Dark days at Hockenheim

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As Derek Warwick was proving that you can’t keep a good racer down, Hockenheim threw up some urgent questions

Hockenheim is a spooky place, a creator of uneasy feelings. For a quarter century it has been damned as the circuit on which Jim Clark perished, and it will never escape that taint.

It seems a curious venue to run a motor race. After the first corner the road follows its narrow path through the pine trees, with precious little run-off either side. Until you get back to the fiddling little stadium section just over four miles later, it is a flat-out blast alleviated if that is the right word by three chicanes of varying severity.

“It’s a bit terrifying, actually,” said Damon Hill. “The surface is very bumpy, it’s narrow, heavy on brakes, and the straights go on for ages. There’s no continuity. You’re either flat out on a straight with nothing much to do, scrabbling through a chicane or threading through the infield. Perhaps the most dramatic corner is going into the stadium and seeing all the people there. It feels good, because all the way to the Ostkurve there are no spectators and it is very lonely.”

That’s what is so silly. All the high-speed stuff is done away from the gaze of most spectators, for there are few opportunities to view the cars away from the stadium and the start/finish straight.

On Saturday evening a small group went out to see Clark’s memorial stone. It was something I had always wanted to do, yet not wanted to do, if you take my meaning. I could, however, stop by the side of the Frankfurt to Darmstadt Reichsautobahn on the way down to the circuit, at the point where the Langen/Morfelden bridge crosses, and wander into the layby there to find the stone that commemorates the death of Bernd Rosemeyer. The great pre-war ace died in January 1938 when his Auto Union was blown off course in impossibly blustery conditions while trying to beat Caracciola’s Mercedes Class B record (268.87 mph), and it is salutary to realise that, while he got into trouble as a gust caught the slab sides of his car under the bridge, his body came to rest more than a quarter mile further on.

As we sat in the bus that the organisers kindly laid on to take an official Team Lotus deputation to the spot to lay a commemorative wreath marking the 25th year of Clark’s accident, I was struck by just how narrow the road is even today. Dave Sims, former Team Lotus mechanic and the man who had to deal with the immediate aftermath in April 1968, recalled how it was back then. “The trees actually came right out to the side of the road in those days, and of course there were no barriers. After Jimmy had gone off we had serious trouble actually getting the wreckage of the tub through the trees so we could load it into the transporter.”

Rosemeyer’s memorial is nicely kept. It is modest, but well tended. I had expected the same of Clark’s. This is not the case. It is as if local building has encroached on an historic site. The Armco obscures it from the road but even so, as we were ushered through the gate, I was not prepared for what followed. Today, Clark’s memorial cross is open to the public. It is adorned with a poor photograph of him, and a tacky one of the broken Lotus 48. Either side of it the grass is flattened where feet have walked virtually over it. Worse, the area was spoiled by the litter of Coke and beer cans that had carelessly been strewn around. I felt like I had come across a desecrated grave.

The following morning revealed Hockenheim at its worst, and as we drove to the track in the rain we reflected sombrely not only upon Clark’s death, but Patrick Depailler’s 12 years later. There is no memorial tablet for the brave little Frenchman; just another chicane at the Ostkurve. Somehow, that too seemed like desecration.

We talked also of Didier Pironi’s shunt. “We were pulling into the car park when it happened,” said my friend, “and as we looked up we saw this red thing at the same height as the bridge leading into the stadium.” The Frenchman had been the victim of the classic wet weather Hockenheim accident, for he had pulled out to pass Derek Daly’s Williams approaching the stadium, as DD himself was passing Alain Prost’s slow-moving Renault on the lefthand side of the track. In the gloom Pironi only saw one ball of spray, and ran straight into Prost.

Less than an hour after our arrival, history so very nearly repeated itself.

Derek Warwick was following Prost and Michael Andretti in terrible conditions. As the television cameras recorded, even when the cars were viewed from the front they were difficult to identify. Spray from those that had passed earlier was still obscuring them. As they came up to the third chicane, the Bremskurve, Prost saw Luca Badoer’s slow-moving Lola-Ferrari and took avoiding action. Andretti just missed it too. Warwick saw only their spray and ran slap into the the Anglo-Italian car.

“He was only doing about a hundred kilometres an hour,” he said later, “and I was doing three hundred and twenty. I didn’t see him, and I didn’t even have time to try and miss him.”

The Footwork lost its two right-hand wheels but mercifully was not launched the way Pironi’s Ferrari had been. Instead, it slithered along the Armco to the left of the track, well off line. Warwick had absolutely no control of it as it pitched and slid like a demented toboggan straight across the track into the gravel bed, where it barrelrolled before coming to rest inverted. Thankfully, it transpired that he was unharmed, bar bruised fingers and a violent headache, but there were the long moments of anxiety that one always associates with red flags and silenced engines. Martin Brundle was one of those with whom we huddled in a paddock populated by quiet faces, all eagerly feeding on the positive news about Warwick as and when it filtered in.

“This is a terrible place for visibility,” said the Briton. “The drainage is actually quite good unlike, say, Adelaide back in 1989, but the problem is that the trees trap the spray so that it can’t disperse. You can follow a long, long way behind another car, and still the spray just hangs in the air. You wipe your visor, but this film just stays on it the whole time. “You know, in those conditions like we had just now, you don’t even see the car in front’s red light. Not until you’re upon it. In the drivers’ briefing this morning they kept telling us all about watching for yellow flags and observing them if it was wet for the race. Well, I can tell you that when it’s wet here you can’t even see the dashboard in front of you!”

