Yes, you did read that right. Hockenheim. The racing circuit sits in the forests of the Rhine lowlands, next to a motorway intersection, known as the Dreieck Hockenheim, which is the reason the circuit was rebuilt in the early 1960s to create the current layout, rather than the big sausage-shaped track it was in the 1950s.
The interchange is where Bundesautobahn (“state motorway”) 6 and the Bundesautobahn 61 meet. If you drive up the 61 you can go straight to Michael Schumacher’s home own of Kerpen and, barring a short unfinished section near Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s home town of Mönchengladbach, it will take you all the way to Dutch border at Venlo, from where you can turn left to Eindhoven or go straight on to Nijmegen.
From 1977 until 2006 Hockenheim was the home of the German Grand Prix and it was a place we would regularly (and happily) visit two weeks after the British Grand Prix each year, although one learned not to wear yellow clothing at that time of year to avoid becoming an “insect hotel”. For various reasons – largely due to the Germans not being able to raise the money for a race, it has been rather intermittent in recent years, although we went there in 2019. Last year, there was a quick visit to the Nurburgring – after seven years away – but that was for a race called the Eifel Grand Prix, which was pushed into calendar as F1 fought to get as many events possible into the COVID-compacted 2020 season. They did not pay a lot.
This year, however, the German GP is off again and there are no plans for anything, which seems incredible given that Mercedes is still doing well, Sebastian Vettel is at Aston Martin, and Mick Schumacher is in F1 with Haas.The problem is that Germans are greener than other nationalities and Die Grünen party has even been part of a coalition government as long ago as 1998. The party has been very powerful at regional level and as no-one has properly explained to them that F1 technology is really brilliant from an environmental point of view, so they seem to think that Formula E is a better idea, and they don’t ask difficult questions about where the electricity for that comes from. Last year, you may recall Formula E held six races in nine days in Berlin to try to cobble together a meaningful championship.
Perhaps the rise of Mick will change things, but for now we go without a German GP and it was with a sense of sadness that I went passed the circuit on Bundesautobahn 6 on the way home from Austria to France. It is quite a drive (840 miles) and one needs to set off before breakfast if one is going to be home for dinner.
When I left the Red Bull Ring at about 10pm on Sunday evening, to finish up my JSBM newsletter back in the gasthof, the Dutch fans were still firing fireworks into the sky and, from the jollity one could hear, it was safe to presume that the orange-clad were chugging down a few Oranjeboom beers, as these can be mistaken for Red Bull cans if you’ve had a few too many. They needed to celebrate the victory of their favoured son.
Thus I was a bit surprised to encounter so many of them on the road at six in the morning the next day, although I presumed that there were designated drivers and those who had drunk and danced the night away were in the back snoozing. It felt like being in the Netherlands (apart from those mountain things) as 80 percent of the cars on the road on Monday morning had yellow Dutch number plates. I generally like Dutchmen and women but, perhaps because of the late night, I felt there was a fair amount of what I’d call grumpy driving going on, which is when one sits in the outside line and refuses to budge and appears outraged if someone dares to flash their lights at you. I’m not a great believer in flashing cars ahead, but after a couple of hours of this behaviour – car after car after caravan – I had run out of swearwords (in several languages) and was beginning to plan to go to the Netherlands in the summer with a car full of dynamite, with the intention of blowing a significant hole in the Afsluitdijk (the big sea wall that keeps the water out)and by doing so, gettingrid of a percentage of the population, some of whom would undoubtedly have been driving slowly in the fast lane on Austrian and German motorways.
When I stopped, looking for a cup of coffee, there were huge queues of hungover Dutchmen (still dressed in orange), who were buying hot dogs and beer for breakfast. I shuddered and drove on, without sustenance nor caffeine. I think every useable vehicle in the country had made the trip to Austria (exclusing bicycles) and, as Sebastian Vettel pointed out, it would be a great time to be a Dutch burglar, because no-one was at home…
From the Red Bull Ring to Passau, where one crosses the River Inn and goes into Germany, and then on up to Regensburg, on a road that crosses the Danube five times, the Dutch were in the way. By the time I reached Nüremburg (280 miles into the journey) I was grumpy and hungry, but then as I peeled off, to take Bundesautobahn 6 and go west, the orange hordes went straight on, heading up the next 390 miles to Emmerich (Nico Hulkenberg’s home town) by way of Frankfurt and Cologne.
I celebrated by stopping for an unhindered coffee and then spent a joyous period whizzing through the German forests to Heilbronn and Hockenheim, by way of Sinsheim, where one can see a Concorde and a Concordski standing side-by-side next to the motorway, at the Technik Museum which, if you have time is wonderful, and features the biggest collection of F1 cars on display anywhere in Europe. From Hockehheim it was on through the Pfalz forests to Saarbrucken and the French border. And from there it was a hop, a skip and a jump to Reims, Saint-Quentin and Amiens (to avoid the mess that is known as Paris) and I was home in time for a gin and tonic before dinner.
These journeys, long though they are, are a great opportunity for thinking about things (if you are not shouting at Dutch people) and it struck me there is a solution for F1’s problem in Europe, with promoters being unable to pay the same fees as some other far-flung countries, often in places where F1 doesn’t always really want to be, from a strategic point of view. At the moment it is all about money, rather than strategic goals (although perhaps in Liberty Media global headquarters in Colorado the two are the same).
