From Iron Curtain, to curtain call. Mark Skewis takes a look at the Hungarian Grand Prix
When teams arrived behind the Iron Curtain in 1986 for the inaugural Hungarian Grand Prix, many could hardly believe their eyes. Ken Tyrrell was amongst those shocked, but for a different reason than most.
The Formula One stalwart first made the journey into Russian-occupied territory in 1964 a period when you could identify KGB agents by their long grey coats and poisoned umbrella tips!
“When everyone arrived in 86, and was appalled, I was quite impressed,” he recalls “It had changed beyond all recognition It was still horrible, though!”
As you may gather, his first trip for a European touring car race around the perimeter track of an island in the Danube (which, incidentally, isn’t blue) made something of a lasting impression “I was so relieved to get out of there,” he laughs. “When I landed in Switzerland I felt like I was free I was so pleased never to be going back. Little did I know.’
In those days, Tyrrell ran the works team of Minis. As the year progressed, the Coopers, like the Cortinas and 1100cc Saabs swept all before them in their class. Not that it was surprising such was the healthy state of the series that Tyrrell travelled with three road cars, in addition to the brace of racers, to ensure sufficient entries for full class points to be awarded. Regulations dictated that if the triumvirate remained equal on points at the year’s end, the largest winning margin in class would act as a tie-break.
“We calculated the 90 per cent distance required for the cars to be classified, and ensured that while the proper cars raced, one of the standard ones did no more than the minimum distance,” he chuckles “That way we would get the biggest winning margin possible albeit over one of our own machines. When we had finished refuelling at the pit stops, we would wash the cars down! The marshals couldn’t understand why we weren’t rushing back to the track. ‘No hurry,’ we said.
“They were all up to the same thing in the other classes of course. Some of the guys even pulled off by the side of the track and got out their lunchbox… ”
Now, 22 years on, Tyrrell’s pit stops are a little slicker, but some things haven’t changed. The Hungaronng, for instance, still isn’t capable of producing a decent race. Maybe that’s because it was designed like an old Scalextric set devoid of any meaningful straight segments.
Consequently, pole position, like race strategy, is all-important at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Michael Schumacher annexed the first accolade but, unusually, missed out on the latter.
A delay in traffic after emerging from his first pit stop surrendered the lead to Jacques Villeneuve.
A premature third and final stop called by Ferrari in response to Damon Hill’s intended schedule let the second Williams slip into second place. “As far as most people are concerned, strategy is a retrospective thing,” ponders Frank Williams. “People look at who won the race, then decide that must have been the best strategy. More often than not, it is simply the quickest car which wins.
Schumacher wasn’t in possession of the said item, Villeneuve and Hill who was able to recover from a tardy start which saw him drop to fourth were. Speed and reliability have been the keys to Williams’ march to its eighth constructors’ title put beyond doubt in Hungary.
The figure brings the Didcot team level with the record of Ferrari which has won just two titles in the timespan it has taken its rival to collect all eight.
Speed and reliability. At present the outgoing world champion can bank on neither his F310 retired with a faulty throttle control unit. Williams won the first Hungarian Grand Prix thanks to Nelson Piquet’s Honda-powered FW11, and has triumphed in five of the subsequent 10. If the balance of power hasn’t shifted substantially in F1 over the past decade, the pace of change in Hungary has been breathtaking. When we first went behind the Curtain in ’86, people there had never even seen a canned drink,” marvels Di Spires, who looks after Ford’s hospitality. “Russian soldiers stopped us three times leaving the circuit and asked for drinks. Each time they lied and said we had been stopped for speeding.’
“People were so poor in those days that the shops were empty. People queued all day for one carrot, or an egg, and there we were arriving and wanting to buy literally the entire contents of the place. You couldn’t even buy any milk. We had to get a lorry of it sent from Germany.”
In those days the drivers stepped from their plush 150 mph sports cars to board a flight, and disembarked at the other end to find themselves handed the keys to a Trabant hire car. A few careful owners, all the latest mod cons wheels, roof, things like that.
Now you are as likely to get T-boned in Budapest by a Mercedes C-Class as you are one of the ancient relics from East Germany. Progress.
Since the fall of the socialist government, Hungary has embraced Western values with all the relish of a lover. Sadly, torrid passion is often followed by recrimination. Ronald McDonald’s emporiums do not sit easily alongside Budapest’s magnificent architecture, unemployment is also a Western phenomenon where once everyone was guaranteed a job, now over 15 per cent of the city’s population is said to be out of work. Freedom, it seems, comes with a price.
So does a Formula One Grand Prix, which is one reason why many believed this would be the country’s final race. Fortunately, the organisers have been granted a reprieve. For the locals, of course, it is great news. Now some of them are guaranteed a job for at least one week of the year.