Growing up in communist Hungary, my father often told me that the Iron Curtain would fall some day and that I should learn German and English to be ready. In 1982, he decided to send me to Britain to attend an English course. I got pretty excited when I realised that the British Grand Prix would coincide with my stay.
The English course was held at Selwyn House College by the seaside in Broadstairs. Luckily for me, the British Grand Prix was being held that year at Brands Hatch (it was alternating with Silverstone at the time). That weekend, there was to be two excursions – to London on Saturday and to Oxford on Sunday. I made the abrupt decision that instead of Oxford, I would go to Brands Hatch. By any means.
The course began in Broadstairs and I soon made some friends; two medical students from Budapest plus my roommate, who was the same age as me and shared the same first name, Károly. During our downtime, I mainly talked about Formula 1 and my plans to go to the race. Soon enough, I’d convinced my new friends to cancel their trip to Oxford in favour of Brands Hatch.
Living in the Eastern Bloc in the 1980s, things emanating from the West had a kind of golden aura. Everything seemed better, brighter, richer and more interesting. Formula 1 belonged to this field of desire. Even my friends, who were not hardcore fans, felt it would be a unique chance to see something really special. Oxford could wait. Our little troop of Méhes, Mihók, Várnai and Hermann were ready for the challenge.
On Saturday, we all travelled to London in the melting heat to complete the usual touristic route, including Big Ben, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London. Late in the afternoon the others headed back to Broadstairs – and we stayed. I knew that there would be a shuttle to the circuit from Victoria Station, with the first bus departing at 7 am. Till that time, we were free in London.
Since we were saving what little money we had for our British Grand Prix tickets, we just wandered the streets of the metropolis. It was well after midnight when we reached Buckingham Palace. We didn’t know at the time that a few days earlier, a burglar had managed to break into the palace and get into the Queen’s bedroom. When Mihók climbed the fence for a better view, we were swarmed by half a dozen police asking what the hell we were doing there at this time of night!
We decided to call it a night and head for Victoria Station, where our bus was due to depart at 7am. We were tired and in dire need of a toilet. But the train station was closed due to a rail strike, and wouldn’t open until 6am. The things you suffer through for the sake of Formula 1! Finally, the bus departed and we tried to catch up on some sleep.
The 1982 Formula 1 season had been one of the most tragic and unpredictable in the history of the sport. We had already lost Gilles Villeneuve in Belgium and Riccardo Paletti in Canada. The last nine races had been won by six different drivers and no one managed to win more than twice. Ferrari looked good with its 126C2 turbo, the Brabham-BMW turbo was extremely powerful and fast but very fragile, just like the Renault. Of the “old” brigade with normally aspirated engines, McLaren was doing well and Williams had showed some promising signs.
The crowd at the circuit was huge and it was already very hot. I couldn’t believe that I was actually there, one of the fans, rather than watching at home on ORF, the Austrian broadcaster. Our standing tickets cost us 10 pounds, including the race programme. For me, everything was pure Formula 1. The sweat, the dust, the empty beer cans all around, the merchandise tents full of F1 gadgets I couldn’t afford. I grabbed what I could; advertising leaflets, free stickers, even printed materials lying on the ground. I took a few pics with my pocket camera – almost none of them worth keeping. Slowly we moved to a place from where we could see part of the straight coming towards the Clark curve which lead to the start/finish line. We watched the support races featuring Rovers and Ford Sierras, then a Harrier jet appeared – hovering in the air above us, to our astonishment!
Preparations for the start began. I could make out the cars from a distance and explained everything to my friends. Keke Rosberg had taken a surprise pole position in a normally aspirated Williams. Beside him stood Riccardo Patrese in a Brabham-BMW. The formation lap didn’t exactly go to plan for Rosberg, who stalled his car and had to start from the back of the field.
Finally, the race was underway and there was a big crash. Patrese, Arnoux and Watson were out! Watson had won the previous year, and the partisan crowd felt his loss. Piquet led with Lauda hot on his tail, followed by the two Ferraris. I was a big Lauda fan after seeing him recover from his awful crash in 1976, but the gap between him and the Piquet was extending. Until the tenth lap, when we suddenly noticed there was no sign of Piquet. The Brazilian had retired with turbo failure and Lauda was the new leader!
From the back, there was a new and completely unexpected challenge. The Toleman-Hart turbo driven by Derek Warwick had marched from 16th on the grid up to second and the local driver looked very determined. But he was out as well on Lap 40, leaving Niki to cruise to the win ahead of the Ferraris of Pironi and Tambay. I couldn’t have wished for a better result.
I really do not remember much of the trip back to London and on to Margate. I just remember feeling very satisfied. I’d done it. I’d seen my first F1 race.