This idea came from the obvious headline that adorned GP+ magazine as the weekend: “Adventures at the Orange Bull Ring”, which summed up the weekend quite neatly.
Now perhaps Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz doesn’t need to make any more money, after $28 billion it must be boring to try to spend it all the time. He literally prints the stuff. Today he has diversified into lots of other businesses, trying to make more money, and it is working because the company sales have now topped eight billion cans a year and he spends absurd amounts sponsoring mad-cap sports. Mateschitz is a youthful 77 and he’s still playing the game. He owns two Formula 1 teams and Austria’s primary racing circuit. He came close to buying the Salzburgring, the country’s second track, but the deal didn’t go through. Without Mateschitz, Austria wouldn’t have a Grand Prix, let alone two. He owns all the good hotels around the track as well… And then, of course, he has also announced that in the future Red Bull will build its own F1 engines, which is not an undertaking that one should consider unless you have $1 billion to burn.
And every year more money flows in. His life is dedicated to spending, knowing that it will grow his businesses. In the last 12 months, the 26 races F1 has had included four Grands Prix in Austria. I have spent no fewer than 25 days in the country in that period, so it fair to say that I know it a lot better than I did a year ago and I have left a modest economic footprint behind me.This is good for F1, good for Red Bull andgood for Austria, so who is complaining?
Well, anyone who isn’t Austrian…
As I was driving home, it struck me that Mateschitz should consider launching a drink called Orange Bull, with Max Verstappen’s face on the cans. Over there in the land of the polders and outside lane drivers that would sell a gazillion each year. If one in every five Dutch person bought a can a day (averaging out those who would drink five a day) that would mean sales per year of over a billion cans. So he could then acquire Zandvoort and do something sensible with it, by rebranding it the Orange Bull Ring.
And why stop there? Belgium has a lovely circuit in the Ardennes forests which struggles to keep a Grand Prix, but if Mateschitz was to buy it – the Green Bull Ring would probably do quite well, as a million Dutch people want to visit each year, dragging their cans of Orange Bull with them. The German GP doesn’t exist any longer but what if there was Silver Bull Ring? You could have the Circuit Red Bull at Le Castellet. The Spanish would love to have a Barcelona Bull Ring and why not an Autodromo Red Bull at Mugello or Imola – and a Red Bull facility in the Algarve?
Come to think of it, it wouldn’t need to be just Europe. F1’s elevated race fees make it difficult to find venues in China, Brazil and even the United States and if Mateschitz could see the value in acquiring more assets and making them work, why not?
Having said that one should not restrict the idea to only existing circuits. I’d love to see Reims revived and there is enough of the original track left to do it. And why not have a German GP at the Norisring? It’s a great venue if the track could be extended around the existing park. It’s hugely popular event for the Germans (who are keen to have a race this year if it is possible). OK, the Norisring is laid out in the old Nazi Party rally grounds, which have unfortunate historical connotations, but these days I doubt many would know that the Nuremberg Rallies weren’t motorsport events and part of the tradition of German motorsport! (I suppose with social media these days, I should flag that the last sentence as a joke).
Anyway, Mateschitz has really helped F1 for many years – and made a pile of money doing it – so why not go a step further. I am sure that Liberty Media would do him a discount on race fees if he was paying for 10 races…
The chit-chat in Austria was all about Lewis Hamilton re-signing for Mercedes. It hasn’t been announced yet but you can expect Nicholas Latifi to stay at Williams, and I’m told that Alfa Romeo has done a new deal with Sauber, for more money, although I am not sure that the firm will get the right to name a driver in the future. I have also been hearing that Nico Hulkenberg is quite active, hoping to land himself a seat before all the doors slam shut for 2022.
There is not a whole lot left now and they are queuing up to get in at Williams and Alfa Romeo. Everything else, to my mind, is already settled. The Austrian GP saw China’s Guanyu Zhou make a very sensible FP1 debut with Alpine and there is a huge push going on to try to find him an F1 seat I the future because the Chinese market is huge. And of course F1 would love to have an American as well. And a woman. And someone who would happily wear rainbow-coloured overalls, but when all is said and done, the only thing that matters is talent and if you are not quick enough, you don’t get to play for long in F1, although vast amounts of Daddy’s cash will buy you a few seasons, if you’re half-decent. After that Daddy has to buy a racing team…
In passing, it is worth noting that Prema Racing – which runs competitive teams in Formula 2 and Formula 3 – has just been sold. It is never officially admitted but everyone in the junior formulae has been saying for years that it was owned by Lawrence Stroll, through a Swiss company, based in the tax efficient Zug canton, and that it was used to ensure that Lance could have a smooth path to F1 in the best possible machinery, being aided but experienced team-mates. The team has now been acquired by some other rich folk who are involved with former driver Andrea Piccini’s Iron Lynx team and the two will now share resources and plan for big things in the future…
The calendar problems at the end of this year continue. With no Australia and doubts over Japan and Brazil, F1 might be still be looking for a double-header in Texas, but there won’t be a double-header in Mexico, despite Sergio Perez’s recent successes. The general feeling is that Bahrain will be back once the country comes off Britain’s red list, which means that there are nasty quarantine requirements for people arriving from these places and so F1 will not do them. Still, it is not easy to predict any dates.
Even Mateschitz cannot fix that one…