As the clock ticked down to the start of the race, warnings of adverse weather were heard but not heeded. The entire field elected to start on slicks.
On the formation lap, Winkelhock had a hunch it might be time to make a change. Driving at his home race, local knowledge of meteorological movements was coming in handy.
“I went halfway through the formation lap and felt some drops on my visor. It was really looking really dark. I know the Nürburgring and, if it’s going to be bad weather, it’s always coming from that area [the hairpin].
“I just told the team [about the weather], it was not my idea [to change to wets]. It was silent on the radio. There was nothing, so I said, ‘What are we going to do?’
The drizzle continued with still no reply from his team. “Silent, silent and then going into the last corner, which was actually the pit entry, Mike Gascoyne told me ‘Box, box this lap! Box, box directly!’,” says Winkelhock.
“He decided to go for the risk, which was actually quite a cool move in that moment. Full wets, which was also cool. He also could have put me on intermediates, because the track was still dry.”
As soon as Winkelhock headed out on lap one, quite what a masterstroke it was became clear.
“I did the first couple of corners, around the Mercedes arena, and then it started – massive rain!”
Ahead of him, the folly of sticking to dry tyres immediately became clear. David Coulthard speared off at T4 before Nico Rosberg also found himself in the gravel trap. The two BMWs took each other out whilst Lewis Hamilton picked up a puncture in avoiding them – it was carnage.
Cars twitched and squirmed as they tried to get back to the pits. Race leader Räikkönen skated across the pit entrance and suffered the ignominy of having to do another lap before switching to wets.
While the established names struggled, the Spyker stand-in made hay. Already gaining rapidly on the first lap, the round of pit stops left him in second place.
By the time he reached the hairpin, Winkelhock had hunted down the struggling Räikkönen, passing him in the middle of the corner.
Such was the chaos all around him, the rookie didn’t realise he was actually now first.
“I remember that moment, but I didn’t know it was for the lead. I was just driving. At the point they told me ‘You’re P1’, I really didn’t understand anything that was going on because this race was really crazy!”
When the order became clear, the man from Stuttgart had a lead of more than 50sec. Before long, cars were aquaplaning off and the safety car was called out, bringing a familiar face onto the track.
“Bernd Meylander is a good friend of mine, he lives 5km from my home,” says Winkelhock. “We were joking about this situation before the race and I said, ‘If I’m leading, I will wave you’ and then it was really happening!”
Conditions quickly deteriorated to a point that the race was stopped whilst the worst of the weather passed. Sitting on the grid now on the restart “pole”, Winkelhock broke his first F1 record, becoming the first and only person to start a race both first and last.
Undertaking the restart, he admitted a few nerves, “If you look in your mirrors and you see Ferraris and McLarens in your first Formula One race, I have to say in that moment, I was a bit nervous. But as soon as the lights go green, everything is gone.”
As the front-runners buzzed aggressively behind into the first corner, Winkelhock was unable to hold back the tide. Spyker had gambled once more with another shower scheduled, the team now fitting intermediate tyres with the rest of the field on slicks.
The rain never came, and their man was helpless as he dropped through the field like a stone.
The Spyker would come to a halt with hydraulic failure seven laps later, but it mattered not to F1’s man of the moment.
“I was actually so happy, even if I didn’t finish the race. I got out of the car, jumped behind the guardrail and already fans were stopping me for autographs.
“They [the team] were all happy, laughing and you know, everybody didn’t take it so serious. It was just a funny moment. I couldn’t be angry [just] because the car broke down.”