x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Nurburgring's hazy future as German Grand Prix host

Financial constraints could mark end of circuit on the F1 calendar, yet concerted efforts are being made to save it, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Sebastian Vettel, driving at the Nurburgring yesterday, believes retaining the grand prix make financial sense for the country.
Sebastian Vettel, driving at the Nurburgring yesterday, believes retaining the grand prix make financial sense for the country.

NURBURG // The Nurburgring, positioned high in the Eifel mountains, appears to be permanently enveloped in dark clouds, so it will come as little surprise to those familiar with the race circuit that an equally bleak future is being predicted.

During Michael Schumacher's dominant era in the 1990s and 2000s, Germany appeared twice annually on the Formula One calendar. The Nurburgring hosted the European Grand Prix and the Hockenheimring, located 200km south-east of here, hosted the German Grand Prix a few months later.

Such was the optimism that, in 2004, an ambitious €219 million (Dh1.5 billion) development project was signed off for the complex in Nurburg that aimed to increase visitors to two million per year. Construction work started in 2007.

Yet by 2008 both circuits were running at a loss and it was announced the European Grand Prix would move to Valencia and the German Grand Prix would alternate between the Nurburgring and Hockenheim. It was billed as a means of allowing both circuits to continue hosting motorsport's elite showpiece while also allowing prospective host venues such as Singapore and Abu Dhabi a place on a coveted calendar.

Three years later the Nurburgring has undergone significant redevelopment. Visitors now making the journey through the twisting country roads are greeted with a large hotel and entertainment complex, complete with a rollercoaster not too dissimilar to Formula Rossa, the focal point of Abu Dhabi's Ferrari World.

This weekend, the rollercoaster is not operational, but the restaurants, cafes and nearby merchandise shops are filled with F1 fans. Outside of grand prix weekend, however, it is understood visitors are scarce.

"A giant screen blasts out images of motor racing and high-octane excitement, but there's nobody watching," reported Pistonheads.com in January. "Bored shop staff count the seconds until closing time. Welcome to the Nurburgring, 2011."

The changes at the circuit are not only infrastructural though; administration alterations have also been carried out. The complex continues to be publicly owned by the state of Rheinland-Palatinate, but on May 1, 2010, businessmen Jorg Lindner and Kai Richter acquired the right to manage it.

The circuit remains in massive debt, but with a new coalition government - made up of Social Democrats and the Green Party - coming into power earlier this year, funding for the race is set to be substantially decreased, with minister Eveline Lemke indicating funding may be withdrawn altogether.

Lindner is meeting with Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's commercial rights holder, this weekend to negotiate a contract. Despite having been quoted by local press as saying F1 will only return to the circuit "if a future contract includes economically and politically acceptable conditions", he told The National yesterday he is "very confident" the circuit will feature on the 2013 calendar.

"The Nurburgring, in the European competition, is in a very good position," Lindner said. "We cannot compete with the likes of Abu Dhabi money wise, but the tradition is here. Germany is important for Formula One and the Nurburgring, with all the investments you see, is in a very good position. I am very confident we can reach an agreement."

Lindner did, however, acknowledge that any future deal was "pretty far away". "I have met Mr Ecclestone a few times and have had very good meetings," he said. "They way I understand it is you make a deal with him and then it has to be put into words. Not to make jokes about Anglo-Saxon lawyers, but I think the hard bit comes in creating the agreement with Bernie in written words."

Lindner will be aided at the negotiation table this weekend by Karl-Josef Schmidt, who is credited with having successfully brokered a reduced hosting fee for Hockenheim. He left Germany's other F1 venue last month following a dispute with members of the city council regarding cost-saving measures. Since July 1, he has been employed as managing director of the Nurburgring.

"At Hockenheim, we were successful, so why would we not be here?" said Schmidt, who added he had also faced a change in government in his previous position. "We will come to a compromise."

Formula One drivers - of which a quarter of the field are German - certainly hope so. Schumacher, the seven-time world champion, said "it would be a shame" if the Nurburgring was unable to host a round, while Sebastian Vettel, who won the drivers' title in Abu Dhabi last year, said he believed the sport makes financial sense for the country.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

 


Follow The National Sport on @SprtNationalUAE & Gary Meenaghan on @GMeenaghan