21 July 2018

Hockenheim isn’t a venue that Formula 1 visits every year, so familiarity is not quite the same as some of the annual trips the paddock makes.

But the familiarity is also impacted by the changes that have taken place to the Hockenheimring. Updates and redesigns happen at all circuits - you only have to look at the past three venues as examples of how a track layout and facilities can change over time - but the home of the German Grand Prix has been through a more radical evolution than many.

Until 2001, the Hockenheimring was a long, high-speed test that would blast through the forest for over four kilometers before returning to the final stadium section. Chicanes slowed the cars at times, but in the 1980s, even one of those wasn’t in place and the emphasis was very much on power.

“I worked for Lotus, Williams and McLaren in that era of the mid-to-late 1980s,” our F1 technical director Toyoharu Tanabe explains. “Hockenheim was one of the high speed circuits. At that time we were very strong on high speed circuits like Silverstone, Hockenheim, Spa and Monza. Hockenheim was one of our favourite circuits. I don’t remember very much specifically, but I remember we were very strong there.”

Tanabe-san remembers correctly, as Honda-powered cars dominated at the German venue from 1986 until 1990. And the first three of those victories all came in partnership with Williams.

“In 1986 I was working for Williams, and fuel was a big story of that race. Fuel consumption was always hard at Hockenheim, but the driver could manage it so that they could approach the race in a certain way.


“How fast they would run and how much fuel they used during the race would change. So, our approach with Nelson Piquet was we went fast at the start and then later we would save fuel because we had enough of a gap to those behind.”

Victory came by over 15 seconds, despite the TAG-powered McLarens having locked out the front row. With the TAG engine made by Porsche, it marked a defeat for the German manufacturer on home soil

“Ah yes, that’s always sweet!” Tanabe smiles. “So we were always competing against the other manufacturers and from Germany we had Porsche. At that time the TAG Porsche was one of the best engines so we always tried to beat them and we could beat it regularly. So that was satisfying.”

1987 saw another Williams win, but with Lotus also now supplied by Honda it was Ayrton Senna who had joined Nigel Mansell on the front row before Piquet won once again.

“In 1987 I was still with Williams, but both Williams and Lotus were strong that year at Hockenheim,” Tanabe recalls. “To keep our position we were always developing. You always develop something. At that time we didn’t have a limit to the number of engines, so that meant we could use a practice engine, a qualifying engine and a race engine. It didn’t matter.

“That meant we could put something on for qualifying only – while a practice engine might be identical to a race engine - but you could develop something to get a good starting position. That meant we had much freedom for engine development.


“We would run the engines hard then, and in fact we still do now. It’s just different now, because reliability is so important. Of course it was important then too, but now we need to be able to guarantee much longer distances from each unit. Whereas before we only needed a race engine to last 350km and in qualifying maybe 100km. Also, back then, you needed to change the engine every night so that was hard as well. We have a different type of stress now.”

Senna had to settle for third place in the 1987 race, but would then go on to win each of the next three editions as the dominant McLaren-Honda era really kicked in.

While that partnership showed what was possible with a strong engine and chassis combination, the Hockenheimring was one of the circuits where the emphasis was really on the performance of the Honda engine.

“It was one of the most demanding circuits. Maybe Monza was the most demanding circuit - 70% or more - and Hockenheim was slightly less, but the old circuit had four straights that were very hard on the engine. Then you had the stadium area where you needed drivability as well, so it was quite a wide test.

“We used to have at least two tests at Hockenheim as well, so we would go there often. It was probably the power more than the drivability at that time that suited us, because of the long straights.


“I prefered the old circuit. I would say the new track is a bit less of a challenge. The old one was a big challenge, high speed and throttle wide open. When you cut more than half of the straights out it means it’s a little bit less of a challenge.

“From an engine power and manufacturer point of view, drivability was of course important but the power was even more important. Which was fun.”

Since 2002, Formula 1 has raced on a shortened version of the Hockenheimring, with more corners, fewer straights and much more balanced demands on the engine and chassis. But despite his preference for the old layout, Tanabe believes the sport has retained its wide variety of tests across the calendar.

“I think we have a few unique circuits now to provide different types of challenge. We still have Monaco, of course, and then we have one of the newer venues in Azerbaijan with such a long straight, plus Canada is low downforce and high power, so we have a few tracks with very different characteristics.”

Since returning to F1 in 2015, Honda has only raced at Hockenheim once - in 2016 - scoring an eighth place with Jenson Button. This year, a tight midfield battle has seen both chassis and power unit development become even more crucial, and recent updates have yielded inconsistent results.

But the signs from Silverstone were encouraging, with Pierre Gasly crossing the line in tenth place before receiving a post-race penalty, and Tanabe is targeting more progress from the team as it looks to exploit the potential of its package.


“We are still learning how to set the car up after upgrading it in Austria. I think we will still have things that we need to learn about at Hockenheim too.

“The team is in a learning phase at the moment with an updated power unit introduced in Canada and a chassis upgrade from Austria.

“It’s a little bit too early to have a good result from all the learning that we are doing, but I believe it is getting better and hope it continues that way.”