Fifty years after it first raced at a mountainside track on an airfield at Zeltweg and 11 years since it last visited the neighbouring village of Spielberg, Formula One is back in Austria. And it’s back with a bang, too, with the latest incarnation of the race being hosted at our home circuit, the Red Bull Ring.
While the track remains largely the same as when F1 last visited the Spielberg circuit in 2003, the trackside facilities have been massively upgraded with state-of-the-art grandstands, and pit and paddock building being constructed in order to turn the track into a truly world-class racing venue.
The circuit, though, isn't the only draw. The Red Bull Ring is located in a very, very pretty part of the world – the Styria region of Austrian. OK it's a fair old distance from the nearest major airport (about 200km and a two-hour drive from Vienna and one hour from Graz airport) but once you arrive you'll be treated to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country. Styria is at the foot of the Alps, so in summer this is a land of verdant fields, sparkling lakes, lush forests and stunning mountain views.
That means that before or after the race weekend you need to get out and about and back to nature. We're talking about superb hiking, cycling, mountain-biking opportunities. Even gold is catered for with some great courses. In terms of getting to the track bank on driving from Vienna and then bank on having to drive to the circuit from either Graz or if you're luckier from one of Spielberg's outlying villages. Accommodation-wise, it's all about small guesthouses, family-run hotels and private houses. It's not a region of clustered five-star hotels next to the circuit. But that's part of the attraction. It's rural, mountainous and breathtakingly beautiful. Back in the day the Austrian Grand Prix was always one looked forward to for its relaxed nature and homespun charm. And now with the race at the Red Bull Ring it should be a mix of the relaxed and the riotous – a bit like pulling on a pair of comfy old slippers and then climbing on board a rocket ship.
You only need two words to describe the Red Bull Ring track – short and fast. Carved from the centre section of the old Österreichring, what was the A1 Ring and is now the Red Bull Ring consists of just nine corners spread over a 4.326km distance. Connecting those nine slow and medium-speed corners are a range of high-speed straights and curves that, in the Austrian GP's last incarnation, led to over 70 per cent of the lap being run at full throttle. Whether that will be the case with 2014's hybrid power units remains to be seen but you can be sure that because of the power hungry nature of the circuit, powerplants will get a good workout here. The stresses will also be heightened by altitude of the circuit, about 700m above sea level, which means that the turbos of all cars will spin at a higher rate to compensate for the low ambient pressure.
Historically, this circuit has been right up there in terms of speed, with Michael Schumacher's win F1 last visit here in 2003 being achieved at an average race speed of 213km/h. As an indicator, Rubens Barrichello's 2003 win at fast and flowing Silverstone came at an average speed of 208km/h, so the Red Bull Ring is a proper flat-out blast from start to finish.
Everything around the race should be a bit of a blast as well. As is the Red Bull way facilities at the track are top notch and as it's the team's home race, at a track owned by Red Bull, the kitchen sink is being thrown at the weekend in terms of stuff to enjoy when there's no racing on track. Not only will there be a fantastic race day parade of vintage racing machinery driven by all the surviving Austrian grand prix racers (including Gerhard Berger and Dr Helmut Marko) but there'll be aerobatics displays by the Flying Bulls, motorcycle daredevilry from the riders of the Red Bull X-Fighters World Tour and more aerial magic courtesy of Red Bull Air Race legend Peter Besenyei.
In all, it's going to be a cracker of a weekend, full of eye-popping action both on and off the track. Add in the fantastic surroundings and some top notch Austrian hospitality and you couldn't ask for a better grand prix experience.
EATING & DRINKING
Austrian cuisine is traditionally hearty fare designed to keep you properly fuelled while trudging up an alp or two and while that excellent and filling food is still on the menu of many a gasthaus and restaurant, the Green Heart of Austria is also at the culinary cutting edge with some superb restaurants taking advantage of the great seasonal produce grown locally. Oh yeah, this is Austria, so there's also a lot of good beer on tap as well and some great wine. Here are a few of our favourite Styrian haunts.
