In modern Formula One, money talks. That is why there are races in Abu Dhabi and Singapore, and that is why, this weekend, the F1 travelling circus is returning to Spielberg, a small town in the Austrian Alps.
In 2004, billionaire Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz purchased what was then known as the A1-Ring, which had hosted the last Austrian Grand Prix the year before. That same year, he bought the Jaguar F1 team and renamed it Red Bull Racing. The circuit was also renamed, predictably, as the Red Bull Ring.
Mateschitz is not only Austrian, but he was born just 60 kilometres from the picturesque track, in Sankt Marein im Murztal. He still lives in Austria, and the headquarters of Red Bull GmbH—parent company of the racing team and the energy drink—is located near Salzburg.
And now Mateschitz is footing some of the bill to bring grand prix racing back to his homeland. "Ticket revenues will probably cover the cost of staging the race, but not the promoter's fee," the Red Bull boss told Autosport's Gerhard Kuntschik and Jonathan Noble when the return to Spielberg was announced last July. "That's my expense."
Indeed, he is being credited not only with the revival of the race but also with of an entire region. Without Mateschitz's investment, "the area would be completely dead," said three-time world champion Niki Lauda, per Austrian broadcaster ORF (via motorsport.com.
After Mateschitz purchased the A1-Ring, he completely rebuilt the infrastructure of the circuit.
At its reopening in 2011, Lauda said, "It's really impressive what's happened here. ... The whole course is in perfect condition and has similar modern facilities to those in Bahrain," according to a Red Bull press release. That year, the Spielberg track hosted DTM and Formula Two races in preparation for a bid to bring F1 back to Austria.
When a gap appeared on the 2013 calendar, Red Bull offered their circuit to host a race. While it did not work out for 2013, it was only a matter of time before the company's money and leverage in F1 ensured the Austrian Grand Prix's return.
"If we were to bring Formula One back to Styria [the Austrian state containing Spielberg], then we should take a long-term approach," Mateschitz told the Red Bull website in early 2013. "We are talking about at least three to five years. By then the track would be perfect for this purpose."
Obviously, it did not take nearly that long.
Despite its small size—population 8.5 million—Austria has a rich F1 history. It has produced two world champions, Lauda and Jochen Rindt, and several other popular, successful drivers, including Gerhard Berger and Alexander Wurz.
As well, the Austrian Grand Prix was part of the F1 calendar for 26 seasons (Jack Brabham won the first event in 1963, but it only became part of the World Championship the following year). The 1963 and 1964 races were held at the nearby Zeltweg Airfield before the Osterreichring was constructed. The high-speed track hosted races from 1970 to 1987, when it proved to be too dangerous.
Following a 10-year hiatus, a shortened version of the circuit, called the A1-Ring, reappeared on the calendar until 2003. Then Red Bull stepped in.
Mateschitz has always used sports to promote his energy drink. Red Bull started off sponsoring individual athletes and then teams. Venues and events are just the next step. There are already Red Bull Arenas for association football teams in Leipzig, New Jersey and Salzburg. Now we have the Red Bull Ring, although the company is not the title sponsor for the Austrian Grand Prix—yet.
It may seem unfair to have a team owner organising one of the races, but Red Bull has never been concerned with perceptions of fairness in F1. While other teams are content with running development programs for their young drivers in Formula Renault 3.5, GP2 and GP3, Red Bull has their own junior team in F1.
So far, though, the biggest controversy surrounding the new Austrian race has been a storm in a teacup over whether Red Bull kicked the Mercedes team out of a hotel near the circuit.
The race itself should be a good one. Long straights and relatively slow corners usually mean plenty of overtaking. Jenson Button said at a press conference at the Canadian Grand Prix that, "You look at it and you think ‘there’s like seven corners, it can’t be that fun to drive.’ But it is, it’s a really good circuit. I’ve enjoyed racing there in the past."
Button is one of only four current drivers, along with Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen, to have raced an F1 car at the A-1 Ring. Coming over than a decade ago, though, it is unlikely that experience will provide any significant advantage this weekend.
Despite it being their home race, the Red Bulls will likely struggle compared to the Mercedes-powered cars. But another dominant weekend from the Silver Arrows should not overshadow an exciting fact: For the first time in (seemingly) forever, European races are being added to the schedule, rather than subtracted.
And we all have Dietrich Mateschitz and his Red Bull billions to thank for that.
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