Sitges

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This Spanish Brooklands suffered a swift fall from grace. It was undeserved, says Paul Fearnley, and only now – 80 years after its launch – might its potential be realised

Senna on a hot lap. Fangio steering with the throttle. Bellof lowering the Nordschleife’s lap record, from a standing start. An awakening Chevy stock-block. These are the motor-racing things that take your breath away, cause your heart to skip a beat.

In contrast, distant memories of disused tacks evoke a slippers-by-the-fire glow. True, drive Dundrod, or Montjuich, or Chimay, or Solitude, and a sense of awe does rise from the pit of your stomach to lodge uncomfortably in the back of your throat. True, your mouth dries as a consequence. But that’s about all. Until now.

Actually, we’re not even supposed to be here. Preparatory faxes to the local tourist office had been met with an encouraging all-clear. But ‘ there is a problem when it comes to the crunch. Permission has not been granted. We cannot gain vehicular access. Not today, not manana. We’ve come too far to stop just short, though. We mean no harm. We’re here to pay homage. We decide to check it out in any case.

Nudging along at walking pace, determined not to create a giveaway plume of rust-red dust, the engine is silenced and we coast the final few yards. Very conspiratorial. We roll to a halt alongside an impressive — in size and construction — retaining wall. Imagine a northern milltown cobbled street. Flip it onto its side, through 90 degrees. Flex it into a pleasing curve:that’s about what we have here.

The farm track ahead disappears into a tunnel. No Pasar, Privada, the sign says. We mean no harm. We’re just curious. We don’t plan to blat round on a hired holiday scooter. We will be reverential. This, we know, is a special place. How special we’re about to find out.

We scramble up the wall, taking care not to dislodge anything, and peer over its edge, like snipers. My jaw drops. Not metaphorically. Literally. We have stumbled upon the Land that Laptimes Forgot. A concrete crop circle. A white elephant’s footprint Majestic. Mysterious. The most impressive piece of motorsport architecture. Le Corbusier at 150mph. A Falling Water for petrolheads. To our left stands an imposing 16th century fortified farmhouse. Its retro sits well with the track’s nouveau. I stand to get a better view. Oops, people. I duck down. Mustn’t compromise the mission. We need another point of access. One that affords us more cover.

The next approach ventured is much wider but strewn with boulders. Photographer Newton minesweeps for our low-slung MR2, and we emerge behind the purpose-built stands. They could have been put up yesterday. Brooklands has suffered the caprices of British weather; Autodromo Nacional has been faithfully preserved by solid Spanish sunshine. The buildings are boarded up and a roof has been laid over the integral seats, but it’s all here bar the wooden trimming.

Betwixt the stands and the track’s edge lies a small olive grove affording us more cover. We risk driving onto the track.

A lap is out of the question, home-made barricades of scrub, rubble and chain see to that, so we pull up on the curving start/finish straight Sitges is kidney-shaped. Tufts of grass jut through the surface’s ‘zigzag’ joins (to be explained later), but it is in remarkable condition otherwise, even on this section, where farm vehicles have done their worst Autodromo Nacional enjoys a 16-year technology advantage over Brooldands 1923 compared to ’07 and its concrete is of a better consistency, is smoother, and is beautifully edged, as a result Deep pan rather than thin crust. This was meant to be the best, a showpiece.

Spain had big plans in the early 1920s. Part of the grandiose scheme was the construction of a modem road network. To this end, a Portland Cement factory was built close to Sitges. The track was their sampler, proof of the worth of their pre-cast sections, of the silence and comfort afforded by their aforesaid angled joints which precluded jarring caused by both wheels of an axle crossing them simultaneously.

This two-kilometre (1.242-mile) cutting-edge construction was gouged out of a rock face and moulded from 3.5 million kilograms of concrete in the space of 300 days during 1923. Two thrusting young architects, Jaume Mestres i Fossas (track) and Josep Maria Martino Arroyo (pits and grandstand), oversaw the project, and part of their brief was to build a Royal Box: King Alfonso XIII was coming to the races.

Autodromo Nacional was big news, a source of national pride for a country that had lagged behind industrial giants Britain and Germany and was determined to catch up. Sitges was meant to be a beginning. A pointer to a brighter future. It was to be a middle and an end, too. A microcosm, a litmus test of the problems and darker days to come.

Spain’s most ambitious motorsport programme began on October 21, Albert Divo’s Talbot 70 winning the voiturette Penya Rhin Grand Prix, held over 35 laps of the 9.2-mile Villafranca road course. Fifth, in his first race outside Italy, was Tazio Nuvolari at the wheel of a Chiribiri 12/16. The Mantuan had a busy Iberian schedule ahead of him, for Villafranca was just for starters.

