Monday 19 August 2013

Österreichring - a matter of perspective

There is a joke that psychologists like to tell. Two psychologists, who are old friends, happen upon each other in the street. Psychologist one asks psychologist two: 'How's your wife?' Psychologist two replies: 'Compared to what?'

I won't give up the day job.

But there is a reason that psychologists like to tell this joke. In psychology, as in everything, all is a matter of perspective, a matter of relativity. Nothing can be judged in a vacuum; everything must be judged in comparison with what is around it.

And so it is with the A1-Ring (or the Red Bull Ring to give its latest moniker), which the Red Bull company announced recently is to return to the F1 calendar next year. In itself, the A1/Red Bull Ring is a perfectly acceptable motor racing venue of the modern sort. It's set in fine, scenic surroundings; there is plenty of welcome (and perhaps increasingly rare) use of gradient. The Austrian Grands Prix it hosted between 1997 and 2003 tended to give us diverting races, with rather a lot of overtaking, in an age which usually didn't give us much of either. And set as it is in central Europe it is within relatively easy reach of large numbers of much of the sport's latent following - a following that's had the sport turn its back on it to a rather absurd extent in recent times, in preference for venues wherein local interest can be meagre. To be a little more brutal however, while the A1-Ring wasn't a grand feast of a track perhaps if you're used to a diet of workhouse gruel something a bit more appetising than that will always be welcome.

The A1/Red Bull Ring is back by the looks of things,
but I'm not too excited
And judging by the views of F1 fans that I've spoken to as well as those discerned from reading internet comments the track's return is a welcome one, I'd imagine for the reasons outlined above. But I've never been at ease with the A1-Ring entirely. I'd much rather, if it had to exist, that they'd built it somewhere else. Because when it was created it trampled on something really rather wonderful, about as grand a feast as the sport has offered in its long history. This was a track known as the Österreichring, which itself had been an F1 stop-off between 1970 and 1987.

Sadly, the creation of the new-fangled Austrian circuit meant the magnificent Österreichring was consigned to the history books and film reels forever. And, rather like the new Nurburgring and very much unlike the new Spa, the new layout - mainly straights separated by second and third gear corners - didn't begin to capture the spirit of the old (though at least they didn't commit the same act of heresy as the Nurburgring and give the Ersatz version the same blimming name).

Many adjectives were associated routinely with the Österreichring in its time as an F1 stop-off: spectacular, stunning, awe-inspiring. All of these and more did it justice. Its surroundings we know about from the A1-Ring: set in the Styrian foothills it sat in seemingly endless idyllic greenery and fir-lined countryside. And the area's natural contours ensured the track was all rocket-like climbs, roller coaster-like plunges and blind brows.

The track's layout meanwhile made the most appropriate use of the fine geographic hand that the venue was dealt. It was close to 6km of almost constant majesty: an average speed that all but matched Silverstone in its quickest configuration, but moreover this average speed was sustained through fearsome long and fast corners which made up the layout almost without exception, providing the sort of challenge that really distinguishes the Grand Prix driver from the rest of us, and the truly great Grand Prix driver from the merely good one.

At the start of the lap drivers immediately faced one of those rocket-like ascents, with a steep climb that led to Hella Licht, a blind right-hander over a brow taken at close to top speed (sadly though in 1977 a fiddly second gear chicane was inserted here, loosely in response to Mark Donohue's fatal accident at the corner, which also killed a couple of marshals, in the 1975 race's warm up session).

Saturo Nakajima takes us on a Honda-powered lap of the Österreichring

The cars then proceeded at full pelt alongside the side of a hill towards a fast and banked right-hander at the Dr Tiroche Kurve, where the track almost doubled back on itself, and they then crested the brow of a hill and reached the fastest part of the track.

Then we had the Boschkurve, the corner that just as the Masta Kink was to the original Spa was the Österreichring challenge that topped the lot, the one associated immediately with the classic venue and usually with a quickening of the pulse; the challenge that drivers would tighten their grip of the wheel and hold their breath as they neared. Just as at the Masta there was a downhill approach at breakneck speed - Gerhard Berger once noted that at this point of the Österreichring track while on a qualifying lap in the heights of the sport's turbo era with 1400 bhp behind him 'you felt like you were sitting on a rocket'. Just as at the Masta there was no room for error. Just as at the Masta competitors would get it absolutely right but rarely. The Boschkurve was a long and plunging downhill right-hander, where a barrier and a grandstand awaited on the outside for those who got it wrong.

