Features - Historical
SEPTEMBER 19, 2000
The Spanish Grand Prix - a history
BY JOE SAWARD
It is 80 years since the first Spanish Grand Prix and much has changed in the world. It is unlikely that this year's race will be won, as was the first, by a Rolls Royce and unlikely also that second place will go to a marquis, but there will still be the essential excitement which exists at every motor race.
By all accounts that first event was more a social event than a Grand Prix. It was not run to the Grand Prix formula of the day, but rather to touring car rules, and took place on a road circuit at Guadarrama, just outside Madrid on the road to Valladolid. It was run over 300 kilometres and was won by a Senor de Salamanca, at a princely average speed of 86.90kph.
There had been races in Spain before that first Grand Prix, the most famous being the Catalan Cup of 1908 and 1909 on a 28 kilometre track known as the Baix Penedes circuits, on roads around Sitges, on the Mediterranean coast to the south of Barcelona. Both events were won by Peugeot driver Jules Goux, but they inspired a strong racing tradition in Catalonia and ambitious plan was hatched in 1922 to build a permanent oval at Sitges. Promoted by local racing hero Frick Armangue and designed by architect Jaume Mestres the new track took 300 days to build and cost four million pesetas. It was a high-banked two kilometre concrete oval known as Sitges-Terramar and was opened on October 28 1923 by the son of the King. The same day it hosted the second Spanish Grand Prix - 10 years after the first.
The race was over 200 laps and the crowds were thrilled by a memorable battle between the Miller 122 driven by Count Louis Zborowski and Alberto Divo's Sunbeam. The race was not decided until the final 10 laps when Zborowski had to stop to change a wheel.
Unfortunately Sitges-Terramar fell victim to financial trouble after just one race and the top race in Spain became the San Sebastian Grand Prix, at the 11-mile Lasarte track on Spain's Bay of Biscay coast.
San Sebastian hosted the Grand Prix of Europe in July 1926 and the third Spanish Grand Prix was run a week later for Formula Libre cars. It was a five and a half hour race which was won by Meo Constantini's Bugatti, which finished 15 minutes ahead of 48-year-old Jules Goux in a similar car.
The Spanish Grand Prix, however, was still not established and in 1928 and 1929 was run to sportscar regulations, both races being won by Louis Chiron.
The San Sebastian GP lapsed in 1930 but the sixth Spanish GP was held on the same circuit, attracting top drivers such as Achille Varzi (who won in a factory Maserati), Philippe Etancelin and Rene Dreyfus.
It would be three years until the next Spanish GP at San Sebastian, by which time the Alfa Romeo P3 was the machine to have and Chiron ended his 1933 season with a win, his third Spanish GP triumph.
The new 750kg formula began the golden years of racing in the 1930s, with the German combines Mercedes and AutoUnion entering the fray. The Spanish GP was no exception. Despite political problems in Spain Luigi Fagioli's Mercedes led home a similar car of Rudi Caracciola, after a stirring battle with the factory Bugatti team.
The following year the roles were reversed with the European Champion Caracciola beating Fagioli!
Spain, however, descended into civil war and motor racigng stopped. The Spanish GP would not return to the international calendar for 16 years.
By the time the Spanish Civil War was over, Europe itself had gone to war and it was 1946 before racing cars ran again on Spanish soil. The first race, which was called the Penya Rhin Grand Prix took place on the grand avenues of downtown Barcelona, on a circuit known as Pedralbes. And it was on this track that in 1951 World Championship Formula 1 racing first visited Spain. The track was used for the final Grand Prix of 1951, which decided the World Championship battle between Juan-Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari. Fangio won the race - and the title.
Three years later Pedralbes played host to Grand Prix racing once again with Fangio in a Mercedes fighting it out with a young Mike Hawthorn at the wheel of a Ferrari. Strong winds whipped up dust and rubbish and the Mercedes overheated when the radiators became blocked, leaving Hawthorn to win. The following year the awful accident at Le Mans resulted in new regulations for spectator safety and Pedralbes - a street track always lined with people was one of the victims. Once again Spain's Grand Prix disappeared.
It was not until the 1960s that Spain re-emerged on the international scene. The revival was led by the Royal Automobile Club of Spain, which approached famous circuit designer John Hugenholz, who had laid out both Zandvoort and Suzuka, and asked him to build them a permanent racing facility on land the club owned to the north of Madrid. It would be called Jarama.
Not to be outdone the Catalans resurrected their splendid circuit through Barcelona's Montjuic Park, which dated back to 1932.
