Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Hungarian Grand Prix Drivers

May 15th, 1938 was a sad day for Hungarian motorsport. László Hartmann died of his injuries suffered at the Tripoli Grand Prix. With him, a great amount of hope had died as well. No one seemed to follow him down victory lane. With post-war communism blowing the doors on the country a decade later, Grand Prix and Formula 1 remained a legend no one was allowed to talk about. Until one day.

This is the brief story of the Hungarian Grand Prix drivers.

While Hungary has always been successful in rallying, touring car races, Grand Prix competitions seemed truly like a Nirvana out of reach of the imagination. This was a false belief, though, as the Central European country started off with the biggest bang motorsport has seen up to this day.

June 26, 1906. Unknowingly, there is history in the making for motorsport in general. The first French Grand Prix is about to start at Le Mans. The origin and prototype of Formula 1 and the Le Mans 24 hours as well.
Hungarian driver, Ferenc Szisz - great friend of the Renault family and racing engineer and of the factory's competition department - is waiting for the start. He has a great racing experience by completing various motor racing events in recent years, including the Vanderbilt Cup in the USA. This time it is different, as Reanult is in top shape and they are on their home ground at the first event organised by the French Automobile Club.

A two-day endurance event torturing drivers and cars as well, the Renault and Szisz make their stand.

Unbelievable and surprising result for Renault, France and Hungary. With a half-hour lead, Szisz wins the race, with Michelin's ingenious input in the tyre-design.

This single event marked a major blow in motorsports as factories realize the great marketing opportunities in such events. Szisz himself returned for next year's French Grand Prix as well, finishing second. Shortly after he retired racing at such big events and motorsports in general, later on. He died in peace in 1944.

In the years to come there seemed to be noone continuing the legacy of Ferenc Szisz. Partly because history stepped in with WWI and Hungarians weren't much welcomed on international level. There were private competitors in the late '30s, like István de Sztrika (1938 Swiss Grand Prix competitor - Alfa Romeo) or Count Ernő Festetics (10th at the German Grand Prix of 1937 - Maserati) - son of the then fascist leader. Interestingly, the latter got into a bar fight earlier with the son Dunlop Tyres founder, James Dunlop junior in a Budapest night club, both rolling down the stairs.

László Hartmann hadn't been considered much. Even his driving instructor advised him to get a chauffeur, he was that terrible. In the late '20s though, he evolved into an unbeatable champion of the hills surrounding Budapest. In the early '30s he got his chance to qualify to a Grand Prix event with his newly acquired Bugatti, and from that moment on, every race he entered and finished was regiestered around the 7th-8th position, right behind the huge factory teams of Germany and Italy.

 Hartmann in his white Bugatti T35B, at the 1933 Monaco Grand Prix

In 1935, he switched to Maserati 8CM cars, competing on the hardest tracks yet seen. His fame was so high in his own country, that the first Hungarian Grand Prix was held in 1936:

In 1937 he finished 7th on one of the most fearsome tracks ever built, the AVUS, which made Maserati thanking his achievement personally in a letter. He was everywhere from Sweden, through the Copa Ciano,the Nürburgring, South Africa, etc. On 1938 it all ended in a crash at the Tripoli Grand Prix, breaking his spine and dying in the hospital later on.

It was a mournful day for Hungarian motor racing. Especially because history put its death penalty on all future  international Grand Prix hopes. Following WWII, the communist regime took over and dissociated itself from such 'imperialist opium'. The walls were holding tight for decades, but the cracks soon appeared.

Following the 1956 revolution, the Communist Party found that endless supression cannot be viable, the leash was let looser. So much, that in 1986 the first Formula 1 Grand Prix was held behind the Iron Curtain on the newly built Hungaroring, marking the second Hungarian GP.

Hopes were in a return. Will there be another Hungarian Grand Prix driver again? And right then, in 1987, something miraculous happened.

Csaba Kesjár was a fearless gokart driver and hill climb racer. His passion was clearly drawing him towards single seaters. The '80s was a golden age in Hungarian motor racing (especially inrallying). The government was putting money into sponsoring young, talented drivers, entering them into international events. Kesjár was clearly an F1 driver in the making, as he was seen in Formula Easter, Formula Ford and the German Formula 3.

At the weekend of the 1987 Hungarian Grand Prix, it all came full circle. his dreams were realised as he got his chance by sitting in the Zakspeed Formula 1 car, giving it a few laps.

Csaba Kesjár in the Zakspeed Formula 1 car on the Hungaroring in 1987

It was history on wheels: the first Hungarian driver in a Grand Prix car half a century later, and the first driver in a Formula 1 car. Unfortunately, this dream was short-lived, too. Due to a brake-failure at the Norisring F3 race in 1988, he suffered fatal injuries, crashing into the tyre-wall.

When Csaba Kesjár was a star in Formula cars, Zsolt Baumgartner was just learning to walk. In the late '90s he was following the same path as Kesjár, and fortunately for him, he had the family background to make his dream realised. In 2002 he was granted a chance to test drive a Jordan F1 car, and in 2003, he became a regular test driver. At the Qualifying of the Hungarian Grand Prix, something terrible and fantastic happened. Ralph Firman crashed and was taken to hospital for an examination. The very first F1 start for a Hungarian driver at the Hungarian Grand Prix, and the second Eastern European in the sport.

Jordan sacked him et the end of the year, but a new contract (highly supported by the state-owned Hungarian Oil Company (MOL)) was in the way with Minardi. Minardi was one of the smallest teams in F1, but many future starts started here, like the two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso.

...and then, in 2004, something truly unexpected happened at the United States Grand Prix in Indianapolis. The first Hungarian F1 point was wainting at the Brickyard. Watch Hungarian commentator, László Palik, losing his mind as Fishicella's car is giving up:

That is history, right there. Later, he joined the Minardi ChampCar team, but the team later retired from the series.

The question is still open since then: who will be the next Hungarian F1 driver? Norbert Michelisz WTCC race winner? Pál Tamás Kiss GP3 racer? That is a story still to be told.

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