Following this, now on the downhill leg of the track, there was the entirely-inappropriately titled Texaco Schikane, which was not a chicane in any way we'd know it, rather was a fast double left sweep. Then another brow, and another downhill plunge to the fast Rindtkurve, another banked 180 degree turn with little leeway for error. And thus the lap ended, with the car (before the Hella Licht chicane insertion) not dropping below the top gears at any point.

The Österreichring was popular with drivers as you'd expect, and was equally so with spectators. The track was built on the back of local hero Jochen Rindt's rise to celebrity in the late 1960s, though - as tragedy intervened at Monza in 1970 - Rindt was to visit the place for an Austrian Grand Prix just once. And then at the height of Austrian Niki Lauda's popularity far upwards of 100,000 spectators, often around 140,000, would come through the gates on race day. The local turnout was usually supplemented by vast armies of tifosi advancing over the nearby Italian border to shout for Ferrari. Furthermore, views from the many vast raised spectator banks tended to be wonderful, and allow sight of much of the track

The Österreichring's heritage is actually surprisingly short. While it seemed for all the world taken right from the sport's very early days of fearsome Grand Prix road racing, indeed the house present on the outside of the run to the Boschkurve could have been imported straight from the original Spa, it debuted on the F1 calendar, and did so as a newly and purpose-built venue, as late as 1970. Paradoxically, this was the same year that the spine-chilling 14km version of the Spa circuit made its final F1 appearance, and a season also wherein the Nurburgring Nordshleife was avoided in favour of the far more sedate Hockenheim, while safety upgrades were made to give the classic track a few more years as an F1 venue. Even back then bland autodromes, chicanes, and tracks with diminishing average speeds were encroaching onto the itinerary - feeling that circuits weren't quite what they once were, that with the new came sanitisation, was a common lament. Yet the Osterreichring was then a totem of what could be achieved but sadly what was very rarely aimed for, rather like Spa and Suzuka are today.

As if to prove that a lot of things never change, with a strong parallel of debates still had today here is what the 1977 Autocourse had to say on the place: 'In an era where the sterile "race facility" becomes more and more the norm, the Österreichring has side-stepped would swear that Maserati 250Fs, Auto Unions even, had scratched their way around here. The place has that kind of well-worn, comfortable atmosphere. And, if proof were needed, there is ample here to convince you that Grand Prix circuits constructed in the 1970s do not have to be barren, featureless places, devoid of real challenge'.

The Österreichring also one way or another over its time as an F1 venue developed a happy knack of providing unusual winners of its Grands Prix. Part of this may have been as Nigel Roebuck noted down to that 'the Österreichring is constantly at the mercy of unpredictable weather. There is no middle ground. For the Austrian Grand Prix there is either blazing heat or monsoon, sometimes both'. Indeed, four Austrian Grands Prix in a row, from 1975 through to 1978, featured a perfidious track at least at some point of the race.

Jo Siffert's win for BRM in the 1971 Grand Prix

It was however bone dry when Jo Siffert claimed the pole and win for BRM in the 1971 race here, a performance that was as fine as it was surprising. It was also popular, coming as it did weeks after his team mate Pedro Rodriguez had perished in a sports car race. In 1975 it was Vittorio Brambilla's day of days, taking his one F1 win, and he was helped by the elements. A cloud burst over the track shortly before the scheduled start and ensured a streaming surface for the race. Brambilla was one who was quick, certainly brave, but also wild, and he put his bravery to good use to move into the lead as the rain intensified. The only question was Brambilla's perennial one: could his drive last as far as the chequered flag? Especially as with his pace on that day he also looked forever on the verge of an accident. In the event he did make the chequered flag still in front, and he was assisted in this by the fact that it was brought out early at around half distance thanks to the still-worsening conditions. And so surprised and elated was Brambilla at this development that he immediately lost control and clouted the barrier having crossed the line!

Vittorio Brambilla wins, and then crashes!

The following year was the scene of another surprise win, when John Watson took his debut victory after an exciting race, and in so doing ensuring the sole F1 win for the famous Penske concern. And as in 1971 it was one poignant for the team as it was one year on from Mark Donohue's fatal accident when driving for Penske at this venue. In 1977 it was another debut win for the driver and what transpired to be the solitary win for the constructor, Alan Jones dumbfounding the locals by beating Niki Lauda to the punch, the only ever win for the Shadow team.

