I grew up watching Formula One from a very young age and always wished that someday I could visit some of those historic circuits. One that stood was a high speed circuit that raced through the forest in Germany. I remember those V12 and V10 engines would be screaming which often led to spectacular engine blow ups. Sparks would be sprayed out behind the cars as they bottomed out over the bumps. This circuit always had me intrigued. Hockenheim was a circuit that favoured the brave and I got the chance to finally see it in person in 2012 for the Grand Prix weekend and experience a bit of that history.
I think ‘adventure’ is an accurate word for this experience. Looking back, my wife and I were rather optimistic having no accommodation booked for the race weekend. We had decided on camping at the circuit to fully experience the local flavour and passion. We landed in Frankfurt, Germany early on the Friday morning after a 10 hour flight from South Africa. We had 2 bags, with one dedicated to camping gear. Immediately after arrival, our German skills were tested when we had to ask for directions and figure out how to get to Hockenheim by train. When we arrived at the Hockenheim station, there was a queue of people waiting for shuttle busses to get to the circuit so we decided that it will probably be faster to walk. The little village of Hockenheim is picturesque but annoyance soon kicked in as it ended up being a 5km arduous walk to the entrance to the camping site. The campsite itself was situated just outside the entrance from the circuit.
While setting up camp the sound of the GP2 cars (now known as Formula 2) were making me anxious to get into the circuit. Although the circuit had gone through significant changes over the years where the flat out forest section had been removed, it was still an honour to be there. I immediately walked towards turn 2 which is where the old circuit would have continued off into the forest. Here I found the memorial of Jim Clark, the 2 time Formula One driver who was tragically killed at the circuit during a Formula 2 race in 1968. I continued walking around the circuit taking in as much as I could from what Ive seen on tv through the years. The afternoon practice sessions were greeted with a sprinkle of rain to test the driver skills especially through the complex section. Later that afternoon my childhood F1 hero, Michael Schumacher would crash right in front of me. The German crowd were stunned but cheered as he climbed out unharmed. The GP2 qualifying was very close. Giedo Van der Garde stuck it on pole 0.012 ahead of James Calado. The GP2 field included names such as Esteban Gutierrez, Max Chilton, Marcus Ericsson and Jolyon Palmer who all would later in their careers find themselves racing in Formula One.
There was plenty of off track action to keep the spectators entertained. From tyre changing competitions, driver interviews to simulator experiences, there was something for everyone. I particularly enjoyed walking through the Hockenheim museum where I got up close to a number of famous racing cars that I had only ever seen on TV before. It was a great collection and a must for anyone visiting Hockenheim for the first time.
The GP2 Feature Race on Saturday was run in damp conditions. All drivers started on treaded rubber apart from Johnny Cecotto and Stephane Richelmi who gambled with slicks. Nigel Melker had a great opening lap in tricky conditions and found himself leading by the time he crossed the start/finish line for the first time. Fabio Leimer and Giedo Van der Garde both passed Melker on lap 5, while the race quickly came to Cecotto when he set the fastest lap of the race, lapping 2 seconds faster than anyone else. He passed more than 8 cars on the following lap to force the entire field to pit for slicks and in so doing, took the lead of the race. Most had to dive into the pits a second time towards the end of the race but Cecotto had done enough to claim a comfortable victory from Fabio Leimer and Stephane Richelmi. After the race Cecotto said “Incredible. From the formation laps I said to the team ‘we could take slicks but it will be on the limit’. It was amazing at times, the team told me to keep pushing to keep the gap, so I drove 15 qualifying laps.”
The camp site came alive on the Saturday evening. Parties continued throughout the night. There were no open spaces remaining and most tents had their team supporter flags flying next to their tents. The traditional German food and beer was great and the buzz of excitement made it a camping experience like no other.
Sunday morning’s weather was more favourable when the cars lined up on the grid for the Sprint Race. We had seats at the entrance to the complex section and had a great view in front of us. James Colado was on pole and scampered away at the start. The usual carnage ensued at the hairpin with championship leader Luiz Razia spinning as he went wide. Max Chliton and Tom Dillmann came together when they tried to avoid Razia which brought out the safety car. Van der Gaarde grabbed second from Felipe Nasr at the safety car restart. Later on in the race, Giancarlo Serenelli walked away from a huge shunt at the Agipkurve. Calado proceeded to lead every lap and took a dominant victory of 7.9 seconds to win from Giedo Van der Gaarde and Felipe Nasr. “It’s a good win for me, as I’ve had some bad luck recently and lost some points,” said Calado. “To get back to the front, where I belong, and winning races again is a privilege. The car was unbelievable, the speed was unreal. It’s good to be back in contention again.”
The formula One race was won by Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari followed by Jenson Button in a McLaren and Kimi Raikkonen in the Lotus. After the race, it was a sprint across the circuit to see the podium celebrations and cars being inspected in parc ferme. We stayed at the campsite a further night but it was a lot quieter and much more subdued. It was an experience of a lifetime, another historic circuit ticked off the bucket list and a weekend I will never forget.
* Image Credit: WRi2