German Grand Prix Preview: Life In The Old Dog Yet!

27 July 1997

Andrew Frankl
TACH European Bureau Chief

If there is one place I positively hate on the Formula One calendar it has to be Hockenheim. OK, Magny-Cours is plain boring but this German track is something else. For some reason it seems to attract what I can only describe as a pretty rough crowd. An amazing number of so called supporters are already drunk when they get there on the Friday and it just gets worse. I do not wish to mix sport and politics but when the best part of 100 thousand Germans start chanting-frankly it does not really matter what they chant, it is the way they chant - the memories of the rallies of the 30s just come flooding back.

Boris Becker, a truly great sportsman was asked some time ago to support Berlin's bid for the Olympics in year 2000. He declined on the grounds that it would be too much like the Games were in 1936. Of course the fact that he gets a great deal of hate mail because of his Afro-American wife probably had something to do with his decision but one only has to see the hysteria the minute Schumacher's car enters the stadium to understand Boris and maybe to understand me.

Anyway, sentiments apart it is a pretty awful race track as well. The straights are so long that by and large the most powerful and reliable engine will win. Let the statistics speak-in the last six years Ferrari have won once and Renault engined cars the other five times! It would be a brave man who would suggest anything different. Except that the other teams are getting stronger and stronger.

Mika Hakkinen was very unlucky to have his Mercedes engine expire on him so near the end of the race at Silverstone and he really is due for a bit of success after so many mishaps over the years. His team-mate Coulthard is desperate to hang on to his place in the team at a time when the rumour mill is working overtime.

Talking of which you may have seen the story about Damon Hill going back to Williams. Frankly it would make a great deal of sense, I just hope that this time he won't let the money become the prime consideration. Surely, whether it is 5 million or 6 million dollars a year makes little difference if you spend most of your time watching the others from the side of the track having dropped out for the umpteenth time. Anyway,all will be revealed soon.

In the meantime Fisichella is going back to Benetton which means that either Alesi or Berger or both will be out of a job at the end of the year. With young Wurz doing such a super job at Silverstone team-boss Flavio Briatore may well decide to go with the young-inexpensive- tigers.

The German Grand Prix has a great deal of history,the first one having been held in 1926 when the legendary Rudi Caracciola won in a 2 litre Mercedes. Over the years Ferrari have won 15 times, way ahead of anyone else. It was at the old, 14.2 mile original Nurburgring where Jackie Stewart scored the greatest victory of his life, in fog and rain he beat the second man-Graham Hill- by no less than 4 minutes! It was also at the German Grand Prix where Niki Lauda very nearly lost his life in 1976 and where, just one year later he won again!

More recently it was at Hockenheim that the refuelling system went wrong on Jos Verstappen's car and had it not been for the very rapid intervention of the mechanics he and many others would have lost their lives. Berger may well be leaving Benetton at the end of the year but he certainly drove like a man possessed during final qualifying practice. Having missed three races because of sinus trouble and deeply upset because of his Father's recent death he somehow managed to put all this behind him and beat the entire grid-Villeneuve, Schumacher & all -for the coveted pole position! A stunning, breathtaking performance from the 38 year old veteran, the doyen of Formula One racing.

On Thursday he told me that whilst his days as a Benetton driver are numbered he just was not sure whether to retire or not. On Saturday's showing it would seem silly to do so but his financial demands would have to be severely modified downwards-there are too many inexpensive young drivers around who will drive for a fraction of what Gerhard and Jean Alesi have been getting.

There are suggestions that even Benetton's racing boss Flavio Briatore is being replaced, not just the the two drivers! Whether he is leaving the team or not Flavio certainly knows a good driver when he sees one which is why after letting Jordan have his man Fisichella out on loan for 1977 he reclaimed the young Italian ace for 1998. To prove the point Giancarlo put the Jordan on the front row of the grid alongside Berger. The 100 thousand German supporters had to be satisfied with Michael Schumacher's fourth place in his Ferrari whilst the Mercedes bosses saw their man Hakkinen fight his way to third place after giving his all, whilst Coulthard spun in front of the grandstand.. Heinz-Harald Frentzen did what he could with the ill-handling Williams and managed to snatch fifth place from Schumacher Jr.

To everyone's astonishment the winner of Silverstone, one Jacques Villeneuve ended up on the fifth row-a major disappointment. One should not forget however that with speeds of 210 miles per hour and with the engines running flat out for 45 seconds of every lap reliability is the name of the game at Hockenheim. The race consists of 45 laps which is the equivalent of 307 kilometres or 190.7 miles.

It starts at 2p.m. local time and promises to be a battle royal.

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