Formula One: The Hockenheimring (A Tale of Two Tracks)

steven stonesAnalyst IJuly 10, 2008

Like many of the older, more established circuits used for Formula One races, Hockenheim's Hockenheimring, situated close to the Black Forest, has seen its face utterly transformed over time.

This is the story of some Grand Prix furniture and the circuit Mercedes-Benz call home.

The Early Hockenheimring

The Hockenheimring circuit was built way back in 1932 and was not used for Grand Prix racing in the World Championship format. Before 1970 and in between then and the fateful 1977 year, German Grand Prix duties were held by the Nurburgring, but not the one we know today.

In its original format, the circuit was a terrifying blast out of the 'stadium' section, around the very fast Nord Kurve and out into the depths of the Black Forest for a 120 mph, white-knuckle thrust through the trees on a constant curve.

In these days, cars were not yet fitted with the aerodynamic enhancements that they have now. Also, the cars of the 1930s and 1940s were running on very skinny tyres. The circuit tightened all the way down, deep into the forest at the Ost Kurve and then began its return to the 'stadium.'

The character of this original circuit was one of hanging on for dear life as the car hurtled down the straights, always sliding just that little bit to the left as the courageous driver steered right through the dark. For dark it always was; the Black Forest is a beautiful and dense area of foliage.

Cars in the period of 1940 to 1970 might have been somewhat primitive compared with today's standards, but they were still frighteningly quick and were capable of later producing speeds of 190mph. Couple this with these two thought provoking facts:

Drivers raced these cars without seatbelts in, and also, there were no crash barriers. It sometimes begs the question how people could not see the fatalities coming. Death was part and parcel of racing in these days.

After spending over a minute at full throttle, correcting a wayward car and surviving it all, the drivers arrived back in the 'stadium' area, a tight twisting section with crowd spectating areas. This part of the circuit has changed very little and survives today.


Tragedy and Change

The Hockenheimring was to enter the history books on 7 April 1968. A great British driver was racing here on a cold, wet day. It was Jim Clark, and he was racing his Lotus in a rather pointless GP2 race. Somewhere between the first turn and the Ost Kurve something broke on the car and Jim Clark was thrown into the trees suffering fatal injuries. The three-time Formula One Champion died at the circuit.

After the death of Jim Clark, Hockenheim received the first of two major changes it would get in its lifetime. A chicane was added were Clark was killed which slowed the lap time and also slowed the racing cars down substantially, ensuring safer conditions.

Another fatality occurred in 1980. Patrick Depailler left the circuit and was killed when a component failed in his car and threw him off the circuit. A second chicane was added just before the Ost Kurve, slowing the circuit down even further. Both chicanes were similar, but the Ost Kurve chicane dropped slightly downhill.

The problem with Hockenheim in the wet used to be that the entire circuit away from the 'stadium' was covered over by a canopy of trees. When the rain came down, the water would settle in the trees and hang in the air. Spray was a greater problem here at Hockenheim than at any other circuit, and coupled with the high speeds, it was treacherous.

Hockenheim hosted its first German Grand Prix in 1970. The race moved back to the Nurburgring for the next six years. When Niki Lauda almost burned to death at the ancient circuit in Nurburg, the German race made permanent residence at Hockenheim from 1977.

The run of racing at Hockenheim has not been unbroken. In 1985, the new Nurburgring hosted the German round of the World Championship, having staged the European Grand Prix the year before.

As Formula One advanced and aerodynamics improved, the Hockenheimring circuit became a track where drivers would turn up more or less knowing how their car was going to perform.

If a car had a very powerful engine, reliable components and the driver could hang on around the 'stadium' with lowest Downforce settings, then they were going to be quick at Hockenheim. If your car was down on power at all, you were going to be nowhere. That's just the way it was.

With the aging circuit becoming something of a dinosaur and a criticism that the track was too unspectacular for modern Grand Prix racing, the Hockenheimring ran its high-speed tree dash for the last time in 2001.


The Modern Era

For 2002, Hockenheim was transformed by Formula One circuit designer Herman Tilke and made into the current configuration that Grand Prix cars will zap around in a week's time.

The 'stadium' was once again left untouched. Drivers now crossed the start finish line and flew around the Nord Kurve, down a short narrow straight toward a sort of chicane complex. This leads onto a long Parabolika curve, which is effectively a long straight. Cars touch 220 mph here before braking hard for the very tight Spitzkeher.

Spitzkeher is taken in second gear at around 85 mph. Time can be won or lost here like few other places on the circuit. It is also the prime overtaking place, with the classic modern F1 set up of fast straight followed by tight slow corner. Grip is good at all points in the corner allowing for switch back moves.

Out of this corner, another set of sweeping turns awaits. A sweeping right is followed by a tight right hand taken in third gear before another sweeping left leads past the wall of the Drag Racing strip. Jacques Villeneuve commented this might kill someone, since it juts alongside the F1 circuit in an unusual manner.

At the end of the wall, the circuit rejoins the old track at the right hand bend that leads into the 'stadium.' This turn is bumpy and dirty and sees cars flying off it in every race that is held.

The circuit turns through 180 degrees at Sachskurve in front of the Mercedes Grandstand and then follows a flowing right and right twin corner set up at Elf Kurve and Sudkurve which leads back to the start/finish stretch.

Some would say that Hockenheim was a novelty in Formula One by the time it was changed and that the new circuit is just like any other track on the calendar.

However, every race since 2002 has been a good show, and the racing has at least seen increased overtaking. On the old circuit, barring mistakes and failures, the drivers finished the race where they began, with obvious exceptions such as the first win for Rubens Barrichello in 2000 in the wet.

Hockenheim has a great history and heritage and as a circuit is far superior, even now to the new Nurburgring.


And Finally...

This weekend's German Grand Prix could be a monumental race. Lewis Hamilton and McLaren are flying high after thrashing the entire field soundly in a rainy British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Ferrari though, are seeing red right now with Massa and Raikkonen both having difficult stages of the race last time out at Silverstone. Hamilton will be eager to give Mercedes-Benz a home win and increase his Championship points tally to a true first place.

It would be a fool who discounted the Scuderia and in particular Kimi Raikkonen from bouncing back and entering the battle strong once more. Ferrari have worked hard testing this week. As many other articles covering testing will tell you, the times are close. The race in prospect stands to be a corker.


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