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Hockenheim: The German GP in pictures

Northern Exposure
The pilgrimage to Hockenheim

Just as I was peeling off for the airport, while impatiently waiting for the elevator, my publisher, Ken, pokes his head out of the office doors and asks for a word. Damn. It felt just like being busted by the host of the party as you were making a French exit. My knees went a little weak and I lost all feeling in my left toes. Usually, when you have a word with Ken, he ends up having a few paragraphs with you. Had it been just another ten seconds later, I would have been out of the coverage area and officially in transit. I steal a glance at my watch and popped an antacid. This was going to be a very close shave.

To make matters worse, he closes the door to the conference room. You always know things are going to get heavy once Ken pulls his pen out of from his top pocket and uses it to conduct the tone of his lecture. “You know, James,” He says, synchronising his pen movements to his intonations. “There's this little place in the Northern tip of Angola that houses the world's largest collection of vintage bottle caps. All of them are kept in airtight, moisture-proof glass cases and are in pristine condition because not one has ever had to suffer the trauma of being pried off the top of a bottle. Every year, tens of people make the trek over there to pay homage. Its like their pilgrimage to Mecca.” I sat there motionless waiting for the bombshell. When I finally remembered to exhale, I eventually broke his gaze and said, “And you're telling me this because...?”

He continued by saying, “If you're deeply religious, you will brave the journey and make the unforgettable trek to the Holy land or climb down a thousand steps to bathe in Lourdes. If you love art, you may mortgage your home just to be able to visit the Sistine chapel, or the Louvre in Paris. But... for a car enthusiast... well, you would go where you're going today. It is the holy grail. A place so steeped in history that you can literally smell the passion seeping through the asphalt. We have put our faith in you to be able to experience this milestone and communicate that feeling back to our readers.” With that, we both stood up, he straightened out my collar, looked me in the eye, and, like a proud father that has just hocked the farm to send his eldest boy off to college, he said, “You have some food stuck on the corner of your mouth. No, the other side. Now, go out there and come back with a killer story. Make us proud”

Talk about expectations. I was so engrossed in my thoughts that the drive to the airport was numbed over by the gravity of the journey that lay ahead. It was only broken up by a call from my wife who was just checking on where I was, after which, she asked to speak to her father who was visiting here from Australia. Father? Why does that ring a bell? Oh Shit! I totally forgot! I had dropped him off in the mall earlier in the day and was meant to tell her to pick him up from a predetermined spot about two hours ago. I had been so fixated with the talk and not losing my passport and ticket that I had somehow managed to misplace her dad. To think that he was now wondering foreign streets aimlessly with no cellphone, no grasp of the local language and no clue as to how to get a hold of us. Vice versa.

Frantically, I scoured the streets of Makati and eventually found him. By this stage I was chewing down industrial strength quantities of antacids. It felt as if I had an ulcer the size of the ozone layer and, to top it off, now I had to drive the wheels of the car just to make my flight.

After clearing immigration, I had exactly 4 minutes to spare before boarding. A photo finish. So as soon as I entered the business class cabin of Lufthansa's long haul aircraft, I felt the most relaxed I had been in days. Finally, some peace and quiet. Normally I dread long flights, but here, cocooned in the serenity of a tastefully designed, incredibly spacious cabin, knowing that my every whim will be catered to, I felt all my tension evaporate in a thin waft of steam from the hot towel that was draped over my face. I mean, considering the last four hours or so of hell, well... even the Tokyo Stock Exchange would seem peaceful. And just the thought of being 35,000 feet above the nearest cellphone signal brought back all the feeling in my left toes.

I reclined my seat to the sleeping position and woke up just in time for the light gourmet snack that was served before touching down in Frankfurt. I'm not sure what tasted better, the carefully cured meats and smoked salmon with capers or the sweet anticipation of a stunning six series cabriolet that waited anxiously for me at the airport like a deprived lover. July is one of the most pleasant months in Europe, and just the sheer thought of tearing through the unrestricted autobahns with a topless German beauty, bathing in the gentle rays of the midsummer European sun was enough to get my right nipple hard.

The first thing I did when I got the keys was to tear off that top. I figured that driving it around otherwise would be like being on a date with Angelina and covering her up with a trench coat. When you've got it, flaunt it – and BMW's new six series draws on such a rich heritage and exclusivity that it can make just about everything else on the road look quite pedestrian. Even the locals swing their heads when I pass by.

