This weekend the Formula One circus returns to the town of Hockenheim in Baden-Württemberg, situated in Germany’s Rhine Valley. Formula One has been visiting the track for decades but in the early 2000s the circuit was radically re-designed and shortened. The reasons for this are based on races such as the 2000 German Grand Prix at the circuit – a thriller which was won by Rubens Barichello from 18th on the grid and featured a maniac member of the public running alongside the track at one point, prompting the safety car.
The problem with that race was that whilst there was a lot of overtaking, most of the action took place in the forest, away from the view of the spectators in the “arena” section – the complex at the end of the lap with stadium-like grandstands.
Many pundits were unhappy at the “sanitisation” of the classic old circuit which blasted through the trees and ten years on, it is difficult to decide whether the new circuit can be hailed as a success or not. Thanks to the introduction of the hairpin on the new circuit, overtaking has been fairly prominent in recent Hockenheim races and the racing has certainly not been as bad as many feared when the new configuration was first penned by Formula One’s go-to circuit designer Herman Tilke. Admittedly, the circuit has struggles financially, and since 2008 has alternated with the Nurburgring for the right to host the German Grand Prix with Hockenheim taking the even years. (Nurburgring’s 2007 race was dubbed “The European Grand Prix” for legal reasons – incidentally that race was a cracker, led briefly by Marcus Winkelhock on his debut in a Spyker despite starting from the pit. Monsoon conditions caught out most of the pack before Fernando Alonso in a McLaren eventually went on to pass Felipe Massa’s Ferrari in the closing stages for the win).
The first race at the new Hockenheim came ten years ago in 2002 – a season dominated by Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. The German Grand Prix did not buck that tend and the German gave delighted fans a home victory ahead of the Williams drivers Juan-Pablo Montoya and Schumacher’s brother Ralf. This happened to be the last race the Arrows team would compete in before going into liquidation later that year, and the last ever Formula One race for Enrique Bernoldi.
In 2003, Montoya went won better and won the German Grand Prix ahead of David Coulthard’s McLaren and Jarno Trulli’s Renault. Only the top four finished on the lead lap and Michael Schumacher was a lap down in seventh. Kimi Räikkönen, Ralf Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello crashed at the first corner whilst Montoya recorded his first “hat trick” of fastest lap, pole postion and race victory.
2004 was another season dominated by Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. Again, Schumacher won whilst Jenson Button overcame a 10-place penalty to finish second. This was Cristiano Da Matta’s last race for Toyota.
In 2005 Kimi Raikkonen was a championship contender at this stage in the season yet again but yet again he failed to make the finish, suffering hydraulic failure on lap 35 – this was his fifth consecutive retirement at the circuit. Tyres were just as much an issue in 2005 as they are today, with both Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello suffering from the poor durability of the Bridgestones. After the race, Michael Schuamcher maintained third place in the championship standings but was 40 points adrift now of championship leader and German Grand Prix winner Fernando Alonso, who inherited the lead after Raikkonen’s mechanical misfortune. Schumacher’s late race tyre issues demoted him to fifth position by the time the chequered flag came out. Jaques Villeneuve was involved in three separate incidents that day – with Barrichello, Robert Doornbos and Tiago Monteiro.
The German Grand Prix was the centre of the season’s controversy in 2006. Mass damper systems were the blown diffusers of their day and prior to the event, the Renault team’s mass damper system was deemed legal by the FIA appointed stewards, despite the FIA themselves banning them. The FIA appealed this decision but Renault took the decision to remove the dampers themselves to prevent further sanctions. This affected the performance of the car and set up a close finish to the season between themselves and Ferrari. Raikkonen was on pole but McLaren had fuelled his car incorrectly – when the Finn pitted early he was out of contention for victory and Ferrari took a dominant one-two led by Michael Schumacher, ahead of Massa in his first season for the team, whilst Raikkonen completed the podium. This was Jacques Villeneuve’s last Formula One race.
Thanks to the aforementioned alternation of German Grand Prix hosts with the Nurburgring, the next time Formula One returned to Hockenheim was in 2008. Amazingly, there were very few drivers left in the sport who had raced at the previous Grand Prix at the track in 2006. Lewis Hamilton brilliantly won his second consecutive victory after finishing the British Grand Prix that year over a minute ahead of anyone else. The Brit overtook teammate Heikki Kovaleinen and Renault’s Nelson Piquet in the closing stages to extend his championship lead. In contrast to 2003, a record sixteen drivers finished on the lead lap, aided by the deployment of the safety car which neutralised the race and closed up the field. Raikkonen only finished sixth, carrying on his poor run of form at the Hockenheim circuit which he will hope to change this weekend. Thanks to leaving the sport in 2010 and 2011, he has not raced at Hockenheim in four years.
The 2010 German Grand Prix was another controversial race at Hockenheim. Felipe Massa was leading a Ferrari one-two ahead of his team mate Fernando Alonso, when Massa’s race engineer Rob Smedley came on the radio and uttered the now infamous line “Okay… so… Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?” The team were fined $100,000 for breaking the rules banning team orders, which has since been lifted.
Let’s hope this weekend is more about the racing than controversies…