The 2017 Hungaroring Classic

Big-time vintage racing comes to Eastern Europe

On August 10, 1986, the newly built Hungaroring hosted the first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix held behind the “Iron Curtain.” Having probably only read or heard about international motor racing, locals relished the opportunity and around 200,000 spectators visited the track just east of Budapest on that opening weekend. Since then, the Hungarian Grand Prix has been a set fixture on the Formula 1 World Championship calendar. On September 29, 2017, history was made once again with the inaugural Hungaroring Classic, the first major historic race held in Eastern Europe.

Running through October 1, the 2017 Hungaroring Classic was organised by French specialists Peter Auto, which stages over half a dozen events per year in and around France. Among its best known meetings are the Le Mans Classic, Tour Auto, and Spa Classic. These are complete events with dedicated grids, predominantly for sports cars from the early 1950s through to the legendary Group C cars. A key word at Peter Auto events is “endurance,” with races of up to two hours for one or two drivers. A new addition for this season has been the Euro F2 Classic race for 1970s Formula 2 cars. Unlike the other races, the pair of F2 heats during the weekend ran for just 20 minutes to better suit the cars.

In addition to the lure of exploring a new racing track, the big draw for the entrants was the city of Budapest itself. Remarkably well preserved, the Hungarian capital is often described as the Paris of the East due to its architecture. The expectations for the track were perhaps not quite as high as, during the coverage of the Formula 1 races, it is often referred to with derision as a “Mickey Mouse circuit” or a “glorified karting track.” This is mainly due to the relatively narrow and twisty nature of the track, which makes it difficult to pass, especially for modern Formula 1 cars. Not surprisingly, we saw many mechanics during the weekend change gearbox ratios for higher acceleration instead of top speed.

The track is indeed narrow and twisty, but upon entering the circuit, we were immediately impressed. What is never well conveyed in television coverage are height differences, so we were pleasantly surprised to see that the track was actually located on two hills with a valley in the middle. It offered drivers quite a challenge, as Peter Auto regular and race winner at the Hungaroring Classic Andrew Beverley explained: “The track is both wonderful and quite punishing. The corners all flow together and require precise placement, line and throttle application to get a lap time as an error in one corner makes you suffer over the next sequence.”

Beverley competed in the two-hour “Sixties’ Endurance” race with his AC Shelby Cobra. While there is the opportunity to change drivers during the mandatory pit stop, he completed the race solo, driving into the dusk on Saturday and taking the outright victory. This is quite a feat on any track, but particularly so at the Hungaroring: “In addition to the technical requirements of getting a time, there are the frequent changes of direction to contend with, no pause, and the need to be precise on the brakes, off the brakes then on the gas again, all this throwing one around the car and putting a physical strain on the driver, particularly in a physical and powerful car like the Cobra. After 2 hours racing that solo around the Hungaroring, I was very ready for a comfortable chair and something cold to drink!”

The long-distance races also provide an opportunity for gentleman racers like Beverley, who usually own their valuable historic racing cars, to be joined by a professional racing driver. They often help the owner improve through coaching, but also allow spectators to see the cars be driven very close to limit. Among the best-known professionals on hand at the Hungaroring was Italian Emanuele Pirro. He has raced in Formula 1 and is a five-time Le Mans winner, but above all, he’s a true enthusiast. It was great to see him in a howling Alfa Romeo 33/3 and a fire-belching Lola T290, both of which he shared with American-Italian owner Gianluca Rattazzi.

Traditionally, Peter Auto events also provide a lot of space in the paddock and track time to enthusiast clubs. The Hungarians made the most of that, as an estimated 500 collector cars and motorcycles were proudly displayed in the vast space reserved for them. This offered us an insight into Hungarian car culture, which clearly leans towards luxurious, particularly German, machinery. There were also less common cars on display, like Russian Volgas and Ladas. Not only could inquisitive spectators get up close and personal with the club cars, the open nature of event also allowed them to get a detailed look at the racing cars in the paddock.

Like they did 31 years ago, local enthusiasts relished at the opportunity to see history in the making as over 20,000 spectators spent at least a day at the track. For Peter Auto events, these figures are usually only matched at legendary venues like Le Mans and Spa Francorchamps. Between the action on the track and the many club displays, the visitors will certainly have had a great time. Beverley explained it best: “I thought the track, organization, atmosphere, welcome of the locals and the pleasure of staying and eating out in that magnificent city all contributed to it being one of the best racing weekends we have had. Worth noting that I said this before I had won the 60s (ed: Sixties’ Endurance) on Saturday evening!”