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The lost circuits: AVUSring - Audi R8 drive story

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It might be an unremarkable piece of Berlin motorway now but 70 years ago the AVUSring was home to the fastest racing cars in the world.

The signs read like a scene from a fairytale. The names Grunewald, Schlachtensee and Charlottenburg evoke visions of Bavarian grottos, mountains and trolls, but the reality of cruising along the Bundesautobahn 115 towards AVUS and into Berlin is considerably less romantic.

It’s an arrow-straight piece of concrete ribbon, limited to 100kph, lined with dense forest and choked by slow-moving traffic. The chances are you’ll miss the decaying grandstand to your left as you head into the city, your attention focused on finding the correct exit for the fading truck stop at its end. It’s a grotty and unappealing entry point into one of Europe’s most charismatic cities.

But for racing fans, this outwardly unremarkable place is way beyond special, and I’ve driven 800 miles to be here. My weapon of choice for the overnight red-eye drive to Eastern Germany is an Audi R8. Ingolstadt’s first genuine mid-engined supercar is as near to perfect for the task in hand as it gets – its 414bhp mid-mounted V8 rocketed me close to 180mph at times on the derestricted A2 on the way to Berlin, and it bears the same four-ring logo that adorned the Auto Unions that cemented the AVUS circuit’s legendary status.

Although straight-line speed isn’t the R8’s major talent – that’s reserved for its roadholding and security – its rock-solid stability, accurate steering and stop-dead brakes mark this car out as the perfect long-distance tool. When you want to press on, it’s entertaining and sounds wonderful but, when trickling along, the optional magnetic ride system fitted to our car wafts over rippled concrete far more smoothly than it has any right to.

The R8’s an inspirational everyday supercar but also offers a clear insight into Germany’s passion for speed – wherever we choose to stop, we’re quizzed about it. Strangers ask what its power is, how fast it goes and if they can look at the engine. They clearly care.

But why bring the R8 to the slightly dog-eared AVUS truck stop on the outskirts of Berlin? We’re not talking where, but when. Rewind 70 years and our unlikely destination is part of the pit complex in the world’s fastest racing circuit. The gently curving piece of Armco-lined asphalt where I’m parked was once known as AVUS-Nordkurve, brick-banked to an incredible 43.6 degrees and standing over 18 metres tall. The cylindrical hotel to the right looks almost untouched from the days when it was race control and a fantastic vantage point, reverberating to the monstrous roar of the Silver Arrows as they were sling-shot onto the six-mile straight that plunged into the woodlands.

The history of the place goes back much further than that. AVUS (Automobil-Verkehrs und Übungs-Straße) was conceived by the Automobilclub von Deutschland in 1907 as a test venue for Germany’s fledgling motor industry.

It would also be suitable for motor sport, and Berlin’s population of millions was right on its doorstep. Construction faltered initially. It was stunted by a lack of Government support, despite AVUS also being a prototype Autobahn – a network of which the Kaiser was keen to establish. The track started taking shape in 1913, but before serious headway was made World War One intervened. During the next decade AVUS fell into disrepair, until it was rescued by Hugo Stinnes, who recognised its potential and stumped up the cash for its completion. And in September 1921 the track was finally opened.

The track’s vital statistics would change regularly, but this is how it looked for its first race: circuit length 19.57km, Nordkurve radius 244m, Südkurve radius 166m, track width 8m. The venue’s first race, held in September, was won by Fritz von Opel at an average of just over 80mph.

Despite its unusual layout, AVUS was spectacular and, although the straights weren’t great for spectators, braking for the turns resulted in a lot of action. In 1926 the circuit was finally blooded with its first top-flight Grand Prix, an event that proved amazingly successful with motor-mad Berliners. They turned up in their hundreds of thousands to cheer on Rudolf Caracciola as he sped at over 135mph down the straights to score a memorable first victory in his two-litre, eight-cylinder supercharged Mercedes-Benz.

It was the beginning of a glorious era. In 1934 both the Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz Silberpfeile (Silver Arrow) cars debuted at AVUS – and, although the 1934 Grand Prix was won by Guy Moll in an Alfa Romeo Tipo B Aerodynamica (at an average speed of over 125mph), it was a phoney victory for the Italian equipe – as the next five years’ results clearly proved.