I'm dicing with traffic effortlessly with a smile as wide as my wheel base. Life doesn't get a whole lot better than this. Every glorious hour I spend behind that meaty, three-spoke wheel brings me two hundred and twenty kilometers closer to round twelve of the Formula One World championship and, unlike this time last year, now, there's more than a glimmer of hope. If someone has made a pact with the devil, he didn't sign an exclusivity clause. Fernando Alonso may have been leading the championship but Kimi Raikonnen was building up an enormous amount of steam at a time when the Renaults seemed to have hit their rev limiter.

I arrive outside the paddock on the Thursday to pick up my credentials. Its taken over three and a half years to get here, I thought, as I signed my name a couple of lines under people like Peter Windsor, Martin Brundle and Chris Goodwin. James, who? Exactly. Now, hand me over my electromagnetic, retina scanning, finger print encoded media pass, you snobbish Max Mosley wannabe. I've earned my place here and I'm about to milk this moment for all its worth.

The paddock can be a very intimidating place. It is all about survival of the fittest. First thing that everyone seems hell bent on teaching you is where you belong in the food chain; in business or social settings people tend to measure you up by glancing at your shoes or your wrist watch, here, its all about that little tag around your neck. The magic word here is: access. There some that have it, and there are some that don't. Then there's me. The rules are simple: know your place, and stay there. Try not to rattle any cages. And don't make any sudden moves.

But ignorance is bliss. And I've had years of training dealing with Metro Manila security guards, and if there's one thing I've learned, its that you should never stop moving; just look like you know where your going; and make sure you don't lose momentum. Carrying a clipboard helps, but I already had a camera and I bolted on the biggest lens I had in my bag. Okay, so next to the pro photogs from Sutton or LAT, I had the equivalent of a Nokia phone, but still. Really, its no different than the first day of high school. Everyone is just establishing the hierarchy.

The media room seats 270 international journalists. There are 3 TV sets for every two people. Outside of a pit lane wall seat next to Flavio, this here is the nerve center. Every morsel of information is beamed to you instantly.

On one screen there's the FOM (Formula One Management) feed that the entire planet sees, just minus the dirty broadcast signals that degrade the image. The whole paddock is wired straight to the television cameras, giving us pure, uncorrupted, crystal-clear pictures so we can literally see if Michael has a bit of parsley stuck in his teeth as he approaches turn 1 at 183 km/h. Then there's the track condition monitor that relays information about humidity, wind patterns, track temperature and Bernie's preferred bank. The third monitor gives you all the pertinent timing data of every driver with instant cross analysis software and color coded sector times. Then there's the optional DVD-based system that can tell you what each driver is thinking at any given moment over a race weekend; I watched a rerun of the time Jenson tried to jump ship to Williams last year. It was blank.

Originally built as a test track for Mercedes back in 1932, Hockenheimring only became the full-time venue for the German GP in 1977, one year after Nicki Lauda's brush with a firey death in the Nuerburgring Nordschleife, and almost ten years after Jim Clark plunged to his death into unprotected trees. The original layout was deemed blindingly quick, so a chicane was dropped in at the Ostkurve in 1981 to slow it down after it claimed yet another life, that of French driver, Patrick Depailler, in his Alfa Romeo during testing.

Yet despite the modification, up until 2002, this was still the fastest patch of asphalt on the Formula One calendar, with cars topping 320Km/h at four separate points on the circuit. Today, following a 62 Million Euro facelift, some purists feel that the original character of the track has been lost and has even left the drivers divided in their opinion – even though they still continue to kiss top speeds of 330 km/h.

I figured if I had any plans on being taken seriously around here, I needed some serious hardware. Fast. Canon Germany coughed up a very intimidating, $10,000USD 400mm f/2.8 lens and a $5,000USD EOS 1D Mark II for me to use for the entire race weekend. Convincing them was the easy part; now that I had it, I just had to figure out how to work it. I sat in the media room for a full fifteen minutes just staring at this monstrosity; the lens hood alone was the size of a waste paper basket and the lens cap was as big as a dinner plate. There are actual photography workshops dedicated solely to just learning how to carry the damn thing around without looking like Mr. Bean.

As much as I now looked the part, and was enjoying rubbing shoulders with the paddock paparazzi, I knew the real flavor lay just outside the privileged fringes of this illustrious circle. There, among the masses, lies the heart and soul of Formula One. Once I got to the spectators area, I was able to really soak up the local color. Plus, it felt good to be the big fish for a change. It's like when Superman left Krypton.

