"Something unbelievable” at the Osterreichring

Looking at old footage and photos of the Osterreichring it looks like a wonderful track in a great setting. We always talk of the old Spa and Clermont Ferrand as flowing circuits and it strikes me that the Osterreichring should be up there with them. Do you agree and do you have you any memories of particular races there?
Best regards
James Davison

Dear James,
It was always a bit of a hike getting to Zeltweg, the drive from Vienna taking three hours or so, but no-one ever minded too much, for there was always the thought that at the end of it was that wonderful circuit. Even in 1970, when Formula 1 first ventured there, Jochen Rindt’s pole position was over 133mph, and by 1987 – even with a chicane – Nelson Piquet had raised the mark to 159.457. The Osterreichring was a serious race track.
Not surprisingly, it was beloved by Gerhard Berger. He made his F1 debut there in 1984, and two years later led most of the way in the turbo Benetton-BMW. Qualifying for that ’86 Austrian Grand Prix Gerhard remembers as perhaps his most exhilarating experience. In a racing car, anyway.
“I don’t know what the BMW gave on qualifying boost – 1300 horsepower, maybe 1400 – but you had this incredible feeling of acceleration that just went on and on. Also you had qualifying tyres back then, which lasted just one lap – and sometimes not the whole of it. Put together that power and that grip at a circuit like the Osterreichring, and you had something unbelievable.”
At the approach to the daunting Boschkurve, Gerhard’s car went through the trap at 214mph. Every year, for final qualifying, we would wander up there, sit in the sun, drink a beer, watch the cars against the mountain backdrop, and conclude this was about as good as it got.
Most of my memories of the Osterreichring are fond ones. Vittorio Brambilla taking his only Grand Prix victory with a battered March in the rains of 1975… John Watson scoring Penske’s only F1 victory in 1976… Ronnie Peterson’s drive in the wet in ’78, his last victory, and perhaps his greatest… Elio de Angelis beating Keke Rosberg by a foot or so in ’82, scoring the last Lotus victory Colin Chapman saw… Niki Lauda winning his home race at last, two years later… Alain Prost coping with a dying engine in 1986, winning and keeping himself in contention for the championship… Nigel Mansell’s unforgettable sleight-of-hand pass of Piquet the following year…
For the last two years, 1986 and ’87, the impression of being at a great circuit was further amplified, for now we were at the Osterreichring immediately after being at the Hungaroring, and I remember thinking how ludicrous, how unjust it was that you got the same number of points at each circuit. “Good to be back at a proper track, isn’t it?” Bernie Ecclestone remarked to me at the time, and I could only agree.
For all that, it was Austria, not Hungary, which disappeared from the World Championship schedule in 1988. The reasons for abandoning the Osterreichring are misty now, but I seem to remember complaints about a lack of nearby hotels suitable for corporate guests, and also mumblings about local farmers’ increased demands for the use of their fields as car parks. The reasons were of no interest to me; all that mattered was that another of the great race tracks had been lost.


November 2019
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