Speeding on the Streets

In 1930, the Československý automobilový klub pro Moravu a Slezsko organised a race on the public roads surrounding Brno, consequently ensuring that the Moravian city would become the home of Czechoslovak motorsport. And in the years that followed, the original Masarykring has seen it all.

Brno is the home of Czech motorsport. Once a year, the carnival of the Moto GP championship arrives in the city and tens-of-thousands of diehards flock to the modern Automotodrom Brno, located 23km from the centre of the Moravian capital.

The circuit, colloquially known as the Masaryk Ring after the former Czechoslovak president Thomas Masaryk, opened its tarmac to cars and bikes in 1987 and has attracted high-profile series with global coverage such as Moto GP, the World Touring Car Championship and the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters to the Czech Republic’s second city. But the 3.36-mile circuit that is in operation today pales in comparison to its predecessor, the original Masarykring – a fearsome road course that sent drivers hurtling through the roads and villages of South Moravia with scant regard to health and safety. As the touring car legend Steve Soper said of it: “You’d come into the pits and your heartbeat was sky high. You’d pretend to be all cool, of course, but the old heart would be banging about inside your chest.”

It was a place for the fearless.

The Beginnings

The original iteration of the Masarykring was an eighteen-mile affair that ran anti-clockwise on public roads to the west of Brno. Starting on the south-west outskirts of the city, the course ran up the hills and through the villages of Kohoutovice and Žebětín before winding its way down to Ostrovačice and, after a series of long straights and high-speed kinks, to Bosonohy and back to Brno.

Today, the prospect of such a circuit existing would barely escape past initial health and safety meeting. Back in the 1930s, though, this high-speed blitz on public roads was seen as a state-of-the-art venue, comparable to the likes of Le Mans, Spa-Francorchamps and the Nürburgring.

The first race on the road course was the 1930 Masaryk Grand Prix, a non-championship meeting organised by the Československý automobilový klub pro Moravu a Slezsko. Thirty entrants from across Europe flocked to the new venue, which, due to sizeable patronage from the Czechoslovak government, offered a hefty amount of prize money for those lucky enough to finish on the podium.

State support for the event far surpassed that of the winner’s purse. The amount of money invested by the government was estimated to be in the millions of Czech koruna and the funds went on improving the roads, laying down new paving in the region and constructing specially built grandstands.

Reports put the attendance somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 people and there was plenty for the locals to cheer. Karel Divišek, the owner of a local motoring school and a popular playboy, was due to enter, racing under the banner of the Zbrojovka ammunitions factory in a Brno-made car. Sadly for Divišek and the locals, his car suffered a mechanical failure during practice, forcing him to share the remaining “Z” car with Ernst Procházka. The pair ended up finishing third in class and eighth overall, only to see a timing irregularity rob them of what would have been an impressive podium.

At the head of the field, there was a classic scrap that built to a dramatic conclusion. Entering the final lap, Tazio Nuvolari and Mario Umberto Borzacchini’s Alfa Romeo had a healthy advantage, though the pair were reporting problems. With half a lap left, the Alfa’s radiator failed in, leaving the pair in a race against time to perform a roadside repair and get going again. The Italian duo did get started, but could only limp towards the finish line and one-by-one, the chasing German Buggati Team cars caught and passed the stricken Alfa. The eventual winners were the tandem of Heinrich-Joachim von Morgen and Prince Herman of Leiningen, who completed the seventeen laps in four hours and fifty-four minutes, three minutes ahead of Ernst Günther Burggaller.

The event had been an astronomical success. The following year saw an increase in entries, with almost all of Europe’s leading drivers heading to South Moravia to take part. And as the quality of the field and the stature of the race improved, so did the attendance figures. Due to Brno’s geographical location, the Masaryk Grand Prix drew flocks of people from all across Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, and Central Europe to South Moravia. In 1933, when the Louis Chiron claimed his third successive victory on the roads of Brno, an estimated 200,000 lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the Monégasque.

From Four Wheels to Two

After Chiron’s hat-trick, the German’s took over. Hans Stuck and Bernd Rosemeye won for the Auto Union marquee in 1934 and 1935 respectively and, after a year’s sabbatical in 1936, the great Rudolf Caracciola, driving a Mercedes-Benz, triumphed in 1937.

Sadly, Caracciola’s victory was marred by tragedy when on the fourth lap of the race, Hermann Lang lost control of his Mercedes-Benz W125 and careered into a ditch, killing two spectators and injuring many more.

