An accidental

The last venue to host an Austrian Grand Prix before the current Red Bull Ring was the legendary Osterreichring, on the site of a former airfield.

And still today, exactly half a century since it was inaugurated, there are those who describe Austria’s race as ‘the airport grand prix’. According to many that’s because of the legendary Osterreichring itself: the track that hosted the country’s home grand prix between 1970 and 1987. Also known as Zeltweg, after the closest town, it was a mighty test of speed. In fact, it hosted some of the fastest pole positions and races ever seen, featuring flat-out straights interspersed with some truly brave corners. But the reality is that the association with the Austrian Grand Prix and airports is not just because drivers needed to possess the courage of pioneer aviators. Instead it stems from the origins of the race at the Hinterstoisser airport circuit, just outside Zeltweg. In reality this consisted simply of two parallel straights connected to a matching pair of shorter parallel straights by two 90-degree corners. Finishing the circuit off were two wide hairpins. As you’d expect from an airport, it was completely flat, with speeds of nearly 180kph in spite of the heavy braking needed for the corners. And this was the venue for Austria’s F1 debut on 23 August 1964. It was the seventh race of the season and also the F1 debut for a certain Jochen Rindt, whose Brabham retired on lap 58 of 105. Of historical note is the fact that this race resulted in the one and only grand prix victory for Ferrari driver Lorenzo Bandini.

By now though, Austria had well and truly captured the racing bug. By the end of the 1960s, the permanent Osterreichring circuit had been built on a hill just outside Zeltweg. Its first F1 race was in 1970: pole position went to that year’s champion, Rindt, but he retired from the race with engine failure on his Lotus. So it was a one-two for Ferrari, thanks to Jacky Ickx leading home Clay Regazzoni. But the need for speed was far from sated: in 1987, Nelson Piquet claimed pole position for Williams at a vertiginous average of 255kph. Nobody would ever beat that record, for the simple reason that 1987 turned out to be the final grand prix held at the Osterreichring. It was nonetheless a memorable race, thanks to two start-line accidents that meant it became one of the very few grands prix in history to be started three times. The reason was a straight that was simply too narrow for F1 cars that were getting increasingly wider and more modern. For the record, it was the other Williams that eventually won, driven by Nigel Mansell.

Austria certainly featured some big top speeds, but also some big accidents – as well as many more near misses. In 1978, at the end of a grand prix characterised by torrential rain along with a huge number of incidents and accidents, Sweden’s Ronnie Peterson claimed his final grand prix win in Austria – four weekends before the fateful accident in Monza that would lead to his demise. A collision was also the hallmark of the 1975 race, three years earlier. On that occasion the accident actually happened after the chequered flag, when Vittorio Brambilla raised his arms up in triumph over the finish line and lost control of his bright orange March, which ended up nosing into the barriers on the right-hand side of the track after the finish. The Italian returned to the pits minus the nosecone after his slowing down lap to celebrate his only grand prix victory. The missing nose was subsequently recovered by some jubilant Italian fans and returned to him, where it remained displayed in his office for more than quarter of a century.

In 1997 Austria returned to the championship on the A1 Ring: a more modern and slower version of the Osterreichring, thanks to some dramatic elevations. Jacques Villeneuve won with Williams, going on to lift the title at the end of the year. The following six races there resulted largely in a draw between McLaren and Ferrari: Hakkinen won with McLaren in 1998, while Eddie Irvine hit back to win the following year. Then there were two more victories for McLaren (courtesy of Hakkinen and Coulthard) and finally a duo of wins for the red team, with Michael Schumacher triumphing in 2002 and 2003 – when he won his fifth and sixth world titles – before his seventh and final championship in 2004.

Read more