Budapest’s secret Grand Prix street circuitS

This Sunday will mark the 75th anniversary of the Hungarian Grand Prix, an event held since…1986. Fifty years before Formula One came to the Hungaroring, there was a Grand Prix race in downtown Budapest with 100,000 people in attendance. The Silver Arrows came. Scuderia Ferrari came. Three-quarters of a century later, we took a walk around Népliget Circuit’s beautiful, abandoned curves.

I first learned of Hungary’s pre-Hungaroring Grand Prix past at a house party hosted by my friend and Jalopnik contributor Erik D’Amato, who had a poster in his apartment advertising the 1936 Hungarian Grand Prix (below). It showed something painted rosso corsa, the outline of Gellért Hill, and the flags of Hungary and the Royal Hungarian Automobile Club. Contrary to what the poster might suggest to those familiar with Budapest’s geography, the track did not trace the Danube’s shores, but was purpose-built for the Grand Prix inside a vast, gloomy park called Népliget (“People’s Park”).

Imagine a New York City Grand Prix held in Central Park and you’ll get a sense of how wonderful that 1936 race must have been, and how wonderful the modern Hungarian Grand Prix could have become. Although the analogy is a bit flawed. Central Park’s Budapest twin would be the Városliget (“City Park”), the

Budapest’s secret Grand Prix street circuitS

family-friendly backdrop to terabytes of tourist photos. The Népliget is more like Bryant Park from its heroin era, the Városliget’s evil twin. While it’s very close to downtown Budapest, it’s in a somewhat neglected spot, surrounded on all sides by expressways, run-down industrial areas and housing estates. Suffice to say that in the 11 years I’ve lived in Budapest, I’ve never once been inside, and that upon learning that I was planning to walk its abandoned 3.1-mile street circuit, the immediate and independent reaction of two friends was that the Népliget is home to nothing but underage male prostitutes.

That may be the case, but 75 years ago, this was a titanic event in the life of a Hungary hitching its political wagon to an emerging Third Reich, whose Grand Prix cars ruled all. “Magyar szempontból ritka ünnep lesz ez a vasárnap, hiszen mérföldköve lesz annak a korszaknak, mely bennünket is bevezet azoknak az országoknak a sorába, melyek az automobil szempontjából is megérdemlik a kultúrállam jelzőt. (‘This coming Sunday is to be a Hungarian celebration, for it is to be a milestone of the era which shall lead us to join the countries which may call themselves civilized in the automotive manner.’)” was how a period news report described the upcoming race in pompous, prewar Hungarian, according to Sramoa Motorsport Blog.

Budapest’s secret Grand Prix street circuitS

1936 was Auto Union’s breakout year, the season when Bernd Rosemeyer won the European Championship in the V16-powered Auto Union Type C, and it was Rosemeyer who started the 50-lap Grand Prix from pole. Joining him on the front row was fellow Auto Union driver Hans Stuck, with the three Mercedes–Benzes of defending European champion Rudolf Caracciola, Manfred von Brauchitsch and Louis Chiron, the Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeos (right) of Tazio Nuvolari, Antonio Brivio and Mario Tadini, the third Auto Union of Achille Varzi, and two privately entered cars rounding out the grid. One of the latter was local hero László Hartmann in an underpowered Maserati 8CM, taking the fight to the Alfa Romeos and the 500+ hp Silver Arrows.

The summer of 2011 is more German than Hungarian in character, and my first impression of the track was that of a vast forest of giant plane trees, water everywhere, a cold chill more common to Silverstone, the Nürburgring, or Spa-Francorchamps than Hungary. The old start-finish straight is now a public road, traversed by a city bus and flanked by a massive power

Budapest’s secret Grand Prix street circuitS

station. The very sharp right-hander at the end of the straight is one of only two slow corners on the entire circuit, which traces two lazy loops that cover the park’s entire area. The second loop turns with a 90° left-hander back onto the start-finish straight.

