Formula One:a way of fine-tuning an image

MOGYOROD, Hungary: The first time the hills outside this village northeast of Budapest echoed with the roar of the world's fastest racing cars, Soviet tanks were parked on the crests, soldiers with Kalashnikovs walked the streets and the wealthier locals drove to the race in tin-can-like Trabant cars.

Seventeen years after that first Hungarian Grand Prix, Formula One still makes its annual August visit to what has become one of its favorite venues. The tanks and Kalashnikovs are gone, of course, and although there are still plenty of Trabants, they are a rarer sight among the Suzukis, Opels and Renaults and, increasingly, the Mercedeses, BMWs and Jaguars.

Not that the tanks were a threat back in 1986, incidentally. Their crews just wanted to see the race as Hungary became the first country in a global expansion by Formula One out of its West European base and as the East bloc country made an historic economic statement five years before its first democratic elections.

Hungary began using the West's most advanced form of motor-racing competition as a way to propagate the country's image to the sport's worldwide television audience of nearly 400 million. The idea then, and now, was to show that Hungary was open for business, and to harvest the tourism dollars from foreign spectators.

"We are a small country, and we know how difficult it is to be acknowledged by different countries," said Attila Mesterhazy, Hungary's deputy minister of children, youth and sport, which is responsible for the race.

"The one time once a year when Formula One is here, everyone knows there is a Hungary, and they know where Budapest is and where Mogyorod is."

In 1983, after talks to stage a race in Moscow failed, Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's commercial promoter, approached Hungary. The country was behind the Iron Curtain, but it was never a devoted Soviet satellite and there was a growing sense — noticed also by the tobacco company Philip Morris, which would sponsor the race — that it was ready to open up further for business with the West. The Communist government agreed and signed a contract with Formula One in December 1985.

Still, it had no racetrack. Hungary was a sports superpower in the Olympics at the time, but not in motor racing.

It so happened that the winner of the first Grand Prix race, the French Grand Prix at Le Mans in 1906, was a Hungarian, Ferenc Szisz, and that in 1936 a Hungarian Grand Prix was raced in Nepliget Park and won by the legendary Italian Tazio Nuvolari. But under Communist rule, racing culture had dried up.

Indeed, Ecclestone wanted to race again in Budapest, in either Nepliget Park or Varosliget Park, but the government refused. So a site was found on a potato field outside the village of Mogyorod, 19 kilometers, or 12 miles, northeast of the city.

The track was built in eight months at a cost of 340 million forints, or $7.6 million at the time, and owned by a consortium of 20 government-owned companies, such as Malev, the national airline, and Hungarocamion, a freight company.

The first race, on Aug. 10, 1986 was attended by 200,000 people from Eastern and Western Europe. The government estimated income from the event at more than 140 million forints.

"It gives a good sign," Ecclestone said last month. "Hungary's in the same position as Germany, or France or England or somewhere, on the same level, and can do the same as they can do."

The government now owns 66 percent of the circuit— the rest is privately owned — and this year it paid for extensive renovations to the track, changing the layout and adding grandstands and other facilities.

"It's a tradition for us Hungarians now," Mesterhazy said.

"The transition period for Hungary was in 1990, but Formula One began before the country changed the regime. So this race is older than the Hungarian democracy, and that's why it's somehow a part of us."

The race is the country's biggest sporting event. And while Hungary was the first in an expansion by the sport, which has now signed with such countries as Malaysia, China, Bahrain and Turkey, is it really effective for a country economically?

When Formula One announced last month that the Canadian Grand Prix was to be canceled after more than 35 years because of new laws against tobacco-sponsored sports, a delegation of Canadian government ministers went to the Hungarian Grand Prix to lobby Formula One officials to save the Canadian event.

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