Fast and dangerous, the final version of the Czech circuit was an eye-opener in many ways for the tin-top stars of the eighties, as Gary Watkins discovers
Every motorsport-mad schoolboy has done it. Or at least thought about it. Fetched up a map and drawn out a road circuit on his favourite set of country lanes. The end result is probably nearly always the same — lots of fast corners, at least one long straight and some serious changes in elevation. And perhaps there’s a hairpin thrown in for good measure.
Take a trip around the largely unchanged roads that made up the Brno circuit to the west of the city of the same name, and you’ll be left wondering if the track was the invention of an imaginative child. It was the same for those pitching up for the first time in Czechoslovakia for the European Touring Car fixture in the 1980s. The final incarnation of the track, all 6.79 miles of it, was unlike anything they’d seen before.
“Sure, we had the Nurburgring-Nordschleife, but that was a race circuit,” says Steve Soper, who made his Brno debut in a TWR Rover in 1984. “But here we had a stretch of main road, a kind of dual carriageway, a section on back roads and a twisty bit through a village, all joined together. And it was fast.”
Very fast, in fact. By the time the ETC arrived at the circuit for the last time, the Rover Vitesses, BMW 635s and Ford Sierra XR4Tis — the forerunner of the RS500 Cosworth — were lapping at more than 110mph. Soper can lay claim to the fastest-ever lap around Brno. In 1986, he needed a fraction over three and a half minutes to complete the six and a half miles and plonk his Eggenberger Ford firmly on pole position at an average speed of 115.339mph. Compare that with the 98.373mph pole mark set at Spa that same year.
Not only was Brno fast, it was positively dangerous. Even in its final year, 1986, it was not lined by Armco along its entire length. “In some places,” remembers Pierre Dieudonne, twice a winner of the Czech ETC fixture, “there was the road and then there was a ditch.”
A culture shock. No term better sums up this east European jaunt in the 1980s, at least for those, like Soper, who’d never raced on the original Spa or the full Clermont-Ferrand. Yet it wasn’t just the nature of the circuit that made Brno seem like another world. The Iron Curtain had yet to fall and Czechoslovakia was still a communist state. Brno was another world.
Dieudonne remembers a sense of misery. Not surprising, perhaps, given that his first trip to Brno in 1976 came only eight years after the oppression of the Prague Spring. “The Czechs have always been a very cultured people,” he says, “but they looked so unhappy.”
They were also very poor and starved of western consumer goods. Levi jeans, ladies underwear and race paraphernalia — stickers, caps or T-shirts — were more valuable currencies than the krona. “If you got stopped by the police for any reason, it wasn’t money they wanted,” recalls Soper. “You gave them T-shirts or anything else to do with the race and they were happy.”
Dieudonne remembers an incident, in the mid-1970s, when capitalist consumer durables almost certainly saved him from an uncomfortable night in a Czech jail.
“After the race I was driving to Vienna to catch a plane back to England because I was racing Formula Three on the Monday,” explains the Belgian. “I had a problem with my paperwork at the border and it looked like we weren’t going to make the flight. Then Dieter Quester arrived. At that time he was sponsored by Matchbox. He opened his boot, gave each of the officials a model car, and five minutes later we left.”
Racing at Brno predates communism, however. The initial version of the track, first used in 1930, was an 18-mile affair that stretched further west away from the centre of city and looped around the site of the future Automotodrom Brno, the permanent track which replaced the road course in 1987.
The first version of the Masarykring, named after then-president Thomas Masaryk, hosted the Czech Grand Prix no fewer than eight times. Louis Chiron notched up a hat-trick here in 1931-34 prior to the arrival of the state-funded German factory teams from Auto Union and Mercedes. Hans Stuck Snr, Bernd Rosemeyer and Rudolf Caracciola won the final three GPs, after which a more permanent presence of German hardware in Czechoslovakia brought the first chapter in the history of racing in Brno to an end.
After the war, racing briefly resumed on a track reversed in direction and reduced in length by more than half. Peter Whitehead won the revived event in his Ferrari 125 but, after one ‘GP’ attended only by local entries, car racing disappeared from this 11-mile incarnation of the Masarykring for more than a dozen years.
Top motorcycle events continued to visit and a drive by the Czech authorities to attract a world championship event led to a return of four-wheeled racing in 1962. A Formula Junior race supported the bike event that year, after which the circuit was shortened again when the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme demanded that a homogenous surface should be laid over the whole lap.
It was on this 8.66-mile circuit, dispensing with a loop towards the village of Zebetin, that the ETC became a regular fixture. The tin-top series made its maiden visit to Brno in 1968 and, apart from a two-year break in 1973-74, visited Czechoslovakia every season until the new purpose-built venue was completed.
