Nigel Roebuck's Legends

 

Montjuich Park was once the fastest street circuit on the Formula One calendar. Sadly, safety was not a priority in Barcelona

When people ask me which I think is the most impressive vantage point on any circuit I have visited, my answer unfailingly surprises them. Eau Rouge at Spa? Suzuka's 130R? Perhaps the 'Foxhole' at the old Nürburgring? What about Monza, and the Lesmo curves as they used to be? Or the Jukskei Kink at the original Kyalami?

Daunting as these places are (or were), it is none of them. For sheer drama, in my opinion nothing has ever been the equal of the first part of the lap at Barcelona's Montjuich Park, the venue of four Spanish Grands Prix, the first in 1969; the last, in 1975, sadly guaranteed there would be no more.

It's a fact that the place holds a special place in my heart, for the '71 race was the first I ever covered, but my memories of Montjuich — good and bad — are coloured by more than sentiment. Set in parkland above the city, this was the greatest street circuit I ever saw. Imagine Monaco, but with more variety of turn and gradient, and much faster, and some flavour of Montjuich Park should then emerge.

From the start the track went uphill and left, then plunged down to a left-hand hairpin, and it is this section which stands unrivalled in my mind. You stood down there, before the hairpin, and you waited. And if you had any sort of imagination you shivered a little.

When a car came into your sight it was doing over 150mph, and invariably it was airborne, in the sort of pose so often seen on the Nordschleife. It did not touch down on the flat, but on a steep downhill gradient, the road still turning left, whereupon its driver had then to get it stopped sufficiently to make the hairpin. Ye Gods...

So there we stood, in front of us only a guardrail, and behind us stout wooden hoardings, there to keep locals from watching for free. No escape route. It was a help to have the blessed ignorance of youth.

At the 1975 race it was hot as we walked up to the track on the Friday morning, but also silent — when practice should have been underway. Then there was the bark of a Cosworth DFV and a Lotus went by. Ickx. What did we know about Jacky Ickx? He wasn't in the GPDA.

Jean-Pierre Beltoise had done a track inspection some time earlier but, as with any street circuit, the barriers were erected only shortly before race weekend. Or not. At a glance everything looked normal, but a closer inspection revealed that many securing bolts were only finger-tight and, worse, that some pieces of guardrail were merely offered up, not bolted at all. Some of the mounting posts you could rock by hand.

That first day, only Ickx and Vittorio Brambilla took to the track, and their colleagues, most notably Emerson Fittipaldi, Jody Scheckter and Niki Lauda, were in a particularly militant mood. Graham Hill, by then semi-retired, acted as a calming influence.

"In reality," Hill explained, "this should be a confrontation between the organisers and the CSI who must ensure that the circuit is up to standard. But we, the drivers, have got involved because the CSI people here don't seem interested — in fact, the problem is finding  them..."

James Hunt was typically crisp on the subject: "They're more worried about spilling gin on their f****** blazers than stopping cars getting into the crowd." And Mario Andretti pointed out that, under Spanish law, a driver was liable for any injury his car might cause to the spectators.

The CSI men thought things through — and opted to scarper. "What is a safe circuit, anyway?" said one of their number, Claude Le Guezec. "I have never seen a safe circuit..." So that was helpful.

By midday on Saturday the team owners had proposed putting their mechanics to work on the barriers, and for two hours the boys toiled away. Later the organisers threatened legal action, should the entrants 'fail to honour their contractual agreements', in which case all the teams' equipment would be impounded. Given that the paddock was a derelict sports stadium, the locking of two access gates would have done the job.

Formula One had a gun at its head and now the constructors became nervous, prevailing upon their drivers at least to run the three laps then required to qualify, so as to fulfil that part of the contract. "You don't have to go fast," they said, but of course the drivers, once strapped in, fell prey to their instincts — save Fittipaldi, who cruised his three laps, then left the circuit for good.

Not surprisingly there was an almost tangible sense of foreboding, and by race morning it was overwhelming. With a couple of colleagues I went to the hairpin at the bottom of the hill. From there we couldn't see the start, but the scream of engines was clear enough and we looked up the road to watch the cars dance into sight.

What we saw was a Ferrari — Lauda's — sideways, with the entire pack behind it, and perhaps I have never known such acute fear as in that moment, for a multiple shunt looked inevitable. By a trick of the light, somehow it never happened.

Brambilla had nudged Andretti into Lauda, who had then gone into Clay Regazzoni. With both Ferraris out on the spot, Hunt's Hesketh took the lead, pursued by Andretti's Parnelli, John Watson's Surtees, Rolf Stommelen's Hill, Brambilla's March, Carlos Pace's Brabham, Ronnie Peterson's Lotus and Jean-Pierre Jarier's Shadow.

After Hunt had spun off on oil, Andretti led until he crashed — without injury — after suspension failure. And thus Stommelen found himself in the lead of a grand prix for the first time.

On lap 26 I looked up the road and saw a blur of white. I yelled to my friends, but now there was nothing to see, and momentarily I wondered if I had imagined it. Then Pace's Brabham came grinding down the guardrail. Further up the road — where the cars got airborne — Stommelen had gone over it.

Hard to believe now, but four laps went by before the race was stopped and Jochen Mass took his only grand prix win, aboard the only McLaren to have started.

What followed was like a scene from Hades, with shocked people spilling all over the road, sirens screaming, the Guardia Civil of Franco's Spain lashing out with their batons at anything that moved. Stommelen's car had broken in half and fuel had escaped, together with water, the mixture running down the gutter. Rolf, his legs broken, was still in the cockpit, but nearby were the bodies of four marshals.

Cresting the brow he had lost the rear wing, which put the car out of control. Carbonfibre, then a new material in race-car construction, had been used for the wing centrepost: it was this that had failed.

By supreme irony Stommelen hit the very guardrails secured by his own mechanics. Had the work not been done, the car's momentum would have been unchecked and the carnage beyond contemplation. Immediately beyond the marshals' area was a spectator enclosure.

The earlier controversies, while bringing justified opprobrium upon the race organisers and the sport's governing body, were unconnected with the disaster on race day, but of course the gutter press took no account of that, and Montjuich, sadly, was vilified out of existence. Like anyone else who ever went there, 30 years on I miss it still.