’The ur-circuit, the Österreichring (or Zeltweg as it became known, after the local town), hosted the Austrian Grand Prix from 1970 until 1987, before a shortened version rejoined the series in 1997 for another seven years. The original track was a behemoth : almost 6km of fast, flowing curves that hugged the contours of the Styrian hills. Bernard Duffort, an electrical engineer with Renault Sport F1, remembers the challenge it presented for the field at the time.
‘The original Zeltweg circuit was a very natural track as there was lots of greenery and it was in the hills. The undulation of the countryside produced a great track with short straights and lots of fast turns. But some corners were quite steep, or fell away a lot, so the track was quite dangerous. The pit straight was particularly problematic as it went slightly uphill and was quite narrow. There seemed to be a lot of accidents, and you really had to be careful.
‘For the engine engineers we had particular issues with the original turbo engines, specifically with regards to the altitude. You have to remember that Zeltweg was not the highest circuit we visited in those days – Mexico was 2,700m and Austria between 700m and 800m. Even so, we needed to use the turbo differently at this altitude. We had to find the right compromise in the choices we made concerning the compressor and the turbine, that we could couple together to get a better optimal power output. At Zeltweg we had bigger compressors to give a better pressure despite the lack of ambient pressure.
‘Starting the engines, especially in the cold Austrian mornings, was also quite a challenge. At the time we did not pre-heat the water or oil, we just increased the oil pressure at the time we wanted to start. We also had two types of engine, which made it even harder ; one for qualifying and one for the race. The quali engine had a compression ratio that was very, very low but it meant that we could run the turbo with more pressure. These engines produced at least 1,200bhp and lots of power, but if we tried to start the engine without heating the water first it was practically impossible to start. In this start-up phase the engine barely turned over, used so much fuel and made a hideous amount of smoke – it was not great to be in the pits at that point ! Warming was introduced after this and really improved the situation.
‘When the water had heated up to 40°C, it started to work a bit better, but the usage curve was very difficult to master, particularly when you left the pits. These quali engines were so much more powerful than the race engine, which operated at more reasonable levels to ensure longevity and improved fuel consumption.
‘The ‘pointy’ engine and the corners made it a relatively dangerous track to drive on. Certain corners were particularly steep and drivers needed to be very careful in case of any off track excursions.
I remember one time in 1985 that Andrea de Cesaris, who was driving a Ligier powered by the Renault engine, went off track on a fast left hander onto the grass.
There were several bumps in the grass and there had been some rain so it was slippery and very muddy. Instead of sliding and coming to a stop, the car seemed to take on a life of its own. It rolled perhaps 4 or 5 times, and was very badly damaged. de Cesaris got out of the car slightly shocked but OK and came back to the pits and said he’d had an accident. He thought he had just spun, or had a simple accident.
‘The car was in fact it was completely destroyed… When he saw his accident back on the TV he didn’t believe it. After the event it was amusing as de Cesaris had always believed he had a certain relationship with God, and some people said God was obviously distracting him at the time of the accident ! It showed though that any mistake at Zeltweg was dangerous.
‘Later on, the track became the A1 Ring and most of the dangerous parts were taken out. It was shorter, flatter and overall a much safer track. We went back with the V10s and it was much more normal…lots of acceleration and braking, but not particularly demanding.
‘The A1 Ring was sold and became the RBR Ring, which includes some of the track in an unchanged format, more of a modern circuit. The challenge is still there, but hopefully we won’t see the same sort of de Cesaris rolls !’