Spanish GP

It was at the Jarama circuit on the outskirts of Madrid that Mike Doodson first 'worked' officially at a Formula 1 race. As he recounts here, it wasn't actually an F1 car that he tended, and the race was a non-championship event. But for him it was the start of something that has obsessed him ever since. And, as he prepares to travel to Barcelona for this year's race, he realises it all happened nearly 40 years ago ...

As a couple of wives, a long line of bank managers and most of my friends will tell you, I've never been terribly good with money. It's not that I don't appreciate the stuff, because I do. What causes the problems is that I'm just not interested in making sure it comes in at the same rate as I'm spending it, and then remembering what I've spent it on. A few tax inspectors will tell you I'm not much good at that, either.

It will therefore come as a shock to most of my friends (and the tax inspectors) to discover that before I ever started earning a living in this line of work, I qualified and (briefly) practised as a chartered accountant. I was, to be blunt, unsuited to the niceties of double-entry book-keeping and the presentation of financial reports. The profession should indeed be grateful that I abandoned it.

Our family home was in Lancashire, a fine motorsporting county which produced several leading engineers and drivers. After I had told Keith Duckworth that my grandmother was also a Duckworth, I always got along well with the gentle genius behind Cosworth, now sadly departed. My father had been born in Bolton, and when the family visited Granny there we would drive past the old cotton mill where the brilliant Derek Bennett built those handsome Chevrons.

In our part of the county the leading grocery stores belonged to the Redman family. Their son, Brian, was destined, like me, to abandon the family trade and commit himself to our great sport. Although I haven't seen Brian for many years, I understand that he hasn't done too badly at all.

It was, in fact, Brian Redman who unwittingly gave me my first proper job in motor racing. Brian's youthful ability had been honed at wonderful Oulton Park, where he used to do astonishing things in club races with a lightweight Jaguar E-type entered by Red Rose Racing. Working as a flag marshal at Oulton, I occasionally chatted with him and also got to know John and David Bridges, the two Lancastrian businessmen who were behind Red Rose Racing, which owned the E-type.

In 1967, the first year of the new 1600cc Formula 2, David Bridges decided to help Brian advance his career by buying a Lola F2 car. There was a shortage of Cosworth FVA engines, so the car didn't do a full season. Towards the end of the year I discovered that Red Rose had got an entry for a big international race to be held in Spain, at a new track near Madrid. I had some holiday owing to me, so I asked Brian's mechanic Terry if he could do with a hand.

As it happened, he could. This was literally a one-man band, with the mechanic responsible for getting the car to the track, and he was glad to have some company. So it was that early one morning we set off on the long drive south to the ferry that would take us to Bilbao and another long drive to Madrid. It seemed pretty exciting at the time, but there's nothing very glamorous about sitting in a Ford Transit with a heavily loaded trailer behind. And after being lashed by a storm on the Bay of Biscay, I was more than happy to see dry land again.

The race we were going to was the first-ever international event at Jarama, a new and rather artificial-looking circuit on the outskirts of Madrid. It was not until much later that I discovered that the Jarama river had been the site of one of bloodiest battles of Spain's barbaric civil war, 30 years before. To celebrate the opening of the track, the Spaniards had found the money to get together a rather motley field of single-seaters, led by Jim Clark and Graham Hill in the handsome Cosworth-engined factory Lotus 49s. This was before Gold Leaf sponsorship, so they were painted 'proper' British Racing Green.

The only useful asset that I brought to my job as number 2 on the Red Rose F2 team was elbow grease. I cleaned and polished those wheels every moment the car wasn't running, and the maroon paint on the glass fibre bodywork gleamed.

For a variety of reasons, I will never forget the start. The two works Lotuses, starting from the front row, went straight into the lead and stayed there all the way. Rather further back, Brian Redman in 'my' Lola did his best to make up ground. At the first corner, though, disaster struck as he clashed with Rolf Stommelen, who clumsily drove his F2 Brabham over 'my' nose cone and reduced it to pulp. Brian -- entirely innocent, of course -- had to make a pit stop for repairs and was unable to make any impression after he re-started. Bloody German hooligans ...

