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Horses of a different colour in Hungary

Maurice Hamilton July 25, 2012
The first Hungarian Grand Prix was followed by another first for many Formula One journalists © Sutton Images
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The first Hungarian F1 Grand Prix in 1986 was memorable for lots of reasons, not least because we finished the weekend writing about athletics. It was a novel concept for motor sport journos but we were given little choice.

How come? Well, our first venture into Hungary was a week before the Austrian Grand Prix at the Osterreichring (when it was a serious track for hairy-chested race drivers). Sorry, I'm digressing already. But perhaps that's appropriate given the athletics mission foisted upon us by our respective newspaper sports editors.

Because Hungary was such an unknown and in a more dilapidated state than it is today, we were advised to fly to Vienna and drive into Hungary rather than go direct and attempt to hire a car at Budapest airport.

That seemed an excellent call when we eventually arrived in Budapest (after negotiating a lengthy queue at the border) in our Opel Kadett to see colleagues struggling with Trabants and the like which were running on Irish turf judging by the clouds of smoke issuing forth under acceleration. And I use the world 'acceleration' in its broadest and mildest sense.

The plan after the race was to embark on a gentle drive via Lake Balaton to Austria, do the business at the O'Ring and return the car to Vienna airport on the following Monday. Job done. Then came the phone call.

Again, I use the words 'phone call' advisedly because the telephone system in our cheap hotel involved an operator speaking no English and using what appeared to empty baked bean cans and stretched wire to communicate with the outside world. When contact was finally made, the one-sided conversation went something like this:

"Look, you're in Budapest, right? And you're then going to Austria? Well, the Budapest Grand Prix athletics meeting is on Monday night. Allan Wells is making a comeback after injury and Ed Moses is going for his 100th straight 400 metres hurdles victory. So we need you to cover it. We've telexed them and said you're coming. You'll be fine. Good man. Bye."

I was writing for The Guardian and the fact that I was their freelance motor sport correspondent seemed to have no bearing whatsoever on this grand prix being for people with shorts and running spikes rather than men in flameproof clothing sitting on their backsides at 180 mph. I was there and it was cheaper than sending the athletics correspondent.

As the race weekend wore on, it became apparent that other editors had cottoned on to the same piece of commercial expediency at the possible expense of having drivel filed in their newspaper. At least I would not be alone in my ignorance. Saying that, as a sports writing collective, me and the men from the Daily Mail, Express, Telegraph and Reuters were to prove totally useless.

Perhaps that was not helped by the meeting starting at 7pm, thus allowing time for, shall we say, refuelling on Monday afternoon in preparation for the task ahead. As we took our seats in the open press tribune on a warm, still evening, it was noted with some discomfort that we were surrounded by correspondents - mainly American - who appeared to recognise each athlete on sight whereas our limit was distinguishing the Triple Jump from the Pole Vault.

I was writing for The Guardian and the fact that I was their freelance motor sport correspondent seemed to have no bearing whatsoever on this grand prix being for people with shorts and running spikes rather than men in flameproof clothing sitting on their backsides at 180 mph

The evening's timetable was clearly marked in the programme. But what we didn't bargain for was several events going on at once when the meeting got into its stride (no pun intended!). So you'd be watching the high jump to your right and suddenly a gun would go off to the left and scare the living daylights out of the motor sport ensemble. The ensuing conversation would go like this:

"What the f*** was that?"

"Start of a 100 metre heat."

"Where?"

"There!....Too late - it's over."

"Who won?"

"Haven't a bloody clue."

Then a round of applause as, somewhere in the distance, a javelin had been thrown. Judging by the knowing nods and murmurs of approval from our American colleagues, the figures on the results panel indicated this was some sort of record. Best not to ask.

Anyway, we were there to see Britain's 1980 Olympic 100-metre Champion make his comeback. This being 200 metres and the fact that we were seated on the finishing straight, we didn't bargain for the start being way off to our left on the far side of a stadium with lighting that was hardly Olympic standard.

It was the man from the Express who spoke first and voiced all our fears.

"Which one is Allan Wells?"

Silence.

An enterprising member of our elite had the bright idea of reaching over his desk, tapping a spectator on the shoulder and asking if we could borrow his camera and telephoto lens for a second or two.

"I think he's third from the right," he said with a note of triumph.

"Which lane's that?"

"Dunno."

"Must be the sixth."

"Could be the third."

Bang!

"Bloody hell, they're off!"

My report in The Guardian noted with some authority that Wells did a good job by finishing a very close third, beaten only by Kirk Baptiste, the Olympic silver medal winner, and Atlee Mahorn, the Commonwealth champion.

Reading it now, 26 years on, gives the impression I know what I'm talking about. But now you'll understand why we couldn't get to the Osterreichring quick enough.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1 in the build-up to each Grand Prix.

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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