Sitges, the following weekend, was the main dish. And everything was ready. The crowd was impressive: 30,000, some ferried from the purpose-built train station to the track in purpose-built Model T-based coaches; others arriving in the 4000 cars parked on the infield-cum-aerodrome.

Early rain threatened the show, but afternoon sunshine saved the day: the first Spanish Grand Prix was go, albeit reduced to 200 laps from 300. There were five no-shows, including the Miller of 1922 Indy 500 winner pinny Murphy, but the seven starters thrilled the crowd, the ‘Fiat copy’ Sunbeams of Divo and Dario Resta slugging it out with Louis Zborowski’s Miller 122. Resta retired after 150 laps, but his team-mate upheld Sunbeam’s honour, winning by a minute after the blistering pace forced Zborowski to fit new tyres with just 10 laps to go. The Count’s consolation was a 45.8sec (97.49mph) international car lap record. It would never be broken.

And Nuvolari? He raced his 500cc Borgo in the Spanish Motorcycle GP, held the same day, over two 175-lap heats. He refired, but returned the next weekend to drive his Chiribiri in the Spanish Voiturette GP. This, in turn, was held the same day as the 200-lap Spanish Cyclecar GP (1100cc) was completed; it had been abandoned after 70 laps three days earlier because of rain. Robert Benoist led a Salmson 1-2-3-4 in the latter event, while Divo deferred to Resta in the former, missing out on a memorable Spanish hattrick by lsec. And Nuvolari? Fourth, after brake and exhaust problems.

For his efforts Divo received nothing. For beneath the track’s squeakyclean modernism lay a murky problem as old as business. The project, at four million pesetas, had gone over budget. Consequently, there was no money to pay the German contractors, Tanner and Eigenheer. So they seized the gate receipts. The drivers would have to go without

The bad-mouthing began. Despite claims by the architect that the track would be good for 200kph (almost 25% faster than Zborowski had gone), and that its 100-metre radius, 60-degree bankings (a giddy 90 at the top!) had been designed to act as a seamless continuation of the straights, word was that the circuit was flawed. The bankings were too severe, they said, sucking the cars in, spitting them out, while the reverse-curve approach to the north-western banking unsettled the cars. Hat-out dangerous, no less.

This much-maligned banking is certainly flat-out impressive — on foot. To stand at its base, to bask in the heat reflected from its surface, to crick your neck skywards, is to be bowled over. Brooklands’ Outer Circuit, at 2.75 miles, dwarfs Sitges’ lap, but its bankings are Lilliputian in comparison.

Discarded shotgun shells add to the tang of fear. It’s very quiet here. And the sign did say Privada. And a distant dog is barking.

Despite these omens, we chance a third invasion, this time from the north, an even narrower track leading us through cornfields and the only unsightly tear in the track’s fabric, and onto the south-east banking. Even on its levelling exit, to go slowly at this angle causes the car, on modem radials, to side-slip.

Then it happens. We had almost got away with it.

Perhaps we’d become complacent We never saw it coming. A white 2CV van, that is. We freeze. The driver slows, gives us a pitying look (even his barking dog has sought shade) and drives by. Our worst fears have not been confirmed, but instinctively we know we have overstayed what welcome there was. There is a dignity about this place, and we are intruding. Taking away rather than adding. We’d sneaked on. Now we scuttled off.

The track, too, went out with a whimper. Oval contemporaries Monza (1922) and Montlhery (1924) had long careers. Even the insufferably dull Miramas in southern France, venue of the farcical three-Bugatti 1926 French GP, has found an outlet as a BMW-owned test track.

Sitges, however, was immediately and roundly shunned. International racing was prohibited because of the financial irregularities, and although the Catalunyan AC and Penya Rhin ran minor races, they did so with little success. The track had lost its direction. The owners were desperate: can raced planes, the track was run in both directions, even a share offer was attempted, all in a bid to revive interest All failed. The Millenium Dome of its day.

Abandoned in 1925, it was bought by Bugatti racer Edgar Morawitz in the immediate fallout of the 1929 Wall Street crash and, in 1932, Sitges hosted the Spanish Motorcycling Championship. But these green shoots of recovery were chopped down by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Morawitz joined the fight — against Franco. Spain remained in the General’s tight grasp until 1975, and all motor-racing breath was squeezed out of Sitges. But it was too big, too well-built, to be erased completely. Its idealistic fathers had created a slumbering monster that lies a skipped heartbeat away from an awakening, hot laps, wide-open throttles and new lap records.

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