AVUS – The Fastest Circuit on the Planet
The Automobil-Verkehrs und Übungs-Straße circuit – otherwise known as AVUS – probably stands as one of the most striking and unusual tracks in the history of Grand Prix motor racing.
A Delayed Birth
Initially devised in 1907 as both a racing circuit and as test-base for an emerging German motor industry, it would not be until after the first World War that the facility would be built – delayed for a number of years due to mismanaged finances and, of course, the war itself.
When AVUS eventually opened in September 1921, the full extent of its odd design was finally revealed.
With its two 6-mile long adjacent straights hooked together by hairpins at either end, the pin-shaped AVUS was easily the fastest closed circuit in the world.
However, it wasn’t until 1926 that the track made its Grand Prix début when it held the first ever German Grand Prix – an event won by the great pre-Formula 1 driver Rudolf Caracciola in his Mercedes SS.
Sadly, the race was marred by the death of three time-keepers, when Adolf Rosenberger Mercedes SS machine flew off the road in treacherous conditions and crashed into a marshal’s hut.
If anything, AVUS was very similar to the Brooklands circuit which held the first British Grand Prix later that year, but the owners of the German track knew that they were under pressure to preserve the German Grand Prix from the nearby and newly built Nordschleife in Eifel mountains (now the modern Nurburgring) – something needed to change to keep AVUS relevant.
Competition from the Inside
When AVUS did eventually lose the premier event to the Nordscheife, the circuit owners decided to take stock and redesign aspects of the track in order to make it completely stand out from everything else.
What they came up with was a re-working of the Nurdkurv – a corner which would become notorious for its incredibly high banking and lack of any retaining barriers, leading a steep drop to the grounds below the circuit.
AVUS re-opened in 1937 and the change to the Nordkurv was truly startling – it had now been converted into a brick-layered 43-degree banked turn and was soon christened “The Wall of Death” – a name that it would all too often live up to.
The steep banking also meant that higher speeds could be maintained throughout the turn, with an extra 20-30mph going onto the start/finish straight.
In fact, it was during the 1937 Formula Libre event that race winner Hermann Lang clocked up an average race speed of 160 miles-per-hour, with the fastest lap of the event by Bernd Rosemeyer reaching a stunning 176.7 miles-per-hour – a feat that would not be beaten until the 1971 Indianapolis 500. It also still stands as the fastest Grand Prix lap of all time.
Rosemeyer died one year later whilst trying for a land speed record run on a straight section of the Autobahn Frankfurt/Darmstadt and it was the death of the popular German that made many concerned about the lack of safety on the superfast straights at tracks like AVUS.
The circuit was simply too fast for the streamlined cars that the German manufacturers were building and with overtaking being virtually non-existent on a track that was already painfully narrow, the track would face further alterations.
The Coming of Formula 1
Following these incidents, the southern section of the circuit was demolished and joined to the Reichs-Autobahn and the reworked configuration measured just 8.3km; however following World War 2, the circuit saw very little top level racing bar four events.
In 1951, Formula 2 débuted at AVUS and ran for three years which was replaced by an F1 non-championship race in 1954; but even then the track fell silent for quite a time.
Come the end of the decade and a one-off Formula 1 World Championship race took place at the venue in 1959. Even this event courted controversy as the hugely likeable Jean Behra was killed during practice in his Porsche, thereby casting a shadow over the victory by Ferrari’s Tony Brooks.
Even prior to the 1959 race, drastic changes had to be made to the event itself – such was the level of tyre degradation during test that the Grand Prix was split into to two shortened events running at thirty laps a piece.
This race also produced one of the most stunning photographs in motor racing history – approaching south junction, the brakes on Hans Hermann’s BRM failed and the German drivers’ car pierced the make shift straw bale barrier and was thrown clean into the air.
With no seatbelts to hold him in his airborne machine, Hermann was thrown clean from his car and he was able to walk away unscathed.
Death of a Great
This was the last major event to be held at the AVUS track. Finding itself on the wrong side of safety and overshadowed by the monstrous Nordschleife, the track was reduced to holding DTM and some Formula 3 events and in 1967, even the notorious Nordkurv banking disappeared for good to become part of an intersection on Bundes-autobahn 115.
The circuit was shortened once again in 1988 reducing it to a 3-mile tour, before having further reductions in the early ’90’s – by the time AVUS was in its final formation, it measured only 1.6 miles; a brief stretch of road compared to its original layout, with a chicane being added upon entry to the Nurdkurv – the final insult to a once great circuit.
Some mammoth incidents in its later life marked AVUS out as a track still to be reckoned with, but it was the death of British driver Keith Odor in a Super Touring Car race in 1995 that spelled the end for the circuit.
A veteran’s event was held as a farewell to the track in 1999 and less than a year later, it was closed for good although symbols of its presence still remain.
The wooden grandstand parallel to the start/finish straight is now a protected historical monument and the race control tower that overlooked the north end of the circuit also remains; albeit as a restaurant and motel.
No matter what circuit is designed in the future or who designs it, it is likely that we will never see the likes of AVUS ever again and for that reason alone we must treasure this superb circuit.