Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

Track Back - Old Hockenheim - A fanfare for the original German circuit

Published by Adam Burn

The forest provides the backdrop.
The forest provides the backdrop.Credit: Renault F1


When I first came across these annoying things, I had no idea what they were called. The one place I'd always notice them was at Hockenheim. Put a sock in it you Germans, I'm trying to watch a race!

I dare say it's one of few places that's witnessed performances by Michael Schumacher and Michael Jackson. The "King of Pop" staged concerts there in 1988 and 1997 and Schuey is a four time Grand Prix winner.

When I say Hockenheim, I'm not talking about Hermann Tilke's version... far as I'm concerned it's not all that brilliant. I don't think highly of his skills as a track designer, but the problem F1 has is that he's effectively cornered the market for new track design. When was the last time you heard of anyone else designing a new F1 circuit?

Run through the list of F1 venues he's designed or re-designed:

A1 Ring, Sepang, Hockenheim, Bahrain, Shanghai, Istanbul, Fuji Speedway, Valencia street, Abu Dhabi, Korea. In the next four years, we'll also see India, USA and Russia with his design stamp all over them. If you accept the unlikely scenario that Shanghai and Istanbul will still be on the calendar then, by 2014 he would've designed 11 out of the 20 circuits raced at in that season.

And here's some more tracks he's had a hand in - at Monza he re-designed the first chicane, Barcelona saw him add the chicane just before the last corner and at the Nurburgring, the Arena complex at the start of the lap was his invention.

Too often his circuits don't provide enough opportunities for overtaking - case in point being Hockenheim, where there's only really one at the Spitskehre hairpin the end of the long Parabolika curving straight. There are two other half chances, but it's one line most of the way.

Good luck to him and his company for getting as much work as they have over the past 15 years. I do wonder two things though: how much help has he had from Bernie Ecclestone & Max Mosley in monopolising the market and when are the circuit owners are going to wake up to themselves?

I made favourable comments in my season review towards Jean Todt and his stewardship of the FIA so far. Within a few days of Abu Dhabi, he was on the front foot about overtaking saying "From now on, before a new circuit is approved, we will evaluate the potential for the spectacle as well as the safety. We have already convened a meeting with technical experts such as Patrick Head and Rory Byrne." I'd have thought Tilke's designs were the elephant in the room during that discussion.

I'll finish my comments on Hermann Tilke with one point: type his name into Google and in the top five results you get "Hermann Tilke boring" and "Hermann Tilke criticism". It's fairly obvious my opinion is widely shared!

The only Hockenheim I ever liked was the 6.8km circuit of two completely different characters - the flat out blast through the forest and the technical stadium section.

I'm sure that most of the world's motorsport series have at some point raced on a "compromise" circuit. When I think of venues like Hockenheim, Indianapolis comes to mind in this regard. I'd put the first track in this series of articles, Mount Panorama, in that category as well.

No two car and driver combinations will have identically the same performance down the straights and through the corners - even with all our technology, it's just not possible. Add in the age-old choice between higher top speed or more cornering grip and you get a real mixed bag.

Cast your minds back to Monza this year - Button and Hamilton taking completely different setup choices in the same car. Jenson chose to run the McLaren F-duct and a higher than usual level of downforce, while Lewis went for no F-duct and a traditional low downforce aero setting. Each had their pros and cons. Had we seen a race at the old Hockenheim this year, I'm sure teams would've found different ways of achieving similar lap times.

The important thing that setup variation does is increases the chances of overtaking. Another example - production car racing. You see a big V8 breezing past a four cylinder on the straights, get to the twisty stuff and the nimble car is all over the big fire breathing monster.

It probably started with David and Goliath, then there was man versus animal in the Colosseum, even the old story about the hare and the tortoise. Defence versus attack, tall against short, fast or slow, conservative or progressive, heads or tails - so many of life's choices are about two different approaches to the same problem.

And that's what faced teams at Hockenheim. Go for outright speed on the four long blasts through the forest or sacrifice some of it to gain through the chicanes and stadium section. Two approaches, one problem.

As far as I can recall, the top speed at Hockenheim was David Coulthard's McLaren in around 2000 or 2001, reaching about 356km/h heading into the Clark chicane. Make a mistake at that speed and you'll be in for a scary ride.

But it seemed even faster than any measurement. You had a track that was narrow by today's standards, close guardrails and the claustrophobic effect of dense pine forests reaching for the sky - it only served to heighten the feeling of speed and danger.

It wasn't just perceived danger. The Clark and Senna chicanes were built in response to the death of Jim Clark in 1968. Twelve years later, Patrick Depailler's death saw the addition of the Ostkurve chicane.

Hockenheim's most famous race in my era was the year 2000. The first corner saw championship leader Michael Schumacher eliminated. The race settled down with Hakkinen & Coulthard comfortably out front until one of the most bizarre incidents on a racetrack I can remember: a disgruntled former Mercedes employee running out onto the track with a banner complaining about losing his job. I recall one of the drivers having to swerve to avoid the mad man.

The resulting safety car saw McLaren wanting to pit both drivers, but not wanting to "stack" them either. Hakkinen had the benefit - Coulthard did another lap under caution, then pitted and re-joined at the back of the field. The lunatic had gained some level of revenge, having killed the chances of one Mercedes powered driver.

After he was finally caught, the race progressed on until it started raining on part of the circuit with around 10 laps to go. A classic dilemma; half the circuit wet, half dry. What do you do? Hakkinen pitted from first for wet tyres while Barrichello in second stayed out on his warm dry tyres, thus inheriting the lead. Hakkinen rejoined in fifth, quickly carving his way back through to second. He was significantly faster on the wetter sections than Rubens, but lost most of the gain on the dry parts.

It would end up being a chase in vain - the rain stopped. Barrichello and master strategist Ross Brawn had pulled off the ultimate heist. From 18th on the grid, Rubens Barrichello won his first race - and what a race it was.

It's sad to say this, but now the old track is nothing but a memory. The old forest section was torn up and replanted at the time of the re-development - what a shame when it was still one of the most interesting circuits in the world. After all, don't we watch motorsport because we like cars that go fast? The old Hockenheim delivered that in spades.