Hungary for surprise: growth of one of F1's most iconic events
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The trip across no man’s land conjured images of spy novels with the tall fences topped with barbed wire, and high lookout towers.
Soon we came upon a huge steel barrier with armed guards. Slowly the guards raised the road blockade and bade us entry.
Travel documents were passed through a slot in a one-person hut and the slot closed.
We waited in the 30C heat — admittedly in a $2 million motorhome with air con — until another border guard handed the documents back and said, in heavily accented English “Welcome to Hungary”.
We were behind the Iron Curtain.
That was in 1986 and we were in a vanguard of F1 team vehicles heading to the first Hungarian F1 Grand Prix, and the first in a Communist country.
Last weekend was the 34th anniversary of that event.
Even leaving the border and heading to the circuit, a distance of about 200km, each vehicle had to be accompanied by a “guide” to ensure we did not stray off the designated route.
Our guide was in awe of this huge American motorhome, especially when he was offered a cold drink and watched as the double-door refrigerator opened to reveal all manner of refreshments.
He asked to take the empty Coke cans after consuming the contents.
Before we had left for Hungary we were given a list of dos and don’ts from the UK Home office.
Paranoia we thought, as they advised us not to have private conversations in the hotel rooms, no English newspapers and all manner of other John le Carre type advice.
In the event, the people could not have been friendlier in this most beautiful of cities.
The first taxi ride was also the first time riding in a Trabant, the little smoking two-stroke engined automotive symbol of communism.
Supermarkets had little in the way of fresh meat but tins of caviar were easily bought.
Reminders of the Soviet occupation of Hungary were evident with the pockmarks of the shells and bullets from the crushed revolution of 1956 still evident on buildings.
The track, set in a natural bowl with great spectator views, was the first in the world to have been constructed solely for F1. Amazingly, the race still thrives with huge crowds and only Monza and Monaco have hosted more consecutive F1 races.
But the event can still throw up surprises for the F1 circus. With prostitution legal in Hungary, in 2000 the track was favoured by the “world’s first open air brothel” somewhere on the spectator areas around turn four.
The Iron Curtain fell in 1989 and now the journey over the border from Austria to Hungary is no more taxing than any other in Europe but the unified cities of Buda and Pest remain beautiful.
With limited overtaking opportunities, the Hungaroring can produce processional races while at the same time being one of the most difficult to master. But, as we saw last weekend with the battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, it also is reputed to be one of the most demanding to win.
For the record, the 1986 Grand Prix was won by Nelson Piquet driving a Williams-Honda from Ayrton Senna in a Lotus-Renault and third was Nigel Mansell in another Williams-Honda.
How times change.