When the first race at Montjuïc Circuit took place in 1933, the Catalonia region had already experienced a good deal of either Grand Prix or Sportscar racing events.
In fact, the initial races in Barcelona go as far back as 1908, when the Catalan Cup was run on the roads around Sitges.
Over a number of years, enthusiasm for motorsports in Spain grew subtly; however despite the growing popularity of the sport, the Spanish Grand Prix would fail to secure a regular home once Grand Prix racing left Sitges in the 1920’s.
Motorsport in Spain
An event at the Circuit Lasarte in 1926 was one of the few to run on Spanish soil during the decade and when the US economy collapsed three years later, monetary shockwaves were felt as far away as the Western coast of Europe – inevitably this led to more cancelled races and a Spanish audience going hungry.
Although there a race ran around the parks and harbour of Montjuïc Park in 1932, it would not be until a year later when the Penya Rhin Grand Prix took place, that a major race ran around the mountainside street circuit.
From its inaugural event until its retirement many years later, the track layout remained virtually unchanged – with fast sweeps and flowing corners, Montjuïc Circuit was a driver favourite throughout its existence; however it also represented the inherent dangers that competitors faced when in the heat of battle.
Unfortunately the Penya Rhin Grand Prix itself did not last that long – after four events, one of which won by the pre-war great Tazio Nuvolari in an Alfa Romeo, the race was put on the back burner when Spain descended into civil war.
Just as the civil war itself concluded in 1939, the second world war broke out, after which racing all over Europe was either extremely sporadic or just ground to a halt altogether.
As peace returned to European shore, so did motor racing return to Spain until 1946; however Montjuïc was no longer the favoured venue for the Penya Rhin.
With no top-level racing to speak of, the mountainous slopes would entertain touring cars and mixed-regulation road cars; proof almost of city that loved motorsports regardless of its engine note.
It was not until the 1950’s that the true return of Montjuïc began to take shape – with SEAT bringing up the push, 1954 saw the first internationally recognised events at the track in nearly two decades, with the Montjuïc Cup running under sportscar rules and the Nuvolari Trophy specialising in rally stages and as the 60’s began, GT classes and Formula 3 also joined the circuit’s repertoire. Soon even motorbikes took to the streets for the infamous Montjuïc 24 Hour Endurance Race.
With Formula 3 proving to be popular at the circuit, thoughts turned to the possibility of bringing Formula 1 to Montjuïc for the first time; however before the organisers could do that, the track entertained Formula 2 in 1966.
The field, comprising of Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Jim Clark plus many other notable runners held the circuit in good favour and following a few more successful events, it was decided the Spanish Grand Prix would alternate with Jarama from 1969 onwards – after a gap of thirty-three tears, premier machinery was to return at last!!
At Last Formula 1
With the circuit approved for running early in the year, the first of four Formula 1 races at Montjuïc Circuit ran on May 4th of that year.
Stewart picked up victories at both the 1969 and ’71 events; however a telling accident during the first Formula 1 race there. Whilst running over the famed “stadium jump” (a crest in the road that literally caused the cars to get airborne), Hill lost control of his Lotus 49B and smashed into the barrier and although the double-World Champion was uninjured, his teammate Jochen Rindt crashed over the very same jump five laps later and hit the wreckage of Hill’s car.
The races at Montjuïc provided some interesting firsts for Grand Prix racing. Unlike all the other races on the Formula 1 calendar, events at the track ran during the morning hours – often starting at 10am and ending just prior to midday; thereafter would stroll down the shallow slopes in the afternoon to watch the regular bullfighting shows in the heart of the city.
More importantly however, the 1971 Spanish Grand Prix was the first Formula 1 race to run with slick tyres, as provided by Firestone.
America’s wing of the Japanese tyre giant had been running slick rubber at oval races in the IndyCar series since the 1960’s and was proving to be very successful; however Firestone could not have picked a more awkward race to make its entrance
When the teams turned up for practices, there was a constant flow of rain over the region, meaning the first time slicks were ever used in Formula 1 was when the race itself started. Stewart, however remained confident in his Goodyear tyres and his win over Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari only bolstered that confidence further.
Sadly, not all great moments are remembered so vividly.
At the shortened 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, Lella Lombardi became the first (and so far only) woman to score points in the history of the World Championship where she earned half-a-point; however it is oft forgotten achievement due to the tragic circumstances of the event.
Prior to practice, the drivers complained vociferously about the casual construction of the safety barriers and guardrail at certain points of the track. In a scandalous act of laziness and mindless stupidly, requested modifications to the barriers had been the subject of a number of shortcuts, with the Armco connectors not been bolted together properly and the integrity of railing been called into question.
The driver’s called a strike as a result, refusing to practice or race until the barriers were properly fixed. Circuit workers and some mechanics worked overnight to fix some of the railings in time for qualifying, but it was still not good enough and a furious Emerson Fittipaldi crawled around he circuit in protest in his McLaren, before promptly going home.
Fittipaldi’s older brother Wilson and Arturo Merzario also pulled out.
With the race facing cancellation, the organisers threatened legal action against the teams and drivers and rumours of the Spanish Civil Guard impounding the cars floated around the paddock. Under pressure, the race would go ahead. The race began under severe protest and following a number of accidents during the early laps, Rolf Stommelen took the lead in his Embassy-Hill Lola machine when tragedy struck on the 26th lap.
Approaching the Stadium jump, Stommelen’s rear wing collapsed and his car pitched and bounced off the weakened retainers and was thrown across the other side of the circuit at nearly 160 mph. His car glanced the Brabham of Carlos Pace and became airborne, hitting a lamp post and destroying a barrier on the far side of the road.
After Stommelen pummelled the guardrail, his car destroyed TV and phone cables meaning news of the accident only reached the pits ten minutes later. The red flag came out on lap 29 and Jochen Mass was awarded an empty victory.
The accident claimed the lives of four people (two spectators, a photographer and a fireman) and left Stommelen with a broken leg, wrist and several cracked ribs. In one moment of sheer horror, the fate of Montjuïc was sealed. Even in the danger-tainted days of the 1970’s, the circuit was simply far too unsafe for high speed motor racing and Formula 1 would never return to the fast, sweeping streets.
Despite this, the popularity of the circuit remains high with older fans and while it was a glorious track, by 1975 it had simply outlived its worth in modern motorsports and racing ceased permanently thereafter.
Nearing the end of 2007, the Martini-Legends honoured the 75th anniversary of Montjuïc and Emerson Fittipaldi returned to the scene of the tragedy driving his Lotus 72, while Marc Gene lapped the track in a 2006-spec Ferrari Formula 1 car.
When one considers how diluted the current Spanish circuits in Formula 1 are, then it really is a shame that Montjuïc Circuit sits by the wayside and with the European Grand Prix at Valencia approaching, it is not impossible to think what could have been. However, it is a circuit probably best left in the past – such a track would no doubt be neutered if it existed today and what a horrible thing to spoil one the sport’s finest circuits.