Our culinary expert finds herself at the epicenter of the most glamorous motorsport on earth
By Lydia Itoi
Hockenheim's long racing pedigree goes back to the 1930s, when Mercedes-Benz turned a motorcycle track and backwoods roads into a test circuit. Within a few years, the original triangular raceway became a long oval that blazed a famously high-speed loop through the Black Forest before sweeping back into town. War, new highway construction, safety issues, and the demands of modern spectator sports have brought several modifications, and the latest Herman Tilke-designed incarnation was opened in 2002. This new track design reflects F1's current preoccupation with slowing the cars down-if they were any faster, they'd take flight. Traditionalists mourned the passing of the days when men were men and thought nothing about hurtling through silent forests in attempts to warp the space-time continuum. (Two drivers have lost their lives on the old track in the process.) Today's shorter, 4.574km/2.842 mile Hockenheimring may no longer have those atmospheric tree-lined straightaways or turns through the village graveyard, but it still lets cars get over 200 mind-rattling miles per hour and has capacity for 120,000 rabid Schumacher fans.
It feels like twice that number have shown up for the weekend, and the roads into town are completely jammed. Many don't have tickets, but they stay for the party anyway. Hockenheim's cornfields have temporarily sprouted Winnebagos, souvenir stands, and impromptu beer gardens in the shadow of a vast encampment of racing team trucks and trailers. Schumi's popularity and performance have turned Hockenheim into Germany's biggest tailgate for the past 10 years. As it turns out, 2006 could be the last Schumacher homecoming. In July, F1's regulating body announced that from now on the German Grand Prix would alternate between Nürburgring and Hockenheim, and the 2007 race will take place at Nürburgring. Later Schumacher himself, seven-time world champion and the most successful F1 driver in history, would announce that he's retiring after this season.
As extraordinary as Schumacher is, even he doesn't win on his own. A regulation 2.4 liter V8 engine that can pump out 800 bhp at almost 20,000 rpm isn't the only well-oiled machine you need to win in Formula One. You need about 60 of them, each designed to last for only a few hours, plus a crack crew of design engineers and fanatical roadies who could probably assemble a fighter jet from scratch in 30 seconds blindfolded. Formula One is also the world's most expensive and technologically demanding sport. To organize and finance all this, you need a formidable organization that could teach NASA a thing or two about high-tech logistics. They may hail from Marinello, but Team Ferrari is a modern-day Roman invading army, sweeping everything out of its path with its technical and organizational muscle.
|In the Pit|
In the moments before the big race, the pits look like intense chaos, but it's carefully choreographed chaos. One knot of mechanics swarms over the cars, waiting to the last minute to whip off the puffy covers from the Bridgestone tires. Someone holds an umbrella over Schumacher as he pulls on his helmet, receiving final words of advice from Ferrari CEO Jean Todt. Just before the starting flag, the engines are roaring over the crowd, but the pits are finally quiet, almost relaxed. Everybody settles into their seats because everything is as ready as it can ever get.
Then the light changed. All at once, the surrounding Black Forest was practically uprooted by the searing howl of 22 apocalyptic riders launching off the starting grid. In the trenches, you don't watch the race- the crew watches a live video feed-you FEEL it. You feel the air and your inadequately protected eardrums shattering under the pressure of a solid wall of sound. You feel the ground shaking and your nose burning from fumes and incinerating rubber. You feel the tension in the room as every team member strains at the monitors, willing their man to get to the corner first. I for one felt a rabbit's instinct to dive into the nearest safe burrow when hawks are screaming overhead.
|Formula One Fans|
I won't go into the details of the race since I'm not a sportswriter and it took me a while to pry my eyes back open. But when the dust finally settled from the starting rush, the two Ferraris were pulling easily ahead. On the first lap, Ralf Schumacher, Michael's brother, ran into David Coulthard, and the two BMW Saubers ran into each other. Raikkonen, who started in pole position just ahead of Schumacher and Massa's red Ferraris, had to drop back because MacLaren had accidentally put too little gas in his tank, forcing an extra pit stop. We saw him blaze down the pit lane three times, and when his crew struggled a few extra moments with a wingnut, the Ferrari team politely looked away. Defending world champion and 2006 leader Fernando Alonso limped along on his blistered Michelins as the Ferraris continued to sweep around the circuit, leaving behind 67 laps of scorched earth.
