1986 Hungarian Grand Prix: My First Taste of Formula 1

Károly Méhes recounts his experience at the 1986 Hungarian Grand Prix, the first race behind the Iron Curtain.

Images © Veli Vartiala, Tamás Viola, Fortepan

I started watching Formula 1 on the Austrian TV (ORF) in 1975, aged 10. At that time, Hungary was still behind the Iron Curtain and I never dared dream about a race in my country. Yet, just over ten years later, a contract was announced to bring Formula 1 to Hungary. There was no doubt I would be there for this historic occasion in August 1986.

As a 21-year-old university student, I didn’t have a huge budget. My brother and I were only able to afford to attend the practice sessions on Friday. We also didn’t have a car, so we travelled by train (half price tickets for students!) from our home in Pécs to Budapest. The night before our first taste of Formula 1, we stayed with some relatives in downtown Budapest. We took a walk along the banks of the Danube where Budapest’s best hotels were located, and to my total surprise we ran into some of the famous drivers that I had grown up watching on TV.

I remember seeing Nigel Mansell, who was in the middle of a photo session with well-known F1 photographer John Townsend. Nigel was posing against a beautiful sunset sky with the Buda hill castle in the background. We also met Stefan Johansson and Keke Rosberg.

Later, Bernie Ecclestone arrived as well and stopped to sign some autographs, to which I remarked, “you seem to be more popular than the drivers!” He looked at me for a second and grinned, denying it was true. But I’m sure he liked my comment.

The next morning, we took the shuttle bus to the Hungaroring from the Árpád bridge. With our race tickets for Friday in hand, the shuttle bus was free. I remember the stifling heat. The bus dropped us some distance from the circuit gates and it was a long and hot walk, made more challenging by the wind kicking up the dust from the recently completed circuit construction.

By the time we arrived, the cars were already on track for the first practice session. I’ll never forget the thunderous screams of the turbo engines as the drivers familiarized themselves with the new circuit. It wasn’t long before we entered the track and I got to see the cars in the flesh for the first time. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I was deeply moved by this historic occasion – seeing the drivers and teams I had grown up watching, finally on home soil, was something else.

The only proper grandstand at the Hungaroring for this first event was located on the start-finish straight. Everyone else had to sit on the dry and dusty hills surrounding the circuit, but no one seemed to care. Tens of thousands of fans from Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland were enjoying their first taste of Formula 1, and we were part of it.

My brother and I found some shade and sat down to enjoy our home made sandwiches. We’d brought our own as we knew that the trackside prices would be too high for us. But the feeling of this new F1 festival was unique. It was a long trip back to Budapest that night. We were tried, dirty, sweaty and very happy. Later in the weekend, I watched on TV as Nelson Piquet crossed the line to win the historic first race behind the Iron Curtain at ‘my’ Hungaroring. Four years later, I walked into the Paddock at the Hungaroring for the first time as an accredited journalist. Formula 1 had arrived in 1986, but in 1990 it was me who had arrived.

A Grid Girl from the 1986 Hungarian Grand Prix Tells Her Story: “It was the best experience of my life!”

How did I manage to secure an interview with one of the grid girls from the first Hungarian Grand Prix in 1986? It’s an interesting story! My Finnish F1 colleague and friend, Veri Vartiala, was working at the race as an accredited journalist.

One day he sent me a memento from the 1986 Hungarian race: the official weekend schedule. On its own, it was an interesting relic. But it also had someone’s name, address and telephone number written on the back. Veri told me it was the contact details for Andrea Bánhegyi, one of the grid girls at the race.

Andrea had featured in a photo essay that Veri had produced for a Finnish magazine at the time. I decided to try and find her. To my surprise, her address and telephone number were the same after 35 years! We met in the summer of 2021 and Andrea told me her story.

“I was only 17, so I had to get permission from my mother to take part in the casting. I really did not know much about Formula 1 or what we needed to do at the track, but somebody told me it would be fun, and the money was good. I was chosen,” she says.

The grid girls were a hit at the inaugural race behind the Iron Curtain in August 1986. They arrived together at the track in an Ikarus bus, and turned heads in their short tops and pants, topped off by a red sponsor’s cap.

“My driver was Teo Fabi from Benetton,” says Andrea. “He was a short, balding guy, who barely came up to my shoulder. But he was nice and even let me sit in his car!”

Andrea wasn’t an F1 fan at the time, but it was a memorable experience to be among so many stars of the sport, as well as Hungarian dignitaries. She also met Veli, the Finnish reporter, who took some photos of her. “I was completely blown away when a few weeks later when I received the Finnish magazine in the post with all the photos of me,” Andrea says. “He even invited me to Finland but since I was young and shy. I didn’t take him up on the offer, which I regret today.”

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