That two-year hiatus came as a result of the death of Alfa Romeo driver Luigi Rinaldi and a marshal in qualifying for the 1972 race. The Italian lost control of his 1300 GTA in the final moments of the session and aquaplaned into the unprotected pitlane. The governing body of motorsport, the Commission Sportive International (CSI), withdrew Brno’s track licence. By the time the event returned to the international calendar in 1975, the road making up the main straight had been widened, a pftwall had been installed and, most significantly, the track had been shortened for one last time.
A new link road from Kohoutovice bypassed the track’s sweep into Brno’s western suburbs and took the cars down to the start-finish straight, where the pits built in the 1960s remain in a state of majestic decay. You can even have your car tended here; below the modest control tower is a branch of the Czech equivalent to Kwik-Fit.
The undulating main straight leads into the village of Bosonohyr. Here the road narrows as it flicks left, right and left again, before curving away from the houses and shops. It’s difficult to imagine turbo-popping Sierras and Volvo 240s blasting between buildings that appear to have changed little since racing here moved to its new home up the hill. At the entry to Bosonohyr the road appears less than two cars wide, yet Brno veterans estimate that they hit over 130mph at this point.
“I remember being taken through the village in a Sherpa van on my first year there,” recalls Soper. “We went through at 45mph with the tyres squealing, only to be told that it wasn’t far off being flat. For us in the Rover it was a fair lift, though the BMW 635s seemed to go through on full throttle. We were arriving a fair bit quicker, but they had the better chassis.”
After a mile of more or less straight road beyond Bosonohyr the track turns sharp right up a side road at the crossroads on which the hamlet of Veselka is built. “A big brake and a real overtaking spot,” says Dieudonnne. “It wasn’t straightforward because of the camber of the road, especially if there were slower cars around.” The only recompense was that if you got it wrong you could continue up the road that now leads towards the Automotodrom.
Learning Brno wasn’t so much about finding the correct line as locating the bumps. “There were so many places,” explains Soper, “where the natural way around the corner wasn’t the quickest. Some of the bumps were so big that if you hit them you were likely to have a bloody big accident.”
From Veselka the track winds uphill, curving gently right and left between fields and unforgiving ditches that remained unprotected in the ’80s. “It was flat all the way to the top,” says Dieudonne, whose ETC career included a stint driving TWR Jaguars. “We must have been hitting about 180mph in the XJS or the Sierra.”
The 1949-63 track sweeps off to the left two-thirds of the way up, before the last version turns back on itself via a piece of purpose-built race track. This banked, downhill righthander was named after a German bike rider who met his death near this spot in 1956. The corner that bore Hans Baltisberger’s name was one of the few at Brno to be given a label.
Power uphill through the next section and it could still be 1986. We are in the Czech Republic — as this half of the country is now called — in late May, only a week or two before Brno’s traditional June date. The leafy trees and the shadows they cast give these roads a familiar look to any fan of the ETC. What’s more, the Armco remains, a good job given that an old quarry lies beyond the rusting structure.
These sweeps were known as the Farina S, after the late, great Dr Giuseppe, who was lucky to avoid injury when he crashed here in the 1949 GP. Two spectators, however, weren’t so fortunate and succumbed to injuries sustained when the future Formula One World Champion left the road.
At the top of the hill is Kohoutovice, an ugly satellite of Brno dominated by the austere tower blocks that provided the backdrop to many a photograph of the ETC action. Here begins what for many was the most challenging — and frightening — section of the old Brno. A right-hander, now blocked off and bypassed by a new section of road, leads onto a wide-open stretch of what Soper describes as dual carriageway. On this the cars powered left, then right as they dipped steeply downhill past yet more blocks of flats. “It was incredibly quick, but thankfully lined by barriers,” says the Briton. “If you got it wrong here you’d rattle down the Armco all the way to the bottom.”
At the foot of the hill is a sharp left followed immediately by a hairpin right at the beginning of the start-finish straight “It was all about getting through the left-hander as quickly as possible,” adds Soper, “and then scrabble around the hairpin as best you could.”
That’s the Brno lap, circa 1975-86. There was nothing subtle about a rough triangle of roads that had little place on the international calendar at a time when even the Nordschleife had disappeared from the ETC.
“Get a lap right around Brno, even 60 or 70 per cent right, and it was a special experience,” says Soper. “It was that kind of track. You’d come into the pits and your heartbeat would be sky high. You’d pretend to be all cool, of course, but the old heart would be banging about inside your chest. Brno was a place that truly grabbed your attention.”