When racehorses are injured beyond repair and have to be put down on the course, large green screens are used to shield spectators from the grisly deed.
This came to mind at Hockenheim on Friday, when vast, Rolex-daubed green sheets were used to cover the empty seats in the grandstands, hiding a nation’s lassitude from itself; the German Grand Prix, one senses, could be entering its final furlong.
There was no race in Germany last year, when the Nürburgring was due to stage the event. So there was a gap year – and the next gap could be a little longer. They need to sell 60,000 tickets for the race on Sunday just to break even, and on Friday only 52,000 had been sold. The next race here is scheduled for 2018, when the contract expires.
The German Grand Prix is one of the sport’s most traditional events – it has been held most years since 1926. On Thursday evening we were taken to view the classic Mercedes-Benz W 196 R, of 1950s and Fangio fame, and other famous models that recalled ancient glories.
In recent times this race has alternated between the Hockenheimring (even years) and the Nürburgring. But last year neither venue was able to stage the race and next year’s round, provisionally scheduled for the Nürburgring, is in considerable doubt.
“We would love to host the German Grand Prix,” says Mirco Markfort, the new boss at the Nürburgring, “but for this the right economic conditions must be present. We cannot afford Formula One at any cost.”
Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s chief executive, has already given it the thumbs down. “I don’t believe that this will happen,” he told Germany’s Motorsport-Magazin.
The success, or otherwise, of this weekend will decide the future of Hockenheim. “Of course we want to keep F1 for the image of the circuit,” says Georg Seiler, the managing director of the Hockenheimring. “But it must be at a level that works economically. We need to rely on the fans.” However, the fans have been turning away since the great days of the seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher in the early years of the century.
It is not enough that Mercedes go from strength to stranglehold in modern F1, or that four of the sport’s 22 drivers are German, including two of the best in Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg. Vettel, who on Wednesday evening played in a football match in a tribute to Michael Schumacher, who remains seriously ill following his skiing accident in 2013, said as he looked forward to his home race: “Michael was obviously the first German world champion and the first one that made Formula One really popular in Germany. F1 had been around for a long time but we didn’t really have a local hero for a very, very long time. There were Germans participating, but obviously if there is one really, really successful one, winning a lot of races, that’s what attracts a lot of the attention. That’s what also caused the hype initially and caused the grandstands to be full.”
But what Vettel said next was a warning for F1, and the malaise in which it finds itself, with attendance and TV figures down, as much as an observation on the sport in Germany. “In the past couple of years [F1] hasn’t been that popular, there’s been a lot of negativity in the press and obviously people, fans, follow that as well. That doesn’t help. I think F1 has lost a little bit of its excitement. If you listen, the cars are a lot more quiet, which also then looks a little bit less spectacular, even though it’s not true – corner speeds are as high as they’ve ever been.
“Just when we go on power it doesn’t sound as nice as it probably did in the past. And I think general grandstand tickets are too expensive. In my point of view they should be a lot cheaper, a lot more affordable, so a lot more people would be tempted to spontaneously say ‘Yes, let’s go, we want to be part of it and let’s not miss it’. So I think there are a couple of reasons.”
An easy drive to the Hockenheimring on Thursday and Friday confirmed the notion that German crowds are not rushing back to the vroom-vroom business. In the first, very uneventful practice session on Friday Rosberg got the better of his team-mate Lewis Hamilton, with Ferrari’s Vettel third andhis team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, fourth. In the afternoon it was the same top three, followed by the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, with Raikkonen sixth.
Hamilton is resigned to being hit by a grid penalty later in the season because he has exceeded his allocation of engine parts. Now leading Rosberg for the first time this season, he said: “I feel I am still chasing because I have less engines, so I’ve got a steep hill up ahead of me. While I am ahead I am not ahead. I’ve got to start last in at least one race, so I’m actually still behind, but very close.”
Meanwhile, Jenson Button was taken to a local hospital complaining of an eye problem during practice, though following a brief examination, he returned to the track with the issue resolved. “Foreign body found and removed. All good for tomorrow,” tweeted Button.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010