A brief history of the Austrian Grand Prix


Rough start

The original home of the Austrian Grand Prix lies across the road from the Red Bull Ring. It is in all other respects a million miles away.

The L-shaped circuit on Zeltweg’s military airbase was short, flat and possessed of a ‘washboard’ surface that played merry hell with spindly suspensions and steering assemblies of the fragile single-seaters of the early 1960s.

The local motor club, however, was ambitious. Its Flugplatzrennen was run initially for sports cars – Wolfgang von Trips won in 1958 in a Porsche – and then for Formula 2 – Stirling Moss won in 1960 in a Porsche.

Lorenzo Bandini at Zeltweg Airfield, 1964

Formula 1 landed in 1963 – Jack Brabham won by five laps from the Scirocco (sic) of Tony Settember (sic) in September! – and world championship status was obtained the following year.

The latter occasion marked Lorenzo’s Bandini singleton victory – and Jochen Rindt’s debut – at the sport’s highest level.

Both John Surtees and Dan Gurney led before suffering suspension failures in their Ferrari and Brabham respectively, and only BRM’s Richie Ginther finished on the same lap as the winner.

The Brabham of doughty privateer Bob Anderson was three laps behind in third.

Even in an era when teams and competitors were willing to rough it, Motor Sport correspondent Denis Jenkinson reckoned the event to be ‘wild and woolly’.

Something needed to be done.

Sweeping gesture

And so, in the picture-postcard foothills of the Styrian mountains, a circuit to be both proud and respectful of was built: the Österreichring, 3.6 miles of blind brows and fast downhill sweepers.

A Hahnenkamm on wheels.

The GP was revived in 1970 and Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni restored Ferrari pride with a 1-2 – and fated local hero Rindt made his last GP start (from pole).

Jo Siffert scored a dominant win for BRM in 1971.

Young Emerson Fittipaldi raised his world championship bid with a mature success in 1972 – but lost out to compliant Lotus team-mate Ronnie Peterson in 1973 when a loose fuel pipe cost him an agreed victory.

And Carlos Reutemann was peerless for Brabham in 1974.

But it wasn’t until the weather broke – Austria had had a habit of providing a late-summer heatwave for its big race – that things became rather weird and rather wonderful: three first-time winners in three consecutive years.

‘Monza Gorilla’ in the mist

“He was never rated and we could never understand that. People dismissed him because he was a mechanic. From my point of view, his understanding of a racing car made him great to work with. He was one of the best testers we ever had.

“True, he knew no fear and sometimes took too many risks in a race, but he was seriously good. He had fantastic car control, which his performances in the wet proved.”

March designer Robin Herd speaks of Vittorio Brambilla – and the 1975 Austrian GP: “What a moment – one, long perpetual moment.

“When officials explained that there’d only be half-points awarded if the race was stopped at half-distance, we said, ‘Stop it!’ We knew there was no chance of Vit backing off.

“On one lap he came past the pits following the ambulance. Max [Mosley] said that that would be the last we’d see of him. Fortunately, it wasn’t.”

Driving with ‘Formula 3 verve’ and apparently oblivious to the spray and slippery surface, Brambilla had dealt with Niki Lauda and James Hunt to be leading and pulling away when the chequer was unfurled after 29 laps.

What happened next fuelled his rock ape legend. He spun and thumped the barriers and completed an ecstatic victory lap with a deranged nosecone.

Some said that he had taken both hands off the wheel in celebration. Vittorio told the team that the throttle had stuck open when he lifted off and that he had killed the engine, causing him to lose control.

No matter the cause. There had been no shortage of skill – and finesse – when it mattered.

The ‘Gorilla’ had made a monkey of ’em all.

Clean-cut victory

Just as it had at Thruxton in 1969 – his international debut in a so-so Formula 2 Lotus – and at the 1972 Victory Race – in the ho-ho F1 Eifelland (returned to March specification) – it seemed easy.


“What was all the fuss about Formula 1? I drove freely that day at Brands Hatch, without expectation. It was a good feeling.”

The pressure on John Watson had increased by the time of the 1976 Austrian GP. Consecutive third places, in France and Britain, had indicated what might be.

