The Inside Line #94: History means nothing

TILI Logo PrintOctober 1999, and the Formula One world discovered what it’s like to sweat – really sweat. The first Malaysian Grand Prix has just been run and won by Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine, who snatched a four-point championship lead going into the final round of the season in Japan a fortnight later over McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen after a race best remembered for Michael Schumacher’s comeback from a broken leg [1]. The heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur certainly made their mark on the field – except Schumacher, who looked as fresh as a daisy as always after gifting teammate Irvine the win – and the first of the modern iteration of Hermann Tilke tracks had opened to rave reviews.

Schumacher, of course, was just a two-time world champion then; after Hakkinen defended his title successfully at Suzuka that year, Schumi ran red rings around the rest for the following five seasons, cementing his status as one of Germany’s favourite sporting sons. The German Grand Prix at Hockenheim and the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring were routinely two of the best-attended races on the calendar; the races at Spa and the Hungaroring could have been considered as pseudo German Grands Prix given the number of Schumacher fans in the stands, and he was reasonably popular at Imola [2] and Monza as well. It was almost easier to list the races that weren’t Schumacher ‘home’ races than those that were. F1 in Germany was big, big business.

Sixteen years later, as the Formula One teams and drivers gathered at Sepang for last weekend’s 17th Malaysian Grand Prix, where are we now? A German team, as Schumacher was then, is F1’s dominant force; Nico Rosberg, no matter how German he may or may not be [3], is one of two men with a realistic chance to win this year’s world title. Yet last year’s German GP at Hockenheim was notable in that it attracted just 52,000 fans on race day (and seemingly 52 fans in total for the rest of the weekend) to watch Rosberg win from pole and Mercedes-powered drivers lock out the podium. And it will perhaps go down as notable for being the last German Grand Prix full stop. As F1 expands to new countries with shiny new Tilke-dromes good and bad [4] (there are six circuits other than Sepang on this year’s calendar penned by Tilke), the presence of the heartland of the sport is being whittled away. No France since 2008. Now no Germany. What’s next? Silverstone? Monza? In just 16 years, that’s a quite staggering shift.

The demise of the German Grand Prix – and if it will ever return – is examined on Episode 94 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also review the events at Sepang last weekend, where spats off-track very nearly stole the show from the events on it. F1’s star quotient was at least enhanced with the return of Fernando Alonso and Valtteri Bottas, but even after Sebastian Vettel’s shock win for Ferrari, there’s nothing that leads you to believe that this season will be anything other than a benefit for a certain German team. Which, remember, doesn’t get to perform at home this season.

You can see ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 and ESPN this week if you’re in Australia [5], and check local guides if you’re watching elsewhere.

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[1] And was on pole by nine-tenths of a second having missed the previous seven races. Clearly taking the piss.

[2] Just a great, great circuit to watch F1 cars. Such a shame it’s no longer on the calendar. But hey, we have Bahrain …

[3] Perhaps Lewis Hamilton’s shit-stirring last year had more meaning than he realised. The German fans just don’t seem to relate to Rosberg as one of “theirs”.

[4] Nobody is missing Korea and India, but Istanbul Park was fun while it lasted.

[5] I’ve given up wondering when Fox will broadcast each week’s show; as long as it’s on sometime …

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