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Nordschleife challenge awaits Heidfeld 27 Apr 2007

Nick Heidfeld (GER) BMW Sauber F1.07.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Bahrain Grand Prix, Practice Day, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, Friday, 13 April 2007 Race winner Jackie Stewart (GBR) Tyrrell 006 leaves the air on a jump a little way past Pflanzgarten. German Grand Prix, Rd 11, Nurburgring, Germany, 5 August 1973. World © Phipps/Sutton Niki Lauda (AUT) Ferrari suffered a fiery accident in the race which inflicted life-threatening burns. German Grand Prix, Nurburgring, 1 August 1976. World ©  Phipps/Sutton German GP, Nurburgring 6 August 1961 Stirling Moss wins in Lotus 18/21. World ©  Phipps/Sutton. Jean-Pierre Beltoise (FRA) Matra MS11, retired from the race when he crashed on lap 9. German Grand Prix, Rd8, Nurburgring, Germany, 4 August 1968. World ©  Phipps/Sutton.

BMW Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld will make history this Saturday when he becomes the first driver in over 30 years to tackle the Nurburgring’s Nordschleife track in a Formula One car. The Nordschleife last played host to a Grand Prix in 1976, when Niki Lauda’s famous accident prompted its removal from the calendar.

Safety concerns mean Heidfeld’s demonstration run will not be about setting records. Instead, BMW hope it will serve as fitting tribute to a unique motor racing circuit, one that has today become an essential destination for amateur and professional drivers the world over. We take a look back at its history.

The 'Ring was, effectively, the first purpose-built race track in the world, constructed in the 1920s to relieve the effects of unemployment in Germany's Eiffel mountains. Originally it was two separate circuits, the shorter Sudschleife (Southern Loop) and the Nordschleife (Northern Loop) which, at 13.7 miles (22km) in length and featuring a spectacular array of high-speed corners, offered one of the toughest driving challenges ever devised.

The Nordschleife was the home of the German Grand Prix from its inauguration in 1927 onwards and was the scene of some of the most famous battles in racing history. Juan Manuel Fangio took what he regarded as his greatest ever win here in 1957, closing what seemed an impossible gap in his Maserati. And Jackie Stewart also claimed an amazing victory in 1968, emerging first from a race that had been shrouded in thick fog, driving with his wrist in plaster.

But the risks of racing on such an unforgiving circuit were all too apparent. The Nordschleife was designed without run-off areas or gravel traps - in 1970 Armco barriers and a few traps were added, but it was still nearly impossible to adequately marshal its 12.4 mile (20km) length. Growing safety concerns were brought to a head in 1976 when Niki Lauda suffered a horrendous accident near Berkwerk, being pulled from his burning car by fellow competitors. The Nordschleife had held its final Formula One race, its licence withdrawn on safety grounds.

The German, European and (bizarrely) Luxembourg Grands Prix that have been held at the Nurburgring since took place on a new circuit, constructed on the site of the former Sudschleife and incorporating modern safety features. But the Nordschleife is still in use - as both a manufacturers' test track and - for those brave enough - a public toll road.

The Nordschleife was always intended to be used for road car development in additional to racing, and it is now regarded as the world's premier high-speed testing environment. For over half the year it is used exclusively by manufacturers for private testing sessions - with its combination of high-speed corners and unforgiving crests and cambers reckoned to be one of the best ways of honing the chassis dynamics of modern cars. Almost every major car maker tests on the Nordschleife, with some high-performance models developed in large part around its specific requirements.

That's not all, though - the Nordschleife is also the German equivalent of a high-speed fairground ride. During public sessions, normally held in the evening or at weekends, it is treated like a toll road, and anyone prepared to pay can drive around for 19 euros a lap. There are no speed limits, except at the start and end of the lap, and around any work being carried out, and although traffic levels are high, featuring everything from race-prepared motorbikes to tourist coaches, it is possible to get a thrilling impression of what it must have been like to race here.

The Nordschleife also gives a useful insight into how the performance of cars has changed over the years. Although slightly different circuit lengths and corner layouts make direct comparison difficult, a study of lap times on the Nordschleife indicates just how fast modern cars have become. In 1975 Niki Lauda set a sub seven-minute lap during practice for the Grand Prix in his Ferrari. In 1983 Derek Bell set the all-time lap record with a 6:26 in his Porsche 956 sportscar during the 1000 km race - and in recent times production road cars have put in sub 7:40 laps on road-legal tyres.

Which leads to the fascinating, if strictly hypothetical question, of how fast a modern Formula One car could lap the Nordschleife (not something Heidfeld will be concerning himself with this weekend)? The biggest issue would likely be that of aerodynamics - with its rough surface and several places where fast cars go airborne, the car's wings would have to be very carefully trimmed to prevent it from flipping - but a sub six-minute lap (meaning an average speed of over 140 mph / 225 km/h) might well be possible…