The fallout from Lang’s accident lasted years. In the immediate aftermath of the event, race organisers moved quickly to get Lang out of the country. Despite the area where he crashed being marked as unsafe for spectators, there was an effort to get the German driver indicted over the fatalities. A state-sponsored bulletin spread a false claim that Lang had knowingly driven a damaged car – claims that were roundly contest by those in attendance. Legal charges were brought and the entire thing went back and forth until all charges were dropped after the Second World War.

The German occupation of Czechoslovakia and the subsequent outbreak of World War II put an impromptu stop to the burgeoning Masaryk Grand Prix. After becoming a firm favourite with fans and drivers, the event went on a twelve-year hiatus.

After a dozen years away from the international calendar, the newly named Velká cena Československa (Czechoslovak Grand Prix) was reinstated for the 1949 Grand Prix season. The track was shortened from eighteen miles to eleven – bypassing the section to and from Ostrovačice – with the new layout running in a clockwise direction.

Despite being absent for twelve years, the race drew a huge crowd of 400,000 people from across Czechoslovakia and neighbouring nations of the Eastern Bloc.

However, the Communist coup d’etat in 1948 robbed the event of its pre-war prestige. Although the huge crowds pleased the organisers, many of the world’s top drivers shunned the race, with Alberto Ascari and Juan Manuel Fangio and many others electing to skip the visit to Brno.

The chequered flag was taken by Peter Whitehead, who finished thirty-seconds ahead of Philippe Étancelin in second and a full five-minutes ahead of Franco Cortese in third However, the main stories coming out of the race were to do with the incidents:. Local driver Václav Uher was killed in practice whilst Giuseppe Farina (who would go on to win the inaugural Formula One season the following year) crashed on the first lap and killed two spectators. Tragedy once again overshadowed the Czechoslovak Grand Prix and the Masaryk Ring.

In 1950, the Czechoslovak Grand Prix switched from four wheels to two. For the first few years, the bulk of entrants were drawn from the local area, with Antonín Vitvar the dominant rider during this formative era. Yet as the decade progressed, the field became more cosmopolitan, and Czechoslovak domination subsided as the likes of Keith Campbell, Dickie Dale and Eric Hinton all won the race in the latter half of the 1950s.

Further changes to the circuit layout in 1964 saw the lap reduced again – this time to 8.6 miles in length. But despite losing some three miles, the track gained a sweeping section that bypassed Žebětín; a thrilling, near-flat series of curves that would become the circuit’s signature in years to come.

The year after the circuit’s reconfiguration, the Czechoslovak Grand Prix was added to the World Championship calendar and with it came the stars of the era. Legendary figures such as Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read and Jarno Saarinen all traded victories in different classes in a golden age of international and Czechoslovak motorcycling.

Its Final Years

The death of Luigi Rinaldi at the circuit during the 1972 European Touring Car Championship (ETCC) prompted further modifications to be made to the circuit. The Italian, driving for the Autodelta team, lost control of his car during a wet practice session and careered into the timing tower located on the main straight, killing himself and fatally injuring a trackside marshal in the process.

As a result, the track’s layout was once again shortened, this time to 6.79 miles, though the main change took place on the main straight, which was widened and saw the construction of a brand-new pit complex. These alterations brought the ETCC back to South Moravia in 1975.

As the 1980s emerged, so too did the heyday of touring car racing and the flat out street circuit presented some of the world’s greatest drivers with unique challenges and a fear factor that wasn’t found anywhere else. Even with the changes that had been made a decade prior, the Masarykring was one of the most fearsome venues in world motorsport.

“Sure, we had the Nordschleife,” Steve Soper told Motorsport Magazine, “but [at Brno] we had a stretch of main road, a kind of dual carriageway, a section on back roads and a twisty bit through a village…..And it was fast.”

In 1986, Soper set the quickest lap around the circuit when he guided his Ford Sierra XR4 between the Armco and along the country roads in a shade over three minutes and thirty seconds. His time represented an average speed of 115.34mph, almost 20mph quicker than the average speed of Spa-Francorchamps. Fast would be an understatement.

Sadly, 1986 would be the last time that any major race took place on the streets of South Moravia. The circuit’s safety remained a concern, with some sections of the track bordered by grassy verges and ditches, rather than Armco and tyre walls. Yes, it was delightful. But it was also dated and dangerous.

The following year, the Automotodrom Brno opened its gates. This purpose-built facility rendered the old street circuit redundant.

If you take out a map of Brno and its satellite villages, you can still find the roads that the likes of Giuseppe Farina, Mike Hailwood and Steve Soper raced along in years gone by. Some remnants – the iconic (and austere-looking) block of flats near Kohoutovice and the now boarded up old pit buildings – remain, acting as a reminder of when the streets of South Moravia was one of the biggest challenges a driver could face in world motorsport.

  • Posted by Chris Boothroyd

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