Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler Carlo Carluccio
– 1975: The stunning track from Montjuic
I was sitting at a bar watching some Spanish builders working on a six story apartment block. The way they sprayed the white render on the brickwork fascinated me but what was slightly more unnerving was their disregard to their health and safety.
There was no scaffolding, they clambered along the walls with seeming disregard of the distance to the ground below and I even witnessed one man climb up from the fourth floor to the fifth using the outside wall and assistance from a colleague! Any excess masonry was thrown literally from wherever the workmen were into a skip below which had no guarding around it for the public. This was all somewhat of an eye opener to someone who lives under the Health and Safety regime in the UK.
Why is this important? Well, I have visited Spain on a number of occasions since my first trip to Barcelona for the 2002 Grand Prix and have been left dumb-founded whenever I have seen workmen on building sites there. To be fair, I have seen this in other Mediterranean countries too but their devil-may-care attitude to obvious dangers are reminiscent of the famous New York image of workmen on a steel girder around a century ago. It was also this indifference thirty-nine years ago that led to the tragic cancellation of one of the most remarkable circuits Grand Prix racing has ever visited – Montjuic.
Spain is an unusual country in regards to its association with Grand Prix cars. They have a rich history with motorbike racing – with the current calendar hosting four Spanish events – and if you wish to visit any of the MotoGP races I’d suggest booking tickets in advance – they are all sold out.
No Spaniard ventures into the F1 testing sessions to watch cars; yet in 2006 – 20,000 turned up to watch MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi test a Ferrari! It’s only with the emergence of Fernando Alonso that Spain has finally tuned into this global sport.
Yet Grand Prix racing has a rich history of visiting the Iberian Peninsula since the early twentieth century.
Barcelona first held motor racing events in 1908 and 1909 on roads around Sitges, near Barcelona, which created a strong tradition in Catalunya that exists to this day. This led to the construction of the Sitges Terramar facility in 1923 which hosted that year’s Spanish Grand Prix. It still stands today as featured in a great article written by TJ himself last year.
The Spanish Grand Prix then moved to the 11 mile Circuito Lasarte near the resort town of San Sebastian which hosted the Spanish Grand Prix between 1926 and 1930; and again from 1933 to 1935 before the onset of the Spanish civil war in 1936 brought the event to a close.
Sixteen years later, the 1951 season saw the revival of the Spanish Grand Prix. Having survived both a civil war and the Second World War the residents celebrated the arrival of F1 to Barcelona’s new pedestrian lined street track – Pedralbes.
The circuit was formed along the wide open avenues in the city’s suburbs and was loved by both drivers and spectators. JM Fangio won the 1951 event in his Alfa-Romeo and secured his first World Championship.
Formula One returned to Pedralbes three years later where British hero – Mike Hawthorn – guided his Ferrari 555 Squalo to victory.
The 1955 Spanish Grand Prix was cancelled following the tragic accident at the Le Mans 24 hours that year – which had ushered in new regulations governing spectator safety.
Formula One returned to the Spanish mainland in 1967 with a non-championship race at the unpopular Jarama circuit near Madrid. By 1968 this event had been upgraded to full World Championship status and so the title for Spanish Grand Prix was reborn. Spanish inter-regional politics became involved and the decision was made to alternate the Grand Prix between Jarama and Barcelona’s Montjuic venue but tragedy in 1975 would leave Jarama as the host through to 1981 before it too disappeared from the calendar.
The Jerez circuit was built in 1985 and won the rights to the 1986 Spanish Grand Prix featuring a race battle that has passed into folklore with Senna beating Mansell by mere 1000ths of a second. A further four races were held at Jerez before Barcelona reclaimed the Spanish GP back in 1991 and it has hosted the event ever since at the Circuit de Barcelona – Catalunya.
But it had been on this day in 1975 that Formula One called time on Montjuic…
On a day trip my family and I were walking around Barcelona one afternoon and decided to travel on the cable car between the harbour and a hill top loading station. Floating above the Barcelona port with countless yachts moored on the glistening blue Mediterranean and the sun beating down was idyllic.
Looking across the landscape you could see the spires of the Sagrada Familia, the city’s – still unfinished – incredible cathedral, and the expanse of the Barcelona metropolis. Approaching the end of our journey was the picturesque and vivid parkland which was covered with a rich abundance of trees, bushes and flowers. We had accidentally stumbled upon the legendary Montjuic circuit.
Montjuic Park lies to the south west of Barcelona’s city centre on top of a 180m high hill overlooking the harbour. In 1913 the park was selected to host a world fair but it took until 1929 before the event finally went ahead. The park is dominated by the magnificent Palau Nacional – its domed architecture having been inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This was completed in 1929 before becoming an Art museum in 1934.
During the same period, the Olympic Stadium was constructed with the intention of hosting the 1936 Olympics but Barcelona lost out to Berlin in the selection process and the facilities would not be used until the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The track itself was made up of city streets and cobbled pavements which followed the contours of the hill and circulated the Palau. The opening half of the lap was a steep downhill section which included hairpins whereas the second part of the lap was fast, sweeping bends which challenged the drivers in the same manner as Spa’s flat-out corners.
Obviously being situated on a hill, gradients were a characteristic of the circuit and pictures and video show cars becoming airborne as they crested various elevations before compressing the suspension under heavy braking for a hairpin.
The fascination of flight has fuelled ambitions within man for millennia. The myth of Icarus flying too close to the sun helped develop imaginations within great men of history. Leonardo Da Vinci designed concepts that were 400 years ahead of their time and alongside his contemporaries – artists of the Renaissance – painted murals and depicted scenes of Angels in flight.
