Whisper it, the old Hockenheim wasn’t very good
It happens every time the sport sets foot in the place these days. This time it seemed at least as acute as ever. It was wherever you turned.
F1 has just gathered in Hockenheim for the latest time for the latest German Grand Prix. But as is habitual in such visits many for most of the weekend were determined to not talk about what was there. Instead they wanted to talk about what used to be there. The previous version of the circuit, now referred to by all and sundry as the ‘old’ Hockenheim, that F1 raced on up until 2001. The longer and faster one than now that proceeded through the thick pine forest. Now in large part abandoned, laying alongside the newer facility, and being overtaken by nature.
Ted Kravitz on one of his famous Notebook broadcasts this time went wandering out into the woods trying to find remnants of the old circuit, as if on some kind of sacred pilgrimage (I’m fairly sure he did similar in the previous visit two years ago too). Wider yearning about how much the old place was missed could be found everywhere. Terms such as “classic” and “iconic” were banded around liberally. F1 Fanatic decided to tweet some poetry about its passing. I even stumbled across one below the line comment from someone claiming they’ve refused to watch a single German Grand Prix since the old circuit was lost (presumably meaning they shunned those held at the Nurburgring too, but hey).
But, I’m going to say something that might surprise. Said on the basis of (sadly) being old enough to recall first hand when F1 raced on the preceding layout. Whisper it, but the old Hockenheim wasn’t actually all that. Almost utterly on the contrary of being all that indeed it was rather an ugly duckling in its time. It is strictly in hindsight that it has acquired this apparent and incongruent status of a very fine swan indeed.
F1 folks don’t half get some funny ideas in their head. As the Hockenheim layout of yore amounted essentially to four lengthy straights interrupted by chicanes, and ended with a serpentine 'stadium section' which wound within grey imposing concrete grandstands. It scarcely had a quick turn to sort the great from the good, at least since the Ostkurve was neutered with another chicane in 1982. Whatever you may think of the old track, good or bad, let’s at least lose the notion that it was somehow the Österreichring. The kindest thing that can be said of the view is that it’s ahistorical.
But even what I’ve said so far was only the start of it. As at the previous Hockenheim the sense of the stagnant somehow went beyond even the layout. For much of its time – at least until hordes of air horn blaring Michael Schumacher fans started to pack the place out from 1992 onwards – it was considered a circuit without a soul. Little on or off the track quickened the pulse. Nothing much seemed to happen there, least of all in the races.
And as well as viewed as not a challenge for drivers it also was simultaneously tough on engines due to them being on full noise for several seconds down the straights, thus ensuring its races were battles for survival rather than necessarily those for the racers. Here it often paid to be tortoise rather than hare.
The 1987 race here was quintessential in this respect. From 26 starters only seven finished, one of which was 10 laps down due to earlier mechanical delay (and was only still going as it was the team’s home race). A mere three of the remaining six finished in healthy shape. Nelson Piquet, hardly a factor on pace that day, was the one who happened to be still running and first at the end.
Additionally while it seems impossible given the length of its straights, old Hockenheim races rarely provided much in the way of racing either. Somehow the layout didn’t equal slipstreaming and overtaking nearly as much as you’d assume. Most races here were processional. Almost all were dull.
And if you don’t believe me just try going through F1 races at the old Hockenheim one-by-one to count the good ones – you probably won’t even need the fingers of one hand. The fare in 1981 was diverting, as it was in 1997. 1994’s wasn’t a brilliant race but at least had distinction on a few levels (if you’re a fan of most of the field getting wiped out on lap one and the pit lane coming damn near to getting burnt to the ground). While of course we all recall the 2000 version when Rubens Barrichello came through from 18th on the grid – aided by a late rain shower – for an emotional debut win. Beyond that, and even though F1 raced on the layout no fewer than 25 times, you’re really struggling to cite absorbing races on the old track. Go on, try to name two.
As noted too the sense of dullness seemed to infect everything at Hockenheim. As the legendary scribe Nigel Roebuck once wrote of the aftermath of one visit, “I wrote the [race] report as soon as I was back, but on the Thursday – column day – there seemed to be nothing worthy of expansion. Hockenheim was invariably like that…”
Encapsulating this it used to be said that it was at Hockenheim where the annual ‘silly season’ of rumour and counter rumour of which drivers would go where for the following year would start, simply because of the lack of other things to talk about.
