Visiting former Soviet state in 1986 was a real eye-opener
The huge, rusty, reinforced steel barrier slowly came down.
My rearview mirror went temporarily dark in the shadow of the intimidating 1m thick, 10m wide wall of steel as it approached the horizontal and signalled the end of the then Western world as we knew it, just 1km behind us.
Painfully, agonisingly slowly, we crept forwards for 250m and a similar barrier raised to allow access to communist Eastern Europe.
The dark side.
All this happened under the expressionless gaze of what looked to be skinny teenagers, cigarettes in mouth, dressed in ill-fitting uniforms with some sort of automatic machinegun resting on their epaulettes.
So began the Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix of 1986.
It was the first Hungarian Grand Prix since 1936 when Tazio Nuvolari won in his Alfa Romeo.
To say it was an eye-opener would not be understating the case.
We as a team had been given the following advice by the UK Home Office before setting off: don’t take any Western newspapers, don’t have private or contentious conversations in the hotel room as it may be bugged, don’t pick up any “lovely ladies” in the bars ... and several more things that could have come out of a spy novel.
The border crossing between Austria and Hungary; with the barriers, the guards, the 1km no-man’s land of flat, featureless ground with tall barbed wire fences stretching as far as the eye could see did nothing to allay our feelings of trepidation. Remember, this was four years before the demolition of the Berlin Wall and three years before Russian troops left Hungary.
It became a valuable experience for the superstars of Formula One, plus the mechanics, engineers, team owners and drivers, to see just how lucky they were.
After the interminable border formalities where a passport disappeared into a small hole in the wall for two or three hours until a whistle was blown and a border guard beckoned the holder to walk 40m, alone, to collect it, we were ready for the drive to the north of Budapest and the newly made Hungaroring racetrack.
Still more formalities before we could drive off. We could drive only in an escorted convoy of trucks and motorhomes and had to follow a prescribed route that circumvented “special areas”.
A Hungarian “translator” had to ride with us to make sure we did not stray or take photographs where we shouldn’t.
Our translator came into the 12m-plus, luxury American McLaren motorhome and spent the first 20km with his mouth open, looking aghast at the interior — especially when we turned on one of the four TVs and played a video. When he was offered a Coca-Cola from the onboard fridge he nearly cried with incredulity and gratitude and pleaded with us to let him take the empty can home.
Our voyage of discovery continued over the next week or so with the realisation that supermarkets were such in name only, with no produce available, and taxi rides cost mere cents (US dollars preferred, thank you) but the front seats of the little cardboard Trabants weren’t attached to the floor as they doubled as parcel delivery vans.
All the above and much, much more comes to mind as the Formula One community is at the Hungaroring for the 30th consecutive year and Hungary is one of the most progressive countries in the European Union, with every modern convenience. What was a voyage into the unknown is now a traditional F1 race and the entire paddock looks forward to attending it.
From its pedestrian beginnings and a layout that produced nothing more than boring racing, the Hungaroring consistently produces enthralling races.
And you can now drive from Paris to Budapest in one day with no border checks on the journey.