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Sports

Mateschitz's F1 legacy on show, and at risk, in Austria

The hills are alive with the sound of motors. Without a German GP this year, this weekend's Red Bull-fuelled F1 romp is an "Ersatz." But, for the man who brought the race back to Austria, times are tough on the track.

Austria's most obvious connection to Formula One is impossible to overlook; once the Österreichring, then the A1-Ring, now the circuit in the mountains at Spielberg is called the Red Bull Ring.

Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz has always had a love affair with F1, and a determination to make inroads in the sport. Former Austrian great Gerhard Berger once explained how he got a phone call from a much younger Mateschitz - in the year Red Bull was launched, 1987 - seeking to arrange a sponsorship deal. The only catch? Mateschitz had no hard currency to offer Berger, but was certain that they could find a mutually beneficial way to operate.

Portrait - Dietrich Mateschitz

Forget RB Leipzig or Red Bull Salzburg, Mateschitz's first sporting interest was always F1

Berger, usually notorious for a mercenary streak in his contract dealings, was nevertheless convinced by his cash-strapped countryman. He soon appeared on TV conspicuously chugging a can of the then-unknown brew.

Defying the odds

Within two decades, Mateschitz would make his real move in F1, by then Austria's wealthiest person with plenty of euros to back his play. The rest, as they say, is history: Four constructors' titles for Red Bull, four drivers' championships for Sebastian Vettel, four Red Bull-funded cars currently on the grid, and most recently, the return of an Austrian Grand Prix to the F1 calendar after a decade's absence.

"To be honest, I would have made a bet," says Christian Nimmervoll, editor-in-chief of "motorsport-total.com," to DW. "If you had called me two years ago to ask: 'will there ever be an Austrian Grand Prix again?', I would have said, 'no, definitely not!'"

Nimmervoll believes that his countryman Mateschitz's ambitions for Austria and F1 are growing as the energy drink magnate ages. For him, there's really one primary reason why the paddock is back in Austria, even at a time when the series is deserting its traditional homeland of Europe for far-flung, lucrative destinations like Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Russia or in 2016, Azerbaijan.

Formel 1 Ecclestone und Mateschitz

Mateschitz can surely be counted among the relatively short list of folk who have Ecclestone's ear

"I think it's probably even wrong to say it's because of Red Bull, I think it's mostly because of Dietrich Mateschitz. I heard from a lot of people that Bernie Ecclestone is highly appreciative of Mateschitz and his ideas for F1. They sort of get along together. And the deeper I dig into this business, the more I realize that sometimes it's really about personalities getting along with each other."

Local lad, losing patience

Mateschitz once lived in the area around Spielberg in the Austrian Alps, where F1 is now scheduled to race until 2020. But what of the 71-year-old's two-team, four-car, Renault-powered Red Bull entries in F1? Will they be racing in the series for so long?

Kanada Montreal Formel 1

This year's Red Bull have spent the season mired in midfield, which isn't likely to change in Austria

Down on power and unreliable to boot, the Renault engines put Red Bull and Toro Rosso at a distinct disadvantage at any circuit - especially a fast track at high altitude like their home race. As Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo put it, "this isn't likely to be our strongest circuit." Expect to see Red Bull and Toro Rosso as easy prey for Ferrari- or Mercedes-powered cars in Sunday's race, especially in the high-speed sections.

Mateschitz sees "no alternative" to Renault power for the 2016 season, but more generally he seems pessimistic about ever rekindling his team's dominance achieved between 2010 and 2013.

As a customer outfit buying in power-plants, Mateschitz told German website "speedweek.de" that "you get a motor that's good enough to take a few points from your immediate competitors. But it will never be good enough to beat the works team that delivered the engine." Mateschitz has been warning of the possibility of a Red Bull exit for most of the season.

Red Bull has a contract to race in F1 through 2018, but as Mateschitz points out, the series has never been able to force a competitor to stay once they were hell-bent on leaving. "We are losing our motivation," he said. "We're no good at playing the expensive cameo role."

Beyond the Bull - Austria's paddock dominance

No Austrian driver will compete in Sunday's F1 race, not even in a cameo role - but the country's influence in the paddock has become extensive in recent years. This stretches far beyond Mateschitz and his right-hand at Red Bull, former driver Helmut Marko. It doesn't even stop at Franz Tost, who oversees the Toro Rosso team for Mateschitz - a role once held by in-vitro Red Bull poster-boy Gerhard Berger.

Sebastian Vettel Buddh International Circuit Indien 27.10.2013

'Been there, done that,' Red Bull could say after four F1 titles with in-house driver Sebastian Vettel

Three-time champion Niki Lauda and sporting director Toto Wolff make up the German-speaking "Doppelspitze" atop the British-based Mercedes team; neither holds a German passport, but both have stakes in the outfit. The boss of Swiss privateer team Sauber, Monisha Kaltenborn, was born in India, but holds Austrian citizenship.

"But the interesting thing about the paddock is that, for example, the security company taking care of most Grands Prix - I think about 75 percent of them - are also Austrian, and they're actually located in Spielberg, or Salzweg, in any case very close to the Red Bull Ring," Nimmervoll says. "There's also the catering staff, and Karl-Heinz Zimmermann, I believe he's still taking care of Bernie's motorhome [which follows the series around the world, serving as Ecclestone's base of operations]."

Whatever happens to Mateschitz's four cars on the current grid, Austria's place at the heart of F1 will endure. And the revival of the Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring - whose contract runs to 2020 - now means that Mateschitz's brand-come-sporting-empire would retain its place in the series even after leaving the grid.