When stand-in Winkelhock stood out in the rain

If you like your Formula 1 seasons to be packed with more stories than a bookworm’s Kindle, then the 2007 season is for you. It had everything: a young upstart embroiled in an increasingly toxic championship battle, subterfuge, politics and plenty of on-track drama; at times, it resembled a plotline not dissimilar to a John le Carré novel.

Under the surface of spy stories and courtroom drama bubbled another story of intrigue, something rarely remembered in mainstream F1 coverage, but equally as surprising. It happened almost exactly ten years ago to the date of this article’s release, when F1 took to the Nurburgring for the European Grand Prix.

Let’s set the scene. The championship fight was almost at boiling point, as tempers flared in the famously tepid McLaren setup between rookie Lewis Hamilton and reigning champion Fernando Alonso. Hamilton was in possession of a 12-point championship lead following the British Grand Prix, although the two were due to come under pressure from Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.

But that’s not entirely important, other than to show how much storyline was stuffed into the 2007 season. With everyone focusing on the thrilling action at the front, it went almost completely under the radar that backmarkers Spyker had given Christijan Albers the chop after a year-and-a-half at the team; the Eindhoven–born driver was responsible for bringing a few fringe Dutch sponsors to their “national” team, but some had begun to default on payments. With a heavy heart, majority shareholder Michiel Mol had to find someone else to plug the gap, leaving Albers out of a drive.

Luckily, Spyker had a rotating cast of test and reserve drivers, and 27-year-old German racer Markus Winkelhock managed to scrape together enough backing for a one-off at the Nurburgring. He became the next in an ever-growing line of second-generation F1 drivers, after his father Manfred competed with Arrows, ATS and RAM in the 1980s, while his uncle Joachim was something of a touring car specialist, dabbling in F1 with backmarkers AGS.

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Markus had also driven in touring cars between stints in Formula 3 and the World Series by Renault championship and – although versatile – he was never expected to set the world alight. In fact, Winkelhock’s F1 experience was limited to only a handful of Friday sessions in 2006 with Midland, the predecessor of Spyker, and struggled in the opening Nurburging sessions. Unsurprisingly, he qualified last, almost 1.5 seconds down on team-mate and compatriot Adrian Sutil.

As Sunday afternoon swept across the Eifel mountains, dark clouds slowly started to swarm around the Nurburgring. Part-way through the formation lap it became apparent that rain was imminent, and the crowd started to zip up their jackets in anticipation. The F1 field carried on circulating the track for a normal dry start, expecting to be able to deal with any downpour a few laps later. Winkelhock and Spyker – with nothing to lose – did not, sacrificing his lowly spot on the grid to gamble on a set of wet tyres.

It turned out that they’d anticipated the conditions perfectly. Half-way around the first lap, the rain started to bucket down, far than the rest of the teams had imagined and resulting in a number of drivers falling off the road. Starting from the pits, Winkelhock carved through the pack as everyone else crawled around the 5km circuit, miraculously taking the lead in his first race…in a Spyker!

It was all going swimmingly for Winkelhock as the rain intensified, while others were left treading water. A river had started to form at Turn 1, leaving a number of drivers to aquaplane into the gravel. Meanwhile, Winkelhock had built a commanding lead of 33 seconds, before the race was red-flagged on the fourth lap under the ever-worsening conditions.

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After the rain had subsided, Charlie Whiting gave the go-ahead for the race to resume under the safety car. It didn’t take long for Spyker’s pride to regress into a fall, and the decision to keep Winkelhock on the full-wet tyres in the hope of more rain failed to pay off. After a few safety car laps, the circuit was ripe for intermediates, and the German rookie began to sink down the order as the track dried.

Not that it mattered, of course. On his fourteenth lap, Winkelhock’s Spyker juddered to a halt after Turn 11, the excitement of his brief lead clearly too much for the car’s hydraulics.

One-off Formula 1 appearances rarely yield success, and the sport’s history is littered with names which never made any real impression. Yet, Winkelhock’s Nurburgring heroics should be remembered, and watching the orange Spyker burst through the spray to lead a grand prix was a brief underdog story to add to the already-exciting year of 2007.

“You couldn’t write a script like this” is the all-too-familiar cry of the clichéd sportscaster. It could be argued that this is exactly the script you’d write…although probably with a happier ending.

Winkelhock never raced again in F1, as former Super Aguri driver Sakon Yamamoto was able to bring more money to the team, and competed in the rest of the season. Instead, the German racer returned to the familiar pastures of DTM before carving out a career as a very capable sportscar driver, winning the GT1 World Championship in 2012. As of 2017, he competes in the Blancpain Sprint Cup, along with other appearances in GT racing.

But on that wet day in late July, Markus Winkelhock was a front-runner in Formula 1 for seven laps, which is more than many have managed in their entire careers.

Watch: The Mystery Science Theater F1 review of the gripping (if not literally) Nurburgring ’07 race.