I positioned myself right next to the world's most expensive television camera; this sucker was worth thirty five million pesos and had a zoom so powerful that you couldn't just pick a plane out of the sky, you could actually see the in flight movie, too! I was in the grandstand on the outskirts of the final curve – the one that Juan Pablo managed to overcook during his flying lap – and the excitement was so raw, it was almost tangible. Now, I've never been a Michael fan, but I have to admit, when he flung his Ferrari around the final bend in front of me and charged up the main straight, taking provisional pole in front of his home crowd of over 100, 000 hysterical Germans, I was, for a brief moment, as close as I'll get to being a convert. The other nipple got hard. I had finally experienced, and can now understand what they mean by 'Michael Magic' – my hairs are standing up now just writing about it.

Its a little hard to explain, but there's a different brand of passion in Germany; they really seem to see it is more of a religion than a sport. Many that I spoke to had travelled by road from places as far as Turkey, uprooted their families, rented a trailer home and made the pilgrimage over here only to find another 35,000 other people in caravans who had exactly the same idea. There were acres of motorhomes parked up around the perimeter of the circuit. Over the four-day weekend, I would have to park my precious six series in a dusty field over 5 kilometers away, then walk across the other side of the autobahn, through a forest, in the middle of what was once a peaceful, semi-rural area, fighting my way through tens of thousands of supporters just to get to the track everyday.

These are the fans; the unsung heroes that keep the sport alive. Together they will chew through over 125,000 sausages – which, ironically, if stretched out end to end in a line, would measure an exact lap of the Nuerburgring Nordschleife. They will consume 200,000 liters of beer and softdrinks and will leave behind a 48 million Euro tip for the region. During a Grand Prix weekend, the organizers need to employ over 1,500 locals, not including 800 Police officers, 120 firemen, 200 paramedics, 30 doctors and 248 marshalls just to cope. Welcome to the world championships. Where only the best need apply. What happens here on Sunday will be watched live on television in 171 countries around the world. Its the largest travelling circus on earth and it has just come to town.

Yet despite the hysteria and it being a home race, Germany's blue-eyed boy hasn't fared very well here over the years; compared to his dominance in other tracks, Michael Schumacher has only two poles and three wins in 12 outings, making it one of his most unsuccessful tracks. He has had as many DNFs as he has had wins. Not surprising, some might say, considering that this is Mercedes' testing facility – but then again, Kimi has never once even finished a race here. This is something that haunts the Finn; maybe it is because the track is so much like him: they both love speed, and despite the FIA's best efforts to slow both of them down, they just keep getting faster. He may have squeezed the last breath out of his V10 Merc during the race, but at least he managed to hammer in his point by sticking his car on pole, smashing his own team mate's track record from 2003 in the process.

The fans went berserk. This is what they came out to see; someone on the knife's edge of adhesion, squeezing the last drop of performance out of the world's most finely tuned race car, finding the fastest way around the racetrack with only one clear objective: victory. It was so pure, so precise, that naturally, the FIA needed to douse cold water all over it and find a way to change all that.

In the wake of the biggest PR disaster in the history of modern Formula One during the Indi GP, now the FIA seem to have figured out that the fastest way to kill the sport is to slow it down. Not content with the single tire rule and race engines that are meant to last two GPs, Max Mosley and his boys have now managed to chop off another two cylinders of the race engines in another feeble attempt to dumb down the sport. What's next, diesel engines with a glow light that needs to warm up before starting?

The argument here centers more around the rising development costs that go along with any major change to the sport and the fact that F1 teams need clearer objectives so that they can maximise their distribution of resources. Just when they managed to develop the most powerful and reliable engines on the grid, BMW are now forced to go back to the drawing board. “We still have a lot of vibration issues in the V8”, BMW's soft spoken motorsport director, Dr. Mario Theissen, tells me with a worried look on his face. “But yet, if we want to win races next year, we will need to use the V8. That's the directive. It has been very taxing on our team to try to develop two completely different race engines this year while still trying to fight for the championship, but that's just the way it is” He offers me a chilled soft drink as if to distract me from my line of questioning. I sense that the topic, no matter how pressing it may be on the team's agenda, is simply wearing thin already. I accept the drink and change tact.

