Eight Trains to Hockenheim
My name is Mark, and I have a motorsport problem.
You see, I’m on a family holiday in Germany, and I’ve had to go a weekend without being at a racetrack.
Fun fact – German traffic has two speeds: blisteringly fast, or not moving.
On this occasion, as we crawled along Autobahn 6, we trickled past Hockenheim, with the giant stands overlooking the historic former GP circuit.
As it transpires, the GT World Challenge Europe is racing there this weekend, which sewed a seed…
We’re attending a wedding this weekend, which meant that Friday was the only day I could possibly slink away for a gander.
Not a biggie, that would fill my cup; the larger issue was one of logistics: we are currently located in the small town of Büdingen to the northeast of Frankfurt, and Hockenheim is a similar-sized village to the south.
However, through the wonders of a well-connected train system, it was possible to somewhat efficiently join the return dots, simply by catching eight slightly different trains.
Thus, the journey to the races kicked off with an early morning 20-minute walk to the Büdingen train station, traversing the moat around the old city’s ancient castle that dates back to the 1400s.
I didn’t technically have to walk that way, but it was some good sauce to throw on a spot of storytelling.
The first train leg on a little two-car diesel took me to Gelnhausen, with the second on a larger regional express train heading to the major hub of Hanau.
From there, it was time for a ride on the awesome ICE, or Inter City Express, a design capable of speeds of well over 300km/h.
There’s no arachnid procreation going on here, except for today, where the trains maxed out at around 160km/h, and delays on the southward leg caused a missed connection, but still, the four trains each way amounted to a little under 2.5 hours of travel in each direction, a premium of around 45min on driving.
The final party trick was a taxi from the train station to the track to turn a 30min walk into a 5min ride, which was in a rather nice Mercedes Benz, because they’re a taxi, you know.
You don’t see people driving Camrys in these parts…
The very story of Hockenheim is translated neatly into my initial impression of the place: it used to host Formula 1, but now it doesn’t.
It’s large, it’s impressive, but it feels like it’s past its prime – it’s like the effort that used to be pumped into the venue’s presentation has been cut off.
If I can draw parallels to anything in Australia, it’s that it has a Sandown vibe about it.
In 1985, Sandown was the latest and greatest, and to this day, the spectator vantage from the grandstand continues to offer a peerless view, but it feels like it is trapped in suspended animation.
The Südtribüne and the Osttribüne, the 1990’s-spec grandstands that overlook the final turn and the drag strip staging area, and the ‘new’ stadium section, could be based on the MCG, and the Porsche Experience Centre, which fills much of the infield looks incredible, but elsewhere, time has shown its wear.
The modern Liberty Media F1 circus is all about premium experiences – and it would take a fair lick of paint for Hockenheim to be brought up to current expectations.
For the purposes of the event, punters were corralled into the pit paddock area, and allowed to view the action from either the pit building, a few select places trackside in the paddock, and from the large bank behind the pits, which is lined with seating constituting the famed grandstand section.
At first, the limited access was a mild disappointment, but with a neck swivel, you could take in practically all of the action, although anything of note during the day occurred as the cars flicked in off the drag strip, which proved troublesome in the various rain showers that passed.
The paddock was jammed with transporters and all of the associated paraphernalia associated with the event, so there was plenty to gawk at.
A revelation was the circuit catering, which generally offered very solid value for money.
Across the country, it’s in the Germanic culture not to muck around with serving sizes – I went for the menu topping beef schnitzel in bread and chips combo, which was just about too much to eat, but value plus at €7.50.
Want more? For half a litre of beer, expect to pay €4.50, or if Jägermeister is more your thing, a small bottle would set you back €3.50.
Are you a cigarette enthusiast? Good news! The vending machine outside the main loos dispenses packs for €8 a pop, which I’m led to believe is value-packed smoking.
After paying €10 to get in the gate, it could be a cheap day at the races.
As for the adjacent town of Hockenheim, it is the quintessentially large German village like so many across the region.
It’s nice, like all of the others, but it kind of lacks the glitz and glamour of F1 staples like Monaco, Montreal and Melbourne.
The Rossi Factor
When Valentino Rossi lobbed into Bathurst for the 12 Hour this year, the presence of the MotoGP god genuinely drew punters out of the woodworks.
As it transpires, it might be a global phenomenon.
With a 2% margin of error, by my eyeball test of the smallish crowd in attendance, around 98% of people were there to see Vale.
He had the biggest merch tent, and the crowd gathered all day between the back of the WRT garage and catering trucks, an assembly that genuinely dwarfed the number of fans in the grandstand.
What’s more, they went absolutely nuts anytime he appeared.
At one stage, I burnt 15 minutes to experience the madness, and it was worth the effort.
One thing is for sure, if the world was serious about ending war, they would send Valentino’s security detail to the front line – he would get some serious results.
While the crowd was small, the meeting was not.
Putting some ballpark figures to it, for each spectator there would be approximately 1.5 full-blown transporter setups, while each fan could genuinely access their very own corporate catering setup.
While Australia has done away with much of the focus on team catering, in Europe, it appears to be one of the main reasons to go racing.
An SRO Event
The two primary categories at the meet were the GT World Challenge Europe, and the GT4 Europe Series, both staples of the SRO, with both having a footprint in Australia.
And if those Downunder fields were in the ballpark of the quality and quantity seen in Europe, it would be a game-changer.
On the GT3 side of the equation, over 40 entries were taking to the track, including some niceties that would be welcome in Australia, such as the new Ferrari and the Honda, in addition to the latest from all of the other marques we are familiar with.
Meanwhile, with GT4, I am all in on the concept if we can gather a decent field with some good-quality peddlers.
Cars such as the Alpine and the Toyota Supra add something different to the mix, while the Chevrolet Camaro was an absolute standout, even if it wasn’t the fastest jigger on track.
In practice, the action came thick and fast, especially when one Mercedes knocked down the fence entering the grandstand section.
Elsewhere, McLaren answered the question of what you should race if you want to drive in a one-make sportscar class but don’t like Porsches, with its McLaren Trophy Europe for GT4-styled machines.
The field wasn’t great, and the reliability of the cars wasn’t worth writing home about, but their catering setup was the swankiest in the paddock, which is pretty important.
Rounding out the roster was the Mijet International Series, a silhouette spaceframe class, which curiously drew a solid entry, mostly from Italy.
So, Mark, why didn’t you pop down to Sixt and hire a VW for the day?
Well, having lost my seasoning as an international traveller over the pandemic, I had let my international driving licence lapse, the lone pre-requisite for hiring a car in this part of the world.
But frankly, where would the adventure be in surviving German traffic, and simply rolling up to a racetrack to find a car park?
Sometimes, it’s nice to sit back and enjoy the scenery, and after riding a bicycle to the British GP, a precedence was set for doing silly things.
Besides, the beer service in the Bordrestaurant on ICE 596, the 15:32 service to Frankfurt was first class, and the perfect fuel to bang out a Sunday yarn, and dream of the next adventure.