Maybe it’s this constant focus on the freedom of birds, angels and other winged creatures that continues to fuel our ambitions to search the universe. I have no desire to launch myself from an aircraft, nor jump from a platform with an elastic band secured to my ankles but it is the reverse engineering of flight that has kept the cars grounded despite their increasing speeds.
From 1933-36, the Penya Rhin Grand Prix was held on what became the Montjuic circuit with winners including Achille Varzi, Luigi Fagioli and Tazio Nuvolari. It would be another thirty years before a racing engine coughed into life in this majestic wonderland.
The Montjuic circuit welcomed a very different racing animal back in 1966 when the ‘Real Automovile Club de Catuluna’ reopened the track to International Formula Two races. The pre-war track had given way to modern technology and the roads had been resurfaced for the sensitive modern machinery. Steel barriers were installed around the entire perimeter of the track to keep errant cars out of the numerous trees and buildings that surrounded the track.
New directives on safety meant that installation of these barriers was considered as a true advancement in safety as these were only starting to be introduced in F1. Sadly, in many ways, this presented a bitter irony when you realise why Montjuic was finally declared unsafe merely nine years later.
4th May 1969 – Montjuic hosted its first F1 race and it gave fore-warning of the nightmare that would end its tenure of Grand Prix racing when both Graham Hill and his team-mate Jochen Rindt crashed out due to failures of their respective rear wings..
18th April 1971 – Montjuic hosted the Spanish GP again. It was the race that witnessed the introduction of the slick tyre and also marked the first ever win by a Tyrrell chassis.
29th April 1973 – the race was dominated by the JPS Lotus team. Ronnie Peterson took pole position by 0.7 seconds and dominated the race until his gearbox broke 19 laps from the end. His team-mate Emerson Fittipaldi took over the lead but a slowly deflating tyre made his last laps an education in concentration.
1975 -The teams arrived in Barcelona for the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix to find the barriers in a woeful state. The original fitment of the barriers had been genuinely considered as pioneering but by 1975 they were in poor condition after their fitment and dismantling over the previous six years. Some bolts were only finger tight, others were smaller than the bolt holes and many of the support posts could be moved easily by hand.
In recent years the drivers had witnessed the deaths of Peter Revson, Francois Cevert and Helmuth Koinigg in which poorly assembled guard rails had been the main contributing factor to their deaths. Many drivers, with the Grand Prix Drivers Association supporting them, refused to drive. The spectators had little sympathy for the drivers and in an era of change spreading through the sport, even the journalists were displeased by developments.
Circuit officials promised that there would be overnight repairs and the drivers agreed to inspect the barriers the next day. Tyrrell’s designer – Derek Gardner – calculated that it would take 1,600 men eight hours to complete the repairs whilst watching a handful working on the barriers overnight.
On Saturday James Hunt commented that the work that had been done was only cosmetic and team members went round the track repairing the barrier themselves. The CSI, the FIA of the day, declared the circuit complied to F1 race standards
Around 4pm the organisers gave the drivers an ultimatum, either honour the contract to race or the Spanish police would impound all teams equipment. The drivers made their way to the cars and prepared for final practice.
Emerson Fittipaldi honoured his contract by running three laps – the quickest of which was 2’10:2 as opposed to pole man Niki Lauda on 1’23:4 and departed the circuit. Everyone else took to the circuit and qualified for the race.
The lack of running on this most challenging of tracks contributed to a number of accidents and at the start the Ferraris running into the first hairpin were swiped out of the race by Mario Andretti nudging the rear of Lauda and spinning him into Clay Regazzoni. Hunt emerged in the lead followed by Andretti and John Watson, but Hunt slid into a barrier after hitting oil on the seventh lap, Watson stopped with vibrations and Andretti’s rear suspension collapsed on lap 16.
Rolf Stommelen now led in his Embassy Hill with Carlos Pace close behind. On lap 26, Montjuic was consigned to the memories and history books. Just after the start line as Stommelen approached the left hander his rear wing came off.
The car snapped sharply to the left into the barrier and rebounded across the track in mid-air. Due to the crest of the hill the car vaulted the barrier on the other side of the road killing five spectators and injuring a further ten. Stommelen survived although he had broken both legs, his wrist and two ribs.
The barrier had stood up to the impact; it had been the Hill mechanics who had ensured this section of barrier was in good order. Rolf was slumped in the wreckage, staring straight ahead, and his car had come to rest on a spectator. The race continued for another four laps and it took at least ten minutes for an ambulance to reach the scene.
Jochen Mass overtook Jacky Ickx for the win and was awarded his only victory simply because he had been leading at the time of the stoppage. Pace had crashed in avoidance of Stommelen.
And so ended the racing at Montjuic. Its inherent dangers proved less of a problem than the shameful coercion of the organisers and teams forcing the drivers into their cars because commerce and politics over-ruled safety.
John Watson said: ‘Both thumbs up! Without hesitation, the best street track I have ever raced on. Magic. It was quick and for a street track it had proper corners. When you got to the bottom of the circuit you started this process of climbing, a bit like going up one of those estates you see where they grow things in tiers. You get up to one and there’s another one, and of course you were running close to barriers’.
Frank Williams remembered, “The circuit was definitely for men and not for boys. A series of high-speed sweeping corners up hill to the pit straight were as challenging as those at Spa.”
In an era when motor-sport was truly dangerous, and authorities were tackling the safety of circuits such as the Nurburgring and the original Spa, for Formula One to discard this circuit speaks volumes of its notoriety. It burned brightly for a brief period but Formula One’s history is richer for having experienced its unique demands.