Heaven’s On Fire At The Oldtimer Grand Prix

Living near the Nürburgring is already a rich experience. After all, you’re lucky enough to have the Nordschleife – the most insane stretch of public road in the world – on your doorstep, and the forest around you invariably echoes to the sound of combustion engines being pushed to the limit. But then every couple of months the pitch increases and the heat gets turned up, as hordes of thoroughbred racing machines descend on the track. There are the frequent VLN sportscar races, the Formula 1 Grand Prix in alternate years and of course the Nürburgring 24 Hours. And then there’s the annual Oldtimer Grand Prix, which takes everything to a glorious level of automotive joy.

The clock gets turned back, and for three days there’s a riot of fire and smoke as drivers pit themselves as much against the racing monsters beneath them as the other cars.

These are no platforms for high-tech demonstration of what modern suspension and tyres are capable of. They’re squirming, howling monsters lurking just over the horizon, ready to pounce at the first sign of prey.

They don’t want to stop.

They don’t want to stay attached to the ground.

They have no interest in smooth cornering.

Welcome to the onslaught from the land that time can’t forget.

The Oldtimer GP is now in its 41st year, which along with putting many other vintage racing events to shame makes itself is technically historic! It’s a helter-skelter journey across seven decades of racing machinery, with a fair percentage of participants claiming pedigree around the Nordschleife itself.

Junior single seaters from the ’60s rubbed shoulders with big banger GTs from the ’70s…

There were Formula 1 cars from the ’80s courtesy of the FIA Historic Formula 1 Championship and the ’50s in the Historic Grand Prix Cars field; vintage tourers, GTs and saloons from across four decades; World Sportscars from the ’70s and so much more. Even if you just stood next to by Parc Fermé for the entire weekend you would have come away more than satisfied with the awesome machinery you had been spoiled with.

But then, every pit box and corner of the paddock was stuffed with more cars to ogle, and even what wasn’t racing was impressive. The combination of manufacturer, series and team displays were more than enough to both wear out a pair of walking shoes and load your brain with enough images to last a lifetime.

Paddock transport could also stop you dead in your tracks. Monkey bikes, scooters and quad bikes, sure – but how about owning a street-legal Group C Dome RC82? This is the actual chassis that raced at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1982, just now with 450hp of Chevrolet V8 and road tax.

But with the Oldtimer GP being in Germany, what I wanted to experience up close was the best of that country’s racing output. After all, Germany arguably has more of that in both quantity and quality than any other country. This is the land of three letter acronyms that have been etched into the annals of motorsport history: DRM, STW, ITR, DTM… This is what I hoped to see. At the Oldtimer GP I saw it. And I was pleased.

Looking at the name stickers on the sides of cars, the same names kept coming up – those of legendary drivers that patriotically represented their domestic brands of BMW, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and Opel over the years. Drivers like Bernd Schneider are still winning now, almost two decades after becoming DTM champion for the first of five times.

Some subsequently became famous as team owners in their own right. Nürburgring specialist Olaf Manthey won numerous domestic titles before concentrating on perfecting Porsches for the ‘Ring and now for the World Endurance Championship. I visited his workshop over the weekend, which we’ll be featuring next month.

Like any country with a strong motorsport tradition, the privateer teams are as loved as the manufactures – if not more. Kremer Porsches featured strongly on the Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft grid, in more recognisable RS/RSR form and with the extreme K3.

Zakspeed is predominantly associated with Ford, but also fielded BMWs and Mercedes across its long history. My single disappointment for the weekend was that the team didn’t bring the fearsome DRM Capri this year, but their Group A E30 M3 from 1987 was impressively quick.

BMW had strong representation in the ’60s and ’70s from privateer tuners like Alpina, with its fire-breathing (not really a surprise in this company) 3.0 CSL three-wheeling around…

… and also an AC Schnitzer 3.5 CSL which was only marginally less entertaining.

And then there were the instantly recognisable liveries, few of which can beat the iconic orange of Jaegermeister…

… or the simple but classic stripes of factory-backed BMWs.

The Oldtimer GP ran on the modern Grand Prix track except for one special event on the Friday, which saw a huge field of ’60s touring cars and GTs take part in the three and half hour AvD Historic Marathon around the Nordschleife. The last time I was at the Nordschleife was for the 24 Hours endurance race back in May, and the difference between the modern GTs and vintage racers was stark. The sheer speed and cornering ability of the GT3 machines is impressive, but you can’t beat a wallowing Ford Galaxie trying to negotiate Pflantzgarten – especially when Stig Blomqvist is at the wheel!

It appeared that ‘taking it easy’ wasn’t on the menu. Having driven the Nordschleife for the first time ever over the weekend, I have even more respect for drivers who take it at racing speed. I add incredulity to that when something like a softly-sprung and over-powered Mustang or the Morgan pictured near the beginning of this story were involved.

Then add drifting 911s; MGs and Healeys on three wheels; GT40s and E-Types – just incredible!

Much as it would have been great to see the other races take the left at the end of the GP track and out onto the Green Hell, with so many cars taking part half-hour races were all that were allocated. Three lap runs around the Nordschleife would have been a difficult sell to the crowd.

But whereas the spirit of the 24 Hours is concentrated with the fans in the forest around the Nordschlieife, the Oldtimer GP seems to take over the entire local area. As with the Goodwood Revival and other vintage events, the on-track action is really only a small part of the atmosphere. The Oldtimer GP spills out of the paddocks and onto the local roads, which were alive with fans’ cars mixing in with competitors.

