FEATURE

Why I look forward to ... the Hungarian Grand Prix

What with the heat and dust, not to mention a tendency towards processional racing around the endlessly twisty Hungaroring, you might imagine that a trip to Hungary in mid-August is not something to be recommended. You would be wrong, though, because this is a race which you should visit at least once in your life, not just for the infectiously enthusiastic atmosphere of the Grand Prix but also because the spectacular city of Budapest makes up for all the shortcomings of the race track.

The Hungarian capital is two separate communities. Buda and Pest, on opposite sides of the mighty Danube, offer wide avenues, river walks and lots of ridiculously ornate public buildings. The city took some serious punishment from Soviet artillery in the final weeks of World War 2, but an expensive programme of renovation has put the sparkle back into the skyline.

The only snag with Hungary is that the locals are a little too keen to get their hands on the tourists' money. Predictably, the hoteliers hike their prices when F1 comes into town, and they're not above adding 50 per cent to the bill for letting you park your car next to the rubbish bins in the basement. You only find out about the extra charge some weeks later, when it mysteriously appears on your credit card bill.

But the hotels are not alone in resorting to piracy. Watch out in the street for the plain clothes "policemen" who ask to check your wallet to make sure you haven't got any counterfeit forints, and be careful on the underground, too. One year I was stopped by two official-looking ladies, in full uniform, who claimed my companion and I had changed trains without buying the right ticket. They spoke convincingly good English (which suggested to me that they were deliberately targeting tourists) and eventually extracted 20 quid from me as a "fine." I still don't know if they were genuine.

If you decide to take a taxi instead of the tube, make sure before you set off that it's fitted with a working meter. Today, most of the taxis are reasonably modern cars, so at least you won't repeat an unpleasant experience I had in 1987. On the way to an elegant reception, dressed in my finest, I climbed into a cab from the rank outside my hotel. It turned out to be some East German horror, powered by a smoky two-stroke engine which leaked fumes into the passenger area and left my clothes and hair smelling of engine oil for the rest of the night.

The Hungaroring celebrated 20 years as an F1 venue exactly a year ago. Back in 1986, the prospect of going behind the Iron Curtain for a Grand Prix was pretty exciting. The country was already moving towards complete independence, but it would be another four years before the Berlin Wall came down, and at that time there were still thousands of Russian military "advisers" resident there.

Armed with a tourist guide, on my first night in Budapest I made a beeline for a turn-of-the-century restaurant which was as famous for its magnificent silver gilt decor as for its food. It came as quite a shock to find all the best tables occupied by senior Soviet army officers, most of them carrying side arms and accompanied by improbably blonde local women. I've been back since, and you'll not be surprised to learn that prices have soared since the Russkies left town.

Summer dining in Budapest tends to involve fruit soups, noodles and an almost obligatory slice of fried goose liver. You can avoid this by searching out one of the many non-Hungarian ethnic establishments, like the Chinese place I discovered three years ago. Goose liver wasn't on the menu, but I strongly suspect that the waitress, a cute little number who constantly eyed our table while hitching up her skirt, was.

The editor reports entering a Budapest restaurant where he and his party were seated and copies of the menu were distributed. Once everyone had made their choice, the waiter was summoned. Instead of writing down the orders, though, he just shrugged his shoulders and announced, "sorry, all we've got is goulash."

The most daunting aspect of eating out in Hungary is the ubiquity of the gipsy violin orchestra. These guys are to be found everywhere, invariably led by a fiddle player with pleading eyes which virtually demand you to hand over a tip. Never accept an invitation from a gipsy band to make a request. I was dining with Ukyo Katayama one year when we were asked if we wanted to put in a request.

"This will be good," smirked Ukyo, who asked for some obscure Japanese song, confident that it was unknown in eastern Europe. He was wrong, of course, and we had to put up with three agonising minutes as the band grappled with their leader's interpretation of "My Old Yokohama Home." Ukyo was then shamed into handing over a substantial wad of folding.

Winning at the Hungaroring requires good brakes and cooling, top reliability and lots of sweat. Not many of the GPs there have been exactly memorable, mainly because the nature of the circuit discourages drivers from straying off the line into the dusty areas where their tyres pick up rubbish and lose all their grip.

Somewhat bizarrely, the first GP at the Hungaroring, in 1986, provided one of its most memorable moments. It involved two Brazilian arch-rivals, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna, who were involved in a tense battle for the lead. Senna's Lotus had got in front at the start, but Piquet was determined to put his Williams ahead, and he decided that the long downhill run to the slow first corner was the right place to do it.

Senna, of course, resisted fiercely. But Piquet sold him a dummy on the inside and made his move round the outside. By the time he got to the apex of the corner he was ahead, but still going a touch too fast. Somehow he gathered everything together in a big opposite-lock slide, and the race was his.

After seeing that, most of us journalists concluded that the Hungaroring was a promising race track. Unfortunately, there have been few moments since then to match it. One honourable exception took place in the 1989 GP, when Nigel Mansell contrived to pass half the field to win magnificently for Ferrari. Veteran journalists still relish the moment when he snatched the lead from Senna by trapping him behind a slower car.

Senna won three times in Hungary, but it can hardly have been his favourite race track. In 1990 he found himself stuck behind Thierry Boutsen for almost the entire race distance, utterly unable to find a way past the Belgian's doggedly-driven Williams-Renault. It should be mentioned here that the two men were neighbours in Monaco and had become good friends.

In parc ferme afterwards, Senna approached Boutsen. "You were blocking me all the way, complained the Brazilian: "it was so bad that I thought about pushing you off. In fact, if you hadn't been my best friend I WOULD have pushed you off."

"Yes," said Boutsen, "I know."

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