The problem with having an empire is that you need to have ways to get around it quickly, to enjoy the benefits of the expansionism – and to quell any unrest that may develop.
The Austrian Empire was particularly troublesome in this respect because of all the mountains. Expanding an empire is all very well, if you can march an army across flat land… although in the Netherlands, this was complicated because of all the waterways.
The Austrians were inventive folk and much of their expansion was eastward (which was easier) but at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, to clear up the mess left by Napoleon, they acquired the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, which stretched to the River Po in the south, to the Ticino in the west, and included Milan, or Mailand as they called it.
The only problem was getting there…
So they built a railway from Vienna to Trieste, no mean feat. And they then built a road that climbed to 9,000ft above sea level, including 75 hairpins. The Stelvio Pass is bonkers. It is challenging piece of road, made all the more complex by panting cyclists and thrill-seeking bikers, not to mention the occasional lunatic (usually Dutch) with a camper van. I even encountered a bus, which must have had a very cool and skilled driver as it seemed to be longer than the available turning areas…
Anyway, to begin the story close to the end is not necessarily logical, so let’s rewind a way to the polders of Haarlemmermeer, which – as the name suggests – used to be lake before the empire-builders of Amsterdam, diked and drained it – around the same time as the Austrians were building zigzagging paths up the Stelvio. It took four years of pumping by eventually 800 million tons of water were displaced and land appeared. It’s very flat and as a result of this it is now the home of Schipol Airport, where many of the F1 folk stayed during the Dutch GP weekend, because of the daft prices being asked in and around Zandvoort itself.
There was a beautiful irony in that some protesters reckoned they should disrupt the Grand Prix because it was not green enough for their tastes. It was strange choice because the Dutch GP was the greenest of all F1 races as the crowds came by train or by bicycle and there were very few cars allowed in the town itself. To the amazement of everyone, this worked brilliantly. If there were protesters they were probably run over by orange bikes.
After the massive muddy snarl-up in Spa the previous weekend the Zandvoort race was a joy. OK, there were too many people dressed in orange, a colour that I always associate with ibuprofen, but it was a real pleasure and a wonderful event, filled with energy and emotion. This was what F1 is all about – or at least should be… And there was a happy ending and so the orange people bicycled home, some zigzagging more than others, and they whipped out their dancing clogs.
The day after the race, once the last work was done, I set off on the 1200 km trek to Milan, rather less bright than a button, with no fixed plans except to explore bits of Europe that I did not know, or wanted to visit. And to sleep when the urge took me.
I went first in the direction of Utrecht and then, by accident, passed Maarsbergen, from where Holland’s most famous F1 team – Ecurie Maarsbergen – operated in the 1950s and 1960s. This was led by the charismatic aristocrat Jonkheer Carel Godin de Beaufort, who ran his team from the family castle. He painted his cars orange.
From there it was on eastward to the heathlands of Ede, where I snuck off the motorway to cut a corner and to explore the area where in 1944 the First Airborne Division landed – with the goal of capturing the bridge at Arnhem. My grandfather, about whom I could write an entire column on the subject of having an astonishing wartime record, without ever firing a gun, was a member of 2 Para, the famous battalion that held the bridge – although Grandad was not one of them. Being support staff he was not due to go into Arnhem until after the shooting was over. When it didn’t stop, he stayed in England. Still, he knew many of those who were involved…
It is just coming up to the 77th anniversary of the battle and it was astonishing to see so many of the houses flying flags of the Parachute Regiment in memory of those involved. It was very touching.
I headed on to Venlo and the German border to begin my trek down Bundesautobahn 61.
Germany’s tourism bodies have a liking for linking together places that share a particular feature: there is the famous Romantische Straße (which goes to pretty places), the Weinstraße (that passes by famous vineyards), there are also lesser known routes, such as the Uhrenstraße (the route of cuckoo clocks), the Märchenstraße (the fairy tale road) and, of course, that classic of all famous routes: the Niedersächsische Spargelstraße, which translates as the Lower Saxon Asparagus Road. There is also the Bertha Benz Memorial Road which, inaugurated in 2015, follows the route that Bertha Benz (as in Mercedes Benz) drove in 1888 from Mannheim to Pforzheim, without telling her husband she was borrowing the world’s first car. It was quite an adventure, involving repairs using hatpins and garters – and trips to various pharmacies to buy fuel…
Anyway, I have long believed that the country should have a Rennsportstraße (a motorsport road) and I would argue that it should begin near the border town of Venlo… The first German town one encounters is Mönchengladbach, where Heinz-Harald Frentzen was born and spent much of his childhood.
