The Nordschleife, commonly referred to as “Green Hell” has certainly claimed its fair share of cars over time. So many in fact, there is a car graveyard on the outside of Tiergarten. Although fatal crashes don’t often occur during the race meetings, the possibility is always lurking and you never know what’s waiting for you on the other side of a blind corner.
On a track that is 20 kilometres long, safety is an extremely hard thing to maintain. The catch fences that string along the perimeter of the track are scrutinized on a regular basis. But in all seriousness no catch fence is going to protect you from a 250kmp/h+ crash.
An awfully tragic representation of this occurred on the 28th of May 2015. Yes, it was a few years ago but looking at the footage it’s hard to argue against it being one of the worst crashes in motorsport history. It was the first round of the VLN Championship for the year. Germany’s premier series for those with “driving talents”. A very exciting time for fans of the category. But headlines were topped by something more disturbing. I personally remember waking up to the news after scrolling through my Facebook page and the first thing I saw at the top of my News Feed was a picture of a car flipping upside down. I was astonished. The headline read “Fan killed, several hurt in horrific Nurburgring Crash”
As I clicked through and watched the video, my mind erupted. I was just taken back by the images. People often use single words to describe crashes. There is no single word that could be used to depict this freak accident. Not even a paragraph would do it justice.
So 2 years on let’s dive deep into the evidence and look at all the factors and points of view. Ultimately to come to a definite conclusion of the whole incident that claimed the life of one Spectator just enjoying their day at the races.
Jann Mardenborough was behind the wheel of his #23 Nissan GTR GT3. As he dropped down the hill and headed over the crest at Flugplatz. The front of the car became light and suddenly Mardenborough was vertical. The rear of the GTR made contact with the tyre barrier ripping the back of the car to shreds. The GTR then pin-balled over the catch fence landing in the spectator area where race fans were running for their lives. All this happened at speeds hard to comprehend. 5 people were injured and taken to hospital, but sadly one of the innocent spectators succumbed to his injuries- Passing away in the circuits medical centre despite heroic efforts by the track crew.
Jann Mardenborough clambered out of the car that ended up on its roof and was also taken to hospital for routine checks. He was discharged a few days later.
So let’s have a glance at the facts.
Fact 1- The Driver: There is no question Jann has talent. He is the Nissan GT Academy Graduate of 2011, where he beat 90, 000 other entrants to become a factory Nissan Driver. Additionally, he was selected by RJN to be one of their drivers in the 2015 Le Mans LMP1 Effort. So not only was he experienced, but he had been racing at that level for almost half a decade.
We can also cross out the claims of his lack of “Nordschleife experience” as he had successfully completed the mandatory VLN test 2 weeks prior to the event. Passing with flying colours and acquiring his GT3 Nurburgring Permit.
Fact 2- The Car: GT3 cars have evolved immensely over the years. They are such extensive pieces of modern technology that they are actually faster than the old GT1 Cars. The main element of such a rapid advancement is a word that governs all types of motorsport. aerodynamics. splitters, flicks, diffusers, flat floors, and rear Wings the size of a fridge all aid downforce. (which stops the cars from flipping like the GTR did)
All these streamlined devices along with the weight of the car (1300kg) ultimately generate 1000kg of downforce.
The Nissans are known to have a rear aero bias, which means that the car is set up with a majority of its downforce generated in the rear. There are several reasons for this, but that would require a very long and boring engineering discussion. So, let’s just leave this as saying that the Nissans have historically pulled the biggest wheelies at Flugplatz.
Fact 3- “Green Hell”: The Nurburgring is one of the most feared race tracks among drivers. And the reason is clear. The track cuts through the Adenauer Forest. A dark, enchanted place with mythical history. Some sections of the track are barely wide enough for one car. With minimal to no run off at all and an average lap speed of 180kmp/h it easily claims the world’s most dangerous circuit label. That being said, reams of safety upgrades have been implemented to improve driver and spectator safety. FIA standard guardrails line the entire track capable of withstanding impacts that you couldn’t even dream of. Furthermore, multiple layers of fencing have been erected in popular spectator viewing areas. Flugplatz is notorious for making cars airborne. But not to the level the #23 Nissan attained. This accident is absurd. It’s totally normal for cars to slightly wheelie as they top the crest, but typically they would settle down before the right handed kink. The crest is definitely not flat out. In a GT3 car, it’s a reasonable lift and maybe even a dab of the brakes.
So that leaves us with a few questions-
- Did Mardenborough attempt to take the crest flat?
- Did a gust of wind get underneath the car and cause it to flip?
- Did the extra rear aero quintessential to the GTR contribute to the crash?
- Should there even be a spectator area there?
Well here is my view.