This made driving to the track in the morning without distraction particularly difficult. Vintage cars pass by from the left (tell me that’s not Jeremy Clarkson at the wheel?!)…

… legendary sportscars pass by from the right – particularly Porsches. So many Porsches. The Oldtimer GP turns normality on its head, making stunning vintage classics the norm and regular town cars the exception. Parking areas were awash with beautiful, rare and exotic cars, and we’ll be taking a look around those in a following story.

But here I’m gong to concentrate on the track cars. There’s something so visceral about watching these old cars on the limit: the nose rearing up on acceleration and buried into the tarmac under braking. The drivers are operating in a properly mobile environment whose relationship with the track is often remote at best.

The variation of machinery is another thing; sportscars have always tried to retain a passing resemblance to the original model, but who can fail to love racing cars so wide that the inside of their wheels are where the outside of the road car’s would normally be…

It’s also a reminder that stance is nothing new…

Glancing through the official programme it was clear that there were so many cars that I rarely got the chance to see, many which were themselves rarely represented by a single car. Why have one when you can have three Porsche 356s? And in fact there were five in total racing in the Pre-61 GTs.

Amongst it all, there were three races that I was particularly excited about seeing. Firstly the DTM/STW Und Tourenwagen Revival – 20-plus racers from 1970 to 1993, showing off the impressive history of the domestic touring car series. The Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft rose up in the mid-80s as the DRM was in sharp decline, and continues to this day as the home to some of the most extreme cars to carry the touring car epithet. Sadly this early C-Class wasn’t racing, but the rest of the grid meant that was no issue.

The E30 BMW blitzed races across Europe and beyond, with the 2.5-litre four-cylnder a potent package and the wide bodywork riding low around those beautiful white OZ Racing wheels on this example. And the livery? Tick that box.

But if the M3 was hardly a surprising car to take racing, I always thought that the Mercedes-Benz 190E was a different proposition. This was supposed to be a compact executive car, but AMG brutalised the 190 in the early ’90s to create these thuggish racers. Five Evo Is and IIs were racing, all making their unique and unholy sound.

Mercs and BMWs are a given, but the DTM-STW field also included some left-field examples from other manufacturers. A Volvo 240 Turbo, Ford Capri Perana and Rover Vitesse were joined by this Maserati Biturbo from the ETCC.

But in reality I was mostly looking out for two things. Firstly there was the promise of at least one Kremer Porsche K3. Kremer itself was due to campaign its Jaegermeister car, so I was pretty sure that my K3 fix would be taken care of.

But it turned out things were even better than hoped for. At the front of the packed DRM Revival grid, my orange joy was flanked by the red ex-Bob Akin 1980 IMSA K3, plus a 1978 yellow K3 which scythed through the pack from the back after the massed rolling start.

My second prayer had gone out for an M1. I’d heard that they were a popular choice in the DRM race, so well, I was pretty sure I’d get to see at least one.

Then I came across the Team Graber Sportgarage tent-come-M1-paradise and had to steady myself. I quickly ran out of fingers as I walked down the line – I’d already got half a dozen to contend with…

Nine in total ran in the DRM race alone. Then I steadied myself as the BMW Rennen field came blasting down the straight towards me. 17 M1 Procars. One-seven. Heaven was on earth.

And heaven was on fire. The majority of M1s seemed to be running so rich that not only did they pop the odd flame on overrun, but the things were actually on fire for a good five or six seconds until the driver got back on the throttle. I have never seen such an awesome display. Difficult though it was to stop giggling like an idiot and tear myself away from the fireworks, there was another joy to shoot…

… which was also an M1. The battlestar Schnitzer M1 Turbo from 1981, to be precise. Similarly popping flame, the turbo car was almighty quick in a straight line and up the front of the field. However, it showed that the sorted E30 M3 from a decade later was no slouch, as the 1990 car was able to keep in touch with its thuggish older cousins. This was no doubt helped by preparation courtesy of BMW Classic and period driver Johnny Cecotto being behind the wheel…

Until the recent M3 GT2, I have to admit that my love of BMW race cars finished in about 1993; give me a vintage CSL…

… or even better – a Group 5 E21 320 – any day. But then we’re back to the fact that Group 5 is still the most amazing racing series ever (in the opinion of Rod and myself, in any case…).

Kremer rocked up with a trio of cars to run in DRM. The K3 was backed up by the 1975 Samson-liveried Carrera RSR that Sean and I had seen in the final stages of rebuilding after visiting Kremer in the run-up to last year’s Spa 24 Hours, as well the ex-Bob Wollek K2, which was driven by Kremer boss Eberhard Baunach.

But it seemed that the majority of Porsches running had emerged from the tender care of Kremer, including this 1974 3.0 RSR.

The Group 5 Capri might have been absent, but a pair of RS3100s from 1974 were a fair replacement – especially this car running in factory Cologne colours.

And once again, if you looked further than the flames and big names you’d be rewarded with some rare gems, like this 1970 Opel Commodore GS2800.

Somehow I’ll manage to drag Alfa Romeo into this to finish things off; the Montreal raced in the Eifelrennen at the Nürburgring in 1971, the year before the inaugural DRM season, but snuck into the DRM Revival race. But if you’re number one you don’t need to try harder…

Next up I’ll be running the ‘Ring with Derek Bell to commemorate the renaming of a Nordschleife corner after Stefan Bellof, taking a look at the BMW and Opel displays and walking the vast expanse of car clubs and car parks.

Jonathan Moore
Instagram: speedhunters_jonathan

Speedhunters at the Nürburgring

Kremer Racing on Speedhunters