Character Assessment

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The circuit on the edge of the village of Hockenheim, near Mannheim, has been the scene of racing for a very long time, not in the configuration that it is today, but covering the same huge area of land since the 1920s, when it was a narrow loose-surfaced track through the forest. In the 1930s the circuit had been surfaced in tarmac and major motorcycle events were held, and small national car races. In those days the German GP for cars was held on the Nurburgring, some way to the north, near Cologne, but the Hockenheim circuit was in regular use.

For the English word “circuit” the Germans use the word “ring”, hence the Hockenheimring, and of course, the greatest of them all, the Nurburgring. Through the years there have been others, like the Grenzlandring, the Sachsenring and the Schotternring and still today we have minor races at the Norisring, Noris being the old original name for the town of Nurnberg in central Germany, not to be confused with Nurburg in the west.

Compared to other German circuits the Hockenheimring was never much of a circuit, its main attribute being that of untrammelled speed, it being a flat egg-shaped oval until 1966. The sharp end of the egg was at the village extremity and ran tight round the cemetery, bordered by a concrete wall, though few of us thought of looking over the wall! All round the rest of the oval the forest came right up to the edge of the road and if you did not want to end up among the trees you made sure you stayed on the road.

In 1966 the new motordrom, called the Hockenheimring, was opened, having been built at enormous cost, thanks to the German government. They did not pay directly, but the top end of the egg-shaped oval was needed for autobahn expansion and the compensation enabled the German sporting world to build a massive concrete stadium, with a new wiggly road running through the middle. In effect the egg-shape had had the top cut off, and instead of the yolk being exposed we had the stadium with its mickey-mouse track across the middle. Once out of the stadium the circuit followed the old track out into the forest round the base of the egg, and back through the forest to the stadium, entering it on the far side.

By 1977 the Nurburgring had become too difficult for the racing people of the “sordid ’70s” and a move was made to the new Hockenheimring, now 10 years old and looking a bit part worn. During those 10 years there had been a lot of racing on the rebuilt Hockenheimring, but no German GP, and speeds had been rising continually. In common with most circuits when the average speed gets interestingly high, some artificial corners were built. In general use the word “chicane” is used to describe the attempts to slow things down. The Germans describe them as “bremskurve” which is best translated as “braking corners”, and today there are three of them, one on the outward leg, one on the return leg and the third now being part of the Ostkurve (East Corner), and still the average speeds keep rising.

This year I was fortunate to have a ride round the circuit, just before the Grand Prix began to come into life, with Roland Bruynseraede the race director, as he did his final lap of inspection to check on all the flag marshal posts, the fire fighters, the ambulances, the accident-intervention crews, the observers and so on, all of whom play an important part in the running of a Grand Prix and few people are aware of until they are needed. With the track in prime condition and everyone “at the ready” it is an impressive experience to see it all just as the leader of the race is going to see it on the opening lap. On this occasion we were accompanied by another car containing Peter Warr, the FISA Permanent Steward, and “Jabby” Crombac, the third longest-surviving journalist on the Grand Prix scene, but above all else “number one Lotus enthusiast.” Each year before the German GP a bouquet of flowers is placed by the Jim Clark memorial stone, just beyond the first “bremskurve” by the spot where that greatest of all drivers was killed in 1968 during a small Formula 2 race.

There was no great production, no media-hype, no TV crews, just a moment of sincere silence by the handful of people involved as the flowers were placed by the small stone monument.

When we drove out of the stadium, with its 50,000 spectators packed in stands, like a super big football stadium, we instantly left behind the noise, confusion and razzamatazz of Formula One, for a quiet drive through the most wonderful forest on a wide smooth tarmac road bordered by immaculate grass verges with no sound and only the marshals and services stationed behind the barriers, for the public are not allowed out in the forest. We were not belting round on a death-defying demonstration, but were on a quiet tour of inspection.

The first sign of spectators and people were when we approached the first “bremskurve”, but then only a handful compared to the hordes we had left in the stadium. There was an unreal and eerie feeling, and after our little private gathering at the Jim Clark memorial stone, we drove on through deserted forest until we got to the Ostkurve, where there was another handful of spectators, which brought me back to reality for the moment, and then it was on down the return leg through the deserted forest to arrive at the “back door” of the stadium, the packed grandstands, and the turmoil of the pits and the paddock as the Grand Prix prepared to get under way.

After watching motor racing since 1936, and Grand Prix racing since 1938, you might be forgiven for thinking I had seen it all, and experienced all there was to be experienced, but you would be wrong. On Sunday July 26, before the German Grand Prix, I was “emotionally moved” as much as I have ever been, for purely personal reasons.

Every year as I drive down the autobahn from Frankfurt to Mannheim, I stop off at a small lay-by in the forest near Langen, to pay my respects to the memory of my first motor racing hero. He died in a crash on that autobahn in 1938, not in a motorway accident, but while doing 270mph in an Auto Union record-breaking car, attempting to regain speed records for the Auto Union team. It was Bernd Rosemeyer, and just as Jim Clark will always be remembered by British motor racing enthusiasts, Rosemeyer will always be remembered by German enthusiasts. Today, Michael Schumacher has burst upon the Grand Prix world, just as Rosemeyer did in 1935. Sadly, Great Britain is still waiting for a new Jim Clark, but I don’t think he is ever going to come.