Plus he was filling big shoes at Penske: Mark Donohue’s.

Roger ‘Captain’ Penske’s loyal and super-able lieutenant had suffered what would prove to be a fatal blow to the head at the Österreichring in 1975. Twelve months later ‘Wattie’ was on the front row alongside James Hunt’s McLaren.

It was wet at the start and Ronnie Peterson swiftly muscled his March to the front. Tyrrell’s Jody Scheckter also impressed in the early stages.

But Watson didn’t panic. Three abreast into the first corner, he picked off Jody’s six-wheeler on lap 11. Ronnie was negotiated on lap 12. And thereafter he drew away in drying conditions.

“Here I was, leading a Grand Prix at last – but what was I doing that was in any way different to what I had always done?”

The shy guy from Ulster had long ago dumped the pork-pie hat pulled low – dad Marshall’s garage was “a bit of a wind tunnel” – but had kept the facial hair.

Now was the time for it to go. Not only had Penske bet a win against the beard, but also ‘Wattie’ no longer had any reason to hide behind it.

Out of the Shadow

Marooned on the seventh row after a practice dogged by a misfire, Alan Jones’ mood matched the dark skies. But it lifted – his mood, not the weather – after morning warm-up. Suddenly his Shadow DN8 felt “fabulous. Don’t touch it!”

The Australian had not enjoyed his 1976 GP campaign with Surtees despite two fifth places, plus a fourth at the Japanese finale.

Shadow in 1977 had its problems, too. Team leader Tom Pryce had been killed in a horrific accident at Kyalami – Jones was his replacement – and team-mate Riccardo Patrese had to stand down in Austria because his personal sponsor fell out with the team.

(Franco Ambrosio would later join Shadow’s designer Tony Southgate and team manager Alan Rees in Arrows’ controversial quiver.)

Jones had finished sixth in Monaco and fifth in Belgium, but another opportunity looked like fading away. He was fit, strong, tough and determined but everybody has a limit – and he’d been striving to realise his dream since landing in the UK in 1969, with £75 in his pocket.

Temporary team-mate Arturo Merzario (on wets) passed him on the second lap, but Jones soon began his move. Twelfth on lap four, he was second, behind the McLaren of Hunt, by lap 16. The track was drying and he had ventured where others were afraid to tread.

Hunt controlled proceedings and was more than 20 seconds ahead, with 11 laps to go, when his engine blew. It was a piece of easy luck that Jones had earned the hard way.

The archetypal Aussie battler had shown that he could box clever.

Boost, the boot, reboot

Österreichring became a turbo citadel in the 1980s – although its greatest race was fought between the atmo Lotus and Williams of Elio de Angelis and Keke Rosberg in 1982.

With victory in 1980 – nursing soft Michelins supposedly intended to make him a hare for title-chasing team-mate René Arnoux – Renault’s Jean-Pierre Jabouille scored his first points since that famous win at Dijon in 1979. They were to be his final points, too.

Alain Prost smoothed his way to three victories in four years from 1983, with Renault and McLaren.

Between times, McLaren’s Niki Lauda ended the home fans’ long wait by skillfully disguising his absence of fourth gear from runner-up Nelson Piquet.

Lauda: “I can’t recall cluttering my mind to that degree during a race. By the end, my mind was simply splitting.”

And Nigel Mansell, on the occasion of his 100th GP, won for Williams in 1987.

The theatrical Brummie, who’d had a wisdom tooth extracted just prior to the event, banged his head as the lorry transporting him to the podium passed beneath a gantry.

This writer would wager that neither was as painful as the ‘petrol bath’ Nigel endured for 40 laps on his F1 debut, with Team Lotus at the Österreichring in 1980.

Mansell had endured another scare in 1987: his clutch slipped badly at a restart caused by a start-line crash. He triggered but survived the resultant pile-up. The track, deemed too narrow rather than too fast – though Piquet’s pole lap topped 159mph – did not.

It returned in emasculated A1-Ring form in 1997.

Michael Schumacher bravely sat out a refuelling flash fire to win for Ferrari in 2003, but it’s his controversial team orders ‘win’ of the previous year that everybody remembers.

That’s what happens when awe is clinically removed. They should have stopped at wild and woolly.


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