Sweltering in 34-degree Hockenheim heat during the German Grand Prix, I was amused to hear expressions of dismay about the plans to shorten F1’s second-longest track into something more conventional, bypassing the two flat-outruns to the Ostkurve and back. I remember the hoots of derision in 1977 when the German round came to Hockenheim after Niki Lauda’s accident the year before had spelt the end of F1 at the real Nürburgring.
Yet, in the context of recent years, Hockenheim has more often than not produced exciting racing. These days there’s more overtaking in one German GP than in half a decade of Monacos. Some of this has to do with long straights ending in slow corners: but most of the passing moves are in fact a by-product of setting cam up for ultimate straight-line speed. That brings out the smallest wings we see all year, and — as we have all frequently but fruitlessly pointed out to the FIA — smaller wings mean more overtaking.
But from 2003, Hockenheim will be shorter. However, to those of us who go there each July to watch rather than to race, it will still feel exactly the same. The external atmosphere of a racing circuit during its grand prix weekend stems from its crowds — how they behave, how they look, how they sound—and Hockenheim is all about the noisy, Schumacher-worshipping hordes, with their firecrackers and their airhorns, crammed into those huge concrete grandstands which will still surround the start-finish area.
For their part, the Italian fans — the word tifosi has entered the international lexicon — are responsible for Monza hanging on to its crown as the most charismatic and atmospheric F1 venue of all. The track itself may follow roughly the route it did in the days of Antonio Ascari, but Vialone, Curva Grande and Lesmo are sullied by chicanes, and the bankings are silent and overgrown. Nor, thanks to modem aerodynamics, do we see any longer those magnificent multi-car slipstreaming battles.
Yet from Friday morning, when the first Ferrari accelerates out of the pits and the expectant buzz in the grandstands bursts into an exultant cacophony, the Monza crowd tells you that you are witnessing a gladiatorial weekend. They are knowledgeable, loyal and yet critical. They wear their hearts on the sleeves of their Ferrari shirts. And if on Sunday afternoon Ferrari have won the race, the throng that overflows onto the track in front of the podium, with that immense Ferrari banner spread out for the benefit of the hovering helicopter’s TV camera, becomes an act of worship. A Ferrari victory at Monza has a sort of celestial rectitude.
Le Mans shows the French know how to promote a motor-racing sense of occasion, but ever since their grand prix forsook Reims and Rouen with a mountainous interlude at Clermont- Ferrand it’s been short on charisma, be it at Paul Ricard, Dijon or Magny Cows. The latter has a paddock so vast that the motorhomes are released from their Ecclestone-approved rows and become scattered over a wide area, like Portakabins on a building site. More to the point, this state-of-the-art circuit has never been able to shrug off its artificially-contrived feel. It’s all down to a lack of history: Monza is a theatre of great motorsport happenings down the years which seem to have seeped into the fabric of the place; Magny-Cours is not
But tracks don’t need decades of heritage to develop an atmosphere. Sepang already has a curious magnificence which is only exacerbated by the intense heat and, this year, the torrential downpour. Hungary has an intriguing other-wordly feel, although the twisty nature of the dusty little track makes processional races inevitable. Canada’s demanding little track seems to float down the St Lawrence River, and suffers from no traffic problems: it is accessible by subway from the delightful cultural mix of Montreal, the only city where I have simultaneously eaten bouillabaisse and drunk draught Guinness.
Japan’s Suzuka circuit was built in the 1960s, but has only been used for F1 since 1987. Its late-autumn date often provides weather that is dark and brooding, wet and cold. Yet this is a race I love, for it usually teems with drama. Each time I arrive, the jousting matches between Senna and Prost rise before me, as does Damon Hill’s wet-weather victory over Schumacher in 1994, the race of his life.
Here, too, the atmosphere rolls off the immense crowd. Japanese spectators are respectful, well-behaved and endlessly patient they’ll queue uncomplainingly from Thursday, in neat lines, to be sure of a place. At least half seem to be girls, who when they catch sight of one of their F1 heroes collapse into a paroxysm of excited giggles, which are concealed demurely behind a hand.
Once the race starts, every grandstand lights up with a thousand camera flashes blinking in the murk. And this, too, is a knowledgeable crowd, who don’t only want Jacques Villeneuve’s autograph: they want Jock Clear’s as well. They even know that the Arrovvs team manager is called Mick Ainsley-Cowlishaw, although they get into terrible trouble trying to pronounce it.
Although geographically adjacent to the old track, the new Nürburgring should be sued under the Trades Descriptions Act for daring to use the same name. In sharp contrast, Spa is an object lesson. The old road circuit, with speeds approaching 200mph on a narrow (and frequently rain-soaked) ribbon of public road, flicking between private houses and trees, obviously couldn’t survive as a modem F1 track.
But the new section, built in 1978, which halved the original length, includes a wonderfully challenging section with fast comers of varying radius and gradient And its designers were brave enough to retain the most demanding comer of the old track, the plunge and climb of Eau Rouge, which has been sensibly modified as to run-off areas and kerbing but keeps all of its testing character.
All of which brings us to Silverstone. The spectators’ mudbath of last year, primarily caused by the FIA unaccountably moving the British GP to an April date, focused renewed attention on the circuit’s well-known traffic weaknesses which are more to do with the location and width of the surrounding public roads than anything else. The Silverstone village bypass is finally being built, but has been delayed by the foot-and-mouth epidemic and may not be completed by July next year. The circuit owners did make many improvements this year, aimed more at coping with the eventuality of heavy rain than volume of traffic, but now the FIA are citing Silverstone’s exit delays as a reason for removing the race from the calendar.
It is hard to avoid the view that the FIA has some other agenda hidden within their threats. The Concorde Agreement allows for no more than 17 grands prix each season: there is a Russian round on the horizon, and several more Far Eastern countries are clamouring to be allowed in. Anti-tobacco strictures are minimal or non-existent in some of these places, making grands prix there more commercially attractive.
But there are several circuits during the season where facilities and infrastructure are infinitely less adequate than at Silverstone: Brazil’s Interlagos for one, and for another the ridiculous Monaco, the most pretentious and least enjoyable GP of any season. And if the FIA want to plead the crowded calendar, is it not time that Germany and Italy were no longer allowed two grands prix of their own?
As it is, having done its deal with Octagon and thus kept the British Grand Prix at its traditional home, Silverstone is finally able to go ahead with its £40 million development programme (although not, presumably, if it loses the GP after all). Bernie himself is providing part of the funding, and no doubt there will be greatly improved car park exit arrangements.
But above all I hope the circuit modifications manage to expand rather than diminish its character, for sadly they will delete the splendid Bridge Corner, which is probably the most challenging since the demise of the wonderful old Woodcote.
Silverstone must, of course, keep its grand prix. It would be a disgrace if Britain, the centre of the industry, did not host a round. And the current investment programme will eventually give us a motorsport centre we can be proud of. I just hope it won’t suffer from Magny-Cours impersonality. Indy keeps a line of bricks as its start line, a reminder of why it was called The Brickyard. Perhaps there should be a hallowed section of the new Silverstone which has a strip of cracked concrete runway to remind us how it all started. And perhaps a nostalgic splatter of mud, too.