“Some would say that BMW are control freaks, which is the motivation behind the move to buy Sauber. How do you react to that?” I ask, hoping to elicit a more candid response. He smiles ever so politely and continues by saying, “Well, I wouldn't have used those choice of words, but essentially I would probably end up saying the same thing. We would like to have total control. That way, we feel there is more accountability and it is easier to work together to achieve our goal of winning the world championship.” His point is punctuated by a slightly muted ring tone from his press director's phone, who is there making sure that our conversation never borders on controversy. He apologises, then steps outside to receive the call, effectively leaving his post.

Dr. Theissen throws his eyes up to a 42 inch plasma TV hanging like an expensive painting on his office wall to catch an update on the outside world via CNN, and I feel that this would be the safest time to ask if he agrees with all this rule changing. “If the object is to reduce costs, isn't the development of an entirely new race engine going to erode into any savings that might be made in the future?” This is the first genuine laugh I get since we started. “I'll give you the number of the FIA. Perhaps you could point that out to them.”

I have a small unsupervised window left to ask any real questions. I glance over my shoulder and quickly punch out, “Did William's drop the ball in the last couple of years? Isn't that the primary reason BMW bought out Sauber? Will you still supply Williams with engines? Isn't there a conflict of interest, considering that you will both be very competitive teams, unlike that of the current Ferrari/Sauber set up?” His eyebrows twitched, his neatly trimmed moustache raised slightly as if to say, 'what an ambush', but he still continued fluidly, “There's no doubt that we had the best engines on the grid over the last few years. We did our job very well, there's no disputing that. The results tell a different story, though. As far as supplying is concerned, it is easier and more cost effective for us to build engines for two teams. If William's choose to use us as engine suppliers, we will effectively be giving them the exact same engines that we will use for our team. I don't see conflict, because a win for them will also be a victory for us.” He lets a small smirk spread evenly across his face, obviously content with his exceptionally phrased and very politically correct answer.

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to pull one over this German-born doctor of engineering. I press on before the window shuts. “Realistically, how long will it take before you see yourselves being competitive? And how much of a disadvantage will it be having two factories in two separate countries?” Without changing his tone, he retains eye contact and says, “We will struggle for a while, sure, and yes, you can expect a slump in performance, but just take a look at Renault.”

If anything, you will always notice a staunch level of commitment traced around each word he speaks. He makes it clear that BMW is here for the long haul. A true gentleman, Dr. Theissen ends our conversation by saying, “I cannot imagine BMW without motorsports, and I cannot imagine motorsports without BMW.” Nicely said, and a perfect cap to a great chat.

Since then, of course, William's have ended up signing with Cosworth for 2006. But even blind Freddy could have seen that one coming. There are quarters in the paddock that see this as a move motivated solely by pride, especially if you consider that, currently, Cosworth supply Minardi and Red Bull. Shocking, I know. But if you take a close look at the Cosworth's V8 development, they do have more experience than most of the V10 suppliers, and could prove to be the dark horse of the newly configured 2006 season.

Outside the air-conditioned blue and white offices, the heat below has just been turned up. The paddock is always at its most ripe just before the race. The hospitality suites are brimming with celebrities and international superstars. The beautiful people are sunning themselves in the attention and are as much in their element as those in the fire retardant racing suits. This is as much of an event as it is a race. There's so much vying for your attention that it all becomes surreal. As the five lights illuminate, a contrast of sirens and silence envelopes the circuit. Those on the inside are barely breathing from the tension, those in the grandstands are bursting with anticipation.

The lack of emotion in the media room, however, is both admirable and dumbfounding all at the same time. On the one hand, you expect to celebrate this euphoric moment at a more spiritual level with people who are all on first name-basis with the drivers and the key personnel, on the other hand, for anyone sitting on the opposite side of the picture tube, you can appreciate the professionalism and lack of bias they exercise. Its a job after all. A job they feel passionately about, but still a job nonetheless. There was the odd moan from the back of the room when Kimi's race-leading Mercedes ran out of breath – eventually gift wrapping another 10 points to his arch rival, Fernando Alonso – but other than that, it was all business. There was barely a clap for JPM, who did good to recover from a shocking qualifying spot, climbing up a staggering 18 spots to bring it home to second, while Jenson Button, needless to say, came in very quietly at third.

As the celebrations raged on the podium and expensive champagne flowed freely from the mouths of the winner's circle, a less conspicuous bunch of team members were busy dismantling the entire inner paddock. The driver's would return from the track only to find that their home for the last four days was now in boxes, halfway inside a truck and on its way to another country. Another challenge awaits. Even before their race here had ended, a new one had already begun.

