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NEXT RACE:

Austria Grand Prix 🇦🇹  – Red Bull Ring – 30th June 2019

 

In the late 1950s a group of motor racing enthusiasts in the town of Zeltweg negotiated to be allowed to hold a race on the runways and taxiways of the local military airbase. They laid out an L-shaped circuit with maker cones and straw bales and invited international sportscar racers to take part in the inaugural event in 1958. It was won by Wolfgang von Trips in a Porsche but the circuit was considered dull and rather too bumpy by the drivers who took part. This did not deter the enthusiasts who decided to hold a Formula 2 race in 1959 and again in 1960. The latter was won by Stirling Moss in a Porsche 718. The Austrians had set their hearts on a Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix but in 1961 they had to be content with a non-championship F1 race. This was won by Innes Ireland in a Lotus. The event was repeated in 1963 and was won by Jack Brabham.

The first F1 race had inspired a young Austrian to take up the sport and by the mid-1960s Jochen Rindt was beginning to make an impression in the international scene. This enabled the Austrians to argue that they should be given a full-blown World Championship race in 1964. The rough surface was too much for the Formula 1 cars of the day and most of them retired. This left Ferrari driver Lorenzo Bandini to score his one and only Grand Prix victory. Formula 1 decided not to return and so in 1965 the big event was held for sportscars and was won by Rindt in a Ferrari.

Interest in motor racing was growing thanks to Rindt’s successes and money was raised to fund the construction of a purpose-built circuit in a natural bowl built into the hillside on the northern side of the valley of the River Mur. The result was a magnificent high-speed circuit, known as the Osterreichring which flowed through a series of impressive corners which would become in time part of F1 folklore. The first Austrian GP at Zeltweg took place in mid-August 1970 – Rindt was dominating the World Championship for Team Lotus. It was the perfect story. But Rindt did not win – victory going to Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari and a few days later Rindt was killed in an accident at Monza. That year he would become the first posthumous World Champion.

The Austrians hoped that another driver would come along to replace him. They were not to be de disappointed because emerging rapidly was a youngster called Niki Lauda – who joined Ferrari at the start of 1974. In the years that followed the Austrians turned up each year in that hope that Lauda would win the race but instead there began a tradition on unusual winners. Vittorio Brambilla won for March in 1975 and in 1976 John Watson gave Penske its own and only F1 victory at the Osterreichring. In 1977 there was another surprise when Alan Jones won in a Shadow and it was not until 1978 that the normal front-runners began to win the Austrian GP. In 1982 there was another surprise – and a great race – when Elio de Angelis held off Keke Rosberg to win an unexpected victory. Finally, in 1984, Lauda – who had retired and made a comeback in the interim – finally gave his home crowd a win.

By then a new Austrian star was emerging but Gerhard Berger’s luck at the Osterreichring was as bad as that of Lauda.

There were increasing worries about the safety of the circuit and disputes with the local farmers about car parking space and after a series of startline accidents in 1987 F1 decided it had had enough. Budapest wanted the mid-August date and were willing to pay. Austria was dropped from the F1 calendar. The track continued to host other events but gradually slipped into disrepair and it was not until a new group took over the track and found money from private enterprise that work on the track could be carried out. The Austrian telephone company paid for much of the work in exchange for the new track being renamed the A1 Ring.

The new track was very different to the old. The grand corners were gone and the new track was a modern stop-go circuit. The racing was close but it was not like the old days. The first race at the new track was in 1997 and was won by Jacques Villeneuve – but only after Jarno Trulli had taken everyone by surprise by leading in dominant fashion in his Prost-Mugen Honda on Bridgestone tires. There were no surprises in 1998 with victory for Mika Hakkinen but the 1999 race saw the two McLarens of Hakkinen and David Coulthard collide at the second corner and victory went to Eddie Irvine in his Ferrari.The event failed to make money and eventually was taken over by the local authorities but in 2003 Bernie Ecclestone cancelled the contract for the race in 2004 because of the Austrian government’s support of anti-tobacco legislation in the European Union.