Last month’s announcement that the Austrian Grand Prix will return to the grand prix calendar in 2014 served to remind me of two things.
Firstly, there’s simply no stopping the growth of the Formula 1 circus – and that, even as we (somewhat shakily) contemplate the addition of races in Russia and New Jersey for next year, the arrival of a new round in Europe – and at an old friend like the mighty Spielberg circuit – is massively welcome.
Secondly, a return to Austria – or, at the very least, the announcement that has served as a kickstarter for me to pen this blog – is a timely reminder to F1 historians of the many inter-related strands that underpin McLaren’s involvement in grand prix racing over the years.
It’s now 50 years since the first non-championship F1 Austrian GP took place on the wild, woolly and extraordinarily bumpy Zeltweg aerodrome circuit near Knittelfeld. It was followed up the following year by the country’s first world championship race – on the same makeshift circuit.
That 1964 race saw the emergence in F1 of the country’s new rising star Jochen Rindt. The young Austrian may have been one of the most exciting young talents to arrive in the sport’s most senior category, but opinion was certainly divided about Jochen’s often-abrasive personality.
For his GP debut at Zeltweg in ’64, Rindt cut a deal to drive privateer Rob Walker’s Brabham-BRM, and was bright and keen enough to keep his arrogant streak under control. Many years later, Walker told me that Jochen was “all bounce and joy, a charming boy. He was really most attentive. After the  race, he kept ringing me up and asking whether he could drive for me in ’65. But I told him it would be better if he could get in at Coopers because they had a guaranteed entry as a works team.”
Of course, in 1965 Cooper’s other driver was a certain Bruce McLaren.
Naturally, Rindt was quickly alerted to the fact that he could learn a great deal from the thoughtful and mechanically minded New Zealander. He might have learned a lot more, of course, but Bruce began running his own F1 cars in 1966 while Jochen remained with Cooper to see out the second and third years of his contract.
F1 teams down tools for summer
Jochen’s arrogance might have struck an appealing chord with his inner circle of friends, but not everybody enjoyed the Austrian driver’s attitude. One of those was McLaren Group chairman Ron Dennis, who in 1966 was just starting out on a career in motor racing in the role of technician within the Cooper team.
“Yes, Rindt was arrogant and he did not treat people properly – especially the mechanics.” Ron once told me. “I recall at the 1967 German GP [team principal] Roy Salvadori telling him he’d better hurry up and get ready because it was almost time for the start.
“Rindt just looked at him and replied, ‘They wouldn’t dare start the German GP without me!’ As he said it, one of the other mechanics looked up and muttered rather acidly, ‘Why don’t you pop down the road with your helmet and fill it with ten pounds of potatoes?!’”
For Ron, it most certainly wasn’t a meeting of minds, but both Rindt and Dennis switched to the Brabham team for the 1968 season – although Ron insisted that he work on Jack’s car rather than Jochen’s.
“I have to say,” he mused thoughtfully, “I don’t have great memories of Jochen.”
For 1970, the Austrian Grand Prix found a new home – confusingly also at a track known as Zeltweg, as it was situated just across the road in the hills overlooking the old runway track. However, while this new circuit may have shared its name with its unexciting predecessor, the track remains what many consider the ‘proper’ Zeltweg – a hugely fast and flowing track hewn into the rolling meadows and forests in the foothills of the mountains that pepper central Austria.
It was at this Zeltweg, also known as the Osterreichring, that the F1 world championship established its long-term home – only losing the race after the disastrous 1987 edition, which was ultimately started three times after the field was decimated by two massive startline crashes. The 1987 race was also the weekend when Stefan Johansson encountered a deer in the middle of the track after cresting a blind rise during Friday qualifying.
The Cars: McLaren M19C
Poor Stefan survived the accident, although his car was severely damaged, and little remained of the deer, which was hit square-on by the left-front wheel.
It was at the Osterreichring that Austria’s most famous motor racing son, Niki Lauda, won his one and only home grand prix, in 1984 after famously hanging on to beat Nelson Piquet’s Brabham despite his TAG turbo-engined car limping round the last few laps jammed in fourth gear.
You can never keep a good man down, however, and while the Osterreichring may have slipped from view in the late 1980s, it returned – with a truncated name and a shorter configuration – in 1997, newly rechristened the A1-Ring.
McLaren won at each venue three times – making them Zeltweg’s most successful constructor – and will be returning to the Styrian mountains keen to maintain that reputation.
It will be interesting to return to Zeltweg – F1 has changed substantially since last it visited (back in 2003, when the race was won by Michael Schumacher), and the attendant circus has grown considerably.
I hope that the circuit can still retain its cosy charm.
I always found the Zeltweg paddock rather snug – it didn’t have the big-world ambitions of the newer circuits that were springing up around the world at the time; it was a small, tight little place where you got the distinct impression that it was there for a singular purpose – to host great motor racing.
Which, of course, it did in abundance.
My overriding memory of the paddock in Spielberg was the crisp mountain air. Arriving from our hotel (already a lengthy motorway drive from the nearest international airport in Graz) in the morning invariably meant driving along empty Austrian autobahns, rolling through endless mountainside tunnels and emerging to peer at distant snow-capped peaks. The paddock itself was always hidden in shadow during those mornings, when you’d be wise to pack a jumper before searching the motorhomes for a spot of breakfast.
By lunchtime, the sun had arced overhead, and the track was bathed in brilliant sunshine, made purer by that crystal-clear mountain air.
In all its incarnations, it really was a glorious place to go motor racing.