Hungarian F1 journalist Károly Méhes remembers his first and second visits to the Austrian Grand Prix at the circuit that’s been known as the Österreichring, the A1 Ring and now the Red Bull Ring.
Story and images by Károly Méhes
The 1985 Austrian Grand Prix was my second race as a spectator. I travelled to the Österreichring, as the circuit in the Styrian mountains was then called, from my home in Hungary in a Trabant. My little plastic East German car managed to break down twice en route, but the Austrian mechanics in the provinces were ready to give a helping hand. Fixing a Trabant was a new challenge for them!
I stood with my 1500 Schilling ticket in the Bosch Kurve among thousands of Austrian and Italian fans. In those days, you were still allowed to build your own “viewing platform” to get a better view of the action, though the safety standards were often questionable. I forced my way right to the fence where I stood for most of the day, but only after buying my first ever Ferrari cap for 120 Schillings. I still have it, of course.
Niki Lauda gave everything in his last home Grand Prix but a mechanical failure robbed him of victory, which went to Alain Prost ahead of Ayrton Senna and Michele Alboreto. I remember the engine of Eddie Cheever’s Alfa Romeo blew up in front of us. The Zakspeed of Jonathan Palmer also gave out its soul at that section of the circuit.
I had a great weekend and was more than a little sad when multiple start crashes in 1987 highlighted the shortcomings of the original Österreichring circuit, and saw the Austrian Grand Prix disappear from the calendar for the next ten years. It was especially disappointing for us Hungarians, as the race was only a few hours’ drive from home.
It wasn’t too long before the country that had produced Jochen Rindt, Niki Lauda and Gerhard Berger managed to find a way back into F1. The track was rebuilt with a shorter layout and renamed the A1 Ring, and I returned as a journalist to the autumn-coloured Styrian hills for the first race in September 1997. Starting early from Pécs, my home city in the south of Hungary, I arrived at the A1-Ring by midday. I was astonished by the new track and superb facilities the Austrians had built. Large garages, a spacious paddock and a comfortable press centre with free food and drinks.
The most fetching character of the Austrian race is its totally rural environment. Only mountains and little villages with timber frame houses, chapels and cows on the hillside. No big hotels or cavernous parking lots. Most fans stay in tents or caravans next to the track and stock up on a big supply of local Puntigamer or Gösser beer for a three-day party! Of course, there was a massive invasion of Michael Schumacher fans from Germany (and tifosi from Italy) ready to support their hero in the Ferrari as he battled Jacques Villeneuve for the driver’s title. Needless to say, the German and Italian fans were united not only in their support of Schumacher, but in a new Wurst & Bier friendship.
The Grand Prix organizers gave everything, too. It felt like they wanted to make the return of Formula 1 really memorable. And they succeeded. They deployed everything at their disposal: pretty local girls in drindl, folk music bands playing for the spectators and Grand Prix greats from the past. I remember having a chat with John Surtees, and being humbled at how friendly and kind an F1 Champion could be to a completely unknown and unimportant Hungarian journalist like me. Later I experienced the same with Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti and others.
The weekend’s racing brought plenty of incidents and the odd surprise. Villeneuve grabbed the pole, but Mika Häkkinen was leading the race until the Mercedes engine in his McLaren let him down again. The biggest surprise was Jarno Trulli’s performance in the Prost. He looked to be on track for a sensational wain until suffering the same fate as Häkkinen, while Irvine and Alesi came together in a spectacular collision. Villeneuve won, while Schumacher’s fans went home disappointed after their Champ could only manage sixth place.
I returned to Spielberg every year until the race was cancelled again after 2003. Fast forward eleven years and thanks to a financial injection from Red Bull, the circuit was once again rebuilt and returned to the F1 calendar in 2014. Let’s hope it’s here to stay this time.