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Race Day : July 27th 1997

Dinosaurs fight to stay out front in 45th German Grand Prix

"There are three things you need at Hockenheim - power, power and more power." Mike Gascoyne, Deputy Technical Director, Tyrrell Racing


The crowds will have already gathered, laden with Heineken and Bitberger, turning the lonely and rather daunting forests surrounding the track at Hockenheim into a small city of tents and boisterous bon hommerie. With no less than three home boys driving in this weekend’s race, the atmosphere will equal that which the Tifosi create for their beloved Ferrari in Italy. With a real chance that Michael Schumacher could clinch a third driver’s championship and an even better one of winning the race, flares, fireworks and flags will be out in force. No German has ever won his home Grand Prix since the Championship competitions started in 1951, so, should Michael or his younger brother Ralf or Heinz Harald Frentzen, badly in need of motivation, manage to set foot on the podium there may even be a national holiday.

Built in 1929 amid the flat woodlands in the Valley of the Rhine, South West of Heidelburg, Hockenheim was used as a test track for Mercedes, but was overshadowed by the Nurburgring and post war racing only commenced in the early ‘50’s. They say that Hockenheim has no soul, being put to use for the first time in 1970, 71 years after the first German Grand Pix was staged at Avus near Berlin, a race for sports cars. The first World championship qualifying race was run at the notorious Nurburgring in 1951. Both recent venues, empirical in their grandeur, are long and fast and have had their fair share of tragedy. Think of the ‘ring’ and you think of the death of Phil Hill and the dreadful accident of Niki Lauda, when he almost burned to death in the wreckage of his Ferrari.

It is said, that when drivers realised that the Nurburgring was too dangerous, Hockenheim was the only alternative, yet in 1968 when Jim Clark died at speed in a Formula 2 competition out in the lonely forests on the fast curling straight leading to the Ostkurve, chicanes were placed centrally on both fast straights effectively blunting the rhythm of the circuit. Patrick Depailler was fatally injured in 1980 at that corner, testing his Alfa, leading to another chicane being placed immediately before the fast right hander, destroying the quality of the only truly exciting corner that the track has. Two years later Frenchman Didier Peroni was badly injured in a collision with another car in a wet practice session.

Regarded as a ‘meritless’ track, its use was intended to be a temporary stop gap to allow for the upgrading of the ‘ring’, but after Lauda’s near tragedy in 1976, the race returned to Hockenheim and with the exception of the European Grand Prix in ’84 and the 1985 German Grand Prix, it has stayed there ever since.

"Love it or hate it, they all race it". James Hunt once said and, whilst it is an immensely daunting track, the drivers can certainly let their hair down and put their foot to the floor.

"It is scary," says World Champion Damon Hill, "you sit there thinking, ‘I hope the car doesn't do anything funny’. There is a hell of a thrill from going along at 200 mph, coming into the chicane at high speed and braking really late. As impressive as the speed is in a Formula 1 car, more impressive is the braking. True, the circuit is a bit boring but there is something I like about hammering along through the trees."

One who will remember ‘hammering through the trees’ last year and then exploding in white smoke, is Gerhard Berger, recently returned from a three race absence due to a sinus problem and doubly burdened by the recent death of his father in a plane crash. Berger led much of that race convincingly before being forced to retire with just two and a half laps to go handing the race to Hill and the runner up spot to his team mate Jean Alesi. No one remembers those ‘almost men’, the record books don’t show the disappointment and the anger or the frustration of a weekend’s labour to get the car to work impeccably for just 190 odd miles yet, even now, as Berger returns to the pits to announce his departure from Benetton at the end of the season, not many will remember that he won at Hockenheim for Ferrari in 1994. It would seem that the longest running partnership in recent Formula 1 history is now breaking up. The Mercurial Frenchman and the wise yet mischievous Austrian, both having changed bosses at the same time after being bedfellows at Ferrari for three years prior to their disappointing two year tenure with Flavio Briatore’s team.

"I have a few options, but will remain in Formula One only if I can drive for a top team." Berger said. "It is a bad idea to make a decision when times are difficult." The truth is, that his options are fewer than he thinks and the fact that the announcement was indeed made despite his suggestion as to opportune time in which to make decisions, leads one to conjecture if indeed it was Briatore giving him that gentle push. The Dinosaurs are going and the young predators are fighting their way to the lucrative watering holes of the top teams. With Giancarlo Fisichella signed already and Alex Wurz in the blue corner waiting for the word it looks like Alesi to will be demoted from the front line also. All the movable old guard will get seats in the pit lane musical chairs but when everyone has finally sat down, the ones left standing will have nowhere to go but out or into the commentary boxes of the world.

