Hockenheim has played a pivotal role in the past two FIA F3000 series. And once again, it has created confusion in the perceived natural order of things...
When Marc Goossens crossed the line to win the Hockenheim Formula 3000 race, it was significant for several reasons.
It was a first F3000 victory for him, and for Derek Mower's small but effective Nordic Racing.
It ended Super Nova's extraordinary monopoly, which had brought David Sears's team four straight wins. Remarkably, another victory in Germany could have guaranteed that the title went to one of his drivers. But it wasn't to be. Ricardo Rosset was involved in a first-lap skirmish, and came away only with the satisfaction of a subsequent fastest lap. Vincenzo Sospiri, who had finished second to Rosset in Enna, despite being palpably off-form (he profited purely from the excesses and misfortunes of several others), was a bit player for the second weekend in succession, and he was tipped into a gravel trap while scrapping for sixth.
Goossens, meanwhile, won from the front, controlling the race pretty much as he pleased. "You can tell when you take a car apart afterwards," said the delighted Mower. "If a guy has been driving frantically, it shows when you strip everything down. But he wasn't. The car was in really good shape."
It was Lola's first F3000 success in Europe since Jean-Marc Gounon triumphed at Magny-Cours in 1992 but, by Lola's own admission, that was an inherited victory. This, they imply, was the first 'proper' triumph since 1990, when Erik Comas sealed that year's championship crown at Le Mans Bugatti.
Lola's fall from grace was sudden. When F3000 switched from cross-ply to radial tyres, in 1991, everyone anticipated that the marque's superiority would persist. After all, a Lola was the thing to have in Japan, where radials had been standard issue for several seasons.
The control Avon radial used in Europe is different in character to those manufactured by Bridgestone and Yokohama in the Far East, While Lola's success continued in Japan, the marque foundered in Europe, despite having drivers of the calibre of Damon Hill, Sospiri, Allan McNish, Laurent Aiello and Marco Apicella.
Customer confidence was thus low for 1992 and, despite Gounon's victory in the seasonal finale, it was non-existent one year later. Lola designed and built a car; nobody bought one.
"We're still suffering from that," says Ben Bowlby, who now spearheads Lola's F3000 design team. "Because 1991 and 1992 were bad years, we lost our foothold on set-up. We came back in 1994, but we were still suffering as a result of 1991's problems. We needed to gain data. We had no good base reference, and there was a steep learning curve all over again."
Goossens was on board in 1994, and he frequently proved the effectiveness of the T94/50 in race trim, although the car seldom started close enough to the front of the grid to challenge for a victory.
"Having Marc and Nordic together for two seasons has given us some continuity," says Bowlby. "We can now see that the set-up we were using last year was good, it's just that the car wasn't. Continuity always helps. Look at the job Super Nova and Sospiri are doing together this year."
Bowlby points out that Lola has made two significant gains this season. "The car has been improved aerodynamically and, through the suspension, mechanically. We've reduced the motion ratio, the movement of the damper in relation to the wheel, to desensitise the car. There has been a tendency within the industry to aim for a higher motion ratio, but we'd perhaps gone too far, and made things too critical."
The Lola's effectiveness in racing conditions has been apparent from day one this season, but it was only at Hockenheim that Goossens finally qualified respectably. Mower has been saying all year that Goossens would win "as soon as he pulls his finger out in qualifying". And so it proved. Third on the grid, Goossens was second by the end of the first lap, first by the end of the second. Race over. His strength as a racer has never been in doubt; this was just the first time he'd had chance to prove it while running right at the front.
"I always thought we'd be able to win if we kept Marc," says Mower. "I'd had an interesting, and tempting. offer to go back to Reynard over the winter, but we seemed to be making progress in our early testing, before Marc re-signed. It was hard to quantify any improvements until Marc tried it, however, but as soon as he drove it at Nogaro he said, 'Wow, it's 100 per cent better.' That was enough to convince us.
"It's good for everybody here. We're certainly not a big team, even by F3000 standards, but it shows that hard work can pay off. We've got a good bunch of lads, and it's given them all a bit of a lift. But the biggest benefit is to Marc. Now he knows he can win, and he's seen how easy it can be. That'll make a difference. "The funny thing is, he's had to drive far, far harder than that in previous races when he hasn't won."
Hockenheim has marked a turning point in each of the previous two seasons. In 1993, Olivier Panis made an indifferent start to the season, and even worse one to the German GP support race. But he was reprieved by a red flag situation and then went on to take a maiden victory, the first of three which would carry him to the title. Last season, series leader Franck Lagorce stretched his advantage with a win, but Jules Bouillon picked up his first decent result of the year in second, and never looked back. He won the remaining three races, and overhauled what had then been a 19-point deficit.
A good omen for Goossens?
The championship is, at least, still up for grabs, though Allan McNish and the increasingly impressive Kenny Brack, second in Hockenheim, both require miracles on a Boullion scale. They are each 19 points adrift of Sospiri, 12 shy of Rosset and seven behind Goossens.
Certainly, Goossens is expected to go well on home soil, in Spa, but main adversaries Rosset and Sospiri have generally been so strong everywhere that there seems little realistic chance of a meek. Lagorce-style capitulation.
"As long as there's a possibility of the championship, then we'll keep going for it," concludes Mower, "but realistically we have to accept that we need to win the last three races." And mathematically, even that might not be enough... S A