Has there ever been a crazier race circuit in the world? A flat-out blast through the outskirts of Berlin, AVUS (or Automobil Verkehrs and Übungs-Straße, to give it its full name) was the venue for evocative names such as Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz to battle it out and prove their prowess.
While its heyday may have been in the pre-war years where the silver arrows battled it out around the high-brick banking, it played host to Formula One in 1959 in a one-off race before becoming an annual fixture on the German national calendar in increasingly shortened form until the late-1990s.
Safety concerns were always prevalent and it was these which finally brought proceedings to a halt, along with the opening of other permanent circuits. Today, however, you can still visit the Mercedes-Benz tower and restaurant, while the old grandstands have been transformed into an events room and home to broadcaster Hauptstadt TV.
The circuit was conceived as early as 1907 by the Kaiserlicher Automobilclub (KAC) association, as fee-financed test and racing track for the burgeoning motor industry. A holding company was formed in 1909 but it took until 1913 for funding and official authorisations to be in put in place, allowing construction to begin.
Located in the Grunewald district of south west Berlin, the road linked Charlottenburg to Nikolassee, with lightly banked return loops at either end. In total, the track was to measure over 12 miles in length, most of it completed at top speed and with a grass verge separating the southbound lane from the northbound.
Funds had dried up by 1913 with only half the track built and the outbreak of World War One meant building work would not resume for some years. Entrepreneur Hugo Stinnes rescued the project from the post-war financial abyss and it finally opened for business in 1921.
While conceived as a closed-road testing and race circuit, the AVUS could be enjoyed by those with the automotive means to do so when not in use for racing. A payment system was administered at the imposing gatehouse next to the northern loop and pit straight, with each lap charged at 10 Reichsmark and a quarter year at 1000 Reichsmark .
Being a pioneer brought its own teething problems and even from the first racing event the limitations of the original tar-macadam road construction became apparent. The greater loads imposed by racing machinery quickly deteriorated the surface and lead to uneven bumps, some as much as 10 inches in height, which would become extremely hazardous in adverse weather.
Much research was carried out over the years to improve this situation and the AVUS was among the first roads in the world to receive an asphalt surface. The construction techniques pioneered here would go on to be used across Germany (and further afield) with the major expansion of the autobahns.
Racing takes time to take hold
It took several years for the international car racing scene to take in interest in Berlin’s curious new circuit, but motorcycle races were held from 1922 onwards, though usually not along the full length, with a special hairpin delivering the two-wheelers back onto the return leg roughly halfway along the straights .
The track hosted the first German Grand Prix in 1926 for sportscars, won by the great Mercedes driver, Rudolf Carraciola. The race, however, was plunged into tragedy when Adolf Rosenberger crashed into a scoring hut, killing all three occupants. It followed the earlier death during practice of Carlo Cattaneo, the passenger and mechanic of Luigi Platé.
These tragedies perhaps prompted the Grand Prix organisers to switch the race to the seemingly safer Nürburgring for 1927, during which the AVUS received its new asphalt surface and served as an experimental track for rocket cars. On 23 May 1928 Fritz von Opel ("Rocket Fritz") achieved a speed record of 238 km/h (148 mph) in an Opel RAK2.
The downturn in the economy caused by the Great Depression meant annual auto races were not resumed until 1931, when Caracciola again won in a Mercedes-Benz SSK. The following year saw Manfred von Brauchitsch triumph, after Caracciola had switched to Alfa Romeo. Often the AVUS-Rennen events included motorcycle and sidecar races among the roster of races.
The 'Wall of Death' arrives
In an effort to make AVUS the world's fastest race track, the 1936 season was skipped in order to allow construction of a new section of high-banking at the northern end. High-banking doesn’t really do the new brick construction justice: the incline of 43° is the steepest ever used on a racing circuit and meant the corner could be taken virtually flat out. It quickly became dubbed the "Wall of Death," especially as it had no retaining barrier so any errant cars that missed the turn could easily fly over the edge.
Construction of the surrounding road network as part of preparations for the Berlin Olympics meant the new Nordschleife was of smaller radius than before and now located on the other side of the Halenseestrasse administration building. A new control tower, complete with its famous Mercedes star on the roof, was constructed overlooked the exit of the banking, while imposing new grandstands sprang up alongside the start/finish area.
While no motorised action took place in 1936, the circuit was used for the Olympic cycle road race, the marathon and the 50 km walking athletics events.
When the revised circuit opened in 1937, average speeds jumped by around 20mph. The 1938 AVUS-Rennen would prove to be the only time the famous Silver Arrows Grand Prix cares of Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz would battle it out on the high-speed test of nerves. As a non-championship event, cars with aerodynamic covered wheel bodywork were allowed, and a race of slipstreaming was envisaged.
