I have good cause to remember reporting on the 1951 Gran Premio de Espana, together with Michael Tee to take the photographs and Kent Karslake, who had kindly said he’d translate the race commentaries for me, as I had to write the report on our way back. We flew from Croydon in a Transair Avro Anson 1. I said to its uniformed pilot, “I suppose it’s routine for you?” “Oh no,” he said, “I’ve never been further than Paris.”
The Avro should have cruised at 158mph but, after the radio operator had laboriously wound up the landing wheels with a giant handle, head winds caused it to take two hours to Rennes, to refuel. We continued to Toulouse for more fuel, and Customs. M le Douanier had to finish his meal before he arrived over two hours later to argue that, as we had not been stamped into France, we could not be stamped out of it. That solved, we left for Barcelona. Its airport should have been open 24 hours, but at midnight it was in darkness. With little fuel left we circled round and round and eventually the runway lights went on.
We landed and were welcomed by the Press Secretary of the Penya Rhin Motor Club, the GP organisers, and a taxi summonsed. A Guardia Civile in his long green cloak, rifle, and black Napoleonic hat stopped us briefly. We were definitely in Spain! We got to bed at about 3.30arn.
There was no practice on the Saturday, so we visited the ENASA factory where Hispano-Suizas originated but which was now devoted to the production of Pegaso cars and commercial vehicles. Kent was able to see the 1900 La Cundra which Mark Birkigt had designed after he was persuaded to leave Paris for Spain; he was responsible for Hispanos from 1904.
Next day two impressive Pegaso coaches took journalists to the Circuit de Pedralbes. All Barcelona seemed to flank the course, restrained by single ropes, legs protruding onto the pavement. An interesting race was likely with only two points separating Fangio and Ascari, 1.68sec faster in practice than his rival, in the 1951 world championship. It also promised to be a battle between the fuel-thirsty Alfas and the less-so Ferraris. But no V16 BRMs! A reader sent a verse ending: “Too many cylinders I fear, too many ratios of gear, too many oil pipes to the diff, too many bearings to run stiff. The moral here to blazon forth — too many cooks have spoiled the broth!”
But back to the race. The yellow flag dropped and Ascari led the pack away; but by lap four Fangio was ahead. Tyre durability counted on this hot afternoon, and Ferrari had chosen wrongly: all their drivers lost treads, Taruffi’s Ferrari later losing a wheel. As the 70-lap race ran to a close Gonzalez chased his fellow countryman relentlessly, but Fangio stayed in front to win by 54.2sec from Gonzalez and Farina. He had won his first world championship!
It seemed all very satisfactory to us as we made for the airport. Little did we know! Soon after take-off the Anson flew towards thunder clouds. Then it happened, rain battering on roof and engine cowlings, lightning playing round us, St Elmo’s fire along the wings. A camera left on a seat was some 18in off it as we fell into air pockets. All through this Karslake read his Financial Times and I tried to get on with my race report. We landed at Lyons with thunder rumbling; the gendarmes, regarding us as mad Englishmen, were surprised to see us, the first aeroplane in that day. The radio operator had almost passed out, his set useless.
Nevertheless, Kent led us to a meal while we supposedly refuelled. But when the pilot looked at the gauges he seemed surprised. “Wouldn’t it be prudent to have the tanks checked?” Kent enquired politely. He did, and found they had not been replenished!
From Croydon, where we arrived by midnight, I went to the office with my story, as Kent wrote, ‘for another working day’.
The course had been opened by three Pegasos. Karslake wondered if there would be Pegasos in future GPs; he wrote: “One would be drawing a bow at a venture to loose an arrow which might yet find a joint in the harness of the inscrutability of fate.”