Okay so the Österreichring might not be a lost Grand Prix circuit per se, but the circuit that today features on the Formula 1 calendar as venue of the Austrian Grand Prix is a very different beast to the one that greeted the drivers when they arrived for its first Grand Prix back in 1970.
The original track layout, on which Williams won twice, was fast, with every one of its 16 corners a sweeping bend that allowed drivers to keep consistently high speeds over the course of a lap.
A chicane was introduced in 1977 in an attempt to temper spiralling speeds and tumbling laptimes, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the lap record being slashed by ten seconds in the following decade (Nelson Piquet‘s lap record (in a Williams FW11) was set at an average speed of 159.4mph, a whisker off the all time record average speed for a lap – also set in a Williams).
The Österreichring was dropped from the calendar after the 1987 Austrian Grand Prix over concerns at its suitability to host a Grand Prix, and it disappeared for a decade, with most of the circuit falling into disrepair.
It was given a new lease of life in the mid-nineties when it was bought, refurbished and the track layout was dramatically altered by F1’s track designer of choice Herman Tilke who removed many of the Österreichring’s fast sweeping curves, favouring instead short fast straights and big stops, changing the personality of the track altogether.
It was also rechristened the ‘A1-ring’ after a mobile phone provider who threw a couple of bob at the project.
Its return to Formula 1 was short lived and seven years later it again disappeared from the F1 calendar.
In the early 2000s Red Bull bought the track without much of an idea what they were going to use it for and little intention that it would host another Grand Prix. The grandstands and pit buildings were demolished amid rumours it would become a test track.
However, by 2008 Red Bull were heavily invested in Formula 1 and decided to renovate the A1-ring, and by 2011, ‘The Red Bull Ring’ as it was now called saw top class racing when the DTM returned to Spielberg.
When a slot became available on the F1 calendar in 2013 Red Bull made their first move for a Grand Prix, and it was added to the calendar a year later and has been the venue for the Austrian Grand Prix every year since.
It’s because of these vast changes in pretty much everything but its location that the old circuit – The Österreichring – in the spectacular Styrian mountains can be considered a Grand Prix circuit of the past, despite it still being used to this day.
My visit to The Österreichring
My Dad and I flew to Vienna airport and made the two hour drive south west to Spielberg by hire car.
The further you get from the city the more spectacular the scenery becomes as you scale the eastern foothills of the Alps (the Western equivalent of which, coincidentally, gives the Circuit Paul Ricard, scene of the French Grand Prix its elevation).
As you arrive into Spielberg, set in a huge glacial valley (if the little I picked up from my geography A-level is correct!), there is little to tell you there’s a Grand Prix circuit nearby. It’s very clean, very neat and orderly, fairly sparsely populated and very, well, Austrian.
You turn off the main road, into the camping area and we were directed by a young girl with impeccable English in a small log cabin to the spot we were to pitch our tent.
It was on a slight slope, which made keeping my airbed in one place during the night fairly tricky, but once we realised that we were about 50 metres from the entrance to the circuit and a mere line of trees from the old Österreichring’s Flatschach bend we were more than happy.
Obviously the first thing we did was to nip through the gates and wander up to the old circuit.
Starting by the Hella-Light chicane – the old turn 1, now part of the fan-zone, the new circuit having deviated sharply right after the introduction of the new tight right hand T1 we climbed the hill (clockwise and the correct direction around the old circuit) through the trees up through Flatschach, towards the Dr Tiroch Kurve.
This whole section of circuit, although not part of the current layout, still exists in its original form and you can walk on the very track the starts of the 1970s and 1980s negotiated.
It’s quite a climb, and the elevation change continues through Dr Tiroch Kurve up to a crest before Valvoline-Gerade, and the point at which the old circuit rejoins the new and heads down to the infamous Bosch Kurve.
Here we’re forced to walk alongside the circuit, as it’s GP weekend and they don’t want any Tom, Dick or Michael compromising the integrity of their precious tarmac!
Down we go to the Bosch Kurve which, in my opinion, had its soul ripped from it in the name of safety in the 1990s redesign. There’s now just another hairpin, where once there was one of the iconic corners in Grand Prix racing.
Still, around we go to ‘Power Horse’ which is a tightened version of the Texaco Chikane, site of the huge cast iron bull, and the Max Verstappen grandstand that would be filled with excitable Dutch fans later on in the weekend.
This part of the circuit feels very purpose built and there’s little to suggest that this was anything other than pasture full of singing nuns (first and last Sound of Music reference I promise!) prior to 1997.
Old and new rejoin here, and the track heads down to the last corner, the hugely remodelled Rindt Kurve, a once great sweeping bend that is now beneath woodland having been replaced with a squared off, and shortened version.
Coming off the Rindt Kurve we head back uphill towards the start/finish line, loooking up towards the sharp right handed T1 that precedes the fanzone at Hella-Light where we started our journey.
That Red Bull kept part of the old layout makes me think there’s potential to re-incorporate this part of the track into a future remodelling, which would be fantastic to see, as it would re-introduce some of the Österreichring’s spirit back into a fairly typical modern Grand Prix circuit.
It would be sensational to see the cars head up through the sweeping turns after the start finish before rejoining at Valvoline-Gerade, even if the Bosch Kurve appears to be gone forever.