After that the road goes a bit odd because it has to go around a vast hole in the ground created by the surface mining of lignite, brown coal that is burned to produce electricity. This is an impressive thing, which currently covers nearly 12,000 acres with a depth of up to 200 metres. One day, so they say, it will become a very big lake, with plans for an innovation hub. But right now, it’s just an impressive hole in the ground… needed to meet the country’s energy needs for many years to come. And electric cars will just add to the demand. This is one reason why the rush to electric vehicles is not necessarily the right choice… and hybrid technology may still be the better option – while alternative sources of electricity are developed.
The next town of note on the A61 is a place called Kerpen, which racing fans will know as being the town where the Schumacher brothers grew up. A lesser-known fact is that there was another F1 driver from there, Wolfgang, Graf Berghe Van Trips, who lived in the Hemmersbach castle in the Kerpen municipality. Today (Friday) will be the 60th anniversary of his death, fighting for the World Championship with Phil Hill at Monza in 1961.
Kerpen is just a few miles from Toyota’s vast motorsport factory – once the F1 team base – in Marsdorf.
The bad news was that the A61 was closed at this point with whole sections of the road having been washed away during the flooding in the region in July.
I didn’t fancy being stuck in a big traffic jam outside the Toyota factory and so I didn’t take the suggested diversion and went in the other direction to find a way around the problem.
I didn’t really know here I was going, except that I was aiming to rejoin the road further south. So I ended up working my way through the Eifel and found myself in the upper reaches of the Ahr Valley. I was aware that the flooding had damaged the valley but it wasn’t until I reached the village of Müsch, where I saw the bridge had gone – and multiple buildings had been destroyed by the water – that it really hit home. Just as it had a few days earlier in Verviers. It was profoundly shocking. Mother Nature isn’t always nice.
I continued on and suddenly recognised a village and realised that I had once stayed there while visiting the Nürburgring. A few minutes later I was driving past the Ring itself and finally found my way back to the A61, not far south of Niederzissen – once the home of the Zakspeed F1 team – and Remagen, Rudi Caracciola’s home town. You see what I mean about the Rennsportstraße?
It was by then getting towards the evening and it was clear that I wasn’t going to get down to Stuttgart and so I decided to take it easy and detoured off to go down the Rhine Gorge and found a suitable room in a fantastic castle overlooking the river, not far from the Lorelei. This is a rock that rises 400 ft above the river and is a famous place for sailors and bargemen to drown. There is, so they say, a quiet murmuring near the cliffs, caused by some acoustic anomaly related to a waterfall, which sounds like the whisperings of wicked women (sailors have great imaginations) and this lures them to the rocks and an untimely death.
I cannot say I heard any seductive noises at all, as they were probably drowned out by passing trains, thumping great barges and coaches from which echoed noises like: “Oh, my god, like totally awesome”.
I rejoined the A61 in the morning down near Bingen and headed towards the land of Bernd Rosemeyer and Nico Rosberg, the latter being born in Wiesbaden – although he moved to Monaco when less than a year old, a sign not of a precocious talent but rather because his dad was earning good money at the time with McLaren.
After that the signs started to indicate that we were approaching Worm. I always smile when I see the name as I am transported back to school days when as scruffy kids we used to snigger in history lessons about the Diet of Worms, which was much more interesting when one considered it as a way to lose weight rather than dull days when the Holy Roman Emperor held an imperial diet – a sort of parliament – in Worms. Anyway, this is also Vettel country, as he hails from Heppenheim, a few miles up the road.
The A61 runs south from there towards Speyer, where it swoops across the Rhine and arrives at the Autobahndreieck Hockenheim, right by the circuit, where it stops dead.
