Tatra T-623

Taki Inoue Tatra-1.jpg

As so often happens when writing #bcotd, connections begin to form where I had no clue they existed…after intending to write about something else entirely. Today, I was researching a Tatra and ended up discovering a different model entirely. Better, this is a strange enough tale to have you scouring European classified ads for weeks for one of these rare cars… (Hear that, Mr. Lane?)

I'm both a Formula 1 fan and a Tatra fan, and while I can't claim I knew what a Tatra was while (undoubtedly) watching the 1995 Hungarian Grand Prix at two years old, as it turns out the race would be my first introduction to the famous Czechoslovakian marque. Years later, when we first got the internet, I instantly recognized its potential and became a voracious user: at that time, mostly fan sites, music websites, and racing-themed "web rings"—remember those?

I can't remember where or when, but I do recall first waiting for the video below to load. It's footage from the 1995 Hungarian Grand Prix that shows the Footwork-Arrows* pay driver Taki Inoue being hit for the second time that season by a safety car. The first was by French bad-ass French driving maestro Jean Ragnotti at the Monaco Grand Prix, the second involved a very strange-looking white car.

I remember searching high and low, and finally found the answer: it was a Tatra T-613. And then I read about the marque Tatra. And then I was hooked.

What I didn't know then is that the Tatra that hit Inoue is not your run-of-the-mill T-613.

As you may have guessed from the title, it was a T-623—and it needed special clearance from the communist government when conceived in the late '70s. As track safety started to be taken seriously (a topic you should read about here and here), a set of standard procedures started to take root: a dedicated medical building, helipad for emergency evacuations, a better-trained medical team and marshals, and, finally: a kick-ass pace car to follow the F1 drivers during the first lap of the race.

That's right: even today, the medical car follows cars through the entire first lap, and has to be fast enough to not be caught up by the field—a task easier said than done. The reason is simple: accidents are most likely to happen during the first lap, and by sending a medical car on-track right away, doctors are able to significantly cut response times. These first responders are there to stabilize the driver and help in the immediate aftermath of an accident.

The 1986 Formula 1  race in Hungary was special because it would be held behind the Iron Curtain. It was also special because the organizers (and government) wanted to take the opportunity to demonstrate how advanced life was under Communist rule, and so worked to comply with Formula 1 doctor Sir Sid Watkins' new medical procedures instituted in the wake of Riccardo Paletti's first-lap accident (and death) at the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix. One such demand was a high-speed chase car to follow the Formula 1 grid during the first lap of the race.

As you're well aware, the number of vehicles made behind the Iron Curtain that were fast enough to complete a single lap of a Formula 1 race before being caught by the race leader are few and far between. This sounds like a problem…except it wasn't. Rather oddly, they were uniquely qualified in this area.

In the late '70s, journalists and medical officials in the Eastern Bloc recognized the need for a high-speed medical car for racing events, and an entity called NAREX went through the lengthy process in the late '70s to both acquire and modify a standard Tatra T-613 for safety car duty. It was impossible for most people to get any car, let alone one favoured by government officials, but the team successfully began to modify a few vehicles for pace car duty—running them successfully in the late '70s and early '80s. The modified T-613s were eventually prized and christened with a new model designation: T-623.

When word of the upcoming 1986 Formula 1 race stretched from bureau to bureau, the NAREX team was quickly offered the chance to lend their expertise to providing an official Formula 1 safety car—before the rules had made safety cars compulsory. What better way to show the world how nice Communism is than by demonstrating such a strong commitment to safety? 

Now with official factory support ahead of the 1986 event, the most extreme Tatra safety car could be constructed in the coming years, a car only used during the first lap of a Grand Prix: the T-623 R.

Equipped with revised gearing to hit a top speed of—eventually, in 1995—300 km/h (186 mph), the R model was a stripped-out, rear-engined ambulance with a 3.8-litre V8 engine and reported output of more than 300 horsepower.

But that's not all. The R also received a removable steering wheel; special racing seats; aluminum fenders, hood, and doors; Plexiglass windows; adjustable, lowered suspension; better tires and brakes—and as a result was lightened by 350 kg (771 lbs). The car (and "standard" T-623 safety cars thundered) around the track for almost a decade before the incident involving Inoue. (Because his breakdown was not during the first lap, it's unlikely—but impossible for me to know—that the safety car involved was the T-623 R.)

This story has had a lasting legacy, too: because of the safety car incidents seen in 1995, 1996 was the first year that a single constructor was asked to provide safety cars for the entire Formula 1 season: Mercedes-Benz, and they've been doing it ever since.

In a strange way, they have Tatra to thank.

* The Footwork-Arrows paint scheme is still one of my favourite racing liveries.