If the race looked easy, it was thanks to perfect engineering, planning, and execution. I never saw any outward signal, but somehow the crew knew when to get up in a body and take their places in the pit. One of the Ferraris would come screeching to a halt, there would be a wild frenzy of activity for some six or seven seconds, and then everyone would be back in their chairs again, some even catnapping between stops. The car merely seemed to vanish into another clap of thunder-tires changed, tank filled. In slow motion, the frenzy would look like grease monkey ballet. This has to be the best mechanic shop on earth, the absolute last word in the technology of speed. It's also the cleanest-I sat on a tool chest and came away after two hours with not a smudge on my white slacks. I only wish I could bring my car here for service.
The pit crew's battle-hardened composure exploded when Schumacher crossed the finish line first, followed by his teammate Massa and then by Raikkonen, Jenson Button, and Alonso. We found ourselves swept up in a tidal wave of red-shirted euphoria as the crew rushed for the podium to be showered with champagne. The crowd nearly crushed me against the rail as Schumacher climbed out of his triumphal car only a few feet away. Grown men, including the giant Gino and our friend Ralf, were jumping up and down and climbing the walls like children. Clearly, the fact that Schumi had won so many victories didn't make his 89th any less special. July 30, 2006 would go down as a perfect day at the races for Ferrari and Germany's favorite son.
If you decide to go to Hockenheim, book your room as early as possible. Nearby hotels, none of which offer much in the way of atmosphere or amenities, may be almost entirely booked by the racing teams. The Holiday Inn Walldorf, for example, seemed to have been taken over by Ferrari. A small crowd had staked out the parking lot in hopes of catching a glimpse of their hero, and you could only enter if you were a guest of the hotel or a guest of Ferrari. Of course, hotels often take Grand Prix to mean especially high rates to apply just for that weekend. To find lower rates, you may be better off staying farther afield and spending more time driving in. You can always camp in the cornfields to cut down on traffic time.
Frankly, the only reason for travelers to stay here is its convenience to Hockenheim or other events. It is reasonably clean, modern, functional, and reasonably friendly as a small business hotel, but in the middle of a character-less suburb. We stayed here only because all rooms were taken in Heidelberg. Common areas, while not warm or particularly inviting, are well maintained and only slightly worn. We were offered a welcome drink at the bar, which is part of the narrow front lobby. Since there is no night clerk, guests must take keys with them if they go out at night. Bike rental and shuttle service to the business park are also available.
Room 303 was on the street side of a light-filled gray corridor. However, the combination of no air conditioning, no shade, and black cotton curtains created an unbearable oven on what had to be the hottest weekend of the summer. I would recommend getting a room overlooking the back yard. There is a rooftop sauna with a terrace, but the sauna in our room was more than sufficient.
Clean and otherwise comfortable, the stark black-and-white, vaguely Art-Deco-ish décor was quite masculine. There was a double twin bed, and two small black leather chairs. The bathroom, equipped with a tub, shower, sink, and hair dryer, was also done in contemporary black tile with florescent tube lighting and mirrors. A mini bar, built-in clock radio and wall desk, TV, dial-up Internet, and ironing board rounded out the equipment.
The breakfast buffet, which was included in our rate, was served in the dining room, done with basic white walls, blue carpet, and black and gray upholstered chairs. The nicest part of the hotel was its small homey back yard, with a child's swing set and a few toys under the trees. Apparently, the hotel sometimes arranges backyard barbecues there. Had it not been for the exceptional Grand Prix prices, the hotel would have been a reasonable value.
Daily Rates: Standard singles from €90-120, standard double twin from €110-140. Weekend rates generally about 20 percent lower, unless it is racing weekend, in which case it is €177. Rates include breakfast.