I had been invited by a journalist friend to watch the race from the Press grandstand, directly opposite the start/finish line. We were in great company, for sitting in front of us was none other than Gregor Grant, renowned motorsport writer and founder of Autosport magazine. As I understood things, that weekend was Gregor's birthday, prompting the race organisers to invite him to lunch on race day at the nearby golf club.

Evidently the wine flowed freely, for Gregor was feeling no pain when he returned just before the start. On the warm-up lap his head was already nodding, and he collapsed on to the desk in front of him at the very moment that the flag fell. Now it is not unknown today for folks in the press centre to nod off occasionally when a race gets processional, but Gregor was dead to the world through the entire event. No doubt he turned in the usual palpitating race report, but after what I had seen, for me his name never had quite the same resonance again.

Once F1 racing had become re-established in Spain, Barcelona insisted on getting involved. Overlooking the city in Montjuich Park was a majestic street circuit, fast and wide in some places, narrow and sinuous in others. The local club installed guard rails, but they had to be dismantled every year, and in 1975 the installation was done so haphazardly that the drivers became very concerned. In many places the rails were not even properly screwed together.

That year, because the circuit had no permanent garages, the teams had been invited to use an old sports stadium as their base. The trucks could just squeeze through the narrow entrance, and the fans could come in and see the cars being worked on without getting in the mechanics' way. But there were rumblings of a driver boycott, in protest against the dangerous state of the guardrail.

These were the bad old days of a virtually supine FIA, and the only support the drivers received came when the teams -- team managers as well as mechanics -- descended on the circuit with wrenches to tighten up the guardrail wherever possible. I went out with some mechanics who were in charge of the Lola to be driven by -- yes -- Rolf Stommelen. Having done their best to secure the rails on the outside of a very fast corner, one of the mechanics took out a felt tip pen and wrote: 'Ralf, stay away from this rail.'

By then it seemed pretty certain that the drivers would refuse to race. No amount of work would put the guardrails into safe condition, and the team chiefs were sympathetic. But as soon as the organisers learned of a possible boycott, a couple of armed soldiers were sent to guard the stadium entrance. Dark suggestions were made that legal proceedings would be taken if the race failed to take place, and if that happened the trucks and cars would not be leaving Barcelona until after the case had been heard, which could take months.

With a season of racing to complete, and finding themselves over a barrel, the team owners asked the drivers to race. Some kind of agreement was reached that they would not drive flat out. But this was a non-enforcible deal. Niki Lauda discovered that once in his Ferrari he could not drive at any speed but flat out. "You should be ashamed of yourself," said his girlfriend after he had put himself on pole position. "I am," he said. "Let's go back to the hotel now."

Emerson Fittipaldi reluctantly qualified his McLaren -- with one arm in the air -- but the protest was ineffective. Only Fittipaldi actually refused to take the start, and it was with great trepidation that the grid formed up on Sunday. After 29 laps of 'racing' everyone's fears were realised when Stommelen's Embassy-Lola went missing. The rear wing mounting, made of untried carbon fibre composite, had failed. The wing had flown off and there was nothing poor Rolf could do as his car launched itself over a guardrail into what was supposed to be a neutral area.

One report suggested that there was a van selling ice creams at the spot where the Lola came to earth. Five people died and Rolf was seriously injured. You don't need me to tell you which piece of guard rail he hit.

Over the following 32 years, Formula 1 has transformed itself. Despite what you may read, not all of the changes in the sport have been for the worse. We will never go back to Montjuich Park, of course, because the circuit is suicidally dangerous and the FIA would never permit it. Spain is now a fully paid up member of the Grand Prix club and the organisers of its races respect both the spirit and the letter of the stringent safety regulations. It has two F1-standard circuits and a two-time champion driver. Some of us like the country so much that we choose to live there.

The only player in this story who has not changed is its writer, thicker in the waist and greyer in the thatch. He worked at Jarama in 1967 for nothing more than his board and lodging, plus a plane ticket back to Manchester. Even today he lets himself be strong-armed into doing an occasional job for charity. It's probably because at heart he's a lad from Lancashire still can't believe that he's involved with something as magical as motor racing.

Viva Espana!