Since 1991 the Spanish Grand Prix has resided at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo, about 30 minutes from Barcelona. It’s a tremendous modern race track with great spectating and facilities. In recent years it’s even produced some excellent racing in Grand Prix for both cars and motorcycles, and who can forget that iconic battle for supremacy between Senna and Mansell in 1991…?
Even closer to Barcelona, however, lay one of motor racing’s sternest challenges. Between 1969 and 1975, the Spanish Grand Prix alternated between Jarama near Madrid and the stunning parkland track at Montjuic, just outside Barcelona itself. Today Montjuic Park is a popular cultural and tourist destination, famous for hosting the 1992 Olympic Games.
Back in the 1960s and 70s it was a fearsome circuit – fast, tree-lined and taking place over public roads. It stood shoulder to shoulder with Spa, Silverstone and the Nurburgring as a high-speed challenge. Sadly Formula One stopped visiting after the tragic 1975 Grand Prix where Rolf Stommelen lost his rear wing; his Hill plunging into the crowd killing five spectators. This coming after serious controversy over the safety of Armco in 1973 threatened the running of the race at all.
Whether a legacy of that awful accident in 1975 or not, it appears Barcelona does little to celebrate its amazing circuit – despite the layout remaining almost entirely intact. Where once the F1 gladiators left the grid to do battle there is now a brass plaque illustrating the outline of the course and a list of those who conquered it. For the determined – and energetic – it is still possible to trace the route driven by one’s heroes. And so we took to our feet to try and unearth some of Montjuic’s secrets.
As a park, much of the course is lined with mature trees. The same ones would have mottled the light as Ickx, Stewart et al passed between them. The start took place at pretty much the highest point of the circuit, outside where now stands the Olympic stadium. The crest just past the stadium saw the cars airborne momentarily during flying laps. As tourists mill around with cameras, I wonder how many realise the drama which occurred under their feet forty years previously.
The pack dived through the trees off the grid and downhill towards the first left-hand hairpin at El Angulo de Miramar. The approach is a wide boulevard along the curving, undulating start/finish straight but narrows significantly at Miramar as the macadam plunges downhill. It puts one in mind of the Loews Hairpin at Monte Carlo with its extreme topography. The whole track is not dissimilar to Monaco, but significantly faster and more picturesque.
From Miramar, the drivers were locked into a series of sweepers heading downhill with a high rock face to the left hand side now concealed by dense foliage. Like everywhere at Monjuic this section would have rewarded maximum commitment but instantly punished any mistake. The route then emerges at another tight hairpin – this time turning right at the Rosaleda. If you look carefully, Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia stands proudly in the distance on the skyline. I doubt Rindt and his charging colleagues had time to admire the viewed as they were hurled once more into fast, sweeping bends.
The course continues downhill past a small, pretty park – the tranquillity of its still pond juxtaposing against the violence of Grand Prix racing cars at maximum attack. Here the area becomes more built-up, passing enormous colonial-style palatial buildings as it continues its flat-out meander downhill. One final chute past the police station and the 90degree left-hander Guardia Urbana saw the cars hurtling onto the longest straight worthy of the name on the circuit – the Recta de las Fuentas. This broad boulevard is quite open with the grand conference centre sitting high up to the left hand side.
The Recta must have been enjoyed through gritted teeth as the left-hander which followed must have been one of the circuit’s most dramatic tests of nerve in a powerful 3.0L Grand Prix car. If it wasn’t flat out it probably just required a confidence lift to settle the car and then began the climb back uphill and among the avenue of trees once again. Breathless stuff. The light flickers as you pass between the trees in the bright sunshine. It’s narrow here and must have been fearsomely fast by 1975.
From here the brave pilots would have had no respite. The ribbon of macadam twists its way gently up the hill through a rousing set of sweepers following the natural contours of the ground beneath it. Emerging on high ground, the tortuously long and fast left-hander of Sant Jordi is today broken by a small roundabout, before continuing again apace towards that winding, diving start/finish straight.
Even as a mere pedestrian, it’s a wild rollercoaster of a ride. To have driven a 500bhp Grand Prix car around that track for two hours would’ve taken every gram of nerve and commitment. It’s no coincidence that Jackie Stewart was triumphant twice at Montjuic.
Today, the lack of celebration for the track is disappointing. It’s an area of tremendous interest and beauty and as a race track was the equal of just about any of its contemporaries. It would be nice to see the good folk of Barcelona doing more to celebrate that heritage. The ultimate irony of the place seemed to be that its quiet and relatively secluded nature had made it a Mecca for learner drivers. Every other vehicle contained an eager student learning their craft. If only they could’ve seen the warriors of forty years ago teaching the world how to drive.