Monday 25 July 2016

Hockenheim Preview: Back in the old routine

Nothing really about modern F1 should surprise you. And the modern F1 calendar has desensitised us more than just about anything else apparently. Really, that there has been no French Grand Prix for near enough a decade, and that there is little sign of its return, should seem like something from a farce. But it's reality, almost to the point of being habitual. The British Grand Prix was about as absurdly in Bernie Ecclestone's cross-hairs for a while. These days even grand old Monza is under threat of being exiled.

After two years away, the German Grand Prix -
and Hockenheim - are back
Photo: Octane Photography
And it afflicts the German Grand Prix too, which last season became the latest to drop from the calendar with a conspicuous clunk. A wealthy and populous country, with a vast and prestigious car industry. A country that provides four current F1 drivers, one of whom has won four titles and another led the world championship table until last weekend. It also is the home race of the world champion constructor, which also just so happens to be a glittering motorsport and motoring marque. But disappear the race did. Only in F1, you suspect.

Now though after a year away it returns, back at Hockenheim. The gap came about due to that one of the alternating hosts, the Nurburgring, fell into financial bother. Rather topping off the absurdity the other host, the very same Hockenheim, didn't fancy stepping into the breach as it didn't want to make its financial loss from staging the race every 12 months rather than every 24...

But the financial woe of the race isn't entirely a mystery. Curiously given everything mentioned Hockenheim has struggled to get bums on seats in recent times. The packed tribunes of the Michael Schumacher era - air horns, flares and all - seem long gone. On the last visit here in 2014 the empty grandstand seats positively gaped, apparently just 50,000 were there on race day - under half of the circuit's capacity - which in itself was a vast improvement on the Friday and Saturday. It's something that can be debated all day, but it seems subsequent drivers have not captured the German imaginations anything like the way that Schumi did. Indeed I had a wander through a Hockenheim fans' campsite two years ago and it was striking that Schumi paraphernalia still dominated. As for those two current homegrown drivers intimated for Sebastain Vettel there was little and for Nico Rosberg nothing at all that I saw.

As for the circuit itself, modern day Hockenheim is quintessential Hermann Tilke, with short medium-to-low speed turns predominant, as well as a lengthy straight book-ended by slow turns, designed to promote overtaking (which it is often successful at, to be fair). This for 2002 replaced the preceding four mile version of the track, which was made up essentially of lengthy straights interrupted by chicanes through thick pine forest, and ended with a serpentine 'stadium section' which wound within grey imposing concrete grandstands capable of housing 100,000 people.

Arguably after his win here on the last Hockenheim visit, for
Nico Rosberg it was never glad confident morning again
Photo: Octane Photography
Once again showing how F1 changes the old track was rather an ugly duckling in its time, seen as soulless, not a challenge and rarely providing good races, but in hindsight oddly it has developed the status of a very fine swan indeed. Heck, in 2012 I recall stumbling across one circuit guide describe the current version as "scarcely a shadow of its former great self".

Some things have however hardly changed since our last Hockenheim visit two years ago. Not least that the rest haven't got much further in the quest to knock haughty Mercedes off its pedestal. Just like then we face a German Grand Prix weekend secure in the knowledge that only the very strange will result in the battle for first not being a private Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg affair. Merc indeed on the evidence of the last couple of rounds appears to have found something extra even over and above its previous high level. For more reason than one, this weekend we are rather back in the old routine.

Lewis enters Nico's home territory (of sorts) with most things going his way. When he pointed out with relish after the Hungary race last weekend that he won out even after by his assessment a "so-so" race, the sense was clear - simply everything is going his way right now. Almost no matter what.

You wonder too if, worse for the German, Nico will cast his mind back at any point to his last visit to this track two years ago, when it seemed that he, a lot like Lewis now, was the man in a golden summer of his F1 existence, somehow. Lewis that time was taken from contention by a brake failure early in qualifying, and Nico gleefully fired the ball into the empty net to extend his title lead further. But as well as that being the point at which the fruit was sweetest, it also with this was the point that the rot started to set in. His next race was a bitty and controversial one in Hungary, then after that we had Spa... at which point you could make a case that it was for Nico never glad confident morning again.

The hairpin at the end of the long straight is
the scene of much action
Photo: Octane Photography
Of course even after this one there will still be plenty of racing to be done in 2016 - nine rounds indeed - and even with Lewis's form getting all of our attention there remains but six points between the Merc pair in the table. Yet still it feels that before everyone goes off for their summer holidays Nico needs to do something in Hockenheim to change the mood. You know what they say about 'The Big Mo'.

As outlined at Hockenheim there are no long corners, which means that it's a circuit on which a driver spends a high proportion of the lap on full throttle. There also as noted is a lengthy straight (at the end of which is the good overtaking opportunity mentioned). Most of the turns aren't especially quick either, so engine power, traction and braking are the discriminators. This should help the Mercs, though this season the Red Bull has been peerless on braking and slow speed grip which will matter a lot here. The straights mentioned are less good news for the Milton Keynes team though.

Ferrari remains a riddle. Its car's status as not being quite the best at anything, combined with the team's slightly iffy record of getting the best out of its machine and tyres, particularly on Saturdays, makes the Scuderia hard to back with confidence. At least though with Hockenheim being much better for overtaking than the Hungaroring the red cars have a much better chance of using their race pace to get by the Bulls. Getting with Mercedes is another matter though. Safety cars aren't too common here either and while a more familiar potential variable for Hockenheim is rain, long range forecasts suggest this will stay away this time, and instead it'll mainly be hot and sunny.

Williams is unlikely to repeat its Hockenheim result
of two years ago, but still may be worth a watch
Photo: Octane Photography
Williams might be worth a watch too. It should go well down this track's straights and the FW38's traction is good too. And while it no doubt feels like a long time ago Valtteri Bottas took a fine second place in the last visit, holding off the recovering Hamilton. To think too, that time also Williams had locked out the front row just two races previously...

In the last few visits here tyre wear has been marginal, and indeed in 2014 many started the race intending to stop twice but in the event had to switch to three. The various acceleration zones can tax the tyres due to the risk of degradation as cars slide, plus despite what has been outlined some of the faster turns here ask a lot of the tyres too. Just like last time, the soft and supersoft compounds are likely to be the default (though Force India is an odd outlier). On the flipside though for a qualifying lap, again depending on the ambient temperature, tyre warm up can be hard to achieve in the first part of the tour given as noted there aren't really any long corners here.

Not everything changes. And neither will be the team on top this weekend.

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