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Austria faces F1 farewell

The hills will be alive with the sound of Formula One engines for the last time at this year's Austrian Grand Prix.

Austrians have been told that their grand prix will be struck off the 2004 calendar to make way for new venues and Sunday's race at the picturesque A1 Ring is scheduled as a farewell.

"We'll be racing for the last time in Spielberg on May 18 this year -- then it's over," Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone said last January in a decision heavily influenced by European anti-tobacco legislation.

Surviving winners, including local hero Niki Lauda, have been invited to mark the end of an era at a circuit that stands out for its chocolate-box backdrop of Alpine meadows, pine forests and snowy peaks.

"You expect Julie Andrews and the entire Von Trapp family to come over the hills around the track," former television commentator Murray Walker once said of the 'Sound of Music' scenery.

Spielberg, in the southern province of Styria, is farming country where cow bells ring out in the pastures and the smell of manure hangs heavy in the air.

Lauda, triumphant with McLaren in 1984 and the last home driver to win, says the race is simply different. "The cows are running around all over the place, there's a completely different rhythm and way of life," he once said.

"What I like best is the atmosphere. You don't live in a random hotel but on a farm where the chickens wake you in the morning."


Austria is not only cows and chickens.

In 1987, Sweden's Stefan Johannson hit a deer in his McLaren at 250 kph during practice at the old Oesterreichring. The car careered into the barriers and burst into flames. Little remained of the animal.

In 1961, on the eve of the first non-championship Austrian Grand Prix at the old Zeltweg airfield, Briton Innes Ireland shot a stag. He described the return to his lodgings in his memoirs 'All Arms and Elbows'.

"The inside of the house was incredibly gloomy, so much so that I tripped over the chickens in the kitchen and bumped into the odd cow before I had gone more than a few steps."

Ireland later celebrated winning the race by climbing the spire of nearby Judenburg church.

Much has changed since those heady days but Formula One regulars, some of them multi-millionaires used to more pampered surroundings, still look forward to their rural Austrian excursion before Monaco.

"The thing about Austria is that it is out in the country, really farming country, and that I like because tracks in Formula One should be different," said Williams technical director Patrick Head.

He recalled his introduction to the bucolic charms of the high-speed Oesterreichring which opened in 1969.

"There was the most unbelievable smell in the room, it was absolutely horrific," he said of his farmhouse lodgings. "It turned out that it was the room of the son of the house and his working boots were in the cupboard.

"He must have used them every day for about 10 years because they were unbelievable."


The Oesterreichring saw some memorable races before it was dropped at the end of 1987 and replaced as a shadow of its former self by the A1 Ring, named after a local telephone company, 10 years later.

The 1975 grand prix was won by Italian journeyman driver Vittorio Brambilla after it ended prematurely in a downpour. The outcome stunned him as much as anyone else and he crashed his March while waving excitedly.

In 1987, future world champion Nigel Mansell won.

After the race he banged his head on a metal beam as he headed for the interview room and roared in pain as Walker unthinkingly stabbed his finger at the throbbing forehead before an audience of millions.

Last year, the howls of outrage reverberated worldwide after Ferrari ordered Brazilian Rubens Barrichello to move over for Michael Schumacher for the second year running.

While Austrians still hope for a future return to the calendar, the circuit with its uphill start and corners named after locals Lauda, Jochen Rindt and Gerhard Berger will be missed by many of the drivers.

"It's a funny little circuit to drive because there are not many corners," said McLaren's David Coulthard, a winner in 2001. "But usually it has given some interesting results in the races and incidents. From a track point of view it is not as great a loss, I'm afraid to say, as somewhere like Spa.

"But as an event on the calendar my impression is that the local people have been very friendly, very welcoming and certainly I will miss having that on the calendar."

By Alan Baldwin © Reuters

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