Feature: Formula 1's Hungarian Rhapsody

The Hungarian Grand Prix is a fixture on the Formula 1 calendar. More so than you might think. This weekend’s will be the 34th annual visit without interruption. All of them have taken place at the Hungaroring circuit near Budapest. And in something that may strike as a surprise, among current F1 circuits only Monaco and Monza have had a longer continuous run.

The Hungaroring brings a few associations. The weather’s usually hot and sapping, in the way that surely only central Europe in summer can. The track is tight; it retains indeed the lowest average speed of any purpose-built circuit on the calendar. Plus overtaking isn’t an especially presentable proposition.

Another appropriate adjective to the Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring though is ‘important’. Really. As were you to write a history of the F1 venue then this one, when it arrived in 1986, would have to feature as a major pivotal point.

Not only for it representing, at the time, F1’s ‘step behind the Iron Curtain’, as venturing into Communist Eastern Europe was then known. But equally it was the first F1 host of the type that became common, and therefore now sounds very familiar.

There was a national government wanting the race for various reasons of promotion, and a purpose-built facility with all mod cons was therefore built on a greenfield site in double-quick time to host the thing.

Bernie Ecclestone had sought a Russian/Soviet Grand Prix for some time, with a race on the streets of Moscow getting so far as a provisional calendar for 1983, but the matter kept meeting stumbling blocks. Bernie then found Hungary – always at the more liberal end of the Eastern Block countries – a much more cooperative partner.

An appropriate adjective to the Hungarian Grand Prix is ‘important’. As were you to write a history of the F1 venue then this one, when it arrived in 1986, would have to feature as a major pivotal point

A deal was done in December 1985, the race was a reality little more than six months later.

There are a few myths around that first Hungaroring visit in 1986. One is that F1 found locals, in a country with minimal contact with the ‘west’, with next-to no knowledge about F1 or on what to expect from the race.

Not so. For an article last year I spoke to a few who were there, and they disabused me of such a notion.

“I was amazed by how much they did know,” Derek Warwick, who took part in the race for Brabham, told me. “They knew a lot more than I thought they would.”

Allen Berg, who raced for Osella, agreed. “The fact that the crowds were so large and so enthusiastic, I believe they were aware of what Formula 1 is and the significance of it.”

It is an enthusiasm that lives on too. “The amount of fan mail I still get from Hungary is quite incredible,” Warwick added. “And when I go back there I am always stunned by how many people know me, recognise me, are standing in line for autographs etc etc.”

Johnny Bute – who, then known as Johnny Dumfries, raced for Lotus in 1986 – has had a similar experience. “I still get dribs and drabs of fan mail and a lot of it comes from Germany, Austria, Czech Republic and Hungary,” he said. “Even today when I’m very much a part of history! And a small part of history!”

The amount of fan mail I still get from Hungary is quite incredible. And when I go back there I am always stunned by how many people know me, recognise me, are standing in line for autographs etc etc - Derek Warwick

Another myth is that the sinewy, low-speed Hungaroring was unpopular with drivers. Again, not so. “Some parts of the circuit were really really challenging,” Warwick added. “Going into turn 1 there’s so many lines, then [turn] five was a challenging fast left-hander up the hill.

“And I just loved that last corner, it was such a great corner to finish the lap on. I can’t say I had amazing success there but certainly I loved racing on the circuit.”

“It was a challenging track,” Bute concurred, “it was enjoyable to drive, it was quite technical to drive.”

What was more the case was that the F1 fraternity entered Hungary unsure what to expect, and to an extent fearing the worst.

“Although I was excited I was also nervous because you’re not really sure what the country’s going to offer,” Warwick continued, “whether it’s going to be aggressive, whether it’s going to be police-ruled, whether or not you will feel comfortable. So there was a lot of questions we all had.”

“What transpired,” Bute noted, “was that the country, the organisers, the government, everybody involved in making the race happen were incredibly helpful and bent over backwards to do everything that they could do to try to make it a success and to welcome the championship and the teams there.”

I can’t say I had amazing success there but certainly I loved racing on the circuit - Derek Warwick

Efficient organisation, plentiful enthusiasm and 200,000 locals coming through the gates on race day all charmed the fraternity. Fears of a repressive security presence weren’t borne out either.

The event even got a fine victory battle, settled by a lurid mid-slide overtake by Nelson Piquet on his Brazilian (non) friend Ayrton Senna.

“To visit a brand new circuit and encounter such slick organisation at first acquaintance was extremely impressive. Getting contemporary F1 racing off the ground in Eastern Europe had proved to be a rip-roaring success” gushed Alan Henry.

And Hungary since has developed an uncanny knack of being a place where great drivers put in great drives.

There was Nigel Mansell’s win for Ferrari in 1989, which even for one as habitually wrapped in drama as he likely was his most incredible. Unable to get his qualifying tyres to grip, he concentrated on race set-up and started 12th at about the last track you’d chose to do so. Then on race day he rose to take the lead from Senna in an oft-repeated three-abreast pass.

In 1997 Damon Hill in an Arrows, amid a season where he was usually a straggler, came oh-so close to what would have had good claim to F1’s biggest shock win ever – and with it taking what would have been the Arrows team’s only victory. But with a 30-second lead and but three laps to go a washer worth a few pence came loose and let out his hydraulic fluid, and he dropped to second.

What transpired was that everybody was incredibly helpful and bent over backwards to do everything that they could do to try to make it a success and to welcome the championship and the teams - Johnny Bute

Twelve months later there was Michael Schumacher, and a win often cited as the very best of his vast range of 91. Sitting behind two apparently superior McLarens at the race's mid-point and going nowhere, the strategy from the Ferrari pitwall seemed to defy logic: switch from a two-stopper to three, pit early, short-fill the car, then make up the entire time of a pitstop on the McLarens before pitting for the final time and emerging with the lead intact.

“He then put in, sort of, 15 qualifying laps!,” recalled his then-technical director Ross Brawn, “He had to make up something like 19 seconds in 19 laps...I remember saying it to him and he just said ‘OK’! There was no ‘Oh Christ, there's no chance...’.” And 19s in 19 laps is exactly what he did.

In 2006, when for once rain fell on the habitually sun-soaked track, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button were both fantastic in recovering from grid penalties to dominate the race. Button took his first ever win and Alonso was at least as deserving as victory – particularly with a mesmeric first lap during which he passed six cars – and was denied it only by a wheel not going on during his last pitstop.

There was 2014, where there was more rain, and Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton all were magnificent, and filled the podium, in Hamilton’s case having started from the pits. Ricciardo sealed the win with a late pass of Alonso after a long intense rearguard action by the Spaniard.

Hungary has developed an uncanny knack of being a place where great drivers put in great drives

Crowds have remained good in Hungary throughout, helped by that Finnish fans have often treated it as an auxiliary home race, while I recall in 2010 when it seemed most of Poland had decamped in order to cheer on Robert Kubica. Presumably some of them will be back this weekend.

The short and tight track, low-grip surface and difficulties in passing mentioned often combine to give us slightly strange outcomes. All of these came together for Thierry Boutsen to win for Williams in 1990, his only win in a dry race.

The Hungaroring also has a semi-knack for freshman victories. Damon Hill, Alonso, Button and Heikki Kovalainen all took their first ever F1 wins at this circuit.

As for this weekend, well Charles Leclerc is long overdue win number one. The Ferrari’s been more competitive recently and has a good recent record at this track. Might we get debut win number five? You heard it here first if so.