I travelled on to Stuttgart, passing the old Solitude race track and Porsche’s racing headquarters at Weissach. After that racing cars faded, although George Russell had been announced as a Mercedes driver as I was passing Stuttgart. I belted across country to Ulm and then south to the land where the mad king Ludwig II of Bavaria built several eccentric castles, notably Neuschwanstein, in the Fussen area, where one goes into a tunnel that takes you into Austria.
The terrain is much more difficult after the border and the quality of the roads changes and I found myself in a rather strange traffic jam, heading up towards the Fern Pass. On the way, I went under a rather entertaining-looking suspended footbridge, across the valley, which must have been about 300 ft above the road and several hundred metres in length. But I was in a hurry and time was ticking onward and so I went on without stopping, down to the Inn valley.
For those who like esoteric facts, this was the valley along which the Paris-Vienna race travelled in 1902, heading east towards Innsbruck. I pondered for a moment whether I might go straight on and go through the Arlberg Pass where the racers 99 years ago suffered some wild adventures.
“Max, a driver of a Darracq car, had gone clean over the precipice,” wrote Charles Jarrott after the event. “As the car leaped over the edge, the mechanician had been thrown out on to the road. Max was also thrown out of the car after it had disappeared over the edge, and landed on a ledge some distance down, while the car was dashed to pieces in the depths below.”
The race, by the way, was Renault’s first major victory and helped turn what had been a cottage industry into a big player in the industry.
In the end, however, I stuck to my plan and turned south and climbed up to the Rechen Pass, where Austria becomes Italy and spent the night in a ski resort at Nauders, before going up the Stelvio the following morning. It’s a funny part of the world, where Italians speak German (hence Gunther Steiner being an Italian). At one point I passed a strange bell tower in the middle of a lake, left behind one supposes when the valley was dammed to create a lake. A funny lot, as I said.
As I was on the road there were further F1 announcements from Williams and Scuderia AlphaTauri, all which went entirely according to the stories already written – and so I didn’t need to worry too much about churning out copy. There is now just one F1 seat left for 2022 and it would be astonishing if this did not go to Guanyu Zhou, as he has considerable funding behind him, has done a good job in Formula 2, and the Alfa Romeo team, despite sounding all rather flash, is lacking money…
I spent some time thinking about the calendar on 2022, trying to put together all. The 2021 calendar is now done, despite some folk still looking for problems. The missing race will be in Qatar and will be confirmed once Monza is out of the way. Qatar will be on the calendar for the next 10 years and will be a night race. The other key thing of note is that Monaco will finally switch to being a three-day race meeting, rather than having an extra day. This means that the weekend before Monaco can host the Spanish GP and everyone can be in Monaco in time, including building the daft motorhomes that are barely being used these days… given the COVID restrictions.
And that is another story… the FIA COVID-19 Code of Conduct has been looking increasing feeble in recent weeks and things came to a head in Zandvoort where Kimi Raikkonen tested positive. The Finn had to give details of contacts and noted that he has had dined the previous evening with Williams team boss Jost Capito and others.
This was by no means the only such breach of the Code over the weekend in Zandvoort but the high profile nature of it brought the whole process into the spotlight.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the COVID rules differ from country to country and what is sensible in one country is not sensible in another. Everyone involved in F1 is at the events to work and while some think their work more important than the work of others, the reality is that everyone is in the same situation and the sport should either police the rules that exist, or get rid of the restrictions for everyone.
The Code has done a great job of reducing the risks faced by the sport but almost everyone is now vaccinated and people are breaking the rules left, right and centre, although some are forced to still live by them and respect the intention to protect the sport. Others, however, have less respect and some team principals in particular have been behaving as though they are above the Code of Conduct and have been barely hiding visits to rival motorhomes, dinners and other interactions.
As the rules are seen to be broken without any penalties from the FIA, more breaches have occurred and the discipline that F1 has had for the last 14 months is breaking down. Some of those in powerful positions seem to think that they can now do whatever they like, while still expecting everyone else to behave as before. It is very much a case of “do what I say, not what I do”.
Hypocrisy is alive and well in F1… (sadly).