Preview: German F1 Grand Prix
It sure is strange to recall that until twenty years ago the land which gave the world the automobile had been unable to celebrate its own Formula 1 world champion.
Yes, Porsche regularly run rings around the opposition in sports cars; true, BMW powered Brazil’s Nelson Piquet and Brabham to world glory in 1983; those with long memories recalled Mercedes and Juan-Manuel Fangio dominating the mid-fifties, but it was not until Michael Schumacher took the first of ultimately seven titles that a German passport holder could inscribe the words "world champion" in the Occupation field of his maroon travel document.
Germany’s Grosse Preis was first run as a world championship event in 1951 – tellingly, with memories of recent hostilities still raw, the country was not on the schedule of the inaugural 1950 season – with the daunting 22 kilometre Nürburgring in the brooding Eifel mountains in central Germany playing host.
The race stayed there until 1976 save for occasional forays to the likes of Avus (Berlin) and Hockenheim in the south. That last event is infamous for the inferno which robbed Niki Lauda of an ear, and with its safety standards found wanting – due to the length of the circuit and rudimentary facilities – the German Grand Prix moved to Hockenheim near Stuttgart, home to Porsche and Mercedes.
WHERE TO RACE?
Still, Nürburg wanted in, and in 1984 a modern autodrome was built in the shadow (literally and figuratively) of Big Daddy, and dubbed ‘Nürburgring Grand Prix Circuit’. Its shared name and location, plus unfavourable comparisons with the ‘Green Hell’ visible from its paddock, led to it being known as the ‘Newburgring’ and derided as ‘Mickey Mouse ’ – rather unfairly, for in its own way it poses challenges, while the region’s rather capricious weather generally ensures that deluges blight race weekends.
This layout hosted the German Grand Prix in 1985; thereafter Hockenheim again played host. As the country could then afford two grands prix on account of a booming economy and Schumi-mania, F1 events were annually run at the Nürburgring run under the flags of Luxembourg (its border is but 50kms east) or Europe.
However, it could not last, and after Michael’s retirement fans stopped travelling to this rural location situated 100 kilometres due south of Cologne just as the global economic crisis and F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone’s eye-watering hosting fees bit both German circuits. Hard.
Thus they agreed on timeshare, with Nürburgring getting odd years and the honour of hosting the 2009 German Grand Prix, and Hockenheim taking evens. That race saw Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber score a double with a first career pole and victory.
WILL RED BULL BE IT?
With 2011 being an odd year the F1 circus has again decamped in the Eifel, and few in the paddock doubt Red Bull will again be there or thereabouts. This time, though, reigning champion and local hero Sebastian Vettel is expected to set the pace, the 24-year-old German having won six of the opening nine grands prix and being comfortably in the lead of the drivers’ hunt as the chase reaches the midway point of the 19-leg championship on the 30th lap of Sunday’s 60-lap grand prix.
However, he is unlikely to have it all his own way, for not only is Webber absolutely desperate to post his first win of the year, but a fortnight ago Ferrari and Fernando Alonso proved in Silverstone the Red Bulls were beatable by taking their maiden 2011 win. Thus we have had four winners to date: SebVet, McLaren’s duo of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button with one each, plus the Spaniard.
With Webber that makes five potential winners, while Nico Rosberg at Mercedes surely cannot be discounted on home soil, particularly as the circuit bears proud allegiance to his Mercedes team by featuring an enormous three-pointed star erected above Turn 1. The young German is itching for his first win, which surely cannot be far off.
Team-mate Schumacher, born near Cologne, is out to take the first win of his comeback, and where better to do so than at the circuit he made his own during his heyday. He proved in Canada he has lost none of his formidable wet weather skills, and with rain forecast on all three days the 42-year-old could well spring a surprise.
As always in F1 there are unknowns: after the blown diffuser debacle in Silverstone the FIA agreed to revert to the specification as permitted in Valencia a month ago. There Red Bull won from Ferrari with McLaren being hit hard, so could Sunday’s race again see the Silvers trailing? Was Alonso's win in Britain fortuitous rather than fought for? Will Ferrari team-mate Felipe Massa once again find his winning ways?
Pirelli has specified its (revised) medium and soft rubber, which should help Ferrari, which battles to get heat into the hard compounds, but, again, with rain forecast, neither compound may find competitive use. That said, in the last ten years only once has rain fallen during the actual race – in 2007.
Questions, questions, questions – with the answers coming thick and fast when the lights extinguish at 14h00 on Sunday. Qualifying is scheduled for the equivalent time on Saturday.