AVUS was to become an integral part of Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz’ obsessive chase for world speed records, as well as for Grand Prix racing. Adolf Hitler had encouraged their activities, figuring that Germany’s domination of motor sport would reflect the country’s emerging status of industrial superpower. His Government subsidized the two companies to the tune of 500,000 Reichs Marks (RM), a huge sporting budget for the time.

By 1934 the investment was paying dividends. Hans Stuck drove an Auto Union to three new Class C world records at AVUS, including an average of 134.76mph over 100 miles. But even before the year was out, Caracciola’s Mercedes-Benz W25 had pushed that to 193.5mph. Clearly AVUS’ six-mile straights were not going to be long enough for serious record breaking, and the protagonists continued their rivalry on the Autobahn network. Despite focusing their top speed efforts elsewhere, the W25 and Type C were approaching 235mph down the AVUS straight in the lead up to the 1937 German Grand Prix – an event that became known as das schnelleste Rennen (the world’s fastest motor race).

The 1937 German Grand Prix was always going to be a silver speed-blurred demonstration run. The crowd numbered 300,000 on race day – and, with the high-speed banking in place, the race was going to be phenomenally fast. Auto Union’s Type C, with its 6-liter, 520bhp V16, went head-to-head with the 664bhp, 5.7-liter Mercedes-Benz W25 – and the three-heat event became a slipstreamer thriller. The W25s of Caracciola and von Brauchitsch won the heats, with the latter averaging 160.37mph.

By the time of the final, the crowd had been whipped up into a frenzy. They inundated the Nordkurve infield and watched as the Silver Arrows were wheeled to the start line, dominating the head of the field. When the flag dropped and the cars roared into the forest, Hermann Lang and Ernst von Delius took the lead, dicing at a furious pace. During the eight-lap decider both cars averaged over 160mph, with Lang’s Mercedes-Benz beating his rival in the Auto Union by less than two seconds.

This was the only time the Silver Arrows raced on the banked AVUSring. Following the death of Bernd Rosemeyer in a record attempt on the Darmstadt-Frankfurt Autobahn, AVUS was considered too dangerous for racing, and the Nürburgring
became the home of the German Grand Prix. That track also had its dangers, but the drivers were thankful for the decision.

The '37 race ended up being AVUS' high-water mark. Following World War Two the circuit changed – in 1940 it was joined with the Autobahn network, thus becoming the Berliner Ring. Its glory days weren’t entirely over, even if the shortened track failed to offer the speeds it once had. The banking remained intact throughout the war (although the iconic Torhaus entrance building was left in ruins) but, because of Berlin’s post-war boundary changes, the straights were shortened. A new Südkurve was installed at Hüttenweg – and remains of it are still evident by the autobahn.

Motor sport continued at Avus until 1999, but only in 1954 and 1959 did the Grand Prix cars return. The first race was a non-Championship event that was little more than a Mercedes-Benz W196 demonstration run; while the ’59 event saw the Formula One circus make the journey to Berlin, with Tony Brooks taking well-deserved and popular victory for Ferrari. But any hope of a long-term F1 future for AVUS was lost when Jean Behra crashed fatally in the race, his Porsche Spider flying over the Nordkurve banking.  

In 1967 the banking was dismantled and not a trace of the structure remains in place today, even if the rest of the track is largely intact. Racing at AVUS was now limited to national events, and keeping speeds down became a matter of priority – it was shortened twice more during the 1980s, and chicanes were put in to tame the Nordkurve. These remain a reminder of the venue’s history alongside the Autobahn today.

But in the end, the AVUSring racing circuit went out with a whimper instead of a bang, with one final historic race in 1999 taking place before the track was permanently decommissioned to become the Berliner Ring A115. The once-splendid trackside furniture has remained in place to fade quietly away as the traffic rumbles relentlessly by.

Before I set out on my trip to AVUS, I’d been warned there was nothing left, that all traces had been erased. And it was a worry, considering the past greatness of the place. But instead, there were ghosts from the track’s glorious past wherever I chose to look – from winter-worn Armco and kerbing to the decaying Tribune grandstand and AVUS hotel, which look almost unchanged from the time when the cars thundered up this stretch of dual-carriageway at over 200mph.

Although I should have felt uplifted to find so many connections with the Silver Arrows, the cold wind and endless commuter traffic were constant reminders of how these places quickly die once the echo of racing engines has faded. But that lack of romance is no bad thing – AVUS isn’t about the genial backslapping of gentleman racers. It’s an impassive monument to the pursuit of ultimate speed. Long may it rest.

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