JULY 24, 1995

What you may not know about Hockenheim

BUILT as a testing circuit for Mercedes-Benz in 1939, the Hockenheim circuit was originally 4.8-miles in length.

BUILT as a testing circuit for Mercedes-Benz in 1939, the Hockenheim circuit was originally 4.8-miles in length. It was laid out in the vast forests of the flat Rhine Valley, close to the mighty river and consisted of a sausage-shaped track: a long curving section followed by a fast but tight corner and then a long straight back to a second curling turn. While most of the circuit was in the forests, the southern end reached the outskirts of Hockenheim village and actually looped around the town's graveyard. Rumor has it that one or two drivers actually crashed into the cemetery wall...

Originally used as a test track for the high-speed Tripoli GP, Hockenheim's career was short. War broke out a few months after it was completed; and after the war, as Germany rebuilt, all attention was focused on the Nurburgring, situated 90 miles to the north-west of Hockenheim. In the late 1950s, there were a few local races at the track and then it closed down to allow the construction of a new motorway. This autobahn cut through the middle of the circuit, but considerable compensation was paid and other land sold off which gave the track owners money to go to work. They engaged Dutch circuit designer John Hugenholz and he came up with the modern Hockenheim, 4.2 miles in length, including a twisty section - around which vast colorful grandstands were erected to create what feels like a stadium. Racing restarted in 1966, and the following year Formula 2 became the first major series to visit the track, with the "Deutschland Trophae" race being won by Australian Frank Gardner, chased home by modern-day F1 engine-builder Brian Hart in a wooden-chassis Protos.

A year later Hockenheim hit the headlines when Jim Clark was killed, in an unexplained accident, while racing in the second "Deutschland Trophae." Out in the woods beside the circuit, on the run out from the stadium, you can find a simple stone memorial to the great Scottish driver.

Two years later, the Automobilclub von Deutschland was forced to hold the German GP at Hockenheim while safety work was carried out at the Nurburgring. Two chicanes were put into the long straights and the race was won by Austrian Jochen Rindt - but thereafter the GP went back to the Nurburgring and Hockenheim had to make do with F2. The "Deutschland Trophae" became the "Jim Clark Rennen" and continued until the F2 series was abandoned in 1984: among the winners were local heroes Hans Stuck, Jochen Mass and Stefan Bellof. In 1985 Hockenheim hosted a round of the World Sportscar Championship but the event was marred by a series of terrifying pitlane fires and sportscar racing did not return.

Grand Prix racing returned to Hockenheim in 1977 after Niki Lauda's accident at the Nurburgring in 1976. Lauda, recovered from his injuries, won to the delight of the locals. Two years later, Alan Jones took his Williams FW07 to the first of many victories which would lead ultimately to his World Championship triumph the following year.

In 1980, French ace Patrick Depailler was killed testing at the track; and the Ostkurve - the one decent corner Hockenheim had to offer - sprouted a chicane in 1981. A year later World Championship leader Didier Pironi was grievously hurt when his Ferrari cartwheeled after running into the back of Alain Prost's Renault during a wet practice session. It ended the Frenchman's career. Coming just a few months after the death of Villeneuve, it was a dreadful blow to Ferrari, but PatrickÊTambay raised the team's spirits the following day, winning his first Grand Prix.

The races at Hockenheim tend to reflect the competitiveness of the car, more than the skill of the driver, although the dive into the first corner at the start can turn the race on its head as happened last year when almost half the field was wiped out leaving Gerhard Berger to win ahead of the two Ligiers!