The event race was run in two heats; during qualifying for the second, Luigi Fagioli stuck his Auto Union Type C on pole position, with a time of 4 minutes and 8.2 seconds, lapping at an average speed of 280 km/h (174 mph). This was the fastest motor racing lap in history at the time. In the race, winning Mercedes driver Hermann Lang set an average speed of 276 km/h (171 mph), another record. To put these in context, it would take until 1957 and the Race of Two Worlds at Monza for a faster qualifying lap average to be set, while the race record would stand for 50 years, finally being bettered at the 1986 Indianapolis 500...
In truth, even with these staggering speeds the races were slightly dull affairs for the spectators, who were faced with short bursts of action before a long wait to see the returning cars thanks to the long lap length. After the first year, most races would use the short motorcycle variant of the course, in order to provide the viewing public more chances to see the cars go by.
The love affair with absolute top speed proved short-lived; in early 1938 ace driver Rosemeyer was killed during a speed attempt on an autobahn near Frankfurt and it was quickly considered that AVUS was too dangerous for the Grand Prix cars of the day. The AVUS-Rennen of 1938 was run without them.
Plans were afoot to to build a new banked southern loop, offset to the right of the course in the Grunewald Forest. This was in anticipation of the demolition of the original southern loop due to the connection of the circuit to the new autobahn network that was quickly connecting the major cities of Germany. It meant that the AVUS had come full circle: the formerly closed-road course would become a public highway for most of the year, requiring closing to road traffic when racing events were on.
Ground works were begun on the new Südschlife and including the construction of a scale model of the banking in the woods nearby. However, before it could be completed war had once again broken out in Europe, and construction fell silent.
The AVUS suffered poorly during the conflict: the administration and toll building was heavily damaged and was torn down after the war. This was of little consequence, given that the route was now a public highway in any case. The circuit also suffered some damage from military vehicle use and, rather like the Norisring in Nuremburg, found itself used on one occasion as a marching ground, when President Truman inspected US troops during the Potsdam Conference.
With Germany in financial ruin, it took a long time for racing to resume. In the interim, the area of the unbuilt Südschliefe found itself in use as a cold war firing range for American troops, the banked earthworks providing a ready-made barrier to capture the munitions. It would remain in use until the fall of the Berlin Wall and today the site has been cleared and abandoned to the undergrowth.
In all, the racing engines fell silent for 14 years until funding was in place to bring the circuit back to life in 1951. The brick-surface of the banking needed much attention, while the unbanked former motorcycle cut-through loop was refurbished to form a permanent new southern end to the course. It’s a persistent myth that the circuit was shortened due to half of it finding itself in the Russian sector and thus the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. In fact, this was no closer than a mile away to the old Südschliefe, though the track may have straddled the British and American sectors.
The shorter track was still a flat-out blast and seemed to be gathering a bigger international reputation. The first race back was for Formula Two and Formula Three cars, won by East German driver Paul Greifzu in front of a crowd of 350,000. Karl Kling won as Mercedes swept to an impressive 1-2-3 finish in the non-championship Formula One Berlin Grand Prix in 1954.
In 1959 the AVUS finally managed to wrest the German Grand Prix away from the Nürburgring. The race was notable on two counts: firstly, it remains the only World Championship Grand Prix to be run over two heats, after concerns over tyre life on the raised banking were raised during practice. Tony Brooks triumphed in both to win overall for Ferrari.
Secondly, and more significantly, the event was remembered for the death of Jean Behra in a supporting sportscar race. The French ace flipped his privateer Porsche over the top edge of the banking, sadly giving the nickname the 'wall of death' unwanted resonance. It spelt the end of the course as a venue for major international events and indeed there were no further car races for three years as shocked authorities worked out what to do.
Motorcycle races would continue largely unchanged, but when racing resumed in 1961, only smaller category touring cars and sportscars were allowed. Time was running out for the fearsome banking as the rising speeds of even less-powerful cars steadily continued to rise.
In the end, it was the further development of Berlin’s road network that spelled the end. Plans for a new completely flat Nordschleife were developed which would see the radius further reduced to squeeze in a new autobahn intersection around it.
The first of numerous supposed ‘last’ events took place in 1967, when the touring cars bid farewell to the banking in June and then Manne Loth won the final ever race to use the brick loop when he triumphed in the 125cc motorcycle race on a very wet track in September. The following day the bulldozers moved in to begin the demolition.
