Károly Méhes visits the home of the Austrian Grand Prix for the inaugural edition of the Red Bull Ring Classics 2023, featuring a host of open wheel and touring cars from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Due to its location in the Styrian mountains, the Red Bull Ring is a place where you can have fun all year round. From skiing on the nearby slopes in winter to hiking and other outdoor pursuits in summer. And in early June this year, the home of the Formula 1 Austrian Grand Prix welcomed scores of historic motorsport cars of every era and persuasion for the first edition of the Red Bull Ring Classics event.
The original Österreichring circuit, opened in 1970, was one of the fastest F1 circuits on the calendar until 1987, when two serious crashes at the start of the race highlighted the circuit’s safety shortcomings. It would take ten years for the Austrians to get their race back when F1 returned to a shorter and safer version of the circuit, then known as the A1-Ring, in 1997. Sadly, this stint was rather short and after only seven more races, Austria disappeared again from the F1 calendar. But those who thought that was it for the circuit in the Austrian mountains would be proved wrong, and two factors were responsible.
Firstly, Bernie Ecclestone had a soft spot for Austria. The F1 supremo managed Jochen Rindt, F1’s only posthumous World Champion (1970), and Niki Lauda also drove for his Brabham team in 1978-1979. Secondly, Dieter Mateschitz, the founder of the Red Bull energy drinks company, had bought the abandoned A1-Ring and invested heavily in bringing the circuit up to current F1 standards. The Austrian Grand Prix returned to the calendar in 2014 and has remained ever since.
Notwithstanding its annual race, the small country of Austria (population approx. 9m) continues to exert an enormous influence over Formula 1. Red Bull funds two of the ten teams on the grid, one of which has been a regular title winner. An Austrian, Dr. Helmut Marko, also serves as one of the most influential advisers to both the Red Bull Racing and Scuderia AlphaTauri teams. Mercedes have also had two Austrian bosses. Niki Lauda died in 2019, but Toto Wolff continues to lead the German-English team.
Although the Austrian Grand Prix is the biggest sporting event on the Red Bull Ring calendar, it’s by no means the only reason to visit the circuit nowadays. The complex is popular year-round with track days and other events.
The inaugural edition of the Red Bull Ring Classics on June 9-11 attracted more than 20,000 fans keen to see open wheel and touring cars in action from the 1960s through to the 1990s. Surrounded by campgrounds and set against the backdrop of the nearby mountains, the circuit offered a laidback, festive atmosphere. Enthusiastic owners from all over Europe descended on the circuit to show off their historic racing cars.
You also have a chance to bump into familiar faces. The first one was Nobert Vettel, father of four-time F1 champion, Sebastian. This time he was accompanied by his younger son, Fabian, who took to the track in his Dallara GP2 car. Sitting in his car with his helmet on, Fabian bore an astonishing resemblance to his famous brother!
At the 2023 edition of the Red Bull Ring Classics, two famous marques – Ferrari and Lotus – were the stars of the show. Among the famous cars in action was the legendary ‘shark nose’ Ferrari 156 from 1961, which took Phil Hill to the championship that year at Monza on a tragic weekend that saw his teammate Wolfgang von Trips and 15 spectators lose their lives.
After a disastrous 1962 season with the same 156s, Enzo Ferrari ordered that all remaining examples be destroyed, thus cementing the model’s legendary status. Several decades later, two British men decided to bring the Ferrari 156 back to life. Jason Wright and Dan Setford made their dream come true about ten years ago with the restoration of two Ferrari 156s.
As Setford told me, “This project is completely independent from Maranello, but of course we have very good relations with them. Ferrari provided all the necessary documentation with the only proviso that one of the cars had to on display at the Galeria Ferrari exhibition for six months.”
A small team of mechanics prepares the legendary cars for their runs, with owners Wright and Setford at the wheel. Setford continues, “It’s not a problem to drive. It runs smoothly, the gear shifting is perfect. Of course, we do not want to push it too hard; in this sense it is not a racing car anymore!”
The other “brigade” at the Red Bull Ring Classics this year was a sublime collection of black and gold Lotuses, which carried John Player Special cigarette advertising from 1972-1987. Designed by Gerard Ducarouge and company founder Colin Chapman, these iconic machines were driven by legends such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Ronnie Peterson, Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell. Watching them in action once again was yet another of the weekend’s highlights.