Styria: speed, fields of green, and Jochen Rindt

Your first impression of Styria is that it’s the greenest place in Austria. There are fields and meadows everywhere: a bucolic landscape of woods and forests, which cover around 60% of the local area. There are also wide valleys and a pervading sense of rustic tranquillity. It’s the greenest place in Austria in the political and environmental sense too, thanks to villages that fight rampantly against the inexorable march of a noisy and invasive progress, complete with historic centres that are the most rigorously forbidden to motor vehicles that Europe can possibly come up with. The traffic itself is sparse and diligently attentive to every speed limit, while the small hotels and restaurants of the region cling onto a lifestyle last seen in the 1960s and 70s. Television programmes are among the most discreet and conservative within Europe. Austria is all of this, and Styria even more so.

And yet, a remarkable phenomenon takes place every year in this peaceful Heidi-land, at the beginning of July. From out of nowhere comes a love of speed, for the sheer technicalities of racing. Formula 1 only returned to these parts in 2014, and the local farmers staged a vociferous protest at the time, claiming that the engine noise terrified their cows to the point that they were incapable of producing milk for at least a week. Bit by bit these protests fell silent, also because of the generous investments that Dieter Mateschitz – the boss of Red Bull and also of the circuit – put into the locality to ensure that everything would be perfect for the Austrian Grand Prix. After all, Austrians are famously organised. And even the houses around the circuit look like show homes during the grand prix, with gardens and plants in perfect order thanks to an army of gardeners provided by Mr Red Bull, who has also been known to give the residents free bicycles, in order to cut down on road traffic when the race weekend is on.

Who knows if it was this bizarre mix of passion and social order that contributed to the 300kph personality of Jochen Rindt, Austria’s first F1 world champion (the second – and last – was three-time champion Niki Lauda). In 1944, the two-year-old Rindt was forced to leave the family home in Mainz, Germany. Having been orphaned by an allied forces bombardment, young Jochen ended up living with his grandparents, close to Graz. He lived a childhood like many others of the time in Austria, which was sloughing off the years of servitude to a Germany that had been defeated by America and Russia. Around young Jochen lay the quiet and elegant Graz, with its particular atmosphere in the corner of Austria that still breathes a bit of Mediterranean atmosphere, close to the border with Slovenia and Italy. And soon Jochen was inhaling the heady perfume of speed and engines too, which propelled him first to local stardom thanks to his natural speed and transcendence of risk: the heroic hallmark of all racing in the decades following the war. His affinity with fast circuits carried him to the world title in 1970, driving a Lotus that had already been made famous by Jim Clark and Graham Hill. It was the first title that went to Austria, but also the first (and thankfully only) title to be awarded posthumously. Despite his dramatic accident at Monza, four races from the end of the season – which will be remembered as one of the most brutal ever to claim a driver’s life – he could still not be caught on points by the end of the year.

Today, the Spielberg circuit is named after Rindt. Or the A1 Ring, as it was then rechristened, which has now become the Red Bull Ring. It’s a circuit that is only just over four kilometres in length, and it goes continually uphill or downhill with the exception of the pit straight, which is then followed by the hairpin that leads onto the steepest climb of the season. From there it’s just one corner after another, but this doesn’t mean that the circuit hosting the ninth grand prix of the season on Sunday 1st July is in any way slow. Especially with the new generation of faster cars and softer tyres…

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