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Hockenheim: Frozen out in a heat waveMaurice Hamilton July 18, 2014
The trouble with having the bulk of a race track inside a massive stadium is that when very few spectators turn up, it's painfully obvious.
After substantial attendances on Friday in Britain and Austria, Hockenheim has the atmosphere of a clubbie. I've seen larger crowds at a Silverstone test. And the forecast for Sunday makes dismal reading with just over 50,000 tickets sold. Even allowing for additional pay-at-the-gate figures, the final total will be less than half of Hockenheim in its heyday.
Drivers, particularly those who raced on the old track with its mile-long straights spearing flat-out through the woods to the Ostkurve and back again, will tell you that arrival in the stadium was one of those sensations that stay in the memory. After charging along on your own for what seemed like ages with not a sinner in sight, the explosion of noise and colour in the all-encompassing arena was a total contrast. More so if a German driver was in the leading bunch.
For many years, commentary positions in the back of the main grandstand were open to this wonderful atmosphere. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up now as I think about the reception Michael Schumacher received in 1995 as he led the field into the Sachskurve: a wall of sound and klaxons, punctuated by rockets and fireworks that drowned out engine noise. Fired by adrenaline as much as the need to shout above the din, your voice would rise a couple of octaves. There was no doubt you were in the thick of a significant sporting occasion.
Fast forward to 2014 and not only do we have a German driver leading the championship but his team, with its iconic three-pointed star, represents everything that's to be admired in motorsport legend. And yet the crowd is no more interested now than when Sebastian Vettel, who lived even closer to Hockenheim than Nico Rosberg, was having race organisers play 'Deutschland über alles' as if it was F1's victory theme tune. So what's gone wrong?
You can, to a degree, argue against cost and the alleged lack of spectacle because of healthy attendances in other traditional F1 heartlands. But the answer is difficult to pin point. To a certain extent, you can blame the German media and their obsession with Schumacher. This went beyond the jingoism that accompanies coverage of any national hero. It was almost a marketing exercise completely uninterested in the nuances and detail of the actual sport in which Schuey was participating. On the other hand, figures show that attendances began to dwindle in 2002 after the third of his five titles and failed to recover despite the fanfare accompanying his return in 2010.
It was a similar story in tennis following the success of Boris Becker and Steffi Graf, poor Michael Stich subsequently winning Wimbledon to very little acclaim at home. Maybe it's something to do with the second generation of German hero, the counter argument to that being the enormous surge in interest in German football despite the glory days with Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller.
I have no complete answer to the sad sight of empty seats on Sunday in this once-rowdy stadium of speed. The sorry story is summed up in Friday's edition of Bild. Even allowing for this being a tabloid newspaper, a lead article accompanying a picture of Rosberg with a German version of a Magnum and headlined '€10 too expensive for an ice cream', sums up a race weekend run in a heat wave but confined to the freezer.
Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.