Now that all the razzmatazz, emotion, and showbiz of the Olympic Games, at which the only wheeled sport was bicycle racing (with Lotus technology to the fore) is over and TV programmes have returned to normality, it seems opportune to recall some of Barcelona’s motor racing.
I remember going there for the 1950 X Gran Premio de Pena Rhin over the Pedralbes circuit. Barcelona was not then the shining city of the Olympics. Traffic rushed about haphazardly, controlled to some extent by continuous – to some extent – police whistles, much hooting, and flashing of headlamps after dark. Humanity clung to the trams and their attendant trailers. Even the fine new tramcars were apt to be festooned with people and the streets were further congested with a continual cavalcade of black-and-yellow taxis, mostly aged Fords and 11.4hp Citroens, with an occasional rare make such as a Bianchi or a 14/40 Delage.
Of private cars, these then ranged from exotic Type 57 Bugattis down to old Fiat 509s and 7/12 hp Peugeots. But there was only the occasional Hispano-Suiza. After our chartered Airspeed Consul had landed at Barcelona Airport, a decidedly decrepit Plymouth taxi, with holes in its upholstery from which emerged enraged mosquitoes and its gear lever endowed with a glass knob containing the portrait of a naked lady, took us, on that late October Saturday afternoon, to the Ritz Hotel. Even on this short journey (in the taxi I mean – that in the aeroplane had been something else) it was possible to observe that British cars, such as the occasional Jowett Javelin and Morris Eight, had penetrated to this Spanish city and that on the sidewalks were girls who might well be described as exotic.
Inside the hotel we, Michael Tee and myself, as photographer and reporter from MOTOR SPORT, and a mysterious Spanish interpreter provided by the charter company (but that is another story, in the best spythriller tradition) met such motor racing personalities of the time as John Heath, Reg Parnell and Peter Walker, who had the unenviable honour in task of upholding British honour in the following day’s race with the V16 BRMs. In the restaurant across the road Ascari, Villoresi and Chiron were to be seen, also awaiting the coming contest as participants for the Ferrari and Maserati teams; Villoresi, who was to manage the Ferrari pits, was still walking with a stick after his accident in the GP Des Nations at Geneva, where he had overturned his Ferrari.
Our interest was naturally with the two BRMs, and how they would fare so far from home. They were up against a field of 20 other cars, the 4.5-litre Ferraris, 1.5-litre Maseratis and 4.5-litre Talbots, and some non-works entries, including Bira and Murray with their 1.5-litre Maseratis.
The two BRMs had arrived, followed by their Commer mobile workshop that had been pushed along at up to 60 mph on the long haul from England. Already they had troubles, the centrifugal blowers giving insufficient acceleration out of the corners and faulty carburation restricting speed along the straights of the bumpy circuit, which threatened to be slippery if it rained.
So at the local Mercedes-Benz agents, Automobiles Fernandez, Peter Berthon was having a busy time. But Peter Walker had been lapping fast, losing it at one corner. His average of 91.7 mph compared to 98.73 mph by Ascari and Taruffi in the non-s/c Ferraris, which was over 4.5 mph quicker than the race lap-record set by Villoresi’s Maserati in 1948. Back at the Steering Wheel Club in Park Lane, London, the odds were 011 on a BRM victory, with the Ferraris favourites.
On the Sunday morning we went to the course in an even more decrepit taxi than that in which we had ridden to Barcelona, in the guise of a gas-producer Willys-Overland. which mingled with plenty of other ancient cars. Previous winners of the Gran Premio of Pena Rhin had been Vizcaya’s little Bugatti in 1921, the “invincible” Talbots of K Lee Guinness and Albert Divo in 1922/23, when Count Zborowski’s Aston Martin had been second both times (these races run over 322 miles of the Villafranca circuit), the Alfa Romeos of Zanelli and Varzi, the Mercedes-Benz of Fagioli and the Alfa Romeo of Tazio Nuvolari from 1935/36, over Barcelona’s Montjuich course, and Pelassa’s and Villoresi’s Maseratis in 1946 and 1948, when the event had had its post-war revival over 194 miles of the Pedralbes circuit, the distance of this 1950 contest.
