F1 steps into the unknown: Hungary's first visit in 1986

These days we are well used to the Hungaroring being on the Formula 1 calendar. But when F1 first visited Hungary in 1986, it was a gigantic step into the unknown...

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The Hungarian Grand Prix has become a consistent fixture on the Formula 1 calendar. 2018's was the 33rd annual visit without interruption, all of them taking place at the Hungaroring circuit near Budapest. Underlining its ubiquity, only Monaco and Monza have had a longer continuous run.

It wasn’t always this way though, as when F1 made its first visit in 1986 it could barely have represented more of a leap into the unknown. Hungary in 1986 was ‘behind the Iron Curtain’, a Soviet satellite state with minimal open contact with ‘the West’.

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‘You’ve got to put this into perspective,’ says Derek Warwick who drove in the race for Brabham. ‘It’s not like going back to Paul Ricard or Barcelona, the places that we knew the system.'

‘We had the first Grand Prix in Las Vegas, the first Grand Prix in Phoenix – so we went to these sort of places all the time for the first time – you kind of expected or knew what you were going to get. But when you went behind the Iron Curtain the experience was just so exciting because it was just so different.’

Moreover, Hungary was a Communist country wherein, in as far as the Western consensus went, things were different and not for the better.

‘Although I was excited I was also nervous because you’re not really sure what the country’s going to offer,’ Warwick continued, 'If it’s going to offer you anything, 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.’

Others agreed. ‘I suppose my expectations of it [at the time] would be slightly underdeveloped; unevolved in terms of the rest of western Europe,’ recalls Johnny Bute – then known as Johnny Dumfries who took part for Lotus.

Yet all quickly were disabused. Bute again takes up the story. ‘What transpired 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,’ he says.

Warwick concurs. ‘I have to say [I was] unbelievably surprised, I couldn’t imagine how warm people were, how nice the people were, how accommodating.’

It seemed everything had been laid on, with the F1 fraternity even getting police escorts to cut through the local road traffic.

And there is one overriding adjective among those who were there when describing the reception. Enthusiastic.

‘People were really enthusiastic, really enthusiastic,’ notes Bute. ‘That always engenders a good feeling, because you’re effectively a sort of travelling circus. You want to be putting on a show, you want people to be motivated. There was a hell of a lot of enthusiasm. It captured everyone’s imagination.’

‘The people were warm, charming, helpful and enthusiastic about my sport,’ Warwick adds,’ and I always love people that love my sport. So it was very easy to enjoy the culture, enjoy the experience and enjoy the race track.

‘I think because everybody tried so hard, even if there was little mistakes or things not being as you expect them you kind of forgave it.’

There was breadth as well as depth in the enthusiasm as the spectator areas were packed all weekend, even though the ticket cost was close a week’s wage locally. Near to 200,000 attended on race day.

Allen Berg, driving that weekend for Osella, recalls the impact. ‘I just remember showing up on the first day of practice, then just mobs of people coming in as we were driving in, foot traffic coming up from the road,’ he notes.

‘Massive, I mean massive,’ Bute adds on the turnout. ‘F1 could do with a few more crowds like that in the current era.’

‘I just remember people everywhere; flags everywhere,’ Warwick notes.

It is often said that when F1 arrived in Hungary the locals were completely uninitiated. But those involved aren’t convinced this was the case.

‘I was amazed by how much they did know,’ says Warwick. ‘They knew a lot more than I thought they would.’

Berg concurs. ‘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 today. ‘The amount of fan mail I still get from Hungary is quite incredible,’ Warwick says. ‘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.’

Bute has similar experience. ‘I still get dribs and drabs of fan mail and a lot of it comes from Germany, Austria, Czech Republic and Hungary. Even today when I’m very much a part of history! And a small part of history!’

The city of Budapest charmed too. ‘I couldn’t imagine beautiful, how amazing the city was,’ Warwick says. ‘I remember going to a big church in the old town and it was just absolutely magnificent.

‘I’ve got very good memories, I’m the steward there this year again, I went last year. I love the country.’

Berg agrees on Budapest’s appeal. ‘Very beautiful old buildings, very well-kept. I recall a beautiful cobbled stone square in the centre of town where we were staying. The downtown area was gorgeous, there was a couple of very good restaurants in the area. Beautiful hotel that we stayed at.’

But even so there were local aspects definitely different to what they were used to.

‘The start of the strangeness for me was when I got to the hire car desk to pick up what I thought was going to be a BMW or a Mercedes,’ Warwick recalls. ‘It was in fact a Trabant! And I remember saying to the hire car guy “look you must have something better than this”, and of course he didn’t.’

Berg noticed differences too. ‘Just the lack of commercialism one might say. Chain franchises, McDonalds and stuff like that, that was just completely lacking. [Budapest was] without a great deal of signage and clutter that you get in all large cities these days.

‘I recall that the food itself was quite non-European, non-western,’ Berg continues, ‘very much more to do with eastern European type of cuisine.’

‘[It] was really noticeable was that the roads were quite empty,’ adds Bute, ‘the place wasn’t kind of flooded with cars like western Europe is nowadays.’

‘It was unbelievably cheap that first year,’ Warwick adds, ‘until Bernie [Ecclestone] got hold of all the hotels and everything. But that very first year was just amazing.

‘Every little experience, whether it was flying there, whether it was getting the hire car, whether it was driving on the road, whether it was booking in a hotel, whether it was in a hotel or going to the circuit, experiencing the circuit, experiencing the people, experiencing the architecture – everything was first time.’

Possibly the sole conspicuous drawback was the track’s layout. Today the Hungaroring remains the slowest permanent circuit on the calendar, and for mid-’80s F1 used to higher speed challenges the shift to the sinewy course was stark.

‘I cannot say that I enjoyed driving there,’ says Berg, ‘and it was very physically demanding. I personally had a difficult time getting into a rhythm with this track because of the varying speeds around the track and just the tightness of it. So personally probably of the grands prix I did it was the least favourite track.’

Yet many enjoyed it. ‘Some parts of the circuit that were really challenging,’ Warwick says. ‘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,’ adds Bute, ‘it was enjoyable to drive, it was quite technical to drive.’

The locals got a good race on the first visit too. For the win it was between the Brazilian best of enemies Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet, resolved in Piquet’s favour late on with a lurid opposite lock pass.

Even with the initial success though not everyone was convinced Hungary was in F1 for the long haul.

‘I didn’t think it would stay,’ Warwick admits. ‘I thought that we would get the best out of the circuit in the first few years and then it would probably disappear.

‘I wasn’t sure whether or not that kind of country could be able to afford to run a grand prix, especially knowing the kind of contracts that Bernie put in place later on. It’s gone from strength to strength, it gets great crowds.

‘I was surprised that it’s been there forever and it seems to have grown stronger rather than weaker, and I think everyone enjoys going there.’

Images courtesy of LAT Archive

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