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 13/20
Since we ate mainly frankfurters and ice cream at the racetrack, we had little opportunity to explore the gastronomic offerings of Wiesloch or Hockenheim itself. However, we did go to the following restaurants within easy driving distance-if you're Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari.
I love it when a local friend takes me to a place where somewhat batty locals serve enthusiastically local food to local folk. The night before the race, our Frankfurter friend Ralf and his lovely wife met us in this popular beer garden in the suburb of Neu-Isenberg for a crock of Possmann apfelwein (apple wine, €3.25 for a pint) and traditional Frankfurter dishes. Parking is plentiful, but only if you are a regular with a nice car. The slightly batty owner spends all her time directing parking lot traffic, and it takes some time for Ralf to position his Porsche to her satisfaction alongside the fleet of BMWs and Audis. Our rental Megane doesn't make the cut and is waved out to the street.
Once out of the lot, all chi-chi pretension drops away, and everyone sits at wooden tables under big square umbrellas drinking beer and eating big portions of honestly cooked food. Ralf insisted we spike the somewhat weak, sticky apfelwein with sparkling water, a dubious improvement. Their favorite dish was the classic boiled beef (Tafelspitz, €14.80) served with boiled potatoes, sliced carrots and celery root moistened with a ladleful of the hot cooking liquid. Bowls of sauerkraut and Frankfurt green sauce, which tastes somewhat like a green Tartar sauce made of chopped herbs and hard boiled egg, were served on the side. I felt the best dish was the spanferkelbraten, thick baby pork chops with a thick, super-crunchy crackling, served with sliced stuffing and rich, natural meat juices. (€13.90). They also listed hard-to-find dishes like roast goose and beers were €2.50-3.50. Desserts (average €5) included an excellent rote gruze or red berry pudding with vanilla cream and a very curious savory dessert called "handkäse mit 'Musik'" ("hand cheese with 'Music'"). This consisted of a soft, fresh square of cheese covered with chopped raw onion and caraway seeds and served with a tiny side salad. Go figure.
No culinary fireworks, but good-quality, old-fashioned food at a reasonable price in a historic inn and beer garden with a convivial atmosphere. Near a large park. This is a good stop for people driving down to Hockenheim from Frankfurt.
Contact: Frankfurter Haus, Darmstädter Landstrasse 741, 63263 Neu-Isenberg (just south of Frankfurt), tel. +49/610/231 466, fax +49/610/232 6899
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 14/20
Snarled traffic inspired is to take an unscheduled pit stop in Eppingen on the way back to Stuttgart. We found a pleasant enough haven at Palmbräu Haus, a nice and moderately priced eatery with garden tables in summer. It's located in a peach stucco and limestone building across from one of the several half-timbered houses in downtown Eppingen. The restaurant is rather charming, filled with curios and photos. The food is unreconstructed regional cooking--another honest, workmanlike meal of just slightly lower quality than Frankfurter Haus. We chose just one course each. The best was the pork chops (€16.80) in a fresh chanterelle cream sauce, although I suspect the "house" spätzle of being ready-made and the sauce made with a commercial base. There was also Zweibelrostbraten vom Rumpsteak, a thin, slightly overcooked but still tender escallop of beef smothered with braised onion and meat juices and yet more spätzle (€15.80) Appetizers and soups ranged from €3.80-9.80, while the main courses ran from €12-20.
We felt the food was a bit overpriced for what it was, although it was quite decent quality. We left satisfied if a little underwhelmed. Still, the traffic jam was all cleared up by the time we left.
Contact: Palmbräu Haus, Rappenauer Strasse 5, 75031 Eppingen, tel. +49/726/28 422,
Artur Weber family
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 11/20
(The highlight of my high-calorie, high-octane tour of the Black Forest was a pit stop at Hockenheim on July 30 for a bit of world-class Sunday driving. I'd like to thank Vertu and Ferrari for arranging my unforgettable backstage visit.)