It’s a story that dates back to 1930 and an assistant timekeeper, resident to Hockenheim: Ernst Christ.
Keen to bring motor racing to his hometown, Ernst received the greenlight from both the mayor, Philipp Klein, and the German Motorsport Association to bring a race circuit to Hockenheim on Christmas Day, 1931. Work on the 12.045km ‘Dreieckskurs’ (or ‘triangular course’) began three months later, the layout circumnavigating from and to Hockenheim around the outskirts of the neighbouring Oftersheim and Wlldorf. On May 25, the road course was inaugurated with its first-ever official motor race.
Though the Dreieckskurs proved popular with local competitors, significant changes were made in 1938. The triangular layout’s 12km length was slashed to just 7.692km with the introduction of the ‘Ostkurve’ on its furthest most Eastern side (the resultant oval configuration would be synonymous with the Hockenheimring for the next 63 years). All 7km were paved for the first time, wooden grandstands now adorned the widened straights, and the transformation from a temporary course to a permanent facility had begun for the now re-named ‘Kurpfalzring’. Impressively, though the track was severely damaged during the second world war, the layout itself would remain unchanged until 1964.
With Europe emerging from under the black cloud of conflict, and with a renewed desire for motor racing in the air, the ‘Hockenheim-Ring GmbH’ was established to revive (and fund) the former Kurpfalzring. By May of 1947, regional motorsport was a reality in Baden-Württemberg once again, and on May 19, 1957, the newly renamed Hockenheimring hosted the German Motorcycle Grand Prix – its first major race – for the first time. The event would remain a circuit mainstay, intermittently at least, until 1994.
In 1961, the father of the Hockenheimring would be inspired once more. Construction of the Mannheim-Walldorf motorway, which ran straight through the ‘Stadt-Kruve’ corner of the Hockenheimring, meant modification was unavoidable. But in an effort to provide a true arena spectacle for his now 30-year old creation, Ernst Christ pitched a brand-new stadium concept in 1961. Penned by John Hugenholz, the ‘Motodrom’ also brought with it a new pit complex and start-finish straight to the table. Construction began in spring 1964, and the Motodrom was inaugurated on May 22, 1966. Once again, by the German Motorcyle Grand Prix.
‘Fan-friendly’ enhancements, as well as increased driver safety concerns at the notorious Nürburgring, meant Hockenheim soon drew the attention of Formula 1, and on August 2, 1970, motor racing’s pinnacle series made its first visit to Baden-Württemberg. Though nobody knew it at the time, the inaugural event would prove to be Jochen Rindt’s final GP win, coming just one month before the posthumous 1970 F1 World Champion died at Monza.
In the aftermath of Niki Lauda’s near-fatal accident at the Nürburgring in 1976, the Formula 1 German Grand Prix returned to the Hockenheimring in 1977. Bar a one-off reprieve for the Nürburgring’s ‘GP’ circuit in 1985 – in its place, Hockenheim hosted a 1000km round of the World Sportscar Championship – remained there until 2006. In light of the colossal power being generated during F1’s turbo era, two chicanes were installed midway down the two forest-lined straights during the 1980s to reduce speeds, though the circuit was still tinged with tragedy. In 1980, two-time GP winner Patrick Depailler suffered a fatal accident whilst testing at Hockenheim for Alfa Romeo. Ironically, the temporary chicane built at Ostkurve as a direct response led to one of F1’s most memorable clashes between Nelson Piquet and Eliseo Salazar in 1982.
The early 21st century though would yield one of the more seismic chapters in the Hockenheimring’s history. At the behest of the FIA, plans were unveiled in 1999 to reduce the length of the circuit from its tenured 6.8km oval to a shorter, more ‘spectator-friendly’ 4.574km, a configuration that also offered more overtaking opportunities. Approved on December 21, 2001, almost 70 years to the day after its initial greenlight, more than 62 million euros were spent on the Herman Tilke-redesign, including a much tighter ‘Nordkurve’ turn one and a brand-new stadium section that increased capacity from 83,000 to over 120,000. In a nod to its primary financier, the circuit was also officially renamed the Hockenheimring Baden-Württemberg.
Gone too were the popular forested straights (never the easiest of spectator areas), and the old asphalt would later be ripped up entirely so new trees could be replanted in its place. But while the old circuit may be gone, a treasured reminder of Formula 1’s past at Hockenheim still remains among the trees. A memorial stone to a two-time World Champion, still considered one of F1’s greatest, who tragically lost his life during an innocuous Formula 2 race on 7 April, 1962. Jim Clark.
- Words – James Gent
- Images – Hockenheim-Ring GmbH and Ferrari