The Red Bull Ring is one of the more interesting tracks on the current F1 calendar. It’s short, undulating, picturesque, and often produces some exciting racing. It does have one huge negative hanging over it’s head however – it’s isn’t the Osterreichring.
The old layout was pretty much a flat-out blast through some of the most feared corners in motor racing, and it was up there with the old Silverstone layout and Monza as one of the fastest tracks in the history of the sport. It hosted Grands Prix between 1970 and 1987 and when the Austrian GP reappeared on the calendar in 1997, many lamented the fact the new layout had basically nothing in common with the old one – even though it used many of the same bits of track.
Current circuit owners Red Bull have often hinted at reviving some of the old bits of the track to try and recapture some of the magic, but until that happens we’ll just have to make do with memories of the past. With that in mind, here are 10 videos which show just how brilliant – and bonkers – the Osterreichring was.
The first Grand Prix at the Osterreichring could hardly have come at a better time for Austrian fans. Jochen Rindt was dominating the championship and turned up to his home event having won the previous four races.
He qualified on pole and was favourite to make it five wins on the bounce, but in the race the two Ferraris shot off into the lead, with Jacky Ickx eventually winning ahead of teammate Clay Regazzoni.
To make matters worse for the Austrian fans, Rindt’s Lotus 72 gave up at one-third distance and he was out. Tragically it would turn out to be his last Grand Prix – he was killed in practice at Monza a few weeks later.
Even though he isn’t going at full speed, this outlap with BRM’s Clay Regazzoni shows just how nuts the layout was (and also how glorious that V12 sound is). There are literally no slow corners and it’s full of long straights and blind crests. It’s a wonder that this track was built at around the same time as the Nordschleife and old Spa were beginning to fall out of favour because of their danger. Although it isn’t as long as those two legendary circuits, it has a very similar feel. And F1 raced here until 1987!
Speaking of 1987, here’s an onboard lap from that year with Satoru Nakajima in his Lotus. The only real change made to the track since it first opened was the addition of a chicane at the ferociously fast turn one, but other than that it remained the same blast through the foothills of the Styrian mountains as it always had. Only this time drivers were qualifying with three times the horsepower that F1 cars had back in 1970.
In 1987 Nelson Piquet put his Williams on pole at an average speed of 159.5mph, at the time the second fastest lap ever driven in an F1 car (Keke Rosberg’s pole lap at Silverstone in 1985 was the fastest at 160.9mph). Scary? You bet!
A massive downpour at the start of the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix opened the door for an unusual result, and so it proved. March driver Vittorio Brambilla had a reputation for being a bit of a wild man, but he was also very fast – especially in the wet.
In the race he quickly made his way through the field and on lap 19 he passed James Hunt’s Hesketh to take the lead. For the next 10 laps he stormed away at the front until the worsening conditions forced a red flag. Brambilla crossed the line to win his first (and only) Grand Prix, but as he celebrated he lost control and stuffed his car into the barriers. Now that’s how you win in style!
It’s fair to say that safety at the Osterreichring was never the best. In the event of an accident or car failure drivers would either end up in a barrier right at the side of the track or off on a trip across the grass with in place there to really stop the car. Several drivers lost their lives at the track over the years, and many more had lucky escapes.
One of those was Derek Daly, who was sent off on an excursion across the infield in 1980 when the brakes on his Tyrrell failed. He came to a gentle and undramatic halt – just before his car had ploughed into a head-height barbed wire fence. The consequences of hitting that don’t bear thinking about…
Pitting for fuel in F1 wasn’t a new concept, but by 1982 it had been more or less forgotten about – until the Brabham team realised it might suit the thirsty turbo engines of the era, anyway.
Designer Gordon Murray reckoned that if cars ran two stints on low fuel and soft tyres that it’d be much quicker than trying to do the whole race without stopping. The team had planned to do fuel stops in previous races but the Brabham BT50 and its BMW engine always seemed to retire before they had a chance to test the strategy out.
In Austria both cars shot away in the lead and actually managed to last long enough to reach their planned pit stops. Just before half distance Nelson Piquet came in to make this historic stop and a few laps later, Ricardo Patrese did the same. Unfortunately both cars dropped out shortly afterwards, but Patrese had proved the strategy was sound as he had built up enough of a gap to come out in the lead after his stop. Brabham used the strategy to good effect the following year but in 1984 refuelling was banned over safety concerns.
After the Brabham had tried out it’s new-fangled refuelling startegy and dropped out, Alain Prost took the lead only for his Renault to break a few laps from home.
That left the Lotus of Elio de Angelis in the lead, but he was critical on fuel and Keke Rosberg in the Williams was rapidly gaining on him. By the last corner of the last lap he was right with him, but de Angelis calmly defended and held on to win – by just 0.05 seconds.
The accident-prone Andrea de Cesaris was very fortunate to walk away from this nasty smash in 1985, when his Ligier dug into the wet grass banking and was pitched into a series of terrifying rolls.
Back then teams didn’t have easy access to TV screens to see what had happened, so when ‘de Crasharis’ got back to the pits he told team boss Guy Ligier that his car had simply broken down. How he thought he could get away with this lie I don’t know, but when the team saw a replay of the crash Ligier reportedly said “I cannot afford to keep employing this man”. One race later the team sacked him.
By now the track was coming under pressure from Bernie Ecclestone for not being up to modern F1 standards and as it turned out, 1987 would be the last time a Grand Prix was held at the Osterreichring. But it wasn’t only the facilities that left a lot to be desired – it was also the pit straight. It was incredibly narrow, even by the standards of the day, and it often caused incidents at the start of races.
In 1985 a crash had forced a red flag and a restart, and two years later the same thing happened again. Martin Brundle spun his Zakspeed into the barriers, the two Tyrrell’s hit each other, and a couple of others suffered contact. But that was nothing compared to the second start.
A slow-starting Nigel Mansell triggered a chain reaction which led to a colossal pile-up which involved almost half the grid. The race was stopped again whilst the blockage was cleared and things didn’t get going again until two hours after the original start had been scheduled.
The combination of the accidents, poor facilities and safety concerns led to the track dropping off of the calendar. It continued to host races for other series until the mid-90s, when it became clear that the track was just too unsafe. Following a Hermann Tilke-redesign F1 returned to Zeltweg, but the new ‘A1-Ring’ was barely even a shadow of its former self. In a way it’s amazing that races happened at the Osterreichring for as long as they did. There’ll never be another track quite like it.