Why the First Hungarian Grand Prix Was A Big Deal

Ayrton Senna Lotus 98T Hungarian Grand Prix 1986 RaceDepartment.jpg
The Hungarian Grand Prix is a mainstay on the Formula One calendar: When teams take to the track close to Budapest this weekend, it will be the 38th time the event is part of the World Championship. The first time F1 set up shop at the Hungaroring in 1986 was rather special, and not just for a single reason.

Today, the Hungaroring being absent from the F1 calendar is almost unthinkable - initially, the Hungarian GP being on it seemed improbable, however: After the only other Hungarian Grand Prix in 1936, won by Tazio Nuvolari, 1986 would mark the return of the race after 50 years. A brand new circuit had been constructed in just eight months to host the F1 circus - all while the Cold War was still ongoing, though in its final years, as it would turn out.

Remember, this was in the days of the Iron Curtain, which separated Europe into East and West - and F1 was very much centered around Western countries. In fact, not a single team or driver on the grid were rooted in Eastern Europe at the time. The Soviet Union's economy had started to decline around the time, and relations between East and West started to slightly improve again. Still, there was skepticism between the two sides.

Bernie's Biggest Coup?​

To stage a race behind the Iron Curtain despite the circumstances can be regarded as one of Bernie Ecclestone's biggest coups as a result: Having steered the promotional side of F1 since 1978, the Briton managed for the World Championship to break through the boundaries of world politics - three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even five years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. What helped matters was the eagerness of Budapest to promote tourism.

racingcircuits.info Hungaroring 1986-88 Track Map.png

The initial layout of the Hungaroring, including the stop-gap chicane after Turn 2 that finally got bypassed in 1989. Image credit: racingcircuits.info

The significance of the initial Hungarian GP should be obvious, and 200.000 spectators seemed to think so as well - this marked a new attendance record for a Grand Prix, and it would stand for almost ten years until the final Australian Grand Prix at Adelaide in 1995 surpassed it.

While the Hungaroring is known for being notoriously hard to pass at, the initial event certainly was not indicative of that - and this was despite the circuit layout featuring a cumbersome chicane after Turn 2 that was not even planned to be there initially. During construction of the track, a spring in the spot of the eventual straight following Turn 3 derailed things. It would take until 1989 until the underground water source had been reigned in enough to construct the originally planned layout, bypassing the chicane, which is still there but not used for racing purposes today.

Senna and Piquet Battle for Victory​

Despite this chicane making the circuit even twistier than it already was, the then-record crowd was treated to a titanic battle between Brazilian compatriots Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet: Approaching the final portion of the race, the three-time World Champion was desperate to get by the up-and-coming start in his Lotus for the race lead. Piquet initially tried an overtake in Turn 1, but slid wide and had get back in line behind Senna. On the following lap, the Williams driver pulled off an unbelievable pass on the outside of Senna going into Turn 1 again, kicking out the rear of his FW11.

Piquet would go on to win the race ahead of Senna, who had been on pole position in qualifying and finished in second, over 17 seconds behind Piquet, whose teammate Nigel Mansell rounded out the podium. The race proved to be tough, as only ten cars were classified, the final one being Jonathan Palmer's Zakspeed at six laps down. 14 of the 16 retirements were due to technical issues.

Few Passes, Upset Wins​

In the following years, the Hungaroring would go on to establish a reputation for processional races, with few highlights in between. There were memorable editions, however, such as the 1998 event where Ferrari's Ross Brawn switched Michael Schumacher to a three-stop strategy in the middle of the race, with Schumacher delivering qualifying laps with sheer unbelievable consistency to make the strategy work and win the race. Jenson Button's debut F1 win in 2006 is another, with rain affecting the race for the first time in its history. Damon Hill got within a lap of winning the race in an Arrows in 1997 but was overtaken by Jacques Villeneuve after suffering a technical issue.

The cornerstone to all of these races was laid in the mid-1980s, though, with the improbable being made possible - Formula One races behind the Iron Curtain. In sim racing, the Hungaroring is available in the F1 games, of course, as well as in Assetto Corsa Competizione and as an rFactor 2 mod, as well as in older simulations. The 1986-88 layout can be raced in Assetto Corsa, among others, for which an updated version has recently been posted to RaceDepartment by @Rainmaker_87 .

Your Thoughts​

What do you think about the origins of the Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring? Do you enjoy the track as it is today? What are your favorite moments involving the circuit? Let us know in the comments below!
About author
Yannik Haustein
Lifelong motorsport enthusiast and sim racing aficionado, walking racing history encyclopedia.

Sim racing editor, streamer and one half of the SimRacing Buddies podcast (warning, German!).

Heel & Toe Gang 4 life :D


In 2023, Hungarian GP is part of F1 hypocrisy, preaching about sustainability while making business with a pro-Russian regime. Hungary should have no place in F1 calendar.
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But the article fails to mention Fernando's first win from 2003, Hill's from 1993, as well as one and only wins for Ocon and Kovalainen.
I am raised behind the so called Iron Curtain so i know it was a big deal. Ok as young kid i did not think about the politics behind it, but it was something very special to see the "western world" And i have read allot about it many years later.

I do not suppose many people note or comment this article, but i find it very interesting. Just good journalism this time :thumbsup:
It's not my favorite circuit or even close to be in the group of the ones I like more, but I always found it enjoyable since the GP1 days on a keyboard. It also has a fascinating trend of creating stories to tell, which is why I always consider this GP as a must-watch every time, even with some tepid editions in-between.
In 1986 I was 8 and we got our first color TV for the football World Cup in Mexico, the last time the Hungarian team was present till this date (I hate football/soccer, It's kind of satisfying to see that despite all the money they get, it's all wasted but don't want to talk politics here) but more importantly we bought all kinds of print magazines getting ready for the first Hungarian GP.

I remember that we watched it live on TV, though I would lie if I'd say that I remember anything about it apart from Senna getting pole and Piquet winning - although watching back that overtake maneuver, man, it was great...

I do remember though the 1998 race, it was awesome and also 1997... it became a meme in Hungary as the main commentator was asking: Hova tunt Damon Hill? (translation: Where did Damon Hill go/disappear?)

Also, there were 2 Hungarian GPs for bikes, back in 1990 and 1992. The Hungaroring was the place of the first win not just for Hill, Alonso, Button, Kovalainen or Ocon but also for some Australian dude called Mick Doohan in 1990, while Eddie Lawson achieved the very first Cagiva win in 1992.

If we're talking bikes, the Hungaroring was also featured in the inaugural World Superbike Championship in 1988 and remained on the calendar in 1989 and 1990.

(if it wouldn't be clear, I was born and raised in Hungary :))
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In 1986 i was 3,5 years old when the GP was held and i still remember parts of it. F1 was always a family tv thing when i grew up till the late 90s, early 2000s. And for my whole family it was kinda a big thing that there is a F1 race held in Hungary. It's quite satisfying when you get some history on some memories from your childhood. :thumbsup:

I grew up not far from the border to hungary and i remember a couple of occasions where i drove with my granddad and uncle to the border to see the watchtowers and barbed wire fence.
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In 1986 I was 8 and we got our first color TV for the football World Cup in Mexico, the last time the Hungarian team was present till this date
THIS. pure nostalgia :inlove:
I was 10, Still remember as best World Cup of my life ...Mexico 86`.... Hungary with Lajos Detari ??! I am right ? :geek:

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