The Osterreichring (as Formula 1 scribes of a certain age still tend to call it, in homage to the wonderful racetrack of that name, of which the current ’Ring is but a pale shadow) and the turbocharger seem to be made for each other.
While it’s merely a coincidence that we go to Austria in the same year that we welcome turbos back to F1 after a 25-year absence, there’s a pleasing symmetry to the return of both.
McLaren has won the Austrian Grand Prix on six occasions, three of those occurring during the turbo era – in 1984, ’85 and ’86 – at the Osterreichring, the Zeltweg track’s mightiest incarnation.
Back in those days, with unrestricted boost, the ’Ring never looked more daunting or impressive. It was unbelievably quick – the fastest corners taken in fifth gear at around 150mph. Those long, sweeping turns arced so gracefully that there was very little worry of encountering turbo-lag – the delay felt between applying the throttle and waiting for the turbos to spin-up and start working – simply because the drivers were so very rarely off the throttle.
Such seamlessly high-speed lapping may not have resulted in too many exciting races, but it was utterly stunning to watch trackside: the turbo cars, throttles nailed hard open, would scream out of the corners and roar along the straights with barely unfettered speed. If one circuit really characterised the sheer sturm und drang of racing in the ’80s, it was undoubtedly this one.
Grands Prix back then often had extremely high rates of attrition, and the Austrian Grand Prix, staged on such a high-speed circuit, with such lengthy durations of full-throttle hammering along, was one of the most demanding of the year.
As I say, McLaren won three grands prix there during the height of the turbo era, and those races saw only a smattering of cars finish on the lead lap; indeed, when Alain Prost won for McLaren in 1986, his was the only car that went the full distance – he ended up a whole lap ahead of second-placed Michele Alboreto, who, himself, was a whole lap ahead of his Ferrari team-mate, Stefan Johansson.
In those days, it was rare for more than half the field to make it to the finish – and the number of retirements shaped and defined the ebb and flow of each seasons, as well as the races themselves. Equally, a canny driver with a soft touch and an ability to think on his feet could deliver far more than a lead-footed ‘throttle jockey’.
Unsurprisingly, it was the era in which the likes of Prost and Niki Lauda prospered.
Niki took his sole home victory in 1984 – but it was a hard-won fight. He started the race from fourth, but nibbled his way up through the pack. He eventually squeezed past Nelson Piquet’s Brabham-BMW and took the lead on lap 39.
For a few laps, Niki was able to pull away. Then, strangely, he seemed to ease up. Piquet, believing that his rival was just conserving the McLaren, didn’t question Niki’s lack of pace, and it was only some laps later that Nelson realised he’d made a tactical error in allowing Niki to slip off the hook.
Niki picks up the story: “I was hard on the throttle in fourth gear when there was suddenly this enormous bang and the gear broke. I initially thought, ‘Well, my race is over for today,’ and I looked for a suitable point to pull off the track. But then I began to fish around to see if there were any other gears that were still working. Well, I located third and then fifth, so I found myself thinking, ‘Okay, let’s stay racing and see how far we get.’”
Niki thereby lost the best part of seven seconds in a single lap, but recovered to eke out his advantage to the chequered flag. Had Nelson not misread the situation, easing back when he should have been piling on the pressure, he might have denied Niki the win, and, in turn, altered the destiny of the 1984 world championship.
The following year, the tables were turned on Niki, with an almost-certain victory denied him by a late-race turbo failure. His retirement allowed Prost to take the win. What comes around, goes around, or so they say.
In 1986, Alain won again, but this was another victory achieved through adversity. Towards the end of the turbo era, Alain’s McLaren-TAG was far more modestly powered than the enormously torquey V6s belonging to Honda and BMW, but it was generally a proven and reliable package.
In Austria, Alain’s McLaren was therefore no match for the two mighty Benetton-BMWs – nor, for that matter, for the Williams-Hondas. Even so, he never gave in, coming from behind, prospering from others’ misfortunes, and took the win.
Even then, victory had been achieved with customary wiliness and skill – his Porsche V6 intermittently cutting out, Alain had had to dip the clutch repeatedly in order to coax the recalcitrant engine back to life through the corners.
It was a timely triumph, earning Alain his third win of the season and elevating him back into title-fight contention – a year-long battle that, much like his Austrian win, was quietly achieved against the might of faster competitors.
The new Zeltweg might not be as stupendously rapid as the ’Ring of old, and we’re unlikely to see a race on Sunday in which only half the field limps to the finish, but it still carries with it the echoes of the past, and is an welcome and unusual new addition to the world championship line-up.
If Sunday’s winner employs even a smidgen of Prost’s or Lauda’s guile and cunning, then we might get our clearest indicator yet as to who will prevail in the battle of wills that’s dominating this year’s world championship fight.