Café Wassertum & Bar, Bundesstrasse 15, 8740 Zeltweg
T: 43 3577 22601-1400
At Café Wasserturm, the combination of tradition and contemporary style creates a special synergy. Located in Zeltweg it has undergone extensive renovation and redesign to create a comfortable café and stylish bar. With an attractive glass front and unique panoramic view of the region, Café Wassertum is an ideal place to spend relaxing afternoons or evenings chatting with friends.
EL1 Bar Im Lanhaus, Landhausgasse 1, 8010 Graz
T: 43 3168 30083
Part of the El Gaucho in Landhaus steakhouse the EL1 bar features a fridge with over 200 chilled wines, an equally superb selection of red wines, and a great selection of cocktails. Mix with some great DJs and the recipe is one that lasts into the wee small hours.
Skybar am Schlossberg, Am Schlossberg 7, 8010 Graz
T: 43 3168 40000
A great bar and restaurant and the views, from 464 metres over the roofs of Graz's old town, are simply breathtaking. A must-visit.
Die Burg, Burgstrasse 1, 8724 Spielberg
T: 43 3577 221675
Die Burg has been the most atmospheric party address in Spielberg for decades. You will be thrilled by the extraordinary architecture and flair and of course by the music.
Kottulinsky, Beethovenstrasse 9, 8010 Graz
T: 43 676 8807688
The well preserved, majestic architecture of the ancient building of Palais Kottulinsky envelops a bar featuring youthful design and state-of-the-art technologies in terms of music, lighting, and ventilation. The bar in Kottulinsky represents a remembrance of the past and the epitome of modernity.
Three Monkeys, Elisabethstrasse 31, 8010 Graz
T: 43 699 13198103
Housed inside an old, vaulted cellar, Three Monkeys is one of the University district's best watering holes. Cosy and relaxed, the 26-metre-long bar offers plenty of room for hanging out with friends.
FIVE STYRIAN MUST-DOs
1.Go Hiking. Right, you've spent the race weekend gorging on food and drink and being pummeled by the sound of a variety of racing machinery thundering around the Red Bull Ring. The comedown? Go hiking. Seriously, there are few more beautiful places on the planet than Styria to go for a bloody long walk. There are countless walks to have a go at but if you fancy one within a reasonable shout of the track then Koralm Crystal Trail is a good 70km+ route of medium difficulty. More info at www.steiermark.com
2. Get Well. The Green Heart of Austria, as Styria is known, is renowned for its spas and health resorts where you can slough off the stresses and strains of the weekend (and recover from the excesses) and get your mojo back. There are loads of superb spas dotted across the region but the closest to the track and one of the nicest is at the Hotel G'schlössl Murtal. More info at www.gschloessl-murtal.at. Also recommended is the Aqualux Therme Fohnsdorf, which is great for kids as well, www.therme-aqualux.at
3. Explore Old Graz. Graz is about 70km south of Spielberg and is a charming little city, made all the more appealing by it's beautiful Old-Town, which is the heart and soul of the city. Encompassing the city's mountain, former fortifications, charming alleyways, medieval building facades as well as extraordinary modern architecture, it is a living museum with a modern twist. It's also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.
4. Get Artistic. Graz's art museum opened its doors in 2003 as part of the city's year as European Capital of Culture. Designed by Peter Cook and Colin Fournier the biomorphous shape of the building has led to it being christened the Friendly Alien by locals. Inside is an amazing space dedicated to exhibitions of Austrian and international art from 1960 onwards. Definitely a must-visit place.
5. Get to a vineyard. It might not be a world-famous wine producer like France, Italy or Australia but Austrian wine is pretty damned good. Styria is particularly known for its excellent white wines and 77% of vineyards here are devoted to make white wine. The remaining 23% is split fairly evenly between reds and Austria's unique rosé Schilcher. Check out www.austrianwine.com for more details.