x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Hungary's insatiable appetite for racing

Home to the first international grand prix winner, the country has a rich history and dedicated fans.

The German driver Sebastian Vettel, of Red Bull Racing, says Hungaroring is challenging.
The German driver Sebastian Vettel, of Red Bull Racing, says Hungaroring is challenging.

Much has been written about the pressing need to produce an Emirati Formula One driver to assist the country's ambition of developing an organic motorsports culture.

A look in the packed stands at Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya in May, or on the streets surrounding the Nurburgring last week, provide proof that national heroes grow national interest.

Yet, Hungary, the host venue of Saturday's grand prix, has been contradicting that accepted rule since 1986.

For 26 years, the Hungaroring, the popular racing circuit located on the outskirts of Budapest, has remained a mainstay on the world championship calendar.

Only Monza and Monte Carlo have done likewise, but while the Italian and Monaco grands prix are steeped in history, and the nations have produced a series of Formula One drivers, Hungary's relationship with motor racing is far less renowned.

Zsolt Baumgartner remains the only Hungarian driver to compete in Formula One, racing for Jordan and Minardi in 2003 and 2004.

Close to 100 years earlier, however, in 1906 - almost half a century before Formula One was created - Hungary provided the winner of the first international grand prix.

Ferenc Szisz finished 32 minutes ahead of his closest rival, an Italian, as he completed 12 laps of a makeshift 103-kilometre track in Le Mans. His fastest speed was clocked at 148.75kph, and a large marble plaque in his memory is fastened to the wall at the entrance to the Hungaroring's media facilities.

Sir Frank Williams, the 69-year-older owner of Williams F1, was in Hungary in 1986 when Formula One first appeared behind the Iron Curtain. "It was a grim, unattractive, poorly maintained no-investment place," he said. "But it is quite different now."

Pal Schmitt, the country's president, wrote in his opening salutations in this weekend's race programme that "the Hungaroring has always succeeded in presenting fascinating and exciting races" and both Sebastian Vettel, the world champion, and Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 champion, said the challenging circuit is the secret to Hungary's endurance. Hamilton yesterday called it "one of the best tracks we have on the calendar" and noted it to be "quite historic" also.

Yet, ahead of the Turkish Grand Prix in May, almost all 24 drivers spoke of their affection for Istanbul Park and it did little to prevent Bernie Ecclestone, the sport's commercial rights owner, scoring the race off the provisional schedule for next season.

Jenson Button, Hamilton's teammate at McLaren-Mercedes, arguably edged closer to the truth when he acknowledged - in jest - a more likely logic. "Probably the main reason is there is a road called Bernie Avenue on the way into the circuit," he said, in reference to a small blue sign positioned at the junction on to a short two-way street leading up to the track's entrance.

When it comes to capturing and maintaining a coveted slot on the F1 calendar, inevitably all roads lead to Ecclestone's pockets.

"It's government or city owned, so it's still slightly Communist," Williams said. "Of course, it's a free society now, but they still have the old ethos of 'that's what we do'."

In 2008, a five-year extension was added to the existing deal meaning the Hungaroring will feature on the calendar until at least 2016. Zsolt Gyulay, the president of the National Automobile Sport Federation of Hungary, said earlier this year that 160 million Hungarian forints (Dh3.1m) would be spent renovating the circuit.

"It is a great circuit to drive, but personally I don't think that's the reason [it's so enduring]," said Button, who won his first grand prix here in 2006. "It is probably the fans. We have a lot of support here, outside the hotels and in the grandstands. Obviously, it has gone up and down through the years, but generally there has been good support here."

Hungary's inaugural race reportedly attracted 200,000 spectators, despite inflated ticket prices. While this year's event - which clashes with the World Rally Championship's Finnish showpiece - will undoubtedly see a smaller crowd, a quick glance at the stands yesterday provided proof that popularity remains: flags of Finland, Estonia and Poland were prevalent.

"There are probably more Finnish flags and supporters here than any other grand prix," said Heikki Kovalainen of Team Lotus, who, since the retirement of Kimi Raikkonen, is the sole Scandinavian in the paddock. "In that sense, it is kind of like my home race."