As I walked through the security gates for the last time, I stopped and took a long and drawn out glance at the venue of the most incredible experience I've ever had since joining C! I felt like jumping on the podium myself; this was, after all, a huge victory for us. For me. We had made it here to the summit on our own steam. A lone Philippine magazine jousting with the best of them. And although there wasn't a soul around for thousands of miles that could care less, I still drew a lot of pride from it. Yet amongst the joy there was a tinge of sadness to it all. It felt like Christmas day, once all the presents have been opened.

This story is continued in the "The Ring: a pilgrimage to the green hell" gallery. http://www.pbase.com/cmanaginged/the_ring
What its all about.
What its all about.
Anthony Davidson
Anthony Davidson
Michael Schumacher
Michael Schumacher
BMW Motorspot director, Dr. Mario Thiessen
BMW Motorspot director, Dr. Mario Thiessen
Red Bull Girls
Red Bull Girls
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Bernie Ecclestone
Bernie Ecclestone
Bernie Ecclestone
Bernie Ecclestone
Kimi
Kimi
Flavio Briatore
Flavio Briatore
Sam Michael: Technical Director, Williams F1
Sam Michael: Technical Director, Williams F1
Racing can be dangerous to your health.
Racing can be dangerous to your health.
JPM
JPM
If looks could kill: I'm not sure what Paul Stoddart said, but Ron Dennis Shot this glance at him
If looks could kill: I'm not sure what Paul Stoddart said, but Ron Dennis Shot this glance at him
The press room
The press room
Fernando Alonso, World Champion
Fernando Alonso, World Champion
Fisico has seen better days
Fisico has seen better days
Mclaren hospitality suite is one of the finest
Mclaren hospitality suite is one of the finest
The boys in Blue
The boys in Blue
Always moving forward
Always moving forward
IMG_8264 Large.jpg
IMG_8264 Large.jpg
Tiago Monterio
Tiago Monterio
Jarno Trulli
Jarno Trulli
Takuma Sato has been struggling
Takuma Sato has been struggling
Takuma Sato
Takuma Sato
Tiago Monterio
Tiago Monterio
Alright, boys... I'm gonna smoke this problem out.
Alright, boys... I'm gonna smoke this problem out.
Michael
Michael
How much did you say BAR Honda pays?
How much did you say BAR Honda pays?
Peter Sauber is delighted by BMW's offer.
Peter Sauber is delighted by BMW's offer.
Mrs. Corina Schumacher
Mrs. Corina Schumacher
Felippe Massa
Felippe Massa
The new Maybach
The new Maybach
AMG A class
AMG A class
BMW Williams Test driver, Antonio Pizzonia and baby
BMW Williams Test driver, Antonio Pizzonia and baby
Sebastian Montoya
Sebastian Montoya
Jenson Button
Jenson Button
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Christian Klien
Christian Klien
Ralf was happy after Hungary where he scored his first podium for Toyota
Ralf was happy after Hungary where he scored his first podium for Toyota
Red Bull Girls
Red Bull Girls
No, Bernie, you can't always have everything your way, so grow up.
No, Bernie, you can't always have everything your way, so grow up.
GP2 Car
GP2 Car
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
This dude was in Gladiator
This dude was in Gladiator
This is how you pick up an F1 driver
This is how you pick up an F1 driver
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Dr. Mario Thiessen
Dr. Mario Thiessen
Rolf
Rolf
Glances
Glances
Hockenheim: The German GP in pictures
Hockenheim: The German GP in pictures
What a smile.
What a smile.
He's not going to fall for the 'ol whoopie cushion gag again...
He's not going to fall for the 'ol whoopie cushion gag again...
Alonso
Alonso
Fisico
Fisico
John Button was not pleased to see me
John Button was not pleased to see me
Jenson has found his form again
Jenson has found his form again
Tiago Monterio
Tiago Monterio
Mark needs some help from up above
Mark needs some help from up above
Rubens
Rubens
Jacques Villeneuve
Jacques Villeneuve
Connie and Sebastian Montoya
Connie and Sebastian Montoya
GO! GO! GO!
GO! GO! GO!
Michael struggled but was able to bring home some valueable points
Michael struggled but was able to bring home some valueable points
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Race winner, Fernando Alonso
Race winner, Fernando Alonso
Hockenheim '05
Hockenheim '05
Montoya is hard to please
Montoya is hard to please
Jenson Button's future is shaky.
Jenson Button's future is shaky.
Juan Pablo Montoya
Juan Pablo Montoya