Of course, that it had the near-impossible-act-to-follow status of replacing the old Nurburgring on the calendar as the German Grand Prix host was part of the problem. But it wasn't all of it. Nor even close.
This Autocourse in 1977 – the year that Hockenheim replaced the old Nurburgring permanently – explained: “No matter what sentiments you feel for Nurburgring, no matter how roundly you may condemn the place, you would have to concede that Hockenheim is no kind of answer.”
Other contemporary reporting confirms the idea. Roebuck noted at the time of the 1987 ‘race’ mentioned that “Hockenheim seldom produces much that is striking. Usually we have a droning afternoon, a lot of blown engines.
“Hockenheim's silly shape is responsible in part” Roebuck went on. “It always strikes me that someone designed a club circuit....was then requested to make it suitable for a Grand Prix, and drew a couple of converging straight lines, joining them up with a single right hander. The cars leave the stadium, disappear into the privacy of the forests and blow themselves to pieces.”
But of course everything is appreciated within its context, and the worlds that surround Hockenheim old and new are scarcely on so much as nodding terms. History is rarely left in the past indeed, things instead constantly are reassessed; subsequently redeemed or trashed as appropriate. And this likely goes a way to explain our discrepancy here, and it was something that veteran journalist Maurice Hamilton touched upon during the latest Hockenheim weekend. “Back in the day, old Hockenheim was considered dull against Kyalami, Zandvoort, Brands, Dijon etc. Now realise how unique it was #ironic” he tweeted.
As Hamilton intimates the old place was for much of its existence surrounded on the calendar by among others the majesty of Brands Hatch, Zandvoort and, yes, the Österreichring – all tracks with electric atmospheres, comforting well-worn qualities and mighty high speed turns that Hockenheim in large part lacked. Further increasing this sense, Paul Ricard in France was another venue in this traditional European season run that was unpopular in its day but whose reputation has improved almost beyond recognition across time.
Plus the old Hockenheim track at least had the attraction of being different, and this is another aspect that has grown to be more glaring in the age of the rather standardised and sanitised Tilke-drome creeping further and further onto the itinerary. That the old Hockenheim layout was juxtaposed with the rather achingly off-the-shelf Hermann Tilke creation that replaced it no doubt amplified the sense.
Also given that it was different – rewarding top end speed and effective low downforce settings – it often gave unusual results. Gerhard Berger’s wins in 1994 and 1997 are good examples; Gerhard indeed was rather a Hockenheim specialist. This was something Jarno Trulli mused upon when the new track came along. “Hockenheim has some real history and in its old guise it demanded a lot from the drivers, in terms of set-up, driving and in getting all the little details right” he said. “However, now it’s a more conventional circuit…”
Indeed I recall being struck during the 2002 race, the first with the new version, just how much lamenting was around all of a sudden for the loss of previously unloved place. To illustrate, Ron Dennis upon seeing the new layout opined that “it’s not Hockenheim anymore. These new circuit changes have cut the heart out of something which was very special, very emotional, something which had its own spirit.” Believe me, almost no one spoke like that when it was around.
Perhaps it was a classic case of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. Or, if one is to be less charitable, being like a child who ignores a toy for months but then throws a tantrum when they discover their Dad’s thrown the toy away…
While given we’ve mentioned the Österreichring, adding to the absurdity is that we have a simultaneous prevailing view right now that the Red Bull Ring is a classic circuit – I even recall Jenson Button describe it as “old school” – even though that one committed a far greater act of vandalism in what it trampled underfoot. If nothing else, we seem to hear much less about the old track during an Austrian Grand Prix weekend than we do in a German one. Perhaps it reflects the greater passage of time (the Österreichring was last used by F1 in 1987).
But as often noted the sense of yearning nostalgia, self-flagellation about the way things are now compared with what they once were, is everywhere in F1 at the moment. Often it is justified, but perhaps we’re guilty of forgetting to stop to consider whether in that particular case the past actually was all that much better. It’s not always so.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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