Hungary 1986: When F1 Peered through the Iron Curtain

Formula 1 is an anomaly in that it has often travelled to places in spite of real world political and cultural differences being problematic. This was the case in 1986, when F1 returned to Hungary after a fifty year absence and peered through the iron curtain of the Soviet Union.

The race attracted of 200,000 fans, a record that stood for over a decade until the 1997 Australian Grand Prix. Drivers and teams were impressed with not only how beautiful Budapest was, but also the similarities found between the West and the Eastern Bloc. Ayrton Senna’s teammate at Lotus at the time was Johnny Dumfries, he said,

It was an interesting first for Formula 1 to visit the Eastern Bloc. I liked the circuit, because it was new for everybody, but I didn’t feel very secure in the team. I had many mechanical failures already that season and it was not easy being Senna’s teammate. I was unsure of my position for the following year, which was not the best situation for a driver! Finishing 5th made me very happy. I felt I should have finished 4th, but I remember I was very tired towards the end of the race. It was very hot and the circuit is quite physical. Stefan Johansson was catching me and I made a mistake, which allowed him to get past.

– Johnny Dumfries

The race itself was a Brazilian thriller, with pole sitter Senna losing out to Nelson Piquet’s Williams with an emphatic overtake on opposite lock around the outside of the first corner, a place on the track that remains a hotspot for overtakes given its wide entry and exit.

The September edition of the Motorsport Magazine from 1986 took its hat off to how the race weekend itself was conducted. A journalist reporting on the Grand Prix wrote,

“When mention was first made about a possible Hungarian Grand Prix being entered on the 1986 FISA World Championship calendar, most people raised their eyebrows briefly and took little notice.

However, through the enthusiasm of the Hungarian Automobile Federation and the commercial initiative of the Formula One Constructors Association, a deal was struck to bring this most capitalist of professional sports to the Eastern Bloc. Budapest was a wealthy watering home for the rich and socially prominent.

The result is a modern, well laid-out and splendidly organised facility rather reminiscent of the new Spanish Jerez track. But, although the drivers complained that the Hungaroring was lacking some fast corners and a really long straight, the organisation was sharper and more efficient than at Jerez. I can never recall a brand new circuit staging its inaugural Championship Grand Prix with as little fuss and as few teething troubles as the Hungaroring did.

All the practice sessions began on time with military precision, the officials were courteous and, in the main, overwhelmingly considerate. Also a lot of people went to the Eastern Bloc imagining that the circuit might well be policed by armed soldiers all over the place. But there were far fewer than, say, at Monza and the crowd was well behaved and disciplined.”

Formula 1’s ignorance to global affairs was beneficial, as it allowed a new audience to enjoy the sport, and would go on to establish a legacy in Hungary. Hungarian fans remain the most active, with Google analytics confirming that Hungarians search for F1 related content more often than any other nationality.

In 1986, Hungary was regularly reported as a communist state in which normal people felt threatened and hopeless about their situation. Socioeconomic pressures within the country were already taking place, and a revolution was stirring at the time of the Grand Prix. Hungary began to suffer from inflation, which particularly hurt people on fixed incomes. Hungary ran a massive foreign debt, and poverty became widespread. A survey from 1986 cites that 61% of the Hungarian population described their position as hopeless or continually worsening.

In 2017, the only constant to the time in which F1 first entered the iron curtain is the promise of excellent racing and the buzz of the Hungaroring, one of the most eventful tracks on the calendar.