Senna stuns rivals at the reopening of the Nürburgring 1984
The Nürburgring Nordschleife is probably the most revered, respected and remarkable racetrack in the world. Its modern configuration puts drivers through 73 bends and 20.8 km of what Jackie Stewart nicknamed ‘The Green Hell’ and its mastery demands a lifetime. A lifetime constantly in threat of being foreshortened by the Nordschleife’s endless bends, unforgiving run-off (or lack thereof) and treacherous surface. The track alone has enough history and intrigue to inspire an entire library of automotive interest, but our interest here lies in a most unique and wonderful bout of retro motorsport that took place at the reopening of the Grand Prix track in 1984.
The Nordschleife was used for the German Grand Prix from the late 1920s, but as the 60s grooved on into the 70s the track was starting to show its age and Formula 1 (F1) cars were getting too fast to race on the bumpy and narrow circuit safely. The prodigious length of the track was also proving dangerous due to the length of time it would take safety crews to respond to accidents around the back end of the track. Calls to have the race taken off the calendar were made throughout the early 70s and a program was initiated from 1970 with the goal of making the track safer, including erecting barriers and creating run-off areas. In 1976 Niki Lauda called for the race to be boycotted and was outvoted by his fellow drivers. Early into the event Lauda, carrying a full load of fuel, crashed into a barrier, caught fire and was badly injured, escaping with his life due to the actions of his fellow drivers. Lauda’s crash led to the Nürburgring’s F1 license being revoked and the German Grand Prix being moved to nearby Hockenheimring from 1977.
The Nürburgring was not out for the count, however and a spectacular promotional event was held on the 12th of May, 1984 to celebrate the opening of the new Grand Prix track. Mercedes provided a field of past, present and future F1 legends with 20 identical 190E 2.3 16s for an action packed session of drifting and place battling over a 12 lap race around the new Grand Prix track.
The car was a 16 valve Cosworth Mercedes 190E 2.3-16. Mercedes had built the 190 with an eye for competing in motorsport, initially planning on racing in rally before Audi trumped them with the turbo 4WD Quattro. Instead they would enter the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft – the German Touring Car Championship series. In order to do this Mercedes had to have a production model available and thus was born the 190E 2.3-16. The car featured an aerodynamically tuned body kit, quicker steering ratio, racing pattern gearbox, LSD and sports tuned suspension.
The cast of drivers was seemingly pulled from the halls of F1 legends; including Elio de Angelis, Jack Brabham, Hans Herrmann, Phill Hill, Denny Hulme, James Hunt, Alan Jones, Jacques Laffite, Niki Lauda, Klaus Ludwig, Stirling Moss, Alain Prost, Carlos Reutemann, Keke Rosberg, Jody Scheckter, Udo Schultz, Manfred Schurti, Ayrton Senna, John Surtees and John Watson. A field of such calibre guaranteed an exciting race and the drivers didn’t disappoint, putting on a wonderful display of skill and competitive spirit as they fought for victory around a damp and misty track.
Alain Prost qualified fastest (Road & Track – August 1984), fresh off the F1 circuit, as his F1 contemporaries fought to catch up and the old guard got their eyes in, some not having raced competitively in many years. By the end of qualifying the field had evened out and the Nürburgring was set for an epic battle between a field of racing champions with careers spanning several decades. The race took place on a damp track, the exhibition nature of the event forgotten as competitive spirits rose and drivers battled it out in true touring car style; friendly bumps aplenty and rear wheels spinning around damp corners as drivers took great liberties with the track in search of the fastest line. The race was a close-run affair, a testament to the competitive spirit and professionalism of the drivers, especially those who were able to come out of retirement and hit competitive times so quickly. Victory went to the, at the time, relatively unknown Ayrton Senna, leading Niki Lauda after a spirited bout, with Carlos Reutemann rounding out the podium.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Peter Egan (Road & Track – September 1984) “In all, it was a marvellous event; 20 legendary drivers in equal cars, drifting and sliding on street tires. If this race were part of a series, I’d stand in line all night to buy season tickets. I can’t help feeling that, by autumn, certain drivers with a touch of gray in their sideburns would have little trouble finding those long lost second and fractions of seconds.”.
Egan, P. (1984) ‘Lions, Young and Otherwise’ from ‘Side Glances’, Road & Track September, 1984.
(1984) Road & Track August, 1984.