In the idyllic Styrian Mountains, there in the valleys and forests, meadows and vineyards that locals call the “Green March”, lies a racetrack that has intimidated and challenged the very best drivers for generations. For many old-timers, the Red Bull Ring is but a reminder of the old track before Herman Tilke’s new layout came with the new century. But find your groove on the Red Bull Ring, and you will be rewarded by a track that retains much of the aura of the fabled Österreichring, a track that still honors the brave and the good …
When hay bales, cones, and an airstrip combined to make a race track
They’ve been racing up in the Styrian Mountains since the 1950s; back then, the local Zeltweg airfield—taking Silverstone as inspiration—would be coned and hay-baled, and the local hotshoes would come dice ’round the bumpy and abrasive runways in their home-tuned jalopies. The track served its purpose, though the elongated L-shape with a couple of hairpins at either end between which the wide-eyed heroes of summer would duke it out was hardly a harbinger of the majesty that was to come.
After the three hour drive up from Vienna, the scenery in mid-summer did make this an inviting venue, though. By ’58, the local club had managed to stage an international event, a sportscar race won by Wolfgang von Trips in his Porsche. A year after that, Formula Two came; was awash with Grand Prix stars looking for a little extra cash, it was inevitable that Formula One would come to town as well, which they did in ’61 and ’63, albeit as non-championship events.
The local Spielberg motor club’s audacious scheme to secure financial backing for an actual Formula One Championship race for ’64 was met with approval by the local council in the hope of some tourist dollars, and the first-ever Austrian Grand Prix, won by Lorenzo Bandini—this the ill-fated Italian’s one-and-only win—took place over 105 very long laps on a balmy day in August. The track, sadly, proved woefully unsuited to Formula One machines, the trail of broken suspension and ripped tyres an indication of the rough and jarring nature of the airfield’s surface.
Debuting for the first-ever Austrian Grand Prix that day was a sprightly, sullen Austrian by the name of Jochen Rindt whose legend would become synonymous with this track.
The massive crowd that turned out to welcome Rindt back a year later—now a fully-fledged Formula One driver—for the sportscar race he duly won in his Ferrari convinced the local council to fund a purpose-built, Formula One-standard racetrack. The site would be just up the mountain from the airport, on an undulating strip of meadowland around whose hills and valleys would be forged one of the greatest grand prix circuits of all time.
Work began in ’68, and by ’69, the Österreichring (Austria-ring) was alive to the sound of high-strung horsepower and stiffly-sprung race cars. The layout of the track was glorious; back in the days when most race cars had five gears, a driver would never be in anything lower than third around the six kilometer track, and spent most of the lap in fourth and fifth, barreling over blind crests and immensely fast sweepers. In its conception, it was almost as if the track had come from the pre-war catalogue of track-design; like Spa, the ’Ring, and the Fuji Speedway, the track was created out of its surroundings, an organic thing that was an immediate hit with both fans—who could sit up on the grass banking on a warm summer day and see nigh on the whole track—and drivers, who relished the challenge. The speed, the lack of any run-off, the barriers that surrounded the turns, all of it was a spot-on test of both a driver’s skill and mettle.
The first Formula One race at the Österreichring was held in the summer of ’70, on the heels of the very first 1000km race at the venue. A vintage year for Austrian motorsport made even sweeter by Jochen Rindt who was now a fully-fledged motor racing superstar.
It’d been an odd year for Rindt, a man very much in his prime, famed for his laconic four-wheel drifts and iconic cool; he had finished only four races all season, but won them all, and the sold-out crowd for the first GP at the Österreichring were optimistic he would make it five wins on the trot. Rindt duly qualified on pole, but the Ford engine in his Lotus 72 (you can drive the evolution of the 72, the 72D, in Project CARS 2) expired on lap 21.
Sixteen days later, Rindt, too, would be gone, becoming Formula One’s only posthumous world champion.
But the Österreichring had caught the imagination of the public, and it remained a fixture all the way through 1987, with only one modification—a chicane added into Turn One for the race in 1976, on the heels of the tragedy that had befallen Mark Donahue in 1975.
When a deer ended the life of a legend
By ’87, the F1 cars had simply outgrown the track. With local stars Rindt gone and now Lauda retired, the fans were not turning up either. With the marketing departments of the teams not being able to find any decent hotels to entertain their corporate clients, either, and suddenly Österreichring—now the second quickest track behind Silverstone on the calendar—found itself on the endangered list.
