PH Investigates: Trouble At The 'Ring

The Ring boulevard looks deserted off season...
The Ring boulevard looks deserted off season...
A giant screen blasts out images of motor-racing and high-octane excitement but there's nobody watching. Bored shop staff count the seconds until closing time, the fronts of fancy boutiques framed by tracks of an inoperative roller-coaster. Welcome to the Nürburgring, 2011.

...and it's the same inside.
...and it's the same inside.
Later the same day the legendary Pistenklause down the road in Nürburg itself is doing a roaring trade, boisterous beer-fuelled conversation echoing off walls and ceilings covered in photos, artefacts and autographs of 'ringers and racers past and present.

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.

The Pistenklaus remains popular
The Pistenklaus remains popular
So how did we get here? Brace yourself, this gets complicated! The basic facts though. The Nürburgring is publicly owned by the state of Rheinland-Pflaz and the facilities until recently run by Nürburgring GmbH on behalf of the state.

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.

Linder hotel - lights on, anyone home?
Linder hotel - lights on, anyone home?
By May 2010 Kafitz and Deubel were gone and in their place a partnership between hotel owner Jörg Lindner and investor Kai Richter - two of the key players in the controversial redevelopment programme - took out the lease to run the whole shebang from the local government as Nürburgring Automotive. A local government bailing out a project whose claimed visitor numbers had been exaggerated, whose costs had spiralled, whose investors turned out to be non-existent and whose vision was flawed.

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.

Sabine Schmitz and 911 GT3 'taxi'
Sabine Schmitz and 911 GT3 'taxi'
"They are destroying everything," says local legend and Save The Ring figurehead Sabine Schmitz. "Everything we build up in 80 years they destroy in one year."

"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."

Developers want more of this...
Developers want more of this...
And Nürburgring Automotive says at peak periods there still aren't enough beds in the area and new, non-motorsport events like the Fisherman's Friend Strongman Run will bring in thousands of new punters to the benefit of all.

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.

...but claim tourist laps are safe
...but claim tourist laps are safe
Were they getting it too cheaply? "Absolutely," says our Nürburgring spokesperson. "They were paying less per hour than it costs to rent the kart track ... but we're confident the industry pool will be at the Nürburgring in 2011."

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.

RSR is undergoing a legal battle
RSR is undergoing a legal battle
But if the example of Ron Simons of long-established rental and instruction outfit RSR Nürburg is anything to go by Scuderia Hanseat shouldn't get its hopes up. Annoying the new management at the Nürburgring is a risky strategy and after challenging a number of alleged infractions against circuit rules Simons fought it out in the courts, only to lose and find himself, his cars and his employees banned from the circuit. An appeal is pending.

So could Save The Ring's darkest premonitions be true and the gates to the Nordschleife be locked? The Nürburgring says absolutely not.

Will local businesses be driven out...
Will local businesses be driven out...
"The Nordschleife and public driving is just so important for us!" says PH's source. "We are doing everything we can to keep the Nordschleife and tourist drives alive," a ker-ching from the barriers every time they let a car out onto the circuit almost audible in the background.

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.

...and will we be able to afford to play?
...and will we be able to afford to play?
That famous outline of the circuit, a badge of honour worn by those initiated in the Nordschleife's fearsome and uniquely challenging tarmac, has now become a piece of branding, a symbol of a new age in which the 'ring caters to those with the deepest pockets, not simply the willingness to lay it on the line for a taste of motorsport glory washed down with a frothing glass of Bitburger.

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.

Comments (140) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Craigyp79 04 Jan 2012

    Well the rollercoaster thingy was closed when I was there for the Oldtimers GP in September!

  • Bodo 02 Dec 2011

    Now, after one season, what happened to this story? Any news?

  • Ross Parker 26 Jan 2011

    Yea charge the big boys loads who own the multimillion pound car marques. I have only been in the week so maybe this is why I didnt come across any "chavs",it was mostly hardcore brit petrolheads who were happy to chat or locals.Much better in the week as not so hectic and less coaches and vans.

  • dustybottoms 25 Jan 2011

    The nostalgia on this thread is obviously typical, people saying they were there in 80’s and 90’s and it was better then; a petrolhead secret shared among a select few who were there for the right reasons, others blaming Top Gear, blaming cocks in Corsa’s, blaming the internet, blaming themselves for taking friends etc etc. Come on guys there were others there way before you!

    It is a unique and special place and still remains so.

    It’s still a fun place to visit and I agree with the other comments about the road trip blast across Europe with mates, car parks full of some cool machinery, queuing for petrol being fun, the local hotels, bars and restaurants being what it is all collectively about, a place for Petrolheads to be Petrolheads and that is still enjoyable and still worth the money and effort. Long may it reign in one form or another.

    Incidentally for nostalgia sakes; my Dad did hundreds of laps of the Ring in the 40’s, he would tell you that it hasn’t been as challenging or as raw as it was in his day for decades, that commercially there was nothing there then: you could join the track at various points as there was no fence and no gates and it was free. It has always been a special place, more so than any other track.

    He would still love to go back for one last blast (passenger ride now at his age) as in his opinion there is still nothing else like it anywhere in the world, he thinks it’s great that so many people still want to go and visit what is a unique experience.

  • flemke 23 Jan 2011

    heebeegeetee said:
    Ah. I was thinking only of the Nordschleife when i posted. What's the fiscal position of that, or is it all wrapped up together?

    (I must admit i was completely forgetting about the Bernie factor at the Sudschleife.)

    I have my answer smile. Tourist Laps: The Future
    Does something on that thread actually answer your question about financial breakdown between the 2 venues? I'm afraid that I can't see it.

    Of the 3 revenue streams out there, 2 could be easily isolated. The Industry Pool uses only the NS, and the TF uses only the NS (99% of the time. On the rare bank holiday, they have opened the full, connected, circuit for TF.)

    Racing is a bit more difficult to isolate and allocate. The majority of racing events (F1, DTM, trucks, FIA-GT, etc.) have nothing to do with the NS (although I am confident that the fact that the race is held at the "Nurburgring", rather than at Hockenheim, is marginally appealing to some people).
    However, the 'Ring's 2nd-biggest race, which every other year is its biggest race, is the 24 Hours, and that requires both the NS for the circuit and the GP for the pit complex. The same applies to the 10-race VLN series, and components of the Oldtimer and Youngtimer racing weekends. That is, those events perforce use both circuits to generate a single revenue stream.

    Both circuits have the same maintenance crews using the same equipment to look after them, and the circuit administration and "management" (obviously, in at least the historical case, one must use that term very loosely) would be shared by both as well.

    It is possible that 3 smart people who had intimate knowledge of the place could sit down and collectively estimate the relative economic contribution of the 3 components. Anything short of that would be speculation, even if rubber-stamped by an accountant or politician.

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