Ringmaster of the F1 circus Bernie Ecclestone has publicly decried Hill’s rumoured attempts at a $10 million fee for next year. A highly unlikely scenario seeing as his intention to move at all has yet to be announced. But it does illustrate the fact that with the single exception of Michael Schumacher, the Tyrannosaurus Rex himself, salaries will be a lot lower next year. The young Veloce-raptors are hungry for the spoils of the game and the elderly and infirm can move over.

Still, all is not doom and gloom at the Grand Prix. We can expect a battle royal between the newest veteran of the sport, Jacques Villeneuve and the number one German. This is a track that should suit not only the Williams FW18, but also the barely-seasoned Canadian who drives it and who craves ‘fun’ in his racing.

New additions to the Ferrari this weekend will make it a great deal more suitable to fast circuits, though no one will really have noticed a drop off in speed or handling of late, despite their first major mechanical failure this year, at Silverstone.

After the total destruction of all four engines running at the British Grand Prix, Martin Whitaker, Ford director of European Motorsport regards the circuit on a more technical level and not surprisingly with some trepidation. "It’s one of the hardest circuits on engines, with extended periods at full throttle during the lap," he said. "It has a deserved reputation as an engine-breaker, so it is a particularly daunting task to go there after our experiences at Silverstone. But pushing the limits is the quickest way to move development forward."

Rubens Barrichello, Stewart driver, seemed less pessimistic despite having to sit in front of one of the troublesome Ford power units this weekend. "The circuit is all about braking and your speed is in a straight line. While it's not a physically hard track, the drivers have to concentrate very hard on their braking points. It's an enjoyable feeling when you come out of those forests and meet the huge crowd in the Stadium section." He added, "Two years ago I was fighting for a podium finish until I had to retire."

Ready to impress and for sure they will, are the boys from Jordan Peugeot. Fisichella no doubt buoyed up by his rocketing credibility, will go well. With upgraded front and rear wing packages developed for the high speed circuits of Monza and Hockenheim, the cars will fly. Backed by renewed sponsorship from BAT’s Benson and Hedges brand and fresh money coming in from Lola’s former executioners, MasterCard, boss Eddie Jordan has to be one of the most satisfied men in the pits. His main card, young Ralf Schumacher marginally quicker than his Italian team mate but more erratic, is set to take Jordan to greater heights. The Irishman is also offering a seat for next year that everyone will want.

Technical Director Gary Anderson always first to offer his young guns sensible advice, said, "The teams advice to our drivers, will be to learn to come to terms with the low grip and 30% lower downforce levels which will make the car feel different. It will however feel nicer to drive as it slides more easily and the drivers can feel it." Like a mother wrapping wolly scarves round her childrens’ necks and sending them off with packed lunches and clean hankies, Anderson continued, "We will tell them that they have to push for the top speeds but then remember that when they enter the corners they will take them at a much slower speed." Of course they will Gary, but did you tell them to remember to brake?

Fastest in testing at Silverstone and Monza, a podium is a probability if the lads can keep their heads in gear, which brings us to the harassed Heinz Harald. Keeping his car in gear this time will be of prime importance as will avoiding other vehicles on the road. The pressure is now truly on him to perform and with only 19 points scored from nine races, his future is far from secure. Eviction from ‘No1 pit lane’, should not be ruled out.

"There is no doubt that driving for Williams moves you up a gear when it comes to pressure on the driver," He said recently and, referring to his aborted start at Silverstone, "You don’t get the same feel with a hand clutch that you do with a foot clutch. It never seems to bite in the same way." The conjecture is of course that all the winter testing and between-race practice should have allowed him to overcome this particular problem by now. Another problem is his old adversary and fellow countryman Schumacher. Their rivalry goes back a long way to the F3 championships in 1989 where they fought a tremendous duel for the championship with Karl Wendlinger, who eventually won. Now for the first time since then, Frentzen can face Schumacher with equal machinery. "I hadn’t raced against Michael in equal machinery since those Formula 3 days." He recalled. "Since then Michael has proved he is one of the best drivers in the world and he is a big challenge for anybody." Indeed he is, especially for young Heinz-Harald. Having already lost out to the Ferrari driver when he not only took over his Girlfriend Corinna, but married her too, Frentzen is more than eager to engage in the near impossible task of proving himself on the track, as his equal.

In front of a home crowd Michael Schumacher should be unstoppable and despite his recent comments that, for him, "The real challenge for the championship should come next year," the statistics prove him wrong. Currently leading both Constructors and drivers championships, Ferrari are improving at supersonic rates and should have Williams extremely worried. What was seen as a foregone conclusion at the beginning of the season is now at best for Frank’s boys, a 50-50 chance. The challenge for Schumacher is now. Next year it could well be a walkover.


Chris Richardson 24th July 1997


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