Having personally met Jann Mardenborough, I have extensive faith in his skill. He is not a crazy dare devil type of guy and well educated on the idea of consequences. If his objective was to take Flugplatz flat out- I unquestionably believe that he wouldn’t have done it out of the blue. It’s like taking Eau Rouge flat for the first time, something you build up to. In my opinion if a GT3 car did take the crest Flat, the car wouldn’t have done what the GTR did on that bitter day. At least not to that extent. This was a freak accident, there is no question about that. More evidence points that Mardenborough had just overtaken a car, so why would you attempt something like that having just lapped someone.
Did a gust of wind cause the car to flip? I envisage so. Although I wasn’t at the circuit that day, I personally think that the wind may have had something to do with it. On the other hand, if the wind did have something to do with it and if the wind can affect cars when they reach the crest of Flugplatz. Why hasn’t this happened before? Surely the circumstances on that day weren’t unique and rare enough?
In conclusion there is never one single thing that leads to a crash. Multiple factors always have a bearing on why a crash occurs and I think this was well and truly evident on that Saturday.
A Drivers View- Info courtesy of Motorsport.com
Darren Turner is one of the world’s top GT racers. He is a factory Aston Martin driver, and has plenty of experience of the Nordschleife in GT3 machinery.
“Obviously they are big cars,” said Turner. “And the improvement of GT3 cars over the years is probably more than people expected – the class has got quicker and quicker, at a rate no one could have foreseen.
“The Nordschleife is one of the most challenging circuits in the world, plus one of the few circuits with that magnitude of crests and rises. When you look at how the cars ride that particular hill, we’re all getting the noses of our cars in the air. It’s been part of the racing at that part of the circuit for years, from GT4 to GT3 to every car – you get some air.”
“I don’t know how you can change that scenario with the amount of speed you get that at point of the track. Unless there is a mechanism to slow us down beforehand, a chicane or something, you’d have to slow the cars down (by technical means) a huge amount.
“It’s a difficult one. The circuit has its reputation because it hasn’t really changed over the years. I really enjoy the challenge of this circuit, in GT4 and GT3. I think it’s amazing.”
Turner’s immediate suggestion is spectator-free zones, like at Le Mans, adjacent to the Nordschleife’s three big crests: “Then the only person who could get hurt is the driver, and it’s our choice to be there or not. That would be a quick change they could implement in time for this year’s 24-hour race. Then work out a long-term solution.
“You don’t want to lose the spectacle of a GT3 car racing around the Nordschleife. There’s got to be a solution to keep the spectacle, while making sure the spectators aren’t in any extra danger.
“I am happy to go back again with exactly the package that we’ve got. But I understand there is a bigger picture. With what’s happened, they need to look at the safety of the spectators themselves, whether that’s bigger fences or pushing them further back. Or, in the short term, a way that stops any possibilities of the cars getting too much lift over the jumps.
“In the history of racing, there has always been adjustments to speed to deal with safety. This is probably a time to look at that.”
Interview done by Charles Bradley- Published on the 2nd of April 2015- Motorsport.com
“It’s tough to talk about it,” Mardenborough tells Telegraph Sport. “You’ve got to do your job and move on from it. And to do my job I have to put things in their place and move forward. You never get in the car expecting these things to happen or wanting them to happen, but surprises can happen.
“It’s not something I would want anybody to experience. But the risks are there, the risks are real in motorsport. At times these are the risks we have doing a sport we love and a sport people love to come and see. It’s not like a normal incident. There is a way of dealing with it.”
He goes on: “I expected it to be normal and it was. I felt at ease. The team around me helped. And speaking to the correct people, with similar experiences, how they get over it. And by my nature too. You have to be a very strong-minded person in motorsport, and I think that helps as well.”
“This circuit and the Nurburgring were mainly the gamers’ circuit of choice,” he says. Without growing up in a motorsport family Mardenbourogh came late to this iconic event. “I had heard of it, but none of my family had any interest. I just loved cars. Whatever motorsport was on TV at the time, I would watch it. I wasn’t aware of all these different races series. When I was older, I started watching different bits of it, but I’ve still never watched more than two hours consecutively.”
The effect of the crash-
At the time, the DMSB banned SP7, SP8, SP9 (GT3), SP10 and SP-X classes from the Nordschleife. But a consensus was reached and the ban was lifted a few days later.
Several upgrades have been made to the track and a resurfacing project was completed at Quiddelbacher Hohe and Flugplatz with the objective to level out the racing surface. This ended up being a resourceful and effective resolution.
For 2016, GT3 engine power was reduced by 10 per cent as the DMSB takes every precaution necessary to avoid another tragedy. Racing legend and DMSB President Hans-Joachim Stuck” “The terrible crash at the beginning of the 2015 season was a wake-up call for all of us. “Suddenly, we saw that we had reached a certain limit.”
Today, fatal crashes still occur at the Nordschleife but ever since that grim day, not a single spectator has been killed at the track. This whole affair just reinstates that motor racing is dangerous. It’s not something to be taken lightly and there is always a risk of injury or worse.
Photos used with permission from GT Report.