We recalled Adelaide in 1989, where he had been so wary of his Brabham that he had been going down the Dequetteville Terrace straight in only fourth gear after a harrowing double 360 spin in sixth in which he had miraculously hit nothing. What had frightened him more as he recovered from that was that he had absolutely no idea which way he was facing when he started off again… Then, having lucked into the right direction, he had Senna come at him out of the gloom like a shark snatching a bather, as the McLaren smashed straight into the back of the Brabham. The only thing missing then had been the theme from laws. Again, a following driver simply hadn’t seen the car in the murk ahead.

In the same race, Nelson Piquet had been very lucky to avoid injury when his Lotus literally scooped beneath Piercarlo Ghinzani’s Osella, whose tyre marks were left on the Brazilian’s helmet. That day Prost had withdrawn, just as he had at Silverstone in 1988. Each time he was pilloried in some circles, just as Lauda had been at Fuji in 1976 when to add to the awful conditions he had eyelids that were still healing after his Nurburgring bums. Each made the same point: I will drive on a wet surface, but when you cannot see, it becomes foolhardy. You become a passenger, and the control of the machine is no longer in your hands. Both were fortunate insofar as they had the status and the past success to take such rational decisions without losing their drives. “I cannot understand the sense in people going out there in conditions like that,” Prost had said quietly. ” You’ve only got one life; it’s not good for us, it’s not good for spectators and it’s not good for anything.”

On that occasion Bernie Ecclestone had pleaded with him to start, trying to convince him it was safe. “He told me they had swept away the puddles, and there we were, standing talking in pouring rain!”

Gerhard Berger and Thierry Boutsen were also minded not to start, but each went ahead. Boutsen won. “We drivers are hopeless,” Berger growled afterwards, angry with his own weakness. “Me, Riccardo, Thierry. One minute we are in the car, then we’re out. Then in again. Alain was in and out. Why did he get out? Why did I get in?” Adrenalin is a curious stimulus. After his Monza 1990 inversion Warwick had simply run back to the pits, taken over the spare car, and raced. “It wasn’t a problem for me,” he said at the time. “Either at Monza, or afterwards. I could watch the accident on video, but I knew I didn’t have to worry about it. I knew that I came out of it okay.”

Shortly afterwards, during that heroic weekend in Spain when team-mate Martin Donnelly narrowly escaped death after suspension failure, Warwick had shouldered the load for the shattered Lotus team. Should he race? It was a decision that the team left him to make, and one he took only after much cogitation. He raced aggressively and bravely and he carried Team Lotus through that awful experience, at a time when it was almost dead on its feet. I have often wondered how badly its chances of achieving its current recovery might have been affected had he not competed with such spirit that day.

Yet, in quieter moments afterwards, even he admitted that he should not have raced. “It was silly, because there was nothing to prove. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t race.”

There were many at Hockenheim who wished that he wouldn’t, those who were aware of the emotional background to his German GP. He had been awake at five the previous Wednesday watching the videos of brother Paul’s racing, two years to the day since his death at OuIton Park. His mother had begged him not to race.

“Derek will make the decision. He’s a big boy and he can make up his own mind,” said team owner lack Oliver with irritating glibness. And, ultimately, however tasteless such buck passing might have seemed at the time, he was right. There was no medical reason why Warwick shouldn’t compete, and such decisions must always otherwise be made by those with most at stake. Ultimately, you cannot restrict the spirit of the true racer, and though that’s what puts them in a weak bargaining position on days such as Adelaide in 1989, it’s also what makes them special. That was one of the few enlightening things on a day when the dark underbelly of motor racing came unbidden into view.

But. . . what Sunday morning at Hockenheim most threw into question was the whole matter of racing in the rain. If Formula One had a spectacularly lucky escape back in Adelaide that time, on a day when two World Champions might simply have become tragic statistics, it was also damned lucky that the weather cleared for the German GP.

More than ever we have come to the point where not only the drivers and organisers must come to terms with what to do if it rains for a race, but also the spectators and sponsors, the people who ultimately pay for the sport. Perhaps now is the time for a material change in attitude. Either we have cars with narrower tyres and modified aerodynamics, which might help the spray problem, or we have to start accepting that some races might have to be postponed. In Indianapolis they are prepared for the 500 to be put off if it rains. The tickets have rain check sections, and there is a pre-event understanding that if it’s wet, it’s Monday.

In Europe that is less easy to condone, simply because there is always going to be a greater chance of rain, but Formula One needs to discuss all this now. There is too much evidence to support the view that poor visibility courts the sort of tragedy Formula One has in other respects eliminated so successfully. The mood lightened with the weather in Hockenheim, to the point where the Warwick accident might not have happened. But as we have already twice seen in Australia, when the races went ahead in terrible conditions each time even though an hour’s delay would have ensured a dry track, the gods of television scheduling must always be appeased. Had it rained, the race would still surely have gone ahead in unacceptable conditions. Until that changes, motor racing will remain an uncom fortably gladiatorial contest. D J T

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