Atlas F1 The European GP Preview

The Nurburgring, Germany by Ewan Tytler, U.S.A.

Leaving Barcelona in Spain, Formula One heads to the Eifel Mountains of Germany to the host of the European Grand Prix: the Nurburgring.

At 4.556 Km, the modern Nurburgring is average in length and speed and should not be confused with the historic 22.6 km Nordschleife (North Loop) circuit, which had 172 corners. The last Grand Prix at the Nordschleife circuit was in 1976, when Niki Lauda had his horrific accident and fire, near Bergwerk, 10 km away from the pits and therefore about 10 minutes away from a trauma team. Lauda would return to the modern Nurburgring in 1984.

Many drivers regard the modern Nurburgring as one of the less interesting Grand Prix circuits. Arrow's Jos Verstappen sums it up: "It's a good circuit, but for Formula One it's quite slow on the corners and not as challenging as other circuits." In contrast, BAR's Ricardo Zonta endorsed it. "I love racing there because of the very smooth surface," the Brazilian explained, "and because most of the corners are medium speed, which I like. It is not a fast track, but it is one that I like because you can get into a good rhythm."

The modern circuit shares one characteristic of the ancient track - both are accidents waiting to happen. First corner accidents at the Castrol-S happened in 1984, 1997 and 1999 and Pedro Diniz was lucky to escape uninjured from last year's accident. The 2nd gear Veedol Schikane provides one of the few overtaking opportunities.

The Nurburgring is not too far from Spa-Francorchamps and like Spa, weather is a major concern. Conditions varying from frost, mist and rain through to warm sunshine have been experienced over the past five years. Fortunately, the modern Nurburgring does not takes a long time to dry out. Regardless, it has staged some fine races, including the 1998 Luxembourg Grand Prix.

BAR's Team Manager, Robert Synge explains the challenges presented by the Nurburgring: "The Nurburgring, as it is now configured, is a fairly high downforce circuit. The big issue of the weekend is likely to be understeer - those teams that can 'dial out' the understeer from their chassis effectively are likely to be quick. It's not a high-speed circuit, so the Nurburgring is light on brakes. Nor is there likely to be any particular problem with tyre wear. What is required for this track are all the normal things you need to get a competitive lap time from a Formula One car - good traction, particularly out of hairpins, good chassis balance and stability under braking, and the best possible compromise between downforce and straight-line speed."

BMW-Williams' Ralf Schumacher adds a driver's perspective, saying: "Overtaking possibilities are only in the breaking area to the Castrol-S and Veedol-S. Most of the corners are mid-slow and fast, which means you need a lot of aerodynamical downforce and a good mechanical grip."

Attrition is fairly low at the Nurburgring and there is limited opportunity for overtaking so qualifying is very important. Sixteen cars finished the 1998 race, fifteen cars were running at the end of the 1997 race, thirteen finished in 1996 while only ten were classified in the wet races of 1995 and 1999.

In the dry 1998 race, most finishers used a two-stop strategy while Rubens Barrichello (Stewart) and Shinji Nakano (Minardi) opted for a one-stop strategy which kept them out of the top ten finishers. On tyre choice, Bridgestone will be offering teams a choice of the Soft or Extra Soft compound tyres with most teams expected to opt for the Soft compound.

The Teams

Ferrari's leads in the constructors' championship was shrunk to just 7 points. The Italian team dropped the ball during the pitstops in Spain, as they did last year at the Nurburgring. Since Spain, Ferrari have been practicing pitstops with a revised pit-crew at their home circuit of Fiorano. In addition, they have been testing the latest evolution of their V10 engine at Mugello. Although the test results were favourable, the decision whether or not to use this engine at the Nurburgring will only be taken at the very last moment. Ferrari have scored 21 points at the Nurburgring in the 1990's but have not won at the Nurburgring since Michele Alboreto's victory in the 1985 German Grand Prix. Last year, Ferrari got everything wrong in the wet race and finished behind Minardi.

Michael Schumacher's lead in the drivers' championship has been cut to 14 points. Michael won the European Grand Prix in 1995 for Benetton and finished second in 1996 and 1998 for Ferrari. Schumacher set fastest lap in 1995 and set pole position in 1998.

Rubens Barrichello has moved up to fourth in the drivers' championship. Barrichello finished third in 1999 for Stewart, fourth in 1995 and fifth in 1996 for Jordan and his highest grid position was fifth in 1996.

McLaren closed the gap in the constructors' championship in Spain. McLaren have won twice at the modern Nurburgring, in 1984 and 1998, and have scored 20 points at the Nurburgring during the 1990's. Team Principal, Ron Dennis stated, "The entire team is looking forward to a challenging weekend where we aim to continue our winning streak." Dennis added, "I don't think there's any track we are weak on, but I think the same applies to Ferrari. It's going to be a hard fought battle on each circuit."