New Nordschliefe opens
Racing continued on a makeshift course using only the straights for several events in 1968, used by both cars and bikes, but it was a two-wheel only affair in 1969 and ‘70. Finally, the new loop was ready by 1971 and racing could return in earnest, just in time to celebrate the circuit’s 50th birthday.
Higher powered single-seaters returned in 1976, when Swedish driver Conny Anderson took his March-Toyota to victory in a Formula 3 meeting. Germany’s most prestigious championships also started to return, including the Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft in 1978, won by Toine Hezemans in a Porsche. The fantastic BMW M1 Procar series paid a visit the following year, Manfred Schurti winning, while the German sportscar championship raced at AVUS in 1983, with Bob Wollek taking victory in his Porsche 956 at record speed for the shortened track.
But it was with the arrival of the DTM touring cars in 1984 that the circuit underwent a mini-revival, with the Berlin venue proving extremely popular with race-starved fans in the north of the country.
AVUS was shortened for a second time in 1987, with a new, tighter, Südkurve hairpin being built closer to the pits than before. National championship racing continued with the DTM touring cars and supporting classes. The old battles between the 'Silver Arrows' were even revived for a time when Audi re-entered the fray to battle against the hordes of works Mercedes.
Another added draw for the crowds were the antics of Gerd Ruch and his team of Ford Mustangs, which despite being developed on a shoestring and being raced under dispensation, always ran near the front thanks to their prodigious straight-line speed. Handling on the corners was not a strong point though, and Gerd would find himself swamped as he fought for control under braking and then see-sawed round the corners!
Rising speeds forced another shortening of the track in 1992, when the Südkehre was moved even closer towards the start/finish, though a key benefit for the crowds was the fact that the cars now passed by much more frequently.
The DTM boys continued to be the main attraction for a few years, with Stefano Modena steamrolling the opposition to win the double for Alfa Romeo in 1994, while Kurt Thiim won twice for Mercedes in 1995 when the DTM morphed into the ITC.
Tragedy and decline
With the series moving away from its German heartland the following year, the Super Touring championship took over. Armin Hahne took an unexpected victory in the first heat for Honda, while Emanuele Pirro won for Audi in the second. But the event was totally overshadowed by the death of Nissan driver Keith Odor, killed instantly when the Audi of Frank Biela ploughed into the side of the Primera during an unavoidable multiple collision.
A new chicane was added at roughly the spot of the Odor collision in 1996 and the STW Cup made one final visit, but the writing was definitely on the wall. Apart from a brief flirtation with the production tourers, the accident - and the construction of the nearby Lausitzring - spelled the end of more than 70 years of racing. The final races were won by the Opel Calibra of Stefan Kissling in May 1998, with a farewell event for veterans the next year. After this, the autobahns of south west Berlin reverberated to the sound of racing engines no more.
The round race control tower (with prominent Mercedes-Benz and Bosch sponsorship) still remains at the north end, and is used as a public restaurant and motel. The old grandstand tribunes also remain, protected as a historic monument. Decaying badly for many years, they were bought in 2015 by entrepreneur Hamid Djadda who announced plans to transform the structure into an events venue overlooking the autobahn.
Renovations began in 2018, with the rotten wooden roof replaced and the graffiti-covered walls transformed with a silver finish similar to their original. In the centre, the former commentary area has been glazed with sophisticated glass using liquid crystal technology, which appears dark from the motorway but opaque on the inside, turning fully transparent at the touch of a button.
Due to the grandstands’ proximity to traffic, construction is only allowed during certain short windows. Completion of the AVUS Tribüne is set for the racetrack’s centenary in September 2021.
As well as TV studios and office accommodation, the lower floor of the event centre will be available for private hire. Currently, the grandstand seating area cannot be used for any outside activities dues to the distraction it could cause to passing motorists, however this may change with future reconstruction of the Funkturm motorway junction.
This is a historic circuit which is no longer in operation.
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The AVUS circuit was located in the Hallensee and Grunewald areas of Berlin, Germany. Today the circuit exists as a stretch of the 115 Autobahn on the edge of the city centre, which used to be a route in and out of the West German enclave during the Cold War years.
While the flat Nordschleife loop remains, it is largely now an access road for an interior car park, with larger container units blocking access to some parts. The administration building and race control tower, complete with its Bosch and Mercedes-Benz signage, now functions as a truck-stop restaurant and motel, while the grandstand tribunes are currently undergoing renovation.
The remains of the model AVUS Südkurve can be found in the forest alongside the autobahn at the southern end, access off Kronprinzessinnenweg and Havelchaussee. The exact location can be found at plus code C6V2+6J Berlin, Germany.