At a time when spectator safety was being taken into greater account elsewhere, it was startling to see the spectators allowed to line the kerbs at the course, with only a single rope to restrain them. At the start Ascari and Serafini forged ahead in the Ferraris but Walker’s BRM hesitated as if he had selected the wrong gear, as did Chinetti’s blown 1.5-litre Ferrari. However, Walker soon got past Murray’s Maserati but Parnell’s BRM was wheeled away at the end of the first lap. Walker was up to ninth place by lap six, having overtaken Bira, who retired after some 10 laps. his overalls soaked in oil, and the little Wade-blown Simca-Gordinis were going well.
By lap 14 it was all over for the remaining BRM, Walker losing 10 seconds a lap to Manzon’s Simca, an oil-pipe to the gearbox having broken and Peter being without fourth, then fifth gear, and after some 23 laps he stopped, blue smoke coming from the exhaust pipes. Eventually he resumed, only to retire after 33 laps, out on the circuit. He walked back and was left to open a bottle of refreshing liquid on his own!
The casual spectator arrangements proved to be quite inadequate when Pol’s Maserati went off the road after the Victoria straight, killing two people and injuring others. The pits were also over-crowded, in spite of the efforts by gold-braided police. But the race continued and was a sound victory for the big Ferraris, Ascari winning at 151.258kph after a drive lasting 2h 5m 16s. Serafini was second, and Taruffi third in spite of having lost three places due to a visit to the straw bales at the corner after the Girona straight.
The Ferraris had lapped everyone else and the swarthy, big-breasted Alberto Ascari, one of my favourite drivers, was flagged from his pit to ease up. The full distance was 49 laps and Etancelin (Talbot) and Baron de Graffenreid (Maserati) completed 47, with five more drivers finishing behind them. Ascari lapped fastest, at 156.808kph. Cabantous had seemingly run out of fuel but he pushed his Talbot over the line into sixth place and Godia, after a terrible race in the s/c 1.5-litre Maserati-Milan, waited out in the country for Ascari to cross the line, then drove in, to finish 10th and last; but as a Spaniard, he received applause from the crowd was called to the microphone. Ascari ran across the course for his wreath-of-honour, picturesque mounted policemen tried to control the spectators, and the 10th GP de Pena Rhin was over.
It had been to no avail for the British BRMs, which had been driven the 900-mile trek across Europe in two Austin vans, followed by the Commer truck, reaching Avalon on the first night, Montpellier on the second, where a gendarme guarded the convoy while it was parked in the square, and Barcelona on the Wednesday; up to this time Walker and Parnell had been learning the course in the former’s XK120 Jaguar.
Raymond Mays remained in London, “worn out with worry”, but anxiously awaiting news in his suite at the Berkeley Hotel.
A huge Pegaso bus, horns blasting, rushed the pressmen back to Barcelona, another aged Citroen taxi took us to the airport and the Consul flew us back to Croydon — yes, Croydon! We vowed we would return. Which we did, in 1951, for the 275-mile Spanish Grand Prix over the same course, taking the renowned motoring historian Kent Karslake with us, in an Avro Anson 1. Three in a cabin for eight!
This time our arrival was more dramatic. In the first place, flying against adverse head-winds, and after a refuelling stop at Rennes, we made another in the dark at Toulouse, where the customs officer arrived on a motorised bicycle after a long delay and at first refused to stamp the aeroplane’s carnet because we had not been cleared into France at Rennes so he could not clear us out of that country! In the end we left after 2.5 hours, arriving over Barcelona at midnight, Spanish time, where according to the pilot the airport should have been open all round the clock. Unfortunately it was in darkness, and he had no landing lights and was low on fuel.
But it was the eve of the big motor race and, as luck had it, the circling Anson was heard, someone threw the master-switch, and the runways ‘were suddenly illuminated. Spanish hospitality then came into play — Spaniards never seem to go to bed anyway — and we were ushered into the bar, free drinks poured, and one of the aged Citroen taxis sent for. A member of the race-organising club came with it. (But we had to leave our passports behind.) We were taken the 10km across the marshy plain to the city of Barcelona. Here the Club headquarters were a hive of activity at 3.30 in the morning and press passes were issued.
