The Österreichring (A1-Ring) Is No More
A renowned European motorsport venue is no more: Red Bull’s extensive re-development programme for the A1-Ring, formerly known as the Österreichring, has been denied permission by the Austrian authorities, on environmental grounds; and Red Bull founder and Chief exec Dietrich Mateschitz has already made it clear that he considers this project to be dead and buried.

Mateschitz’ Red Bull company bought the circuit soon after the expiry of the deal with Formula 1 in 2003; his plan of a Motorsport Academy and recreational complex seemed ideal to guarantee the track’s prolonged financial viability.

The official reason given for the denial of a building permit rings somewhat hollow. The nearby Zeltweg military airfield is a base for jet fighter aircraft; noise and air pollution never seem to have been an issue in this instance, and the local wildlife apparently has not suffered much harm from the low-flying jets. Some of the arguments given against the track are fairly laughable: the local deer population, for instance, seems less threatened by the motor racers than by the huntsmen that are now speaking on their behalf. Stefan Johansson once accounted for one – but most escaped contact with fast moving race cars.

Dietrich Mateschitz and his partners in the Motorsport Academy venture also have to accept their share of the blame. In an attempt to create a fait accompli and force the government’s hand, the new owners have already carried out substantial construction (read: demolition) work on the premises, bulldozed facilities that had only been built less than a decade ago, and dug up the track itself. With this, the A1-Ring at Spielberg has physically ceased to exist. Re-development was scheduled to begin in earnest in early 2005, with a possible completion date of 2008 or 2009; now all work on the site has been halted, and the future is unclear. It might have been wiser to sort out the paperwork beforehand.

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All that remains now is to look back: a motorsport facility has existed in this very location for over three decades (the track’s 35th anniversary this year was a sad occasion). After the inaugural Formula 1 Grand Prix of Austria in 1964, the international motorsport authority, CSI, made it clear that Formula 1 would not return to the temporary track laid out at the viciously bumpy Zeltweg airfield. As Jochen Rindt was then establishing himself on the international racing scene, public awareness of the sport was higher than ever, and general consensus was that a permanent slot on the F1 calendar was what the country needed. Not far from the Zeltweg airfield, a suitable location was found, and construction work commenced for what would become one of the world's fastest road racing circuits.

Even before Formula 1 took possession of the new venue, the sportscars made history here: the inaugural 1000k race in 1969 also saw the inaugural race victory for the Porsche 917, Siffert / Ahrens driving chassis #009. Porsche returned later in the year to initiate Stage 2 of its most prestigious project: a month after the signing of the contract with Porsche, the John Wyer Automotive technicians came up with a quick fix for the 917’s notoriously vicious handling, by adding two sheets of aluminium at the rear. This was the beginning of the Kurzheck. Over the next two years, the 917K would dominate endurance racing, victorious also in the 1970 and 1971 Österreichring 1000 Kilometers (Siffert / Redman and Rodriguez / Attwood, respectively – Pedro was an absolute master of the ’71 race). Also present at the 1969 test was the 917 PA, the open “spyder” version that would lead to a works effort in the Can-Am series a few years later. In a cruel twist of fate, Porsche’s Can-Am star driver, Mark Donohue lost his life in an accident during practice for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix.

That weekend in 1975 was a bizarre mix of tragedy, triumph, and comedy: driving a March, Vittorio Brambilla scored the only victory of his Formula 1 career. As he punched the air in elation over a result that was as much of a surprise to him as to everybody else, he promptly lost control over his car on the rain-drenched home straight, and stuffed it in the barrier. Team Penske rallied back the next year, when John Watson won his first F1 race at Zeltweg. Brambilla and Watson – what about Siffert and Jones? Not Seppi’s first of course, but it was a very special BRM win, while ‘Jonesy’ did win his first here – in a Shadow, of all things.

The 1000K race vanished from the calendar after 1975, and Formula 1 remained the only World Championship event to be hosted here. As the years rolled by, Zeltweg (as the Österreichring was most commonly known to international fans unwilling to bend their tongues round the multisyllabic official name) alternated with Silverstone as the fastest track in Formula 1. Some of these races were classics, such as the photo finish between Elio de Angelis and Keke Rosberg in 1982. For both drivers, this would have been their first victory in F1, and so their fierce battle raged right to the flag. de Angelis went to the top step of the podium that day, beating Rosberg by a mere 0.05 seconds.

dailysportscar.comAmid recurring conflict with neighbouring land owners and regional authorities over noise and pollution issues, crowd control, and the extension of the land leases, the Formula 1 contract came to an end after the 1987 race. It was only then that the importance of the venue, and the Grand Prix, as a source of income for the region was realised; and it took a decade to lure the Grand Prix money machine back to Austria. Shortened by almost 1/3 of its original length, the newly named “A1-Ring” was now exclusively situated on the territory of the town of Spielberg. The second F1 era lasted until 2003, and the next few years were originally seen as a period of transition for the venue. This image shows the Lammers / Hezemans Lotus at the FIA GT race in 1997.

But sadly, the Österreichring has ceased to exist. We do have a Coulthard-driven Red Bull F1 car though.
Johannes Gauglica

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