Bidders on the grid for Germany's legendary Nuerburgring
FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Ever since Niki Lauda's Ferrari exploded in a fireball on the Nuerburgring in 1976, the circuit has been deemed too dangerous for Formula One, instead hosting car companies putting new models through their paces and amateurs trying to set records on a rush of adrenaline.
But after local politicians loaded it with debt equating to around 50 years worth of profit, the famed and feared track went into administration and is now looking for a new owner.
Completed in 1927, the Ring was built to showcase German auto engineering and racing prowess, and now the country's deep-pocketed carmakers have been cited as potential bidders.
The assets include the track and adjacent amusement park that features a rollercoaster that mimics the cockpit g-force in an F1 car - although after four years, safety concerns have a delayed its maiden voyage until the end of this month.
There are precedents for such interest. Volkswagen's Porsche bought the Nardo Ring circuit in Italy in May 2012, while Silverstone, the home of the British Grand Prix, is owned by a group of more than 800 drivers including F1 stars such as Lewis Hamilton.
Indicative bids are currently being assessed for the track and park, which typically has an annual revenue of 50-60 million euros and underlying profits of 6-8 million, making it more profitable than many carmakers. By law, any buyer must keep the circuit open to the public and the motor industry.
The administrator, Thomas Schmidt, said he has a "sufficient number of legitimate non-binding bids for all the Nuerburgring assets" and hopes for a deal early next year. Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen declined to comment.
"The Nuerburgring is without a doubt the cradle of German motorsports," said Peter Meyer, President of German motoring club ADAC, which has also said it is seriously considering making a bid.
"It's an automotive cultural treasure," he said.
German carmakers in particular have long had an affinity with the track. Daimler traces its "Silver Arrow" heritage back to the 1934 Eifel Race around the Nordschleife, or north loop, which it won after the Mercedes team famously scraped the car's white paintwork off the metal body to shave weight.
Manufacturers still use the Nordschleife to test handling and durability against the grueling wear-and-tear it inflicts on chassis and suspension. Setting a new lap record confers ultimate bragging rights on carmakers.
It also brings risks - over 230 accidents and three deaths in the last two years - mainly involving motor enthusiasts who flock to the track on days when it is open to the paying public.
Barring ice or fog, the track closes only for secretive "industry pool" days staged between April and October, when carmakers rent the course for their own tests and paparazzi lurk in the trees, hoping to snap the latest prototypes.
The rest of the year, the Ring remains open to amateur racing fiends who pay 26 euros per lap to put their hot-rods and supercars through its exacting corners.
German police even applaud the practice, arguing the Nordschleife serves as a valuable outlet for speed freaks that otherwise would pose a danger to road safety.
Professionals, however, advise extreme caution.
"It's the toughest track by miles," Vincent Radermecker, a Belgian driver who has raced in the World Touring Car Championship among others. "If you make a mistake here, you destroy the car, and yourself."
It is by far the world's longest race track at 13 miles with a mind-boggling 73 bends, too many for neophytes to remember, and sharp crests that can catapult a car into the air at breakneck speeds. To help with learning the terrain, drivers bestowed nicknames to sections over time like Bergwerk, where Lauda crashed, Carousel or Gallow's Head, where legend has it a local earl once staged public executions.
In the course of a lap, cars tackle altitude changes equivalent to London's Shard skyscraper and on a circuit this big, parts can be slick with rain while others are dry. Tire grip is further complicated by the irregular mosaic of rough and smooth surfaces, the result of years of subsidence and repaving.
Undulations in the decades-old track prompt professional test driver Dirk Schoysman to advise newcomers to first learn the course virtually with the aid of a racing game like Sony's Gran Turismo before taking to the asphalt.
"This area is volcanic and even though it's inactive...the ground is still moving," said Schoysman, who claims after 16,000 career laps there is "nothing else in the world like it."
Graphic of the track: link.reuters.com/hez93v
The Nuerburgring's mystique only grew once Lauda crashed right after warning fellow drivers of its dangers, and the track's lore holds a particular fascination for carmakers in Asia, where F1 draws some of its most devoted fans.
South Korean budget brand Hyundai spent nearly 7 million euros building a new trackside test centre, one of only five carmakers to do so, in the hopes of narrowing a perceived gap with European rivals in ride and handling.
"Anything we can make of that facility and the link between the Nuerburgring and Hyundai is fantastically useful for me," said Hyundai's European marketing chief, Mark Hall.
Nissan strategy chief Andy Palmer believes fame on the Nordschleife can help him sell his GT-R, and wants the $100,000 sports car to go down in the history books as quicker around the Eifel circuit than rivals costing 10 times as much.
"Hopefully it will be the fastest four-seater around the Nuerburgring," said Palmer, who personally tested the GT-R's performance on this most dangerous of proving grounds.
Ahead of the upcoming launch of its 918 Spyder, Porsche invited witnesses last month to see the $1 million hybrid-electric clock a lap time that confirms it as the fastest ever production car using street-legal tires.
On the other end of the price spectrum, Honda boasts its 280-horsepower Civic Type R hatchback will claim the Nordschleife speed record for front-wheel-drive cars when it debuts in 2015.
"The Japanese and Koreans certainly see the Nuerburgring as the centre of excellence for driving dynamics," said Hyundai's Hall, himself a former Toyota manager.
Spa Francorchamps, an F1 track 40 miles away in Belgium, shares the same hilly topography and capricious weather as the Nordschleife. It is still in use though because its length - roughly one-third of the Nuerburgring - is more easily covered by firefighters and paramedics.
"F1 doesn't race on such long distances any more because it's very difficult to control," said Lamborghini boss Stephan Winkelmann, who lost a friend to the Nuerburgring in 2001.
Christian Peruzzi, Fiat's head of operations in Germany, died from massive head injuries after his Alfa Romeo 147 barrel-rolled multiple times on the Swedish Cross stretch.
"He lost control of the car on a corner," Winkelmann said.
Lauda of course was luckier. Although badly scarred in 1976, he went on to win two more F1 championships before re-inventing himself as an aviation entrepreneur. The eventual buyers of the Ring will be hoping they can turn the track's fortunes around and restore it to its former glory.
(Editing by David Evans)
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