A HACK LOOKS BACK

The German GP

It's back to Hockenheim this weekend, after a two year gap now that the German GP is being alternated with the Nürburgring. I'm not so sure that this arrangement will be sustainable for much longer, given that Bernie's fees go up every year and the size of the crowd doesn't. That, my friends, is a recipe for disaster, one that the local municipality will not be willing to underwrite for ever. After the 2006 race it was suggested that the fans have now taken a big dislike to the "new" Hockenheim following its emasculation at the hands of Hermann 'Hitman' Tilke in 2003. Maybe German race goers aren't really interested in slow corners and the occasional bit of overtaking: I suspect they actually prefer to see and hear racing engines being held wide open down those long straights. That way you get more time to concentrate on drinking, see.

Hockenheim used to be one of my favourite tracks, though not for reasons associated with its intrinsic qualities as a circuit. What I liked about it was the convenience. Thanks to the nearby autobahnen it was easy to get in or out, there were plenty of reasonably priced hotels nearby, and of course there was the food. Yes, Germany boasts some seriously good gastronomy. The area round Hockenheim is famous for its spargel, which in early summer features on the menu at every meal. The German asparagus, unlike the English varieties, comes in thick, white tumescent spears (due, I'm told, to being "forced" under black plastic), much of which is canned. When served fresh, our green English asparagus is certainly superior, but out of season, when the supermarkets are trying to foist weirdly out-of-season asparagus (it comes from Peru!) on us, I would tend to choose the canned German stuff.

Even the circuit food at Hockenheim was an advance on anything I'd experienced at our own tracks (does anyone remember those Brands Hatch burgers which lay on the stomach for a week?). The menu is based on sausages which actually taste of meat, and the beer is of the high quality required by the Reinheitsgebot purity laws of 1516. Just inside the Hockenheim paddock there used to be a concrete blockhouse where drivers, mechanics and pressmen could pick up their bangers and mustard. I dropped in there with Piers Courage on a chilly morning before an F2 race there early in 1969 and watched him down his breakfast, which was a large bottle of ice-cold chocolate milk. Today, of course, he would have been surrounded by his Dietician and Personal Trainer, his Human Development Manager and a Press Officer busily pretending to find me an Interview Opportunity six months hence. As I recall, Piers and I just chatted about slipstreaming technique at 180 mph and the importance of not getting too close to a particularly wild driver, some Swiss cove by the name of Clay Regazzoni.

Forty years ago, in the pre-chicane era, Hockenheim was an eery-feeling place, dominated by the concrete grandstands which overlook the mickey-mouse infield section. When the fans arrived, fuelled with beer and rooting for anything German, I couldn't help thinking of similar public displays from a generation earlier, albeit better disciplined, which I had seen on film. It all seemed thoroughly pointless, too, given that the decisive action took place on the long straights, all of them out of sight of the spectators, where the drivers duelled, inches apart, in the ferocious slipstreaming mêlées about which Piers was rightly apprehensive.

One image of Hockenheim which will remain with me forever was the sight of my mate Brian Hart after he had managed to beat a squadron of works BMWs in Bob Gerard's year-old Brabham BT23, fitted of course with one of Brian's own potent home-brewed Cosworth FVA engines. It was a sweltering afternoon and Brian's feet had been roasted by the hot air coming through the front-mounted radiator, so he was wincing with pain as he was invited on to the wooden podium to be presented with his trophy. The top step, infested with woodworm, instantly crumbled under his weight, adding to Brian's discomfort and providing a smidgen of amusement to a partisan crowd still coming to terms with defeat for the fatherland's finest at the hands of a balding English privateer.

I have always advised would-be F1 journalists to find a job inside a team, on a part-time basis if possible, in order to share the gloom (and occasional joy) which comes from being focused on just one or two cars and drivers. During the Seventies, I had the privilege of hooking up with a tiny F1 team with big ambitions. For five years before the BBC called me up as Murray Walker's lap charter and spotter in 1979, I had a similar job with the Ensign team. Ensign boss Morris "Mo" Nunn may have fallen a bit short of Colin Chapman as an engineer, though not by much, and he had to struggle along on the minimum of resources. Nevertheless, he went into every race convinced that his cars had as good a chance of winning as the big boys.

