MAY 27, 1996

Where are we going this week?

THE Circuit de Catalunya, at Montmelo, 15 miles north of Barcelona, is the latest in a long line of race tracks in Catalonian, dating back to the Catalan Cup of 1908 and 1909.

THE Circuit de Catalunya, at Montmelo, 15 miles north of Barcelona, is the latest in a long line of race tracks in Catalonian, dating back to the Catalan Cup of 1908 and 1909. This was held on a 18-mile road circuit known as the Baix Penedes, around the pleasant seaside town of Sitges to the south of Barcelona. Both events were won by Frenchman Jules Goux, but they inspired the locals and began a strong racing tradition in the region. There were other road races at Llevant, Tarragona and Vilafranca, but in 1922 ambitious plans were put forward for the region to have permanent racing oval at Sitges-Terramar. Promoted by local racing hero Frick Armangue, the new track took under a year to build and was a high-banked two kilometer concrete oval. It was opened in October 1923, by Spain's crown prince and hosted the Spanish GP, a memorable battle between the Miller of Count Louis Zborowski and Alberto Divo's Sunbeam. Divo won.

Unfortunately Sitges-Terramar fell victim to financial trouble after just one race although the old oval still stands today, overgrown but impressive nonetheless.

It was not until the early 1930s that racing returned with events in Montjuich Park, a public park on the edge of the city. This was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and then World War II and so it was not until 1946 that racing cars again ran on Spanish soil. The first race - called the Penya Rhin Grand Prix - took place on the grand avenues of downtown Barcelona, on a circuit known as Pedralbes. It was on this track in 1951 that World Championship Formula 1 racing first visited Spain for the championship showdown 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 and Mika Hawthorn battling for victory. The following year the Le Mans Disaster resulted in new regulations for spectator safety, and Pedralbes - a street track which was always lined with people - was one of the victims of the new rules.

It was not until the 1960s that racing returned to Barcelona when the Catalans resurrected the Montjuich Park circuit, which had first been used in 1932. This was in response to the Madrid-based Royal Automobile Club of Spain building an F1 circuit at Jarama. It was soon agreed that the Spanish GP would alternate and so F1 returned to Barcelona in May 1969: JackieÊStewart won in the new Matra MS80. Two years later Stewart won at Montjuich in a Tyrrell but in 1973 it was the turn of EmersonÊFittipaldi in a Lotus.

When F1 returned in 1975 there were worries about the track's safety with much discussion during the practice days. Fittipaldi completed just one lap of the race and retired in protest. Midway through the race Rolf Stommelen's Hill-Ford crashed over the barriers, killing four people. The race was stopped and victory awarded to Jochen Mass, with half points being awarded.

It was the end for Montjuich and it was not until October 1986 that the parliament of Catalonia announced plans to establish an international racing circuit. A year later the Royal Automovil Club de Catalunya bought an estate on which to build. The first stone was laid on February 24, 1989.

In 1991 the F1 trucks rolled into Montmelo. The first four races were won by Williams-Renault with Nigel Mansell winning in 1991 and 1992, Alain Prost in 1993 and Damon Hill in 1994. Last year Michael Schumacher took his Benetton-Renault to victory.