Formula 1’s lost nations: Austria

Posted on Author Keith Collantine

Niki Lauda and  Gerhard Berger - Austria's last F1 champion and race winner
Niki Lauda and Gerhard Berger - Austria's last F1 champion and race winner

Last world champion: Niki Lauda, 1984
Last Grand Prix winner: Gerhard Berger, Hockenheimring, Benetton-Renault, 1997
Last Grand Prix starter: Alexander Wurz, Shanghai, Williams, 2007
Last Grand Prix: A1-Ring, 2003

Austria is the only European country on this list. It has had championship winners and dozens of Grands Prix, but no race and active driver today.

Austria?s F1 history

World champions

Austria has produced two Formula 1 world champions. But the first, Jochen Rindt, died in a crash at the Italian Grand Prix before claiming the title.

A prolific winner in Formula Two, Rindt made his F1 debut in the first Austrian Grand Prix, at the unloved Zeltweg aerodrome track in 1964. He joined Lotus in 1969 and although he found Colin Chapman’s cars competitive, they were also fragile. Rindt was leading at Silverstone in 1969 when his rear wing broke.

He led the championship comfortably in 1970 when, at Monza, he was killed in a violent crash at Parabolica during practice. No-one overhauled his lead by the end of the season, and he became the sport’s only posthumous world champion.

Two years after Rindt died, Niki Lauda arrived on the F1 scene. Born into a wealthy family that did not support his motor racing efforts, Lauda made it into F1 via BRM, but was quickly snapped up by Ferrari as new manager Luca di Montezemolo set about turning the team back into title winners.

Lauda won the 1975 and 1977 championships for Ferrari ?ǣ and it?s no great leap to suggest he might have won the ?76 title as well, but for his horrific crash at the Nurburgring. A move to Brabham left Lauda disenchanted with F1, and he quit at the end of 1979. But two years later Ron Dennis lured him back Lauda won his second race back in the cockpit.

In 1984, armed with the first turbo-powered McLaren, the wily Lauda edged team mate Alain Prost to the title by half a point ?ǣ the tightest winning margin ever. After a final win at Zandvoort the following year, Lauda quit again ?ǣ this time for good. However, he would return to the F1 pitwall in Ferrari and Jaguar colours in the 1990s and 2000s.

Berger and the A1 era

Austria?s best championship hope after Lauda was Gerhard Berger. After winning for Benetton at Mexico City in 1986 he was snapped up by Ferrari, but although more wins followed the car was never consistently quick enough to take on the dominant McLarens. Berger remedied that by joining the Woking team in 1990, but despite starting from pole position in his first race for them, he was rarely able to trouble team mate Ayrton Senna.

He returned to Ferrari in 1993 and spent his last two seasons at Benetton. The final of those, 1997, saw Austria return as a Grand Prix-hosting nation ten years since it had last held a race.

Throughout much of the sixties, seventies and eighties the Austrian Grand Prix was held on the sweeps and crests of the Osterreichring. For many years it was the fastest track in F1, and as a result was highly popular with the drivers. But the writing was on the wall in 1987 when the cramped start/finish line meant it took three attempts to get the race started due to persistent pile-ups.

The venue returned in 1997, now named the A1-Ring, and was the first example of what is now a familiar phenomenon in Formula 1: Tilke-isation. The fast corners were nearly all clipped into tight, blunt, slow bends. This meant it often provided decent racing, but much of the spectacle was lost. Its contract was not renewed after the 2003 race, and it is now owned by Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz.

Until recently the Austrian crowds had home-grown talent like Christian Klien and Alexander Wurz to shout on. But despite Mateschitz owning two F1 teams, and having Austrian ex-F1 driver Helmut Marko involved in his operations, there are no Austrians in F1 today.

Austria’ F1 future

Mateschitz does not seem too interested in bringing F1 back to the A1-Ring, though he has talked about holding DTM races there.

Klien and Wurz remain on the fringes of F1 as test drivers for BMW and the former Honda team respectively. But with little obvious chance of either of them getting a race seat they are increasingly turning towards sports cars. But these two represent the greatest chance of seeing an Austrian competing in F1 again, as there doesn’t seem to be many up-and-coming drivers from the country in the major feeder series.

More about Austria’s F1 drivers

Formula 1’s lost nations

The Osterreichring in its turbo heyday, complete with first-lap crash (1982)
The Osterreichring in its turbo heyday, complete with first-lap crash (1982)

Images (C) Red Bull / GEPA, Ford