Suddenly Spain had two international racing facilities and it was not long before Formula 1 came visiting, with Jarama hosting a non-championship Grand Prix in 1967, which was won by the great Jim Clark in a Lotus.
The following year Jarama hosted a round of the World Championship. Back in the 1920s and 1930s the Spanish Grand Prix had always been at the end of the European season, now the race moved to the Spring and for many years would be the first European race in the World Championship.
It was agreed that thereafter the Spanish Grand Prix would alternate between Jarama and Montjuic Park and so Grand Prix racing returned to Barcelona at the beginning of May 1969. To a man the drivers loved the fast and flowing track, where there was never time to relax. It was a strange era for F1, with high aerodynamic wings mounted on the suspension. They were very effective but at Montjuic Park the forces proved to be too great and the two Lotuses of Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt both crashed heavily, Jacky Ickx also retired with a wing failure and while Jackie Stewart won in the new Matra MS80, the sport's governing body moved quickly to take action to ban the wings.
A year later at Jarama Stewart led the Spanish GP from start to finish in his Team Tyrrell March-Ford 701. It was March's first win, but will probably be remembered more for a nasty accident involving Jackie Oliver's BRM and Jacky Ickx's Ferrari. The cars burst into flames and although Oliver escaped unhurt Ickx emerged with his overalls on fire. The Belgian ace suffered burns to his hands and legs.
Stewart made it three consecutive victories in 1971, winning at Montjuic in the Tyrrell 003.
For 1974 the race was back at Jarama again and marked the first win for Ferrari's new signing Niki Lauda, in just his fourth race for the team, followed home by his Ferrari team-mate Clay Regazzoni. It was the beginning of an new era for F1.
The next Spanish GP did not go well for Ferrari with Lauda and Regazzoni eliminated in the same startline accident at Montjuic. Worse was to come. There had been worries about the safety of the track with much discussion during the practice days. In the race previous double winner Fittipaldi retired in protest after just one lap. On the 26th lap there was disaster when Rolf Stommelen's Hill-Ford crashed, killing four people. The race was stopped and victory - for what it was worth - awarded to Jochen Mass, with half points being awarded. To this day Mass remains the only F1 driver to have half a GP win to his name.
A year later, at the height of the war between the sport's governing body FISA and the teams' organisation FOCA, Jarama hosted an 'illegal' Grand Prix, run with only FOCA cars, without Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo. Alan Jones won for Williams, but the race would not count towards his World Championship.
The 1981 Spanish Grand Prix will long be remembered as one of the most exciting races of its era as Gilles Villeneuve hurled his cumbersome Ferrari turbo around the track, with a queue of cars trying to pass him. It was faultless drive by the French-Canadian ace in front of King Juan-Carlos with Villeneuve crossing the line with four cars in his slipstream, Jacques Laffite, John Watson, Carlos Reutemann and Elio de Angelis all being covered by just 1.24secs.
It was such brilliance that it prompted Jacques Laffite to comment: 'No driver can work magic, but Gilles made you wonder sometimes.'
Jarama was fading by now and the Spanish GP again disappeared from the calendar and it was not until 1985 that the Mayor of Jerez de la Frontera decided to back a project to build a racing circuit to promote the town and its famous sherries worldwide, that F1 returned to Spain.
The track was finished in time for the 1986 race and it could scarcely have been better for Jerez as Ayrton Senna's Lotus and Nigel Mansell's Williams battled into the closing stages. It was dramatic stuff. A late pit stop had delayed Mansell and with two laps to go the Englishman was 5.3 secs behind Senna, going into the final lap the gap was down to 1.5. In the last hundred yards of the race Mansell pulled out to pass and the cars crossed the finishing line side byside. The official verdict was victory to Senna - by 0.014s, one of the closest finishes in the history of F1.
Mansell would get his revenge with victories at Jerez in 1987 and 1988, while Senna won again in 1989. The problem was that no-one came to watch the races at Jerez.
The 1990 Grand Prix would be Jerez's last. Up in Barcelona work on a huge new project, the Circuit de Catalunya had begun. The final nail in Jerez's coffin was a practice accident in 1990 when Martin Donnelly's Lotus disintegrated after hitting the wall in a high-speed corner. Donnelly was hurled from the wreck, grievously injured.
A year later the F1 trucks rolled down to Spain again, but this time it was to visit not Jerez but Barcelona and begin a new chapter in the history of the Spanish Grand Prix, at the new generation Circuit de Catalunya.
Since then there have been two Spanish GPs at the track, both won by Nigel Mansell in his Williams-Renault. Nigel won't be racing this year but the tradition of 80 years of Spanish GPs will continue without him.<\#026>