Not long ago I was reading an article in a magazine where the writer described the Hockenheimring as “majestic” and that floored me completely. The Hockeheimring is many things, but majestic it is not. Reflecting on the writer’s sentiments I wondered where he had been before his first visit to the circuit: if he had only been to Snetterton or Llandow then he could be forgiven for using the wrong word. If he had been to the old Nurburgring, the Osterreichring or Spa-Francorchamps he would have known the true meaning of “majestic”. If he had been to Clermont-Ferrand, Rouen-les-Essarts, the Solitude or Monza he would have gained a slight insight to describing the concrete stadium with its Mickey Mouse path across the arena, and the flat-out blind with no change in altitude through the forest. Had he said the Hockenheimring was fast, I would have agreed with him wholeheartedly.

From the beginning of practice this year speeds through the timing trap on the fast outward leg through the forest were well over 200mph, and the two Williams-Renaults spent most of their time close to 210mph, Patrese actually clocking 210.76 mph during Saturday afternoon qualifying, though Mansell achieved pole position, with an average speed for the 4.25-mile lap of 155.622 mph, his maximum through the speed trap being 208.13. Even the last qualifier, who just scraped on to the back of the grid, was timed at over 201 mph. Speed is what the Hockenheimring is all about and most drivers were having the aerodynamic drag of their cars reduced as much as possible to push their speed up. It was not a simple matter, for the lower the drag factor the lower the downforce on the tyres, which affected braking and cornering power, and many drivers found their cars a bit too light on the back end when they entered the twisty Mickey Mouse bit of the track in the stadium. The number of harmless spins must have been some sort of record but when you looked at the terminal speeds of more than 202mph for some of the “rabbits” it put it all into perspective.

Another speed trap was situated at the start/ finish line, which gave an indication of the power available for acceleration from the corner before the pits straight. The front runners were over 175mph while the slowest were barely over 160mph, and that is a very big difference occasioned by sheer grunt. The amazing thing about the Hockenheimring is that none of the spectators see the cars travelling at their maximum speed, rather like Le Mans where maximum speeds on the Mulsanne Straight are witnessed by a mere handful of spectators. Some 90 per cent of the people at the German GP are packed into the concrete stadium, and those that do venture beyond the grandstands can only gather near the “bremskuryes”. In contrast, the 150,000 who attend Indianapolis can see the cars virtually all the time, lapping well in excess of 220mph.

One of the most remarkable things I ever read about the Hockenheimring was by one reporter who explained to his readers that the circuit ran through the vast stadium where Adolf Hitler used to hold his Nazi youth rallies. The facts were basically right, it was just the details that were wrong. What this reporter was writing about was the Norisring, on the other side of western Germany by the town of Nurnberg. There indeed the Nazi regime built an enormous stadium to hold untold thousands of Hitler’s followers, while the man himself appeared on a balcony of a concrete podium that probably held 10,000 of the Nazi hierarchy, all looking down into the vast grass area surrounded by lesser podiums. It is all still there, a monument to a bygone age, rather like the Sphinx, and the road system around the main building forms the Norisring. The stadium at Hockenheim arose in the mid 1960s, for very different reasons.

A disturbing trend, which I deplore, is the gradual dropping of anything that happened before 1950 when writing about Grand Prix racing. Various people and organisations who are obsessed with the FIA World Championship put out reams of helpful information, especially to the world’s press, and they are more and more presenting Grand Prix racing as having started in 1950. Thus much of the information on the 1992 German Grand Prix listed the first Grand Prix of Germany as being the 1951 event on the Nurburgring won by Alberto Ascari with a Ferrari.

Gone are the heroic races of the past, when the first German GP was won by a new young star, Rudolf Caracciola, in 1926, and he was still winning his home Grand Prix in 1937. Or the remarkable victory by Nuvolari in a Scuderia Ferrari Alfa-Romeo in 1935, and Britain’s moment of glory in 1938 where Richard Seaman won with a Mercedes-Benz.

I know it was all a long time ago, before most enthusiasts of today were born, but Nigel Mansell’s 1992 victory in the German Grand Prix was nothing particularly unusual, it was merely a historical fact to be added to the long history of Grand Prix racing that started in Germany 66 years ago, 20 years after France had held its first Grand Prix motor race. Mansell and the Williams-Renault will be written into the real golden book of racing, just as Caracciola was when he won the first German Grand Prix.

In the VIP car park, just outside the Formula 1 paddock at this year’s race, were three designated parking places right by the entrance into the holy of holies. The first was labelled A Senna, the next M Mosley and the third B Ecclestone. In the first spot was a red Honda NSX coupe, next to it a black and grey Mercedes-Benz 500SEL and in the third spot a silver and grey 500SEL. While I was admiring this trio of transport for the three top men in Formula One, a daily paper reporter passed by and looking at the Honda NSX he said, unkindly I thought, “Huh! Next year I suppose there will be a Reliant Robin in the Number One spot.” Formula One may be a serious business, but it does have its lighter moments! D S J

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