PH INVESTIGATES: TROUBLE AT THE 'RING
Has the Nürburgring as we know (and love) it become a lost cause?
The Ring boulevard looks deserted off season...
Back at the Ringwerk, or NüroDisney as critics refer to it, the cynically Fangio-branded El Chuco steakhouse is empty, one of the adjacent hotels deserted, the other, a four-star luxury edifice complete with casino, resorting to hawking rooms that should rake in hundreds of Euros for just €77 a pop.
OK, it's off-season and the track is shut but the whole point of redeveloping the place was to attract new people over and above the 'ring regulars. But they're not coming. And the place is now hundreds of millions of Euros in debt and fans are so worried they've set up a Save The Ring campaign, complete with Facebook page and merchandise.
Former CEO Walter Kafitz wanted more. He wanted, to quote a local we spoke with, "a castle in the sky" to out-do the real one down the road in Nürburg.
In 2004 he and the chairman of the 'ring's supervisory board Ingolf Deubel - also local minister of finance - confirmed an ambitious development plan to boost tourist numbers. Bold promises of two million visitors a year and a total of €219m of investment were proclaimed, building work starting in 2007. But according to the locals it's as if a giant, Nürburgring-branded spacecraft has landed on the track, intent on sucking in every last Euro that comes into the region.
Who's paying? PHers who, like thousands of others, pump in laps of the world's greatest racetrack at a rate of €24 a pop. Manufacturers, who fight it out for 'fastest round the 'ring' bragging rights. And local taxpayers, many now finding their livelihoods threatened by the same monolithic complex that is sucking their local government dry to the tune of €350m and counting. No wonder they're angry.
"We are scared," agrees Sabine's sister Susanne, the family's fortunes inextricably linked with the Nürburgring through racing and the Am Tiergarten hotel - a favourite of visiting 'ringers, racers and industry faces alike.
Nürburgring Automotive's control over access to the circuit as well as the resort's hotels and restaurants mean discounted rooms and meals can be bundled in with lap tickets for the Nordschleife. The Ringcard payment system for all the resort's facilities means control over all the money spent on site. Good for consumers short-term, bad for local businesses long-term.
Event organisers and local hoteliers also allege the Nürburgring demands event organisers place guests with the resort hotels as a condition of booking the track, an accusation flatly denied by our official source. "This is absolutely not true," we're told. "All of our customers are free to choose to stay wherever they like. It is true we offer all our customers a stay at the Lindner but if they choose not to this will absolutely not have an influence on track time."
Caught between the need to pay back the government (80% of profits and a minimum of €12m a year from 2013) and turn a profit for the leaseholders every Euro counts too.
PHers and other weekend visitors might wince at increases in lap ticket prices reaching 26% but we've got it easy compared with the manufacturers' industry pool. An attempt by the Nürburgring to hike charges by a factor of 10 for the collective's 16-week block booking earned a flat refusal to pay. As it stands negotiations are ongoing with several threatening to go elsewhere.
Event organisers are also hurting. Take Scuderia Hanseat. This prestigious race school has been coming here since 1958 and has, over the years, included the likes of Stirling Moss among its instructors. Supercars that wouldn't dare mix with the riff-raff on public days are de-rigueur.
Exactly the sort of people you'd think Nürburgring Automotive would welcome with open arms. But even Scuderia Hanseat faces price rises and restrictions in track access that a source told us were "unacceptable" and, at the time of writing, has no dates fixed for 2011. Legal action is being considered.
So could Save The Ring's darkest premonitions be true and the gates to the Nordschleife be locked? The Nürburgring says absolutely not.
Things are, quite clearly, on a bit of a knife-edge. Though if you're planning a 'ring trip this year you're unlikely to notice much change, beyond steeper prices and greater competition for your Euro among the guest houses and the Lindner complex up at the GP track.
But as the 'ring makes the transition from a uniquely charming petrolheads' paradise into a more ruthless commercial enterprise the very things that have inspired such passion among the faithful will be marginalised.
Is the Save The Ring movement alarmist? Possibly, but it at least gives something for those passionate about the Nürburgring and all it stands for (or, perhaps, stood for) to rally around.