Formula One racing will get an extra whiff of excitement and novelty this weekend when it returns to Austria after a decade-long absence.
Home to champions like Niki Lauda and Jochen Rindt, as well as the dominant team in recent seasons, Red Bull, Austria will once again welcome the cream of F1 drivers at Spielberg on Sunday, on a circuit steeped in history but unfamiliar to many.
The last time the small alpine country hosted a Grand Prix was in 2003, when Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher grabbed his second consecutive win at what was then known as the A1-Ring, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and Rubens Barrichello.
Raikkonen will be one of just four drivers with race day experience at this track on Sunday - alongside Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa and Jenson Button, who finished fourth in 2003. For all others, the 4.3km Red Bull Ring circuit, nestled among green hills in southern Austria, will be a test.
“Although I’ve driven the circuit before, that was more than 10 years ago in F3... so it’s basically like starting from scratch for everyone on the grid,” current leader Nico Rosberg of Mercedes said. “Personally, I love that kind of challenge.”
Spielberg hosted its first Grand Prix in 1964 on a bumpy course, but it would be years before the event returned in 1970, this time on a purpose-built track called the Oesterreichring (Austria Ring). In 1984 saw Austrian Niki Lauda finished first, despite gearbox problems, on his way to nabbing his third and last championship title. It was the venue’s sole home win so far
Dropped from the F1 circuit in 1987, Spielberg made yet another comeback in 1997 for seven editions.
These included the infamous 2002 Grand Prix, when Ferrari ordered leader Barrichello to let his teammate Schumacher take the victory, helping him to the season title.
Keen to get a Grand Prix again, Red Bull took over and renamed the track in 2004 and redeveloped it, also promising to inject money into the region. The result is “a short track, with only a few turns, but it’s very challenging,” said the team’s four-time champion Sebastian Vettel.
“There are also a lot of elevation changes, which makes it interesting and fun. The fans will have a great time.”
Rival teams, however, will have to race in the shadow of the Austrian energy drinks company: the stands are in the team’s colours and the track loops around a massive steel bull sculpture.
A turn named after Lauda - now non-executive chairman at Red Bull’s rivals Mercedes - was also renamed, to his dismay. Over 220 000 spectators are expected at Spielberg between Friday and Sunday, with race day alone due to draw some 95 000 people. The event is known as much for the party atmosphere off the track, with crowds of fans camping in the surrounding fields, as for the action on it, and tickets have been sold out for months. Local hotels have long been fully booked and even rooms in private homes have been fetching a good price.
Ahead of the race, Mercedes complained about Red Bull’s organisation, saying they had not been given accommodation close to the circuit. But this could not distract from the significance of this 27th Austrian Grand Prix.
“Spielberg is a historic track, like Hockenheim, Nurburgring, Spa, Monza or Silverstone. They belong to F1. They’re the DNA, the backbone of F1,” said Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff. “I hope we will race there for a long time.”
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo pulled an unexpected win out of the bag last time out in Canada, but it took a pair of ailing Mercedes to achieve the feat.
While he, his team, and his teammate Sebastian Vettel will hope for a repeat at their home track this Sunday, it’s likely Mercedes and its two drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton will again be the in-form package.