This is how five-time World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio did NOT manage to design the first Formula One track behind the Iron Curtain.
[Juan Manuel Fangio, 5-time World Champion with five different teams. The greatest of the greats - image is of Creative Commons licence]
It was the year 1976. James Hunt and Niki Lauda were “busting each other’s balls” for the world title on Formula 1 race tracks around the world, including one in the latter’s home country, Austria. It was the first F1 race to be broadcast live in neighbouring Hungary as it was that period when Bernie Ecclestone started selling off the broadcasting rights to the Grands Prix.
[The 1976 Austrian Grand Prix saw the absence of homeboy Niki Lauda, as he was still recovering from his life-threatening injuries suffered at the Nürburgring]
The race went slightly overtime and the Hungarian National Television schedule organizers took it off the screen to make way for the following programme, thus the audience didn’t manage to see John Watson scoring Team Penske’s only win in Formula One. This engraged the viewers enough to write the TV station letters in masses, but it was also a positive feedback on the impact Formula One racing had on Hungarian people.
The very same month, five-time Formula One World Champion and overall legend of Argentina, Juan Manuel Fangio took a visit in Hungary - as invited by Dezső Kiss, chairman of the Hungarian Auto Club.
As it was already proposed, Hungary was planning their own F1 race, spotting the eye-candy location of Lake Velence (i.e. “Venice”) to the South-West of Budapest, near the town of Pákozd.
[Lake Velence, the third largest natural lake in Hungary, site of some of the most expensive real estates. It was mosty likely named after masons and architects from Venice living in the area, who were invited to design some of Buda’s famous buildings in the 15th century.]
One motoring journalist, Ervin Eszterváry recalls the legend’s visit:
Dezső Kiss - chairman of the Hungarian Auto Club - was very keen on motorsports, he invited Juan Manuel Fangio to Budapest. He spent four days in town, during which he was guided around in the Club’s own Lada 1600 car and the chairman’s personal BMW 3-series. It was the first time talks started about bringing Formula One to Hungary. The track would have been close to Lake Velence, near Pákozd. An excellent designer, István Papp - who later went on to design the Hungaroring as well - already planned out the circuit. Fangio was asked by the Auto Club to be a supervisor on the project. He was very forthcoming and it was apparent he knew all race tracks around the world inside out. He said he would be happy to help, but unfortunately all plans went bust.
First of all, I would like you invite you to stop for a brief moment and imagine Fangio in a 70s BMW 3-series and then him in a Lada. Of course, he was only a passenger, but he started out as a stock car driver. It is fantastic to play with the thought of the legend in a communist car, but you might wonder why the plan didn’t turn out as planned.
Soon after, Dezső Kiss got an imperatorial phone call from Lajos Czinege, Minister of War, pressing that no noisy cars can disrupt the recreational activities of comrades around Lake Venice.
It goes without saying that the weekend well-being of the members of the Party (the only one, for that matter) was a lot more important, but it meant Fangio couldn’t supervise the design of the first Formula 1 track behind the Iron Curtain in front of a scenic backdrop.
[Portrero de los Funes Circuit in Argentina - what the first iteration of the Hungaroring could have ended up if it was up to Fangio - image source]
Fangio came across as a very kind, very informal person, whose professional experience and humility shined through all of his being.
The story has an ever-ironic epilogue. Bernie Ecclestone first visited Budapest in 1983 and had a good look at the backdrop consisting of buildings designed by said architects from Venice, over four hundred years before. He then believed had found the perfect venue for an F1 race. The city declined. He returned for a second time and was shown around in Népliget park, where the first Hungarian Grand Prix was held in 1936. It would have meant cutting down a few trees. The preservationists declined. He then returned for a third time and was shown around an empty field to the East of Budapest - which is the site of the Hungaroring - he was declined first by none other than Lajos Czinege, Minister of War again, because the valley was his favourite hunting place.
Eventually the Hungaroring was built, the first communist Grand Prix race kicked of in 1986 and is now celebrating its 30th run with the current contract running until 2021 - by which time the Hungarian Grand Prix will be one year shy of being part of half of all of the history of the Formula One World Championship.
[a documentary detailing the story of the Hungaroring - from breaking ground until the first F1 race; no need to understand the narration; simply stunning how the track grew out of nothing accompanied by the visual terror of the pre-race pageantry]
Only knowing that Juan Manuel Fangio could have drawn a few exciting curves next to a lake makes it somewhat bittersweet.