July 17th, 2012 (F1plus / Chris Cameron-Dow).- From Caracciola to Nuvolari, Fangio to Lauda, Senna to Schumacher, the great names of motorsport have raced and won in Germany. With manufacturers including Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, BMW, Audi and Volkswagen, Germany is, and always has been, at the pinnacle of the motor industry. Add in the legendary circuits at Hockenheim and the Nurburgring, and Germany becomes one of the most complete racing countries in the world.
The early years of Grand Prix racing in Germany were dominated by local hero Rudolf Caracciola, who won the race six times between 1926 and 1939 and still holds the record for most Grand Prix wins in the country. But Caracciola raced before the advent of Formula One.
Oddly, only two German drivers have won the German Grand Prix since the formation of the Formula One World Championship in 1950. They are, typically, the Schumacher brothers. Michael Schumacher won four times between 1995 and 2006, and younger brother Ralf triumphed in 2001.
In fact, prior to the dominance of Michael Schumacher, Germany was surprisingly lacking successful F1 drivers. Schumacher became the first German to win the World Championship in 1994, and remained the country's only champion until Sebastian Vettel took top honours in 2010.
The scene of this year's German Grand Prix is the Hockenheimring. Situated in the Rhine Valley, the circuit opened in 1932, albeit in a rather different form to that seen today. Typically of early circuits, the original Hockenheimring was very long at almost eight kilometres, and made its way through forest with no appreciable barriers to protect the drivers from the trees.
The track was shortened in 1965 to 6.823 km, but retained the long straights through the forest that would continue to characterise the circuit until 2001. Jim Clark's death in a Formula Two race at Hockenheim in 1968 resulted in the introduction of chicanes to slow the cars down and Armco barriers to line the circuit.
The German Grand Prix had generally been held at the Nurburgring in the first 20 years of the World Championship, but the drivers became concerned at the lack of safety on the long, dangerous Nordschleife and demanded that changes be made to the circuit ahead of of the 1970 race. The modifications could not be completed in time for that year, and so the Grand Prix was held at the Hockenheimring for the first time, and won by Jochen Rindt for Lotus.
Lauda's car burning with him inside at Nurburgring in 1976.
The race returned to the Nurburgring in 1971, and stayed there until Niki Lauda's horrific accident in 1976, where the Austrian driver suffered severe burns to his head after crashing on the second lap. Lauda's injuries highlighted the lack of safety at the circuit, and it proved to be the last time a race would be held at the famous track. For 1977 the Grand Prix moved to Hockenheim, where it stayed until 2006 with only one interruption (1985 where the race was run on the new, much shorter Nurburgring GP-Strecke).
The Hockenheimring at the time was a very fast circuit, with long straights through dense forest, separated by chicanes, before the track entered the Motodrom section, also known as the stadium section because it is surrounded by grandstands, at the end of the lap. The stadium section was much slower and tighter than the rest of the track, which created a substantial set-up challenge for the teams, as the cars needed high top-speed through the forest, but downforce and agility in the Motodrom.
Despite its high-speed nature, the circuit has never had a fatality in a Formula One race. There have, however, been five fatal accidents at the track – Jim Clark (F1 champion in 1963 and 1965), Bert Hawthorne and Markus Hottinger died in Formula Two races between 1968 and 1980, Patrick Depailler died in a Formula One test session in 1980, and Tony Boden was killed taking part in a drag race meeting in 1986.
Towards the end of the 1990s, safety became more of a concern in Formula One as the length of the circuit made it difficult for medical personnel to respond quickly to an accident at the far end of the track. The track was also almost entirely inaccessible to spectators, as there was very little seating outside of the Motodrom. It became inevitable that the track would have to be modified to accommodate the demands of modern Grand Prix racing.
In 2001, the track was redesigned by Hermann Tilke, who is known among Formula One fans for creating characterless, generic tracks. The stadium section was retained almost unchanged, but the long, fast forest section was abandoned entirely and controversially destroyed in favour of planting trees, meaning that the popular old layout no longer exists and therefore cannot be used for any form of racing.
The new track is much shorter at 4.3 km, a fair amount slower (the lap record was achieved in 2004 by Kimi Raikkonen at an average speed of 223.18 km/h, compared to the record on the old layout of 250.34 km/h), but has the advantage of being very visible to spectators from almost any point around the track. Extensive grandstand seating sponsored by Mercedes-Benz allows the German fans to flock to the circuit in support of their heroes.
Hockenheim circuit as it is today.
Since 2007, the German Grand Prix has alternated between the Nurburgring and Hockenheim, although it was called the European Grand Prix in 2007 due to a contractual dispute over the name. This year it is Hockenheim's turn again, and an impressive number of German drivers will be on the grid in search of home success.
For 2012, there are five German drivers in the field, a strong indication of the health of German motorsport. They are: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) and Timo Glock (Marussia).
Of those five drivers, the first three are in contention for victory at this year's German Grand Prix. Hulkenberg could hope for a podium if the weekend goes well, and Glock will simply be aiming to finish ahead of the two HRT cars.
For Vettel, a win at Hockenheim is missing from his Formula One CV, something he will be keen to rectify as soon as possible. He has the car to achieve it in 2012, and his home fans will no doubt be cheering him on throughout the weekend.
The future of the German Grand Prix is reasonably secure, with a contract in place to hold the race until 2018. Given the country's history and current position in motor racing, it is fitting that Formula One should continue to go to Germany for many years to come.