There were 100,000 people in attendance on June 21, 1936, including Miklós Horthy, Hungary’s regent, when the race kicked off at 10:30 AM. Rosemeyer got an early lead from pole, followed by the other Auto Union of Stuck, the Mercedeses of von Brauchitsch and Caracciola, and the lone Alfa Romeo of Nuvolari. The Alfa was not his famous P3 but a Grand Prix variant of the chameleonic 8C called the Monoposto 8C 35 Type C. It had a 3.8-liter supercharged straight eight, down on power from the Silver Arrows, but the Népliget Circuit held the promise of playing down their power advantage because of its many corners and lack of long straights. And it was driven by Tazio Nuvolari, who beat all the Germans a year before at the similarly twisty Nürburgring.

Budapest’s secret Grand Prix street circuitS

The track opens up quite a bit beyond the tight start-finish straight. It’s a good 50 feet wide as it starts winding its way into the park. The plane tree saplings supported on three sides by sticks you can see lining the track (top) have survived the ravages of World War II and have grown into silvan giants. They’ve outlived Rosemeyer, who had less than 18 months to live, outlived Caracciola and Nuvolari, who both died in the 1950s, and even outlived Manfred von Brauchitsch, who died at the age of 97 in 2003. Some of the curbstones that flank the track have marks of white paint on them (above), and it’s easy to imagine them dating back to the summer of 1936, when the air here was heavy not with rain but with the acrid tang of period racing fuel, of which Auto Union itself brought 370 gallons for their three cars.

Ten laps after the start, Caracciola overtook Rosemeyer for the lead, but retired six laps later with engine failure, handing the lead back to the mid-engined Auto Union. The order was Rosemeyer, von Brauchitsch, Nuvolari. His underpowered Alfa helped by the circuit’s lack of long straights, which kept the Silver Arrows from stretching their legs, Nuvolari kept putting the pressure on von Brauchitsch, until he made a mistake and let Nuvolari through into second place. Rosemeyer had a 37 second lead at this point. Over the course of three laps, Nuvolari hunted down his 550-hp Auto Union, and passed him for the lead on lap 33, a lead he would hold on to for the remaining 17 laps. Achille Varzi joined Nuvolari and Rosemeyer on the podium, with no Mercedes–Benzes finishing the race. It was one of Tazio Nuvolari’s great, giant-slaying wins, an echo of his performance at the 1935 German Grand Prix, and it was a homecoming of sorts for Alfa Romeo’s racing car designer Vittorio Jano, who was born Viktor János in 1891, the son of Hungarian immigrants in Italy.

More races were scheduled for 1937 and 1938, but they never happened, then World War II and Communism buried Hungary’s Grand Prix dreams for half a century. The track was revisited in

Budapest’s secret Grand Prix street circuitS

the mid-80s by Bernie Ecclestone, who decided on Hungary as the location of Formula One’s first venue behind the Iron Curtain. According to the Hungarian motor racing blog Száguldó cirkusz, Ecclestone was impressed with the track, but safety dictated the felling of several trees (right), which was vetoed by conservationists. The Hungarian Grand Prix ended up moving to the Hungaroring, a brand-new venue in a dust bowl 10 miles from Budapest, which, rumor has it, faced opposition of a very different sort: Communist-era Minister of Defense Lajos Czinege liked to hunt in the area and was worried of the effects of loud racing engines on the well-being of the animals he liked to shoot. The Népliget was forgotten—colonized, apparently, by underage male prostitutes, who did not join us for our track walk—until it was lovingly transcribed into the racing game Grand Prix Legends.

This is how the Hungarian Grand Prix has become this weird little race before Formula One’s summer break, held on a slow, dusty, not particularly scenic track where overtaking is very difficult. That’s not to say it hasn’t had its moments. The first race was in 1986, the crowds were massive, and a young Brazilian by the name of Ayrton Senna, leading the race in an inferior Lotus, was overtaken for the lead with the mother of all blood and thunder sliding passes by Nelson Piquet, who kept his lead to become the winner of the second Hungarian Grand Prix—fifty years after the first.

Image Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv (photo of Rudolf Caracciola leading Bernd Rosemeyer), Guido de Carli (track layout), Peter Orosz (Népliget Circuit in 2011) and unknown (Scuderia Ferrari pits, poster).

Extra special thanks to Gabor “GeeHalen” Vajda of Shiny Red Cars International, who showed us around Népliget Circuit and has written extensively about its history.