Feature: The Red Bull Ring - a matter of perspective

There is a joke that psychologists like to tell. Two psychologists, who are old friends, happen upon each other. Psychologist one asks psychologist two: “How’s your wife?” Psychologist two replies: “Compared to what?”

I won’t give up the day job.

But there is a reason that psychologists like to tell this joke. In psychology, as in everything, nothing can be judged in a vacuum. All must be judged within its context.

And so it is with the Red Bull Ring that hosts the latest Austrian Grand Prix this weekend.

The track is a firm favourite, and has plenty going for it. It’s set in scenic surroundings. There is plenty of welcome use of gradient. Crowds are large and enthusiastic, even with the absence of Austrian drivers (though there is a conspicuous Austrian team). And set as it is in central Europe it is within relatively easy reach of much latent F1 following. Vast campsites ensure a buoyant atmosphere.

More pointedly the track tends to provide good races. Overtaking is more presentable than at most circuits, and also that fields tend to be close here and orders therefore can end up unusual. This in turn relates to that the track doesn't strain aero too greatly – a combination of thin air at the altitude and that most of the corners aren’t quick – as well as that its short lap lasts not much more than a minute making the qualifying order closer and more volatile than usual. Rain can and has jumbled the order too; so have first lap prangs at the tight first two turns.

Since it returned to the calendar in 2014 plenty have applied the term ‘classic’ to the Red Bull Ring; on the first visit back Jenson Button even went so far as to call it “old school”.

Yet you may be expecting a ‘but’ at this point. Indeed, what we’ve said already wasn’t always said about this venue. The above reviews demonstrate that time is a healer, or else that the context has indeed shifted. As when the fraternity visited it for the first time in 1997 – then called the ‘A1-Ring’ – plenty lamented it. Legend has it that one elderly F1 journalist, particularly offended by the new creation, refused even to attend at all.

And why? Those people remembered what was there before. Now trampled underfoot and consigned to history by the new facility was something really rather wonderful.

This was a track known as the Österreichring, which itself had been F1’s Austrian Grand Prix stop-off between ‘70 and ‘87.

The broad shape of the Österreichring remained in the new layout, as of course did the scenery and gradient. But otherwise little about the layout was reminiscent of the venue’s previous majesty. Rather than the sharp climb to Hella-Licht the track took a sharp second gear right 200 metres before the turn, into a straight which dissected the old circuit, before rejoining it with another sharp, slow corner. The remaining corners were also either neutered or by-passed.

When the fraternity visited for the first time in 1997 – then called the ‘A1-Ring’ – plenty lamented it. Legend has it that one elderly F1 journalist refused even to attend at all. And why? Those people remembered what was there before

Many adjectives were associated routinely with the Österreichring in its time as an F1 stop-off: spectacular, stunning, awe-inspiring. All of these and more did it justice. Its surroundings we know about – set in the Styrian foothills it sat in seemingly endless idyllic green rolling countryside. And the area’s natural contours ensured the track was all roller coaster-like climbs, plunges and blind brows.

The layout made appropriate use of the fine geographic hand dealt. It was close to 6km of almost constant majesty; an average speed that all but matched the very quickest on the itinerary at the time such as Silverstone in its fastest former configuration, but moreover this average speed was sustained through fearsome long and fast corners which made up the layout almost without exception.

At the start of the lap drivers immediately faced one of those rocket-like ascents, with a steep climb that led to Hella-Licht, a blind right-hander over a brow taken at close to top speed (in ‘77 a fiddly second gear chicane was inserted here, loosely in response to Mark Donohue’s fatal accident at the corner, which also killed a couple of marshals, in the ‘75 race’s warm up session).

The cars then proceeded at full pelt alongside the side of a hill towards a fast and banked right-hander at the Dr Tiroche Kurve, where the track almost doubled back on itself, and they then crested the brow of a hill and reached the fastest part of the track.

Then we had the Boschkurve. Just as the Masta Kink was to the original Spa this was the Österreichring’s totemic challenge. Just as at the Masta there was a downhill approach at breakneck speed – local man Gerhard Berger once noted that at this point of the Österreichring track while on a qualifying lap in the heights of the 80s’ turbo era that with 1400 bhp behind him “you felt like you were sitting on a rocket”. The Boschkurve was a long and plunging downhill right-hander, where a barrier and grandstand awaited on the outside for those who got it wrong. Just as at the Masta there was no room for error. Just as at the Masta competitors would get it absolutely right but rarely.

