Formula One returns to the Styrian Alps for the Austrian Grand Prix after more than a decade away, and the new-look Red Bull Ring is now ready to host the latest race on the F1 calendar.
The first Austrian Grand Prix in the F1 world championship was held in 1964 on the bumpy Zeltweg Airfield, the race moved to the bespoke Österreichring in nearby Spielberg for 1970.
It had an uninterrupted run of 18 years on the high-speed, undulating track before being cancelled when deemed too narrow and too dangerous for modern F1 after the 1986 race. The race returned in 1997 after Hermann Tilke redesigned and shortened the track. The event was run for seven more years until 2003, after which the pit building and grandstands were demolished.
Rumours that Austria would regain its race began the moment Red Bull purchased the circuit, beginning a redevelopment programme that included building new facilities around what is, essentially, an unchanged layout. Anyone going to the new Red Bull Ring for the first time will see a place much-altered to the Spielberg of old – but race fans will hope it can replicate the excitement Austrian Grands Prix were famous for in years past.
We spoke to some famous Austrian racing drivers about their memories of racing on their home track…
Name: Alex Wurz
Record: F1 driver 1997-2007, Two-time winner at Le Mans, Austrian Formula 3 Champion
Best Austrian Grand Prix result: 5th in 1999 for Benetton
“Whether it’s called the Österreichring, the Red Bull Ring or anything else, when I think of the race track at Spielberg, the thing that comes to mind is my first-ever race car, the Formula Ford I drove there in 1991. It’s also the place where I had my first race win, in an International Formula Ford Cup race and the modern track is where I had my first drive in an F1 car with Sauber. In fatc those were the first F1 laps on the track.
“My father [Franz Wurz – three time European Rallycross champion] was behind the revamp of the track. The old Österreichring had too many protests and noise restrictions on the part behind the forest, so it had to be made shorter, and with various land restrictions there was no real option to have any track layout other than the one we have.
“The first rough plan of the new layout was one I drew myself! Later my father contracted Hermann Tilke. We went to meet Tilke in a pub in Germany – he hadn’t done any racetracks before.
“The racetrack we now have isn’t the most spectacular racing circuit and it doesn’t have the character of the old days when the Österreichring was a big balls circuit and very, very cool – but the reality was that it wasn’t safe enough for modern racing and that, combined with the noise restrictions, meant we had to stop racing on it.
It’s very picturesque and everyone will have a good time. It’s a race for racing fans.
“What we have now isn’t going to rival Suzuka but it’s always created plenty of overtaking and some very good races. And sure, it’s not the race for people who want to stay in a five-star hotel – you’re more likely to stay on a farm – but I think that adds to the charm. It’s very picturesque and everyone will have a good time. It’s a race for racing fans.
“When I was racing in the Austrian Grand Prix, I didn’t cope very well with it at all. The first year I was dreadful in qualifying. It was a little bit damp, my mind was clouded with everything that was going on around me and I just wasn’t feeling it and so failed to get the most out of myself or the car. The next time I was a little better and finished in the points but I don’t really remember much about it – it’s too long ago and I’ve hit the wall too many times since then!”
Name: Niki Lauda
Position: Non-executive chairman, Mercedes AMG Petronas F1,
Record: Three-times F1 World Champion
Best Austrian Grand Prix result: Winner of the 1984 Austrian Grand Prix (McLaren), Pole position in 1974, 1975, 1977 (Ferrari).
“I’m very happy to be going back. For me the Austrian Grand Prix has been missing on the calendar – so thanks to Red Bull for getting it back. It’s very good for Austria – but also very good for the sport.
Winning the Austrian Grand Prix – my home race – was more important to me than other races. It was also the year I won the World Championship by half a point from Alain Prost, so obviously I like to think it was winning in Austria that really counted.
Winning the Austrian Grand Prix was more important to me than other races.
“The Österreichring was very, very challenging and, sure, the new circuit is not like the old track – but we always have change, it’s a normal part of development. The new circuit is a modern development and it’s very good – all the other famous circuits have changed too – this is what happens.”
Name: Franz Tost
Position: Toro Rosso team principal,
Prior history with Red Bull Ring: Former Formula Ford/Formula 3 driver, F1 track operations manager for BMW.
“The Red Bull Ring in Spielberg is my motorsport home; it’s where I started. I was an instructor there with the Walter Lechner Racing School and then the team manager, so I’d probably be at the track for 200 days of the year.
Racing there in Formula 3 was incredibly exciting. The old track had some very, very fast corners – Dr Tiroch and so on, and all my memories of racing there are very positive.
The Red Bull Ring in Spielberg is my motorsport home.
My first memories of the Austrian Grand Prix at the Österreichring are from the first race there in 1970. Jacky Ickx won from Clay Regazzoni. The local favourite Jochen Rindt was on pole but went out early with an engine problem.
I came back to the circuit with BMW. I think the circuit has kept its essence with some difficult corners. The double-lefthander always had big understeer and it’s not changed. The one big improvement of the new track is that, as a spectator, there are places from which you can see 90 per cent of the circuit. That’s a fantastic way to watch a grand prix.”
Name: Dr Helmut Marko
Position: Special advisor to Infiniti-Red Bull Racing,
Record: Winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours (1971), F1 driver 1971-2.
Best Austrian Grand Prix result: After an aborted attempt to qualify in a Jo Bonnier-ran McLaren M7C at the Nürburgring, Marko returned two weeks later to make his F1 debut at the Österreichring in a BRM P153. He qualified 18th, climbed into the points before falling back with mechanical trouble to finish 11th.
“The Österreichring was demanding – it was a real drivers’ track. It’s a long time ago, so I don’t remember too much about the race! I know I was up in the points when I picked up a problem with a rear bearing and had to slow down. My team-mate Jo Siffert won the race, so the team were happy. For me the result was OK because I earned a drive for the rest of the season.
The Österreichring was demanding – it was a real drivers’ track.
“I’ve driven the current track in a road car but I’m really looking forward to getting back into the P153 for the demonstration before the Austrian Grand Prix. All the surviving Austrians that have raced in Formula One are going out in their original cars – that’s going to be nice.
“We’re all looking forward to the new race. We’re going to have a fantastic crowd and the crowd is what makes the race. We’ll have more than 250,000 spectators over the three days. It was sold out in 36 hours – that shows what interest and enthusiasm there is for F1 in Austria. It’s wonderful to have a grand prix again after ten years.”