FEATURE

Why I look forward to ... the German Grand Prix

It's Hockenheim this weekend, on a circuit which for 40 years was synonymous with pine forests, long straights and heatwaves. Bernie's friend Hermann "Hitman" Tilke vandalised the straights down to the length of a couple of cricket pitches three years ago, but the heat - and the sweaty marquee in which we pressmen have to ply our trade - remain at this somewhat featureless track just down the road from the university town of Heidelberg.

My first full season of F1 reporting was 1970, which coincided with Jackie Stewart's campaign for an increased awareness of safety. The people who controlled F1 at that time were still the circuit owners, and they preferred to bank their profits rather than invest them in greater security for the pesky drivers. Looking back, it seems amazing to note how many other people in the sport - not just greedy race promoters - resented what Jackie was trying to do. Their viewpoint appeared to be that violent death was an essential element in motor racing's allure, almost as if motorsport was an extension of the World War that had ended only 25 years before.

But racing drivers are not soldiers, of course, and they prefer to survive so that they can enjoy the financial fruits of their skills. What's wrong with that? Personally, I never thought the less of a man who preferred to be living things up in the here and now rather than being interred six feet under a gravestone decorated with medals for long-forgotten deeds of gallantry.

Furthermore, Jackie's requests were entirely reasonable, indeed some of them didn't even go far enough. He had always venerated the Nurburgring, for example, which he regarded as the ultimate test of a driver. He enthusiastically endorsed a reconstruction programme aimed at "sanitising" the Nordschleife by easing some of the crests and erecting the odd bit of steel barrier. That work was still being done in the summer of 1970, so that year's German GP found a temporary new home at Hockenheim.

Back then I had already been going to Hockenheim twice a year to report the popular Formula 2 races, which were usually gladiatorial slipstream affairs in front of grandstands full of screaming fans. It was a very different place then, with unlimited access to the infield section for those with the right press pass. I have happy memories of relaxing between practice sessions on the grass in the company of a voluptuous Italian lady photographer, gathering wild strawberries. Then, just the photographer was off-limits: today, her husband is the chief of Public Relations at Ferrari - and it's the entire Hockenheim infield which is out of bounds.

That Grand Prix in 1970 was a walkover for Jochen Rindt and his cigarette-liveried Gold Leaf Lotus-Ford 72, which he used to devastating effect on his way to his fourth consecutive win of the season, the one that would be the last of his career. Jochen played around a bit in the opening laps with the notably more powerful but less nimble flat-12 Ferrari 312 of Jacky Ickx, a man he held in mysterious contempt. I was there to help Jochen off with his helmet when he'd finished his victory lap (something else we journalists can't do anymore) and he just shrugged.

"A monkey would have been able to win in this car today," he said to me. It would have been a really good quote if he hadn't said exactly the same thing later to all the other hacks.

Jochen, alas, died at Monza five weeks afterwards. Though Austrian by adoption, he had been born in Germany, which made him the country's only world champion driver until a certain Michael Schumacher - then just one year old - found his way into a racing car.

For 1971 the German GP returned to the Eifel and a revised circuit, the so-called "new" Nurburgring. Jackie Stewart professed his gratitude for the work that had been done, but by now aerodynamics and slick tyres were allowing designers to make huge leaps forward every year. With JYS's retirement at the end of 1973, and with cornering speeds soaring, Niki Lauda took up the cudgels for safety, making himself even less popular by daring to suggest that the Nurburgring was downright dangerous. In a sports show on German TV on the night before the 1976 race, Niki was denounced to his face as a "coward" by some self-appointed racing expert. We all know what happened the following afternoon.

Even after Lauda had been half incinerated in that infamous inferno, there were still a few reactionaries who insisted that taking the Nurburgring off the GP calendar would be pandering to the lily-livered drivers. Gordon Murray, the sharp-witted engineer who designed most of the Brabham F1 cars which raced during the 17 years that Bernie Ecclestone owned the team, had asked his boss late in 1976 if the following year's German GP would be held at the 'Ring or at Hockenheim.

Murray explained that if the 'Ring was still on the schedule, then he would have to design the new Brabham with plenty of clearance under the engine/gearbox to allow for all that crashing down in the dips and gullies. By comparison, all the other circuits then in use were virtually flat.

"Mmmmm," said Bernie, "we'll have to see about this," and went off to make a few calls. Needless to say, he eventually concluded that he had no option but to sympathise with the drivers, and when the calendar was published it was Hockenheim which got the nod over Nurburgring.

"Good thing, too," Murray told me, "because we built our '77 car nice and low. If we'd had to race it at the 'Ring, the gearbox would have been ripped out of it before it had done half a lap."

Inexplicably, not all of the rival F1 teams had received this information in time to build their cars to the same low-line format.

The F1 races at Hockenheim have hardly ever been as close as the ones we used to see in F2. Accordingly, my memories of the place don't involve riveting races as much as incidents that happened in practice or in the paddock. There was a dark cloud over the circuit after the testing accident which killed Patrick Depailler a week before the 1980 GP, and I'll never forget feeling a dull crash from inside my hire car as I drove into the car park on a horribly wet race morning in 1982. It was the impact of Didier Pironi's Ferrari ploughing into the back of Alain Prost's Renault during the warm-up.

Lighter memories include seeing the apprehension on Frank Williams' face after Alan Jones was forced to retire while leading the GP in 1980. It wasn't just the fact that Jonesy's car had dropped out with a fuel evaporation problem which concerned Frank, it was knowing that it was the second time it had happened that season. Those two spared no insults when one of them had cocked up, and that fuel problem almost certainly cost Alan the 1980 title. I think they were still shouting at each other in the Williams caravan when dusk fell.

The most intriguing story I ever heard about the German GP came from the manager of a leading F1 team, who offered an explanation for the marque's consistently poor results in this race. Because the race always took place in the first week of August, he said, it coincided with the boss's family holidays. Instead of joining him in Germany, Mrs Team Owner would be with the children on a faraway beach - and the boss would be accompanied by a pretty girl, a different one every year, always introduced as his secretary.

"After qualifying at other races he always took charge of the de-brief to help the drivers sort out their set-ups," said the manager. "But at the German GP he couldn't get out of the place fast enough, obviously because he had more important business to attend to with the help of his secretary."

That sort of thing could never happen now, could it?

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