Mika Hakkinen is now second in the drivers' championship after his well-judged and morale-boosting win in Spain. Hakkinen won the Luxembourg Grand Prix in 1998 for McLaren in a very convincing way and set fastest lap. Hakkinen set his first career pole position here in 1997 but his Mercedes engine expired while he was comfortably leading that race. In last year's wet race, Hakkinen was all at sea but still ended up fifth after setting fastest lap. A medium-speed circuit like the Nurburgring is where Hakkinen normally excels. Hakkinen commented, "I was testing at Jerez on Tuesday and Wednesday last week and combined with my victory in the last race, I'm confident that I can continue my winning form this weekend. Last year's race was a bit of a lottery and in the end I was happy to leave with a few points - I want to leave with more this time."

David Coulthard has slipped to third in the drivers' championship after his inspired drive at the Spanish Grand Prix, but he has closed the gap to the championship leader. In last year's race, Coulthard spun off while leading. Coulthard has been driving like a man on a mission and if he is still fired up on Sunday, he may pull this one off. Coulthard has had three podium finishes at the Nurburgring - a third in 1998 and 1996 for McLaren and a third in 1995 for Williams. Coulthard set the pole position and led the 1995 race. Coulthard's Mercedes engine also expired in 1997 while he was in second. Coulthard's thoughts on this weekend's race: "It would be ideal if we could have another one-two victory this weekend. That would really open up both the Drivers' and the Constructors' Championships. The Nurburgring is quite tricky and understeer is normally a problem but I think we have a car which will suit the track."

Williams consolidated their third position in the constructors' championship in Spain and showed remarkable restraint after the incident between Ralf and Michael Schumacher. In the past, Williams would probably have lodged a protest with the race Stewards. Perhaps cooler heads at BMW are at work and maybe they are sending a message that they have bigger fish to fry than a single point in Spain. Maybe that bigger fish is a podium finish at the Nurburgring.

BMW Motorsport Director, Dr Mario Theissen stated, "After our good start to the season, we are now facing our first race on home soil. A home Grand Prix always has special significance and in our case, we have an enormous level of interest from BMW's workers. In the last few weeks, we have worked very hard on improving the reliability and performance of our engine - both at tests and in Munich. Our engine development programme is a step-by-step process. So far, we are very pleased with our development and we look forward to racing at home." Williams have been the most successful team at the Nurburgring, winning in 1996 and 1997 and have scored a total of 36 points at the Nurburgring in the 1990's.

Huerth's Ralf Schumacher is now fifth in the drivers' championship. Ralf finished fourth in last year's European Grand Prix after leading for 8 laps and then having a puncture. His highest grid position was 4th, also in 1999. Ralf commented, "The Nurburgring is one of my favourite race tracks. I know this area quite well. Kerpen (my home) is not so far away, and when I started my racing career, I spent a lot of time at the Nordschleife doing laps in road cars.

"But I also like the new Nurburgring. I have good memories of most of the races here. I have had some successes in F3 as well as in Formula One. Last year I was in the lead for the first time in Formula One, until a puncture forced me to make a pit stop. At the end I finished fourth. Last year, I remembered that we had understeering problems turning into the corners. I expect the FW22 to cause relatively less problems and I am optimistic in finding a good set-up. Because of our good performance in Barcelona, it should be possible for the WilliamsF1-BMW combination to score points at the Nurburgring." The BMW-Williams in Ralf Schumacher's hands will be a force to be reckoned with on Sunday. Ralf's first Grand Prix victory must surely be coming soon.

Jenson Button is still 10th in the drivers' championship. Button admitted, "I have never raced at the Nurburgring before, so there is little I can say about the circuit. As always, I will prepare myself by watching on-board footage from last year's race and on Thursday I'll also have a ride on the track, probably by bike. I'll obviously be working closely with the engineers in an effort to understand the Nurburgring. Our testing this week at Jerez went well and the FW22 is feeling better all the time. BMW are working very hard to solve the engine problems that plagued my Spanish Grand Prix and given how hard everybody is working, I really hope we can go one step better at the Grand Prix of Europe."

Jordan are now 4th in the constructors' championship. Although both drivers finished in Spain and they scored another point, this was inherited due to retirements. Their transmission changes may have solved the problems that plaqued them in the first quarter of the season. Technical Director, Mike Gascoyne stated, "We have been upping the mileage on the components that were causing the problems. Since Barcelona we have not had any problems and we are very confident that our reliability worries have been put behind us." The announcement that Gascoyne will be leaving Jordan will undoubtedly affect team morale, no matter how professional the personnel are. Jordan have scored 7 points at the Nurburgring. In last year's race both Jordan's retired due to electric failures.

