It’s quiet at the Red Bull Ring, a big difference to the same day last year when most people spent a lot of time in traffic jams. The word is that the numbers are down this year, which is not really surprising given that Red Bull is not likely to be in a starring role. It is also overlooked that last year the race was on an Austrian holiday weekend – Corpus Christi – and this year it is not and maybe that makes a difference too.
Anyway, I didn’t feel any great rush to get to the Red Bull Ring and so after blasting down the autobahn from Munich, I turned off into Salzburg and went up the hill into the Salzkammergut, one of the loveliest parts of Europe. If I say that they filmed The Sound of Music there, you’ll get what I mean. Not far from the city is the Salzburgring, hidden away in a valley. Back in the 1980s I went there to report European Touring Cars. I seem to remember catching a bus from Salzburg and staying in a grotty gasthof. If I was lucky I’d get invited to have dinner at the very fancy Schloss Fuschl, where the big teams used to stay.
To be quite honest, I didn’t recognise much, as there seems to have been lots of real estate development in fields where the ETC drivers used to get up to no good in their road cars. I vaguely recall angry farmers with shotguns and policemen looking for unidentified drivers (some quite famous).
The Schloss Fuschl remains the same solid presence, perched on a headland, overlooking the picturesque Fuschlsee.
A little further down the lake is Fuschl itself, best known today as the world headquarters of Red Bull. I imagined it would be a pretty grand place but the company employs remarkably few people at base, so it was rather underwhelming. It’s funny that such a modest place can generate so much cash and have such an impact. Complain though he might, however, Dietrich Mateschitz has got a lot out of F1. Sponsors are almost always transients in F1 so if he goes, he goes. It happens to all the people to whom F1 is not a core business. It would be nice if he does quit to do so gracefully, not dumping on F1, but saying publicly just how much it has done for Red Bull…
From Fuschl it was on to the magnificent St Gilgen, with its spectacular views of the Wolfgangsee, which is as pretty as it was when I went there on a family holiday in the 1970s. The celebrated White Horse Inn in St Wolfgang is visible from across the lake. It is a hotel which is so famous that it has an opera named after it… not to mention having been there for more than 600 years.
Eventually one gets to Bad Ischl, a charming spot where Austrian Emperor Franz Josef used to take the waters. The valley of the River Traun runs south from there and one passes signs to exciting places like the Toplitzsee, where rumour has it that there are tons of Nazi gold somewhere in the lake, along with millions and millions of counterfeit pound sterling notes (it’s a long story).
I worked my way across country into the Steiermark, otherwise known as Styria, birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger and home of the Red Bull Ring… I was by then on a mission. Accommodation is a big problem in Austria, because there really isn’t the infrastructure required for a Grand Prix. If it wasn’t for all the Red Bull money the race would have been declared impossible, along the same lines as Magny Cours. Last year we stayed so far away from the track that it took more than an hour – and we weren’t hanging about… This year there was a closer choice (at a higher price). All I knew was that it was a kind of guesthouse but without wireless Internet… I was told that there was an Internet line and I wanted to see if I could stitch a little wireless transmitter into the system to make life easier during the weekend. The old boy running the place spoke about three words of English and my German is none too special but we found a way… He was keen to show me pictures of the great and glorious, who had stayed there in the past. The pictures on the walls revealed an impressive roster including Graham Hill, Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart, Eddie Irvine, Bobby Rahal and, rather incongruously, Princess Anne, the UK’s Princess Royal. It seemed an odd story but there was a picture… He rummaged in a draw and pulled out a programme from the 1970 Austrian GP and cheerfully pointed out his name amongst the list of officials. I didn’t understand the job title so he mimed waving a flag and said “chequered flag”.
Just another day at the races…