Following this, now on the downhill leg of the track, there was the entirely-inappropriately titled Texaco Schikane, which was not a chicane in any way we’d know it, rather was a fast double left sweep. Then another brow, and another downhill plunge to the fast Rindtkurve, another banked 180 degree turn with little leeway. And thus the lap ended, with the car (before the Hella-Licht chicane insertion anyway) never dropping below the top gears.

Then we had the Boschkurve. Just as the Masta Kink was to the original Spa this was the Österreichring’s totemic challenge. Just as at the Masta there was no room for error. Just as at the Masta competitors would get it absolutely right but rarely

“Every one of the corners is good,” purred Berger at the time.

Once again underlining that many F1 laments never actually change, with a strong modern echo here is what Autocourse had to say on the circuit in ‘77. “In an era where the sterile ‘race facility’ becomes more and more the norm, the Österreichring has side-stepped convention...you would swear that Maserati 250Fs, Auto Unions even, had scratched their way around here. The place has that kind of well-worn, comfortable atmosphere. And, if proof were needed, there is ample here to convince you that Grand Prix circuits constructed in the 1970s do not have to be barren, featureless places, devoid of real challenge.”

Another thing the new and old track shared were vast crowds – the Österreichring tended to benefit from a local hero – Jochen Rindt then Niki Lauda then Berger passing the baton on almost seamlessly – as well as large invasion of Italian tifosi making the short trip. Furthermore views from the many vast raised spectator banks tended to be wonderful and gave sight of much of the track.

They also shared the tendency for unusual results. Jo Siffert claimed pole and win for BRM here in ‘71, lifting the team mere weeks after his team-mate Pedro Rodriguez had perished in a sports car race. In ‘75 it was Vittorio Brambilla’s day of days, in teeming rain taking his sole F1 win. And so surprised was Brambilla at taking the chequered flag that he immediately clouted the barrier!

The following year John Watson took his debut victory and with it the sole F1 win for Penske. As in ‘71 it was poignant as it was one year on from Donohue’s fatal accident when driving for Penske at this venue. A year later we again got a constructor’s solitary win – Alan Jones seizing victory for Shadow.

In ‘82 none of the dominant turbo machines lasted and this left the unlikely figure of Elio de Angelis leading in his Lotus. Despite fuel starvation he clung on to win from Keke Rosberg’s Williams by a scant 0.050 seconds. It was De Angelis’s first of only two victories; his team’s first in close to four years and the last on Colin Chapman’s watch.

Every one of the corners is good - Gerhard Berger

From watching footage from Grands Prix at the old place many things are striking even in comparison with the norm of then. Even over and above the noted lack of run off space curiously much of the track looked built on something of a ha-ha, which meant that leaving the track even where there wasn't a barrier would probably result in gravity sucking your car directly to meet something solid.

One was put in mind of Sir Stirling Moss’s analogy of doing a tightrope walk two feet above the ground as opposed to doing it over the Grand Canyon. The skill is the same; the challenge is not.

The danger did for the Österreichring in the end. As noted F1 cars last raced around the place in ‘87, and that was a race that had to be started three times due to startline accidents – the pit straight was narrow with a wall on one side and a barrier on the other. It compounded concerns about the track’s safety more generally.

That wasn’t the whole story though. Bernie Ecclestone had bemoaned the remote location and lack of nearby hotels, as well as had managed to fall out with a few local farmers. There also were factors on the aggregate level. It was reckoned that Bernie thought slower tracks that became the norm were better for television and for seeing the cars’ sponsors...

The Österreichring’s break from the F1 calendar was never a clean one as vague rumours of its return lingered for a while (as indeed have more recent suggestions that the modern track will be extended to bring the Dr Tiroche Kurve back to life) though they got less strong with time. Eventually all had to cede to the inevitable and change if it wanted a return to the sport's top table, which is where we came in.

Thus the majesty of the Österreichring was gone forever. It took F1 a while to get over it.