Track test -- Monsanto Park

It staged only one grand prix, but Monsanto Park helped establish Portugal as a player in F1. Richard Heseltine retraces its history. Photography by Ian Dawson.

The look of displeasure is writ wide. Not entirely sure what he said but it probably wasn’t polite. As we thread the Denzel along the narrow ribbon of asphalt, the road sweeps right into Riding School Corner before a gentle left leads you into Windmill Bend, the camber changes are evil. Even at 20mph, the air-cooled four out back is popping and farting as we turn around for one more run, this time against the traffic. Which is made up entirely of bicycles, this being a cycle path after all. We’re right in the middle of an ecology-friendly stretch of greenbelt on the hem of Lisbon. Monsanto Park may once have hosted a grande epreuve but it’s time for us to make our retreat before we get pummelled by the environmentalists.

When, back in 1934, Secretary of State for Public Works Duarte Pacheco set in place the reforestation of the then-practically bare Serra de Monsanto (a construction of Monte Santo, or ‘Holy Hill’), he was keen to maximise the possibilities of the area, culturally and socially. And motor racing was always on the agenda, the locale having hosted hillclimbs as far back as 1910. The ACP (Automovel Club de Portugal) organised the first event here using a 1.506km stretch of road on the Estrada de Pimenteira; it was won by Estaväo Oliveira Fernandes in a Richard Brasier, taking under 2 min to complete the task. Yet despite attracting a crowd of over 30,000 the event failed to take hold, being hosted on just two more occasions: 1913 and 1922.

Aside from a few meeting at Vila Real from 1936-38, Portugal would have to wait decades before attracting international motorsport. The Oporto road circuit made its debut in 1950, Felice Bonetto scoring an excellent victory in a 12-cyclinder Alfa Romeo, a 12-year-old converted GP car that the pipe-smoking Italian had driven from his homeland. Three years later, and after some reconfiguring of its perimeter road, Monsanto Park hosted the ACP’s Jubilee Grand Prix. Part of the track was commandeered from the Lisbon-Cascais highway, a situation that would later condemn the circuit to disuse.

The works Lancia squad arrived in full force, bringing three D23s for Bonetto, Piero Taruffi and Froilan González. The latter crashed out at Cruz das Olivieras, a fast right with a steep drop to the left and a blind entry; it was subsequently renamed in the Argentinean’s honour. Again Bonetto took the chequer, although González would return the following season to win the Portuguese Grand Prix (for sportscars), this time for Ferrari. It would be Masten Gregory’s turn in 1955, the bespectacled ‘Kansas City Flash’ taking the win in the Ferrari 750 Monza.

There was no racing in 1956 but sportscars returned a year later with Juan Manuel Fangio taking the win at a canter aboard a Maserati 300S. Gregory was second.

After another gap year the track was firmly back on the international calendar for 1959 and had its finest hour as the host of the Portuguese GP – this time a round of the F1 world championship. In what was the fastest race ever at Monsanto, Stirling Moss ran away and hid in Rob Walker’s Cooper-Climax. Nobody else got a look in as the British ace lapped the second-place man – Gregory again – in a bravura display.

Just to rub it in, he even had time to stop and have a quick drink courtesy of Jo Bonnier, who had set up an impromptu refreshment bar at the hairpin leading onto the autoestrada, the Swede having retired his BRM P25 with fuel pump troubles.

Enjoying altogether less good fortune was champion- elect Jack Brabham. Having been relieved of his wallet on arrival in Lisbon, the Australian endured a torrid weekend. Qualifying his Cooper second on the grid, ‘Black Jack’ endured a terrifying moment during the opening stages of the race when, at over 120mph, he had to swerve around a small boy who had run across the track in front of him. Once clear of the escape road, Brabham was obliged to perform a similar manoeuvre a few laps later when a reckless official stepped into his path.

After 23 laps Brabham somehow remained in second place, a couple of seconds in front of his works Cooper team-mates, Gregory and Bruce McLaren. A lap later, though he was out, having crashed in spectacular fashion at González Corner when attempting to put a lap on local hero Mário de Araúdo Cabral. Brabham became airborne and was chucked out just before the car connected with a concrete telegraph pole. Rolling over and over in the road, he cheated death, once more as Gregory came barrelling through unsighted, the American skimming past his striken colleague by mere inches: the Australian miraculously escaped with only a heavily bruised knee. Rookie Cabral, meanwhile, soldiered on, finishing 10th in his Centro Sud Cooper- Maserati after being practically glued to Tony Brooks’ down-on-power Ferrari 246 for the greatest part of the race.

