Tuesday 17 July 2012

Hockenheim Preview: A matter of perspective?

Even with a prolonged twenty-race calendar an F1 season still gives its usual impression of rattling along at a fair clip. And it seems astonishing that this weekend's race, the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, will mark the halfway point of the absorbing 2012 F1 year.

We're very much in phase two of Hockenheim's modern existence, and perhaps it says something about the age of the sanitised Tilke-drome that perspectives, and standards, have changed with the zeitgeist. It would have been an absurd thing to say for a long time, but the previously-used Hockenheim layout is these days viewed with something resembling affection by many. I even read one circuit guide describe the current Hockenheim as 'scarcely a shadow of its former great self'.

Panoramic view of Hockenheim    Credit: Matthias Ott / CC
For the 2002 race Hockenheim's current tight and technical Hermann Tilke-designed track replaced the preceding distinctive blasts through the forests, which amounted essentially to lengthy straights interrupted by chicanes, and ended with a serpentine 'stadium section' which wound within grey imposing concrete grandstands capable of housing 100,000 people. The 'old' Hockenheim was seldom popular at the time however. It was viewed as not being a challenge for drivers but simultaneously tough on engines due to them being on full noise for several seconds down the straights, thus ensuring races were battles for survival rather than necessarily those for the racers. And worst of all events here were perceived to be rather tepid and bland; a place where nothing much seemed to happen. Indeed, it used to be said that it was at Hockenheim where the annual 'silly season' of rumour and counter rumour of which drivers would go where for the following year would start, simply because of the lack of other things to talk about.

How the 'new' Hockenheim fits into the 'old'
Credit: MDragunov / CC
As Nigel Roebuck noted at the time: 'Hockenheim seldom produces much that is striking. Usually we have a droning afternoon, a lot a of blown engines...Hockenheim's silly shape is responsible in part. It always strikes me that someone designed a club circuit....was then requested to make it suitable for a Grand Prix, and drew a couple of converging straight lines, joining them up with a single right hander. The cars leave the stadium, disappear into the privacy of the forests and blow themselves to pieces.'

Of course, that it replaced the Nurburgring Nordschleife as the German Grand Prix venue explained some of the unpopularity, but not all. As Autocourse in 1977 (the year that Hockenheim replaced the old Nurburgring permanently) noted: 'No matter what sentiments you feel for Nurburgring, no matter how roundly you may condemn the place, you would have to concede that Hockenheim is no kind of answer.'

And just as Imola will likely never lose the association of being the scene of Ayrton Senna's passing, Hockenhiem will likely never entirely shake being viewed as the setting where Jim Clark was lost, as his Lotus plunged into the trees out at the back of the circuit following a puncture during an F2 race in 1968.

The old track did have a few things going for it though. Most notably it was fast. On the F1 itinerary only Monza tended to beat it for average speed and even then not by much. And the atypical Monza-style trimmed-for-straightline-speed aero settings that were required had the ability to produce unusual results. Further, the rise of Michael Schumacher did finally lend Hockenheim races an atmosphere via the hordes of his acolytes and their standard issue (it seemed) air horns in the grandstands.

Still, we are where we are, and we approach the 2012 German Grand Prix at the modern Hockenheim, taking its turn this year in its alternation with the also new Nurburgring. Hockenheim these days is quintessential Tilke, with short medium-to-low speed turns predominant. Few of the turns are fast and none are long.

Is Red Bull the team to beat?
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Such has been the way of it in 2012 it's taken close to half of the season for even hints at an expected running order to emerge. We now enter the latest race weekend with most looking at the Red Bulls are the cars to beat. The last two track configurations at Valencia and Silverstone have shared little and yet the Bulls have been at the very sharp end at both, suggesting that there is a fundamentally good racing car there. And at Valencia, a track like Hockenheim with hardly a fast turn, Sebastian Vettel wiped the floor with everyone before technical failure stopped him.

For Ferrari it's been a similar story to Red Bull in recent times. The F2012 that was born an ugly ducking has laterally turned into a very fine swan indeed, looking quick at all types of track and at least close to Red Bull's laptimes. And as we've grown used to, Fernando Alonso is often capable of making up whatever gap on car performance that exists. All at the Scuderia will need thick skins this weekend though, no doubt 'Fernando is faster than you' and the rest of the team order shenanigans from the last visit here in 2010 will be pored over endlessly by various media outlets (for what it's worth, my views from the time on that case can be read here).

Many eyes will be on the McLarens, and unfortunately for them many will be akin to the eyes of vultures circling a corpse. Crisis talk has filled the air recently when the Woking team is discussed, and at Silvestone both of the drivers joined in on such talk after 8th and 10th was the best they could do in the race. Big upgrades for the McLaren are on tap for Hockenheim as well as for the round a week later in Hungary. With the teams all going on an enforced summer break after that race McLaren's season could well pivot on whether the cars are on the pace after these upgrades are added. If they are not then the season could very quickly run away from the team.

McLaren - not as bad as people are saying?
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Still, I can't help but suspect that the talk of McLaren's death has been greatly exaggerated. Let's not forget that Lewis Hamilton won but three races ago, and qualified on the front row just two races ago (and Valencia is a circuit not always kind to McLaren). And the last round at Silverstone was an odd one with incessant rain reducing set up time to a bare minimum, meaning many could have got their sums wrong (and this could well have included McLaren). Plus the damp qualifying session to a large extent negated McLaren's usual strong suit of qualifying performance.

The relative lack of quick corners in theory should play into the Mercedes's hands. The car has tended to be strong this year at such tracks where low and medium speed change of direction is required, such as at Monaco. However, the Mercs will face their usual elephant in the room: their (in)ability to keep tyres in good working order, and perhaps here more than ever. Even in the Bridgestone days tyre wear was high at Hockenheim, and forecasts suggest the ambient temperatures will be warm this weekend. Further, unusually, this is a track that no one has last year's data on the behaviour of the modern batch of Pirellis to fall back on, as that German Grand Prix was run at the Nurburgring. And to top it all off the compounds available are the softs and mediums, which in similar temperatures in Bahrain and Valencia required careful nursing throughout a race stint.

Sauber - to come on strong on race day?
Credit: Morio / CC
If the German race becomes a matter of tyre tending then the Lotuses and Saubers will enter the picture, on race day at least. And even better for them is that one virtue of the new Hockenheim is that it lends itself to overtaking. This has been seen here even in the days before DRS was thought of, such as with Hamilton's late charge from fifth place to win in 2008, and in Jenson Button's climb from 13th on the grid to finish second in 2004. So even those with modest grid slots should be able to make progress on Sunday. The Lotus tends to go well everywhere, and we seem to say every time that this just might be the time that the Enstone team claims a long overdue 2012 win. But as so often is the case for that team it is on the back foot almost from the off, this time with its pace-setter of recent times Romain Grosjean facing a five-place grid drop for changing his gearbox between races.

So many go into the Hockenheim with reasons for optimism, and there are a number of factors that will likely make things unpredictable. Should be good for those of us watching on.

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