Wednesday 24 July 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XV - Zeltweg Circuit, Austrian Grand Prix

Image Courtesy: www.allf1.info

Yesterday’s breaking news in F1 – “Austria given a slot at the next year’s Grand Prix calendar”. That’s great news considering the fact that Red Bull now owns the circuit and has made his intentions clear to bring the race back to his homeland. However, there are few hurdles which need to be cleared before it gets to host the race. A1-Ring, as it was known previously has a new name ‘Red Bull Ring’, a name that was christened in 2011 when Dietrich Mateschitz purchased this ailing track.

Which circuit will make way to accommodate this race in Austria? This is something which will be decided later if and only there is a final clearance from the local authorities in Styria, Austria. Also located in proximity to Red Bull Ring is Zeltweg air field that hosted a race in the 1960’s. In this edition of Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore, I will look back at the solitary race that took place in 1964 which happened to be the first ‘Austrian Grand Prix’ in F1.

One can reach the Red Bull Ring by travelling a small distance of under 20 km from this airfield. The two tracks are separated by the airport. Fliegerhorst Hinterstoisser previously known as Zeltweg air base is a military airfield of Austria and country’s main airfield too. This was not the first time someone had built a race track around a military airfield; Silverstone was the first and the most notable one.

The inspiration to build a race track around an airfield was straight out of Silverstone’s success of hosting F1 and other Motorsport races.  After having hosted two non-championship events in 1961 and 1963, a F1 race finally came their way.

The 3.2 km circuit incorporating the run-away and the concrete road and consisting of just four curves in its layout had a reputation of being narrow, extremely bumpy which saw many of the cars suffering from suspension failures in the practice.

Graham Hill who has leading the world championship at that time of the year (1964) took the pole position.  Not so far behind was Jim Clark in his Lotus and John Surtees in his Ferrari. Incidentally, these two were chasing Hill for the championship with four races to go.

With barely five laps into the race Graham Hill, the pole-sitter had a wheel spin and retired from the race. Soon in the next four laps, John Surtees retired owing to a suspension failure. Jim Clark, who struggled with his gear selection problems made a late comeback into the race and Jack Brabham who had qualified in 6th position pitted early due to a fuel feed problem and faded away into the back of the track.

This meant – Dan Gurney was leading the race with Lorenzo Bandini in the 2nd Ferrari was second with Clark in third position. On lap 40, Jim Clark retired from the race owing to ‘half shaft’ problem and very soon his Lotus Climax team mate Mike Spence retired in the very next lap to a similar problem Jim Clark had experienced with his car. Bruce McLaren entered the list of retirements with an engine failure on lap 43 and four laps later the race leader Dan Gurney retired after his car slowed down owing to front suspension problems.

This gave the lead to Bandini, an Italian driver driving for a compatriot team Ferrari and he looked set to win it for the first time in what was his 18th Grand Prix start.

On lap 59, the 1961 World Champion Phil Hill lost control of his Cooper Climax went out of the race not before crashing the car onto the straw bales. The car caught fire but he came out the accident scene unscathed. It was ironic; the race leader Bandini three years later went out of a race at Monaco in similar fashion; however it turned out to be his last race.

On the very same lap, the entire Austrian crowd who had come to witness the debut of Austrian GP saw their local boy Jochen Rindt, who had become the first Austrian to drive in a F1 race retire courtesy of a steering problem.

With no further drama and barring few retirements towards the end of the race, Lorenzo Bandini completed 105 laps of the race to win his first ever Grand Prix. Incidentally, this happened to be also his only Grand Prix victory of his career. And so was for the Zeltweg airbase, which received complaints for being narrow, bumpy and having poor viewing conditions for the audience. FIA removed the circuit from its calendar and would wait until a modified or a custom track was built.

Jochen Rindt went to become a popular driver in the following years and this being one of the reasons there was a need to construct a purpose-built track. Österreichring later came to be known as A1-Ring was the answer and it hosted Austrian GP in two spells (1970-1987 and 1997-2003).

Jochen Rindt did inspire a lot as he also went on to become his country’s first World Champion in 1970. Since then there have been few drivers from Austria in F1, none more popular than the triple world champion Nikki Lauda.

Since the past four years, Austrian anthem has been heard on the pit lane and quite regularly too. It is not played for a driver winning the race, but for the team Red Bull Racing. It is only apt that such a popular team in the recent past and at the moment gets to have a home track.

The only question remains unanswered is – Will the emotional needs of a team boss be over ruled by the pragmatic facts to hold a race in Austria?  

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