The management of the Österreichring responded by increasing run-offs, re-profiling the Bosch Kurve, and widening the track down the main-straight, but the circus refused to return for ’88, and that was that. The Österreichring made do by hosting Superbikes until ’94, and German STW touring cars as well, but that too ended in ’95 when Hans Stuck went off into Turn One and had a right-old fright as his Audi ramped the bank.
The Österreichring had become an anachronism; too fast, too dangerous, and too far removed from any major hub. The only solution was for a total revamp. With investment from telecoms giant A1, and a German architect—who’d done some minor cosmetic work on the Nürburgring where he’d spent his twenties racing touring cars without too much success—brought in to head-up the new development, work began on the new circuit.
Hermann Tilke’s A1-Ring was the track that made his reputation; here was a man who understood the needs of modern race cars, a man who understood how modern aero’-dependencies meant tracks like the old Österreichring had to be diced-and-sliced (Hockenheim, Fuji, Silverstone, and Catalunya would all end up being remodeled by Tilke, and all will come with Project CARS 2). The A1-Ring, though, may well be his best track.
The A1-Ring used parts of the old course, but what has gone on to become known as the ‘West Loop’ was chopped off entirely. The new track now featured three layouts with the inclusion of a short circuit, and a club circuit which, along with the main track, will all come with Project CARS 2, scanned in vivid detail.
The Tilke-design proved successful; in ’97 Formula One was back, and behind them came the FIA GT cars. Perhaps not that surprisingly, the new track made for some thrilling races. But in ’04, with new EU anti-tobacco directives, Bernie again pulled the show from Austria, and went East in search of more lucrative venues. That’s the year Red Bull’s Dietrich Mateschitz bought the A1-Ring and announced an audacious plan that had racing fans around the world salivating; together with a select group of investors, Mateschitz was ready to pump half a billion dollars into the A1-Ring in order to expand it back into the lost ‘West Loop’, while rebuilding the infrastructure to include a race school, a museum, hotels, and a base for Mateschitz’s own world-renowned airplane collection.
Work started in ’04. It lasted a few weeks before the Austrian government ruled in favor of local concerns surrounding noise pollution. Work was immediately stopped, leaving the track stripped of its pits, grandstands, and half its tarmac. And that was that; the once mighty Österreichring was left to rot in place, another legendary track left to its ghosts.
What saved it was ‘Projekt Spielberg’, an economic plan to revitalize the local economy. As part of that project, Mateschitz found his plans for the A1-Ring suddenly green-lit five years after they’d been crushed, with the goal of bringing Formula One back to town.
Red Bull, by then, was heavily invested in Formula One both as a constructor and major sponsor, and decided to create a vehicle dynamics facility along with hotels and a golf course for the new venue. The track was rebuilt using Herman Tilke’s design for the A1-Ring, and in 2011, the hills were, once again, alive to the sound of banshee-wailing Formula One horsepower. In ’14, Formula One was joined by DTM, the World Series by Renault, and European Le Mans to make this into one of the world’s preeminent race facilities.
The Red Bull Ring
The track offers that rare thing in modern motorsport—serious elevation changes. The run into Remus has replaced the Bosch-Kurve as the place where the cognoscenti come to watch their heroes. Further on is another serious test of skill and bravery—the blind, very quick right-hander at Rindt. This is a track where finding your groove matters; with braking points that demand courage, and exits that will test your right-foot’s ability to feel when the rear is about to step away, the Red Bull Ring is a challenge in the dry, and positively cruel in the wet.
The West Loop returns?
Back in ’16, Autosport reported that Red Bull consultant Helmut Marko had suggested there were plans to expand the track back into the West Loop. The project would mean the track would extend on from Turns One and Two into the old track. The idea made sense; the current 4km track will probably see Formula One cars get seriously close to the one-minute lap time that has always been frowned-upon by the higher-ups, and would also lead to the potential of the World Endurance Championship returning for the first time since 1976 when Dieter Quester and Gunnar Nilsson won in their BMW 3.0 CSL.
For now, though, no confirmation has come that the West Loop will once again rise and fall to the rhythm of heroic machinery. While that gets sorted out, the current track keeps sorting out the good from the great. Turns that will swap understeer for sudden oversteer will punish the hasty, and braking points that are either uphill or down will reward the brave. This is a driver’s circuit, as it always has been; safer, yes, but still a world-class challenge.
The scanned Red Bull Ring, with all three configurations, will come with Project CARS 2, released in late 2017 for the PlayStation®4 system, Xbox One, and PC