Henry Bianco and his partner traveled from Chicago to Austria for their first live F1 race and their weekend at the Red Bull Ring didn’t disappoint.
- Images © Henry Bianco
- The 2024 Austrian Grand Prix is on June 28-30.
- Read our Austrian Grand Prix Travel Guide
Last week my travel companion (E) and I bid farewell to smoky Chicago and set off for a dream week split between Vienna and the 2023 Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg. Both of us are diehard motorsport fans with trackside experience ranging from local track days through the Indy 500, and mutually this would be our first Formula 1 Grand Prix abroad or otherwise. E purchased our package through F1experiences.com which included 2 weekend passes to the race and 6 nights at the Hotel Royal in Vienna (a charming hotel perfectly situated steps from St. Stephen’s Cathedral).
Having weighed the options, we decided on renting a car and driving the approx. 2.5 hours to and from the track each day; having completed the weekend this is still absolutely what we would have done. The track includes free parking, and while trains and shuttles are much more affordable, we opted for flexibility and freedom. Tip: pay attention to the color of your ticket (green/blue/yellow) and follow the LED signs on the highway – they come a bit early (had to turn around the first day and backtrack having gotten off an exit early) but will get you closest to where you ultimately need to be.
Spielberg is quite remote, resplendent with verdant rolling valleys and Von Trappings appropriate for a location in the foothills of the Styrian Alps. The aforementioned parking is almost entirely in massive grassy fields surrounding the track with corresponding bumpy terrain, so choose your vehicle accordingly. Our hybrid Honda CH-R worked quite well and as a hybrid helped cut down on our daily petrol bill. We did our best to leave Vienna each morning as early as our tired bodies allowed and can safely say the earlier the better. We expected traffic getting out of Vienna to be gridlock heading in the direction of Spielberg but were pleasantly surprised to find mostly smooth sailing until nearing the track.
Not knowing any better we parked in a lot closer to the blue section of the track – this set us up for quite a bit of unnecessary walking. Speaking of walking – wear comfortable, supportive shoes and be ready to get your steps in. Traveling around the track will involve hiking through stunning forests with beautiful views, but the nature of the …nature means that you will be navigating inclines and slippery, muddy hills.
We were seated in Tribüne Schönberg – on the maps this looks to be equally spaced between Turns 3 and 4, but in reality we were much closer to Turn 4. Because of the hills and trees, Turn 3 viewing is obstructed. However, you can expect some of the best viewing angles at this or any track with sightlines over at least 50% of the race, making the act of following the action a bit more manageable (more on this later).
The Dutch were legion – when folks talk about this being the Max home race, they are not exaggerating. Shirts emblazoned with Orange Army, Dutch Invasion, and Beware the Dutch, all electrified in dayglow orange, are the unofficial uniform for the weekend; if you’re not wearing orange, you’re in the minority. You’ll also be smelling the orange, thanks to Max fans’ penchant for smuggling color-appropriate road flares. They are quite the rowdy bunch.
The party atmosphere permeates everywhere, with throbbing DJ music coming from all angles, much with an Austrian twist – imagine a polka remix of Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire in double time featuring accordion and sub bass.
The on-track action was all fun and engaging. We got to watch qualifying and practice for F2/F3 and they sounded great, outshining the V6 hybrids of the F1 cars. Speaking of, the F1 cars utterly tear that track apart. The three DRS zones don’t completely illustrate the top-end speed potential of those machines, but the battles on the straights into Turns 1 and 4 and the way they dance around the corners is a sight to behold that just cannot come across on a TV screen.
Success – we found the right place to park. While there was still quite a bit of uphill terrain mercifully much more of it was on paved road, especially since today was Rain Day.
Oh yeah – this was also Sprint Day, in the wet! In this writer’s humble opinion, we got the perfect weekend with both wet and dry meaningful racing. Here’s your reminder – pack a raincoat. Do not be the umbrella person; they’re inefficient and block views.
A somber tone was added to the weekend with the tragic passing of young Dutch driver Dilano van ’t Hoff at a concurrent race happening in Spa in a feeder series. The track promoters decided to cancel all off-track activity (DJ stages, flight demonstrations, etc.) and this was the correct decision.
The racing continued and it was a gift to have the opportunity to contextualize the open-wheeler performance with the Porsche Supercup cars. For example, into Turn 4, F1 cars braked around the 80m marker while the Porsches began slowing themselves well before 150m and positively lumbered around the corner in comparison. That said, the Porsche powertrains sounded bonkers, so they win the noise war.
Exiting the track honestly kind of sucks any way you do it. Massive crowds become siphoned through security bottlenecks, so be prepared to add about an hour to the end of your travel time. Confusingly, during the race, they also check your ticket and search your bags as you leave any of the ticketed viewing areas, greatly inflating lines and wait times.
RACE. DAY. The energy increase among the fans was palpable, with this the only fully sold-out day for the weekend. Crowds were much thicker, so much so that the entire track sold out of the official Aston Martin Alonso team shirt. Bonkers.
In case you didn’t know, Red Bull is EXTREME. That comes through in the off-track action, including helicopter acrobatics, a military jet flyover, synchronized stunt planes, and FREAKING JET PACK RACES. Yes, three men flew jet packs around the track and it’s as crazy as it sounds, including one of the only major shunts of the weekend. Need to look into acquiring one of those (and corollary insurance).
While the featured F1 Fanzone requires a special pass (bummer) there are plenty of other fan areas to access. I especially liked how Austrian culture permeates the aesthetics and refreshments, with plenty of deep-fried goodness. They’ve curated solid photo opportunities with show cars and track maps, so if you want to do it to ‘em on the Gram, this is your chance.
The driver parade was as boring as it is on the broadcast; I’m still not entirely sure why they spend so much time on that. The Legacy Race with old school open cockpit cars/NASCARs driven by DC, Mark Webber, and Helmut Marko (among others) was way more interesting; I wish we got to watch more of that on broadcast.
The race itself was as exciting as a Max processional can ever be, so thankfully there were some riveting mid-field battles (e.g. Checo coming through the field and battling with the Ferraris.) It’s hard to describe the feeling and energy of the pack ripping through tire to tire three-wide during the opening lap, but it’s worth experiencing in-person for that excitement alone.
If you’ve only ever watched on television, experiencing a race in person is much like experiencing many other professional sports in-stadium – it’s expensive, getting in and out is probably going to be a headache, and watching on a screen is always going to be better for understanding the strategic ebbs and flows of pits ands tires and flags.
If you’re a true fan, going in person is a magical, wonderful experience I’d encourage anyone to try at least once if given the opportunity. Driving can be a lot and if like this writer you’re Not A Camper, staying closer in Graz or renting an RV for the weekend and parking on the grounds is a legitimate alternative. Finally, do not expect your shoes to be any color but mud brown after a weekend at the Red Bull Ring; Monaco this is not.