Monchengladbach's Heinz-Harald Frentzen is now 7th equal in the drivers' championship after collecting a point at the Spanish Grand Prix. Frentzen finished third in 1997 and fifth in 1998 for Williams. Frentzen set fastest lap in 1997 and led last year's European Grand Prix for 32 laps after setting pole position. Jarno Trulli finished second in last year's European Grand Prix with Prost and his highest grid position was 10th, also in 1999.

Benetton have slipped to 5th in the constructors' championship after a disappointing weekend in Spain. Benetton won the European Grand Prix in 1995 and have scored 22 points at the Nurburgring in the 1990's. Giancarlo Fisichella is still 6th in the drivers' championship. Fisichella also spun off while leading the 1999 European Grand Prix. Fisichella finished sixth in the 1998 Luxembourg Grand Prix and his highest grid positions were fourth in 1997 and 1998.

Alexander Wurz's only finish was 7th at the 1998 Luxembourg Grand Prix after starting from 8th on the grid. Wurz commented, "We still don't have our car where we want it but we tested some good new components at Jerez and we'll use some of them at Nurburgring for the European Grand Prix. I really hope that this step forward follows with another one and then another one. It takes time, but we're getting there."

BAR are still 6th in the constructors' championship. BAR's Chief Engineer, Steve Farrell, stated, "Realistically, we want to be able to qualify both cars in the top 10. Consistency and competitiveness are the name of the game when it comes to the long haul of a 17-race championship, and that''s what we''re aiming for." Managing Director of Honda R&D, Takefumi Hosaka added this about Honda's development program for the RA000E engine, "We are always making small adjustments to the engine. We are satisfied that our direction of development is correct and little by little we will progress. We are beginning to get closer to the leaders, but we must ensure that we maintain reliability at the same time."

Jacques Villeneuve is now 7th equal in the drivers' championship. Villeneuve is the king of the modern Nurburgring, winning in his first career Grand Prix at the European Grand Prix of 1996 and winning again at the Luxembourg Grand Prix of 1997. Villeneuve's highest grid positions were second in 1996 and 1997. Villeneuve commented, "We definitely made progress last weekend. Sixth on the grid in Spain represented a significant improvement and in the race we were running comfortably quicker than the cars behind."

Ricardo Zonta has had success at the Nurburgring in F3000, winning the 1997 race from pole position and setting fastest lap. In last year's race, Zonta finished 8th after qualifying 17th. Zonta commented, "My main area of concentration this weekend will be on improving my performance in qualifying. We worked on this successfully at the Jerez test last week, so I hope we can carry the lessons learned through to the Nurburgring and get a good result. I had a competitive race there last year. I'd like to do the same this year, and also score some more points."

Sauber are still seventh in the constructors' championship and they have just missed scoring points at the Nurburgring, their best finish being Johnny Herbert's seventh positions in 1996 and 1997. Sauber's Test Team Head, Jacky Eeckelaert revealed at Jerez, "We spent the morning focusing on the aerodynamics, and the afternoon conducting back-to-back tests of the two choices of tyre compound that Bridgestone will be taking to the Nurburgring. We also worked on improving the Red Bull Sauber Petronas C19's exit speed from slow-speed corners, and practiced racing starts."

Mika Salo is still 11th equal in the drivers' championship. Salo best finish at the Nurburgring was 10th in 1995 for Tyrrell and his highest grid position was 12th in 1999 for Ferrari. Pedro Diniz finished fifth in 1997 for Arrows. His highest grid position was 13th in 1999. After testing in Jerez, Diniz commented, "I think we made good progress today, particularly with the new aerodynamic package, and I'm happy with the way things went. I'm really looking forward to the next GP."

Jaguar are still struggling with clutch problems and lack of pace. Jaguar's race director, Andy Miller revealed, "We tried out various set-ups for the Nurburgring and spent a lot of time on starts, as we have suffered in this area over the past few races. As the race is earlier this year the climate should be better, although we think we can cope with whatever the weather throws at us." The Stewart team won its only Grand Prix victory at the Nurburgring, scoring a total of 14 points on this circuit.

Johnny Herbert won last year's race at the Nurburgring. Herbert also finished fifth in 1995 for Benetton and his highest grid position was seventh in 1995. Herbert commented, "I'm really looking forward to going back after last year's victory," and added "I hope the testing we have done will be beneficial to us and that the clutch will be better for the start."