Exactly 30 years ago, Mo needed a new driver. He'd been using a promising Irish lad called Derek Daly, but Derek was refusing to sign an option for the 1979 season. Typically, Mo bull-headedly decided that if Daly was unwilling to show him any loyalty for giving him a free ride, he would look elsewhere. A dark-eyed Brazilian was doing a great job in British F3 that year, so Morris gave him a call, and that is how Nelson Piquet got his start in F1.

Because I was also staying in the same hotel as Nunn and his Ensign men that weekend, I was accepted as part of the team. It was a wonderful opportunity for a journalist because I was in a position to hear about everything that happened to Nelson and the crew as they got to know each other.

Despite some problems with gear selection, our new boy qualified on the penultimate row, ahead of his team mate Harald Ertl. Not bad for someone who'd only done a few laps in an old McLaren M23 at Silverstone the previous week. Unfortunately, the clonky gearbox had caused Nelson to "buzz" the engine, and there was anguished discussion about whether to change it or not, the problem being that the Cosworth factory was closed, as always in the first two weeks of August, for summer holidays. Thus the team's only spare fresh engine had to be saved for the Austrian GP two weeks later, obliging Morris to send Nelson to the start with a suspect V8.

Nevertheless, he made a mighty start and going into the first corner he found himself alongside Jody Scheckter, whose Wolf was suffering from fuel starvation. But the engine eventually failed, though not before Nelson had made a useful name for himself. In the process, he attracted the attention of Bernie Ecclestone, who, to Mo Nunn's fury, seduced him to the Brabham team with the promise of Alfa engines (but only a tiny retainer) after Niki Lauda walked out on him (and F1) at the end of the year.

Although I prophesied a runaway win for Lewis Hamilton in my pre-Silverstone column here, don't ask me to do the same again for Germany. If we get the rain promised by the long-term forecasters, I fancy Lewis to take advantage of his McLaren's wet-weather superiority (it warms up its tyres better than the Ferrari) and give his team its first Hockenheim victory since 1998. In the dry, and with five wins in the last 10 races here, a Ferrari has to be the odds-on favourite, though not necessarily for the Kimster, who took pole both in 2005 and 2006 but failed to convert that advantage into wins.

Please allow me to devote a few words here to my colleague Bernard Cahier, who has died at the age of 81. Father to this website's own talented lensman Paul-Henri Cahier, Bernard served his country in the French Resistance before moving, cannily, to California where he acquired not only his skills in the English language but also his dear wife Joan. He started in the racing business as a photo-journalist, chronicling the sport alongside our own Denis Jenkinson and occasionally taking the wheel as a competitor in classic sportscar races, including the Targa Florio.

Bernard was tireless in ensuring that his fellow journalists and photographers had the best attention, regularly succeeding in persuading circuit owners that we were at least as important as the drivers. At a time when the FIA showed no interest in issuing the press with permanent credentials, Bernard formed the International Racing Press Association to provide genuine pressmen with a red leather armband which was almost immediately recognised at circuits all around the world. You can't imagine how much hassle that saved us.

At first, IRPA may have given the impression of being a private hospitality club for Bernard and his chums, and he certainly applied himself with huge success to the task of persuading sponsors and others to ensure that we were well fed and watered. But IRPA was also a serious organisation which operated democratically and policed itself efficiently. In my first full year I was deeply impressed when one of our members was stripped of his armband after it was discovered that he had used his armband to get his girl friend into the paddock at Clermont-Ferrand.

Regardless of the sport involved, in every press room you're likely to find someone who claims to have done it all and to be good friends with everyone. Bernard Cahier was just such a personality, except (of course) that he really had done it all and had close friends everywhere. I am just one of hundreds of press people who owe him a debt of gratitude. Oh, and if you want to read the extraordinary story of Bernard's life in racing, sumptuously illustrated with pictures that capture the essence of our sport as it was in the Old Testament days, look no further than his magnificent autobiography, 'F-Stops, Pit Stops, Laughter & Tears.'

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