The 1980 race was one of the few occasions on which the fast but fragile turbocharged Renault of Jean-Pierre Jabouille lasted for the whole distance, and he took full advantage of the fact to win (absurdly, his only points of that season). And probably the best Österreichring Grand Prix was in 1982. By now the turbocharger was more established, and on this the fastest of the fast tracks no one expected the normally-aspirated powered runners to get near the Renaults, BMW-powered Brabhams or the one Ferrari (as it was shortly after Didier Pironi's near-fatal accident). None did get near them, but both Renaults and Brabhams dropped out with mechanical woes while the Ferrari driven by Patrick Tambay was delayed by a puncture. This left the unlikely figure of Elio de Angelis in his Lotus leading, but in the final laps he started to suffer from 'Lotus Disease', marginal fuel to get him to the flag - Colin Chapman was notorious for cutting things fine, often too fine, on fuel load. As a result Keke Rosberg in second place in his Williams started to hunt de Angelis down in a late race charge. Around the last lap visibly he took yards out of the car ahead, and come the final Rindtkurve was almost hidden under its rear wing. It looked as Rosberg pulled out of the black car's slipstream in the run to the line that he'd timed his attack beautifully, but de Angelis (somehow having the confidence to raise an arm in victory salute) clung on by a scant 0.050 seconds. It was the first time in close to four years that Chapman witnessed victory for his previously-dominant team, and sadly also it was to be his last.

The closer than close finish of the 1982 race

Despite that, as mentioned, the Österreichring was built partly in response to Jochen Rindt's rise, as well as that year after year hordes of Lauda acolytes would be in attendance at Austrian Grands Prix, all had to wait a long time for an Austrian to triumph there. Eventually, 14 years after F1's first visit, it happened though, in 1984 the year synonymous with McLaren MP4/2 dominance from Lauda and Alain Prost. That day Prost spun off on oil, and Lauda moved past Nelson Piquet to lead with 11 laps left. That wasn't the end of matters though, as a few laps later when accelerating out of the Boschkurve in fourth gear Lauda heard a 'terrific bang' and then lost all power. Assuming his gearbox was gone he was about to park when it occurred to him that it was a long walk back to the pits where he was, thus he hunted around the 'box for an operative gear to allow him to cruise back to the pits. He found third, and shortly afterwards found fifth (his top gear) too, which was sufficient for him to press on, albeit five seconds a lap off the pace.

Lauda assumed that such were his delays Piquet shortly would be sailing by for the lead, but on the next lap Piquet didn't close the gap at all, nor did he the next time around. It then occurred to Lauda that Piquet probably was assuming that he was just cruising to the flag, as Lauda had so often done in the past, and that there was no point rising to the bait. Sure enough, Lauda by the end was still 23 seconds to the good and won. And Lauda on the way to the podium mentioned nonchalantly to Piquet about his gearbox woes, and could 'tell by his (Piquet's) expression how shattered he is that he let this opportunity slip. He could easily have won this Grand Prix.' And without those extra points Lauda would not have won his third world championship.

F1 cars last raced around the Österreichring in 1987, a race that had to be started three times, the second stoppage being caused by a particularly large multi-car pile up at the start involving 10 machines. Many assumed that the Österreichring's narrow pit straight, with a pit wall on one side and a barrier on the other, sounded the track's death knell (compounding concerns about the track's safety standards more generally). That wasn't the whole story though. Bernie Ecclestone had bemoaned the lack of nearby hotels, as well as had managed to fall out with a few local farmers. But it's likely that there were factors on the aggregate level too. As mentioned even when the track was built the F1 circuit generally was becoming slower and more torturous. Indeed, it was said that Bernie thought such tracks better for television and for seeing the cars' sponsors.

The second start crash in the 1987 Grand Prix

The Österreichring's break from the F1 calendar was never a clean one though, and vague rumours of its return lingered for a while, though got less strong with time. Eventually, the venue had to cede to the inevitable and change if it wanted a return to the sport's top table, which is where we came in. And when the fraternity visited the new 'A1-Ring' for the first time in 1997 those who remembered the old Österreichring lamented that a more worthwhile compromise between old and new, achieved quintessentially at Spa, had not been found (legend has it that one elderly F1 journalist, particularly offended by the new creation, refused to attend at all). The broad shape of the Österreichring remained, as of course did the scenery and gradient. But otherwise little was reminiscent of the venue's previous majesty. Rather than the sharp climb to Hella Licht the track took a sharp second gear right 200 metres before the turn, into a straight which dissected the old track, before rejoining it with another sharp, slow turn. The remaining corners were also neutered, or by-passed altogether, and the result was something rather unsatisfying compared with what was there before.

Thus the majesty of the Österreichring was gone forever. And therefore forgive me if the impending return of the A1-Ring doesn't elicit too much excitement from me.


  1. No mention of the added element of Deer collisions, Stefan J in 1987 and JP Montoya in 2001 spring to mind as memorable happenings in the Styrian Mountains.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.