have been the terrain, then, with its rocks, hills and gorges? Well, quite a lot of rock had to be moved: 30,000 cubic metres, to be precise. But still, all in all it should have posed no bigger challenge than those encountered when building the 3300km of autobahn between 1933 and 1940. The logical reason behind the slow progress was, I think, a continuous lack of qualified workers. After the Hohnstein concentration camp closed, building the Deutschlandring relied on paid workmen only. Contrary to popular belief it was quite hard to find such personnel in those days. The work was tough, underpaid und undesirable.
Back to the present. We are still at the end of the hillclimb, time to leave the dark stretches behind us. It isn’t difficult to see what the track designers had in mind when they started extending the road into a true racing circuit. As a driver, you now roar towards the grandstands and finishing straight. Suddenly the hot summer winds are in your face, sweeping across the plains. You keep roaring across Hohburkersdorf bridge. And then comes the widest, longest and fastest righthander you have ever seen. A spectacular bend, mildy banked and laid out into the landscape in such a way that spectators and drivers can oversee the entire track for at least two kilometres. That might be a humiliating and humbling experience. If you are at the back of the grid you will be able to see the leading man driving hundreds of metres in front of you. If you stand next to the road, you’ll feel baffled. It just keeps on going.
After the bend, the track enters the woods again. Now it’s all the way down to the bottom of the Polenztal, the dark and humid gorge where we started. This is tricky stuff, because every bend is a little narrower than the last. Every time you have to brake a little harder. If you chicken out and go too slow, your competitors will out-brake you in the nearest corner. Yet if you are overconfident, you’ll go too fast. Then either your 1930s brakes will burn up or your driving skills will vapourise. Trees and rock faces finish the job… Accidents like these happened frequently in the 1990s. Back then, the locals acquired the Deutschmarks and freedom to buy the fast Japanese motorcycles and tuned-up cars of which they had been dreaming so long. Every weekend saw illegal street racing with sometimes thousands of spectators. At least 15 people were killed when they tried to improve their private (and highly illegal) lap times. Since then, the whole Deutschlandring has a maximum speed of only 80kph. There are police patrols, and speed traps have been installed in the Polenztal. And on Sundays all the roads belonging to the circuit are off limits for motor cycles…
At the cosy Gasthof amidst the dark woods of the Polenztal we talk about our feelings. There is something about this circuit, no doubt. Its origin, a dark, muddy gorge, seems metaphorical for the way its construction began. And its ending: those countless stories of people speeding to their death as if they were Rosemeyer himself. It’s Nürburgring-like in its mania. But we agreed to one thing: this could have been one of the best racing circuits in the world.
To the picture panorama of our track visit...
Coda: The big what-if
A circuit that keeps so many ends untied triggers the imagination. Why not indulge ourselves in a tiny analysis of what racing at the Deutschlandring really would have been like, number-wise? What if the 1940 Grand Prix had been raced?
In Meerano, Mercedes, Maserati and Alfa Romeo agreed to send cars. The big loser would have been Auto Union, that still hadn’t finished its 1.5 litre Typ E by October 1940.
- It is safe to say though that Mercedes would have least brought in two W165s, perhaps even three or four. By then they might even have tweaked it up to its full design specification of 278bhp.
- One or more privateers might have brought the older Maserati 6CM. With only 175bhp it was bound to be an also-ran. Maserati’s improved 4CL however, with its supercharged 1490cc engine producing up to 240bhp, keeps it almost on par with the W165.
- And then there was Alfa Romeo, completing its Tipo 512 prototype in 1940. It might have been ready just in time for the German GP, since it was tested at Monza a month earlier. This car had a new flat-12 engine, delivering a stunning 335bhp. However, test driver Sanesi reported problems with the handling. At the same time, Alfa Romeo had the Tipo 158. It had around 100bhp less than the 512, but its lap times were often quicker in testing. Alfa would have had to bring 158s to the Deutschlandring since there was only one 512 ready.
Lang would have held all the cards to win this race. Being both European Champion and German Hillclimb Champion, he had all skills needed to conquer the Deutschlandring. But who would be his team mate? Both Caracciola and Von Brauchitsch were getting old. Mercedes had approached Pietsch to join the 1940 team. Also, Walter Bäumer might have grown into the coming man of 1940. Given enough W165s finished, we could have seen them both on the starting grid.
Maserati works drivers Cortese and Luigi Villoresi might have given the W165s a hard time. And in real-life 1940, another ace came back to the team: Tazio Nuvolari. The question is: would he have been a Maserati driver in our fictitious 1940, or would Auto Union have contracted him again? Nuvolari might have objected to the latter, because he would have had to spend an entire season doing nothing. Also, if Pietsch didn’t go to Mercedes, he might have driven a Maserati again. By the way, Raymond Sommer might also have brought his own Maserati 4CL.
Alfa still counted Farina, Trossi, Biondetti and Pintacuda as its team members. Pintacuda has been reported to really like the new Tipo 512, so who knows what he may have done with it. Italian Champion Farina knew the 158 better and could have given the other teams a quite run for their money.
The lap times
Now there’s an interesting question. What lap times might spectactors have expected on the Deutschlandring? For that, we divide the circuit into two parts: the hillclimb and the more or less flat part. The pre-1933 hillclimb section measured 2.6km. It saw times of 1 minutes 56 seconds in an Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 Monza, yet a strange 2 minutes 20 seconds in a lighter, nimbler Bugatti T35C. Seat-of-the-pants-wise I’d say that the 1940 cars could have easily beaten both, doing 1 minute 50 seconds, if not less.
That leaves 7.4km of ‘normal’ track. Tripoli, the only comparable real-life voiturette race, was 1.78 times as long. Here, Lang scored a fastest lap of 3 minutes 44 seconds. That would have been around 2 minutes 6 seconds on the 7.4km. So my guessing averages around 3 minutes 56 seconds for an adequate lap time for the entire track. Let’s check that against Neubauer’s estimates of an average 152-160kph (95-100mph). That calculates into times between 3 min 45 sec and 3 min 56 for the entire 10km. Same result as ours!
So shall we say: 3 minutes 50 seconds, for any combination of a good driver, a fine car and a sunny day?
Well, anything might have happened, might it not? What if the W165s pulled a new hattrick? What if the new Alfa 512 proved to be better than expected? What if Nuvolari had taken it up with Lang in a battle for pole position? And what if the race had been run again in 1941, with one or two Auto Unions? You do the math…