Standing at González Corner, now part of the cycle path, the ever smiling Cabral remains defiant as to the cause of the accident. “Jack never touched me, you know,” he insists. “I was 25 years old and in my first grand prix. I had raced quite successfully in a Triumph TR2 and then a Mercedes-Benz 300SL before I got the opportunity to drive with Centro Sud. It was very, very exciting because I was Portuguese driver in Formula One, at my home race, and I wanted to make a good impression.”

“Monsanto Park was a very dangerous circuit. Really it was. Very bumpy and uneven. I was doing my best in an unfamiliar car, and when Brabham came up to lap me it was at what was probably the most dangerous part of the circuit. I stuck to my line and Brabham leaned on me. But we never touched. There was only one line there and he tried to find another. If he had waited just a few seconds until we got through González he would have been past me and away. He was too impatient. A very good driver, but an impatient one. I was absolved of any blame by the English media which pleased me, and I was glad to have finished the race. It led to a few more opportunities, so it wasn’t all bad. For me, at least.”

Not that this charming aristocrat and accomplished sportscar driver would race in F1 at Monsanto Park again. Nor would anyone else. As a round-the-houses (and trees!) circuit, its non-permanent nature counted against regular use. Hosting a GP required an intense effort, logistically and financially, to pull it off successfully, and neither element was forthcoming after 1959. The plug was pulled in ’60.

Once the ACP and city council had backed out, it was left to the tiny but effective Clube dos 100 a Hora (100km/h Club) to reclaim motorsport for the region. Founded in 1935, the club was nothing if not ambitious. In retaining some of the more challenging sections of the circuit, but relieved of the stop-the-traffic-for-a-weekend autoestrada portion, Monsanto Park was cut from 3.38 miles to 1.7, and this revised layout – Montes Claros, also known as Little Monsanto – was open for business as of 1962.

But this was strictly a national circuit. There were no aspirations – or the means – for it to be anything more. Typically there were problems that haunted the 10 events (in as many years) run at Montes Claros, principally about its pock-marked road surface. Not forgetting the assortment of rocks, trees, and lamp-posts sat perilously close to the edge of the poorly kept asphalt. With no real barrier protection to speak of the inevitable happened in 1967: British driver Tim Cash crashed fatally at González during the Portuguese F3 Grand Prix.

Even so, Montes Claros remained a popular venue that continued to host mixed-meetings for motorcycles, sportscars and junior single-seaters – though foreign participants were few in number. However, by 1971, the club’s coffers were empty and this, added to its inability to alter the circuit to cope with rising speeds, meant that motor racing at Monsanto was over for good.

These days generous tree planting, continuing building work and a proliferation of roundabouts akin to Milton Keynes have rendered the Old Monsanto Park circuit virtually unrecognisable. In its heyday you’d line up opposite the Ajunda junior school for the start and then travel through Estrada dos Marcos, descending to the Algés connection and the fast highway. A medium right – against the usual flow of traffic – was followed by a 1km climb of dual carriageway. Reaching the top of Monsanto hill drivers would turn right, entering the park itself via a gentle left followed by a small straight before the tricky, tightening right at González. Another straight beckoned you onto the Windmill section. After another straight there were two very fast downhill lefts that led into the right-hand hairpin in front of the school.

Aside from the autoestrada, section with its raised elevation, and the cycle path that runs from Gonzalez to Windmill Bend, motorsport archaeologists will be hard-pressed to retrace the wheel tracks of Moss and Brabham. Not that this should stop anyone from trying. Just be sure to remember: pedal power, not horsepower.


Denzel’s half-century

A veteran of several races during Monsanto Park’s heyday, António Herédia Bandeira’s Denzel is still in his keeping 50 year after he first bought the car – with help from his mother – to replace an MG TC. It helped that his uncle was Portugal’s importer for the Austrian marque: “there are probably only five left in the country,” he says.

Prior to WWII, Wolfgang Denzel had been a useful motorcycle and BMW sportscar racer. At the end of hostilities he and Hubert Stroinigg designed and built a one-off sportscar using the unlikely VW Kubelwagen – or ‘bucket car’ as a basis. After some success in rallying there were requests for replicas and production started in 1951: production cars featuring ally panels on a tubular steel frame constructed by Viennese firm Karosseriefabrik FK Gesellschaft, which also produced early Porsche 356 bodies with tuned VW (and later Porsche) power.

Further variations on the theme followed before production ended in 1959, by which time around 350 cars of all types had been built. Bandeira has no intentions of selling his just yet: “It’s an old friend, I can’t imaging being without it.”