Eddie Irvine, finished fourth in 1998 for Ferrari, after leading on the first lap, and also finished sixth in 1995 for Jordan. His highest grid position was second in 1998. Irvine's thoughts on last year's race, "The Nurburgring last year was F1's attempt to win a comedy award, when my old team (Ferrari) thought I was racing a Morgan three-wheeler and lost one of my wheels at the pitstop!"

Prost are still struggling with engine and transmission problems. Team Principal, Alain Prost won the first Grand Prix held at the modern Nurburgring in 1984 and his team has scored 7 points at this circuit. During last week, the Prost team chose to test at their former home, Magny-Cours, to improve reliability.

Jean Alesi has had two podium finishes at the Nurburgring, finishing second in 1997 for Benetton and second in 1995 for Ferrari. Alesi led the wet 1995 race, losing the lead on the 65th lap. His highest grid position was fourth in 1996.

Monchengladbach's Nick Heidfeld finished 2nd in the 1999 F3000 race at the Nurburgring after setting pole position and fastest lap.

Arrows had another disappointing weekend in Spain with two DNFs. Arrows scored two points at the Nurburgring in 1997. In last year's race, Pedro de la Rosa did not finish after qualifying last. After last week's testing, De la Rosa commented " The long straights at Nurburgring are similar to those at Jerez where we have been testing this last week, so it's been good training. We've been concentrating hard on car set-up and development issues and I feel confident that the car will perform well at next week's Grand Prix".

Jos Verstappen finished 13th in the 1998 Luxembourg Grand Prix for Stewart and his highest grid position was 13th in 1996 with Footwork. Verstappen, who missed last week's testing due to influenza, stated," I know Nurburgring quite well because I did 2 races for Formula 3 there. There will be a lot of Dutch people at the race as it's not far from Holland, so we'll see a lot of orange there as that's the national colour - that'll be good for our title sponsor, Orange, and also the team. Hopefully the weather will be good as Nurburgring can be wet this time of year but I don't mind either way."

Minardi have scored one point at the Nurburgring. In last year's race Marc Gene finished sixth after qualifying 20th while Luca Badoer joined the crying game when his gearbox failed while lying 4th. Gaston Mazzacane finished 10th in the 1997 F3000 race at the Nurburgring. Unlike all the other teams, Minardi did not test after the Spanish Grand Prix. Minardi is expected to have four Fondmetal 'Evolution' engines for the European Grand Prix and Mazzacane is expected to again use their new titanium gearbox.

My Predictions

Since the Nurburgring is a high downforce circuit, Ferrari may have a slight advantage at this circuit. If it is dry, I'm going to pick Ferrari, McLaren and Williams as the top three teams for qualifying with Jordan and BAR making up the top five.

Starting grid:

  1. Michael Schumacher
  2. Mika Hakkinen
  3. David Coulthard
  4. Ralf Schumacher
  5. Rubens Barrichello
  6. Heinz-Harald Frentzen
  7. Jacques Villeneuve
  8. Jarno Trulli
  9. Jenson Button
  10. Ricardo Zonta

What if it rains on Sunday? Once again this will become a lottery but it is clear that the Jordan EJ10 works well in the wet and could break McLaren, Ferrari and Williams' stranglehold on the podium positions.

The 10th European Grand Prix could be eventful. The psychological battle is fascinating. (Although I cringe writing this, as so much nonsense is written about this subject in Formula One.) Is Mika Hakkinen's victory in Spain enough to boost his morale and bring more wins? Can Michael Schumacher regain his momentum? David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher are both driving with fearsome determination and neither driver are someone that Mika and Michael will want to see in their mirrors. Rubens Barrichello is the unknown ingredient in this mix.

The European Grand Prix Preview in a Nutshell:

  • A lot of prestige is at stake at the Nurburgring with two German manufacturers and 4 German drivers on the grid.

  • The Nurburgring is the first truly high-downforce circuit of the year. So far we really do not know how this year's cars compare under high-downforce conditions.

  • This race may be a 4-way tussle between the Schumacher brothers and the McLarens.

  • Qualifying is very important but pit-stop strategy and the weather are likely to determine the outcome.

  • BMW-Williams is clearly ahead in the Best of the Rest contest. With improving reliability in the top 3 teams, points for the midfield teams are now few-and-far-between. Jordan could edge ahead of Benetton and BAR. Can Arrows or Jaguar score their first points?

  • Always in the points at the Nurburgring in the 1990's: Williams.

  •       Related Articles:

    A Lap of Nurburgring

    The Atlas F1 1999 European GP Preview Issue
    (Sept-22nd, 1999)

    The Atlas F1 1999 European GP Review Issue
    (Sept-29th, 1999)

    Ewan Tytler© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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