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A welcome return to Austria

Maurice Hamilton June 18, 2014
A pit board tells Lorenzo Bandini how many laps he is away from a maiden win in 1964 © Sutton Images
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In the unlikely event of complaints about facilities at the Red Bull Ring this weekend, Dietrich Mateschitz need only jerk his thumb towards the Flughafen Hinterstoisser in the valley below and tell F1 people they've never had it so good in Austria. The military airfield was scene of the first Austrian Grand Prix 50 years ago. If they even so much as contemplated a repeat today, Bernie Ecclestone would have a blue fit and current teams would not begin to comprehend the experience their predecessors had to endure.

In 1964, circuit racing was almost non-existent in Austria, hill climbing being the most popular discipline, if only because of a plentiful supply of suitable venues. Indeed, many of the F1 personnel and fans making the long haul from Vienna to Zeltweg this weekend will have climbed the Semmering Pass, the very place where Hans Stuck somehow managed to contain the awesome Auto Union Type C with twin rear wheels on his way to victory in the 1930s.

Phil Hill's burning Cooper provided a memorable image from Austria's F1 debut © Sutton Images
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Thirty years later, the Austrian government had plans to join the F1 World Championship and their eye fell on the military airfield at Zeltweg, located below the current track in the flat valley of the River Mur. Unfortunately, the venue did not live up to their lofty aspirations.

The main runway provided the bulk of the running with a hairpin at one end, the only variety being a short loop onto a taxiway at the other end and a return around a grass island. The Zeltweg Grand Prix circuit measured 1.9 flat and very bumpy miles.

The infrastructure, such as it was, also left a lot to be desired, even by the standards of the day. The timing beam failed, leaving officials to use stopwatches. The resulting times, when finally published an hour or so after practice had finished, did not always correspond with those recorded by experienced members of the Grand Prix teams. That's assuming F1 personnel had been granted admission after a typist's error in the instructions to police had rendered many of the official armbands ineffectual in the eyes of the law. This, of course, was a couple of decades before the arrival of Ecclestone and the standardisation of credentials, teams having to deal with the whims of race organisers on an individual basis.

Once within the boundary, the troubles for race personnel were by no means over. The paddock was housed in an aircraft hangar, which was all very well until an engine was started and all conversation had to cease. The open and very temporary pits were located in the middle of the runway, the circuit's two main straights passing either side. It was therefore necessary to shuttle everything and everyone into position before track activity could begin. You can imagine that today, can't you? "Hang on guys. We've got to stop practice. The Ferrari's broken again and Kimi wants to go back to the paddock for an ice cream."

Steering arms, suspensions and transmissions took a terrible pounding on the corrugated surface, only six of the 20 starters completing more than 100 of the scheduled 105 race laps. The bumps were so bad that local hero Jochen Rindt's Brabham even managed to jump a tooth on the rack-and-pinion steering.

A London RT bus becomes a makeshift leaderboard in Zeltweg © Sutton Images
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The most spectacular retirement of all went to Phil Hill when the 1961 World Champion crashed into a wall of straw bales, the Cooper then catching fire and blazing merrily as the marshals proved incapable of doing anything. Hill was not prone to making errors and he could be excused on this occasion after a drainage gutter at the apex of one of the few corners had flicked the Cooper on its errant way.

The race, one of just 10 in the championship, had been won by the Ferrari of Lorenzo Bandini. It would turn out to be the charismatic Italian's only victory. Less surprising was the fact that this was to be the only Grand Prix on the Zeltweg airfield. Six years later, someone had the foresight to build the Österreichring on the hillside above, a magnificent circuit and the basis for the emasculated track you see today.

The Red Bull Ring may be a thousand times better than the temporary circuit in the valley below and it may partly trace the path of a truly great one - but at least a race with a colourful piece of history is back on the calendar.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live