On the Saturday, thanks to the Senor Nava, a long-standing MOTOR SPORT reader, we were able to take yet another ancient taxi to the works where Hispano-Suiza had moved in 1910, to see the new V8 four-cam 2.5-litre Pegaso, a car almost as exciting then as the EB110 Bugatti or McLaren road car is today.
On Sunday, the race. It now had the full status of Spanish Grand Prix, the event which had been held first in 1913 as a touring-car contest, won by Carlos de Salamanca in a 40/50hp Rolls-Royce. It was restarted from 1923 onwards for pure racing cars, the victors of which number Divo’s Sunbeam, Costantini’s Bugatti, Benoist in the straight-eight Delage, Chiron twice for Bugatti and once for Alfa Romeo, Varzi’s Maserati, Fagioli’s Mercedes-Benz in 1934 and Caracciola’s in the year following, when Mercedes finished 1-2-3.
The race, with two breaks, had run from 1923 to 1935, at first over the Sitges-Terramar circuit (close to which a steeply-banked track was opened in 1922. but was a flop — it still stands derelict but complete, I believe, and surely someone should re-open it as a social-centre for vintage-car folk anxious to have their own speedway?), then at San Sebastian, where other Spanish Grand Prix races were held.
Now, in 1951, it was having another revival, at the Pedralbes circuit. This Gran Premio de Espana was a 70-lap, 273-mile race occupying the last Sunday in October again, when the sun remains warm in Spain. The evening before, Col Barnes had represented the RAC at a reception for the drivers, at the Real AC de Espana’s headquarters, Stirling Moss was present although not competing, and we were well looked after by press secretary Jaime Arias Zimerman – I wonder if he was at this year’s Olympics?
It promised to be an exciting battle, because Ascari was only two points behind Fangio in the 1951 World Championship, an innovation of the year before, won by Farina. Although featured on the programme cover, BRM was absent, after the debacle at the Italian GP. In practice Ascari (Ferrari) lapped in 2m 10.59s, or 1.68s faster than Fangio, and Gonzales was faster than world champion Farina. But Ferrari was in trouble with tyres and Taruffi and Bonetto had both left the road, although uninjured.
So on Sunday morning off the press went in two imposing Pegaso coaches, to the course. Those trams and their trailers were again crammed with humanity, dusky troops controlled entry to the pits, the police were mounted in the Spanish tradition, and the scaffold grandstands were less stark than those then used at Silverstone. In the 1.75-mile-long Avenida Del Generalissimo Franco, the five 1.5-litre blown Alfettas, three 4.5-litre Ferraris, three Simcas, four Talbots, two Maseratis and “Bira’s” Osca lined up for the coming struggle.
We were reminded that we were in Spain when a cannon was fired to indicate five minutes to zero hour. The red-and-yellow flag hovered, fell, and they roared off, Ascari just ahead of Gonzales, with Farina pursued by Fangio. A lap and Bira was out, Farina now second, Fangio third. After four laps Fangio was leading for Alfa Romeo. Tyre trouble now set in, dropping Ascari’s Ferrari from second to sixth place. The Pirellis on the Alfas were doing much better! It was said that 250,000 spectators were there to see this interesting battle — Ferrari tyre changes versus Alfa Romeo’s refuelling. Fangio proved unassailable, taking the 1951 World Championship with 31 points, having raised the lap record to an impressive 105.82 mph. Gonzales was second for Ferrari, 54.28s in arrears, Farina third for Alfa Romeo. Ascari’s Ferrari was two laps down, followed in by de Graffenreid’s Alfa Romeo another two laps behind, and then came two Talbots, a Simca-Gordini and Godia’s Maserati from which he had flung the bonnet into the pits after an incident; but as a Spanish participant he was loudly applauded. It was a grand finale!
Our homeward journey was quite eventful. First the Avro, that fine ‘vintage’ aeroplane in which the undercarriage had to be wound up very laboriously by hand, would only start after one of its Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah IX engines had been cranked up. Then over the Pyrenees we ran into a furious electrical storm. Let Karslake describe it: “I was awakened by the violent jolting of the aeroplane, clouds were swirling past the windows, hail was battering on the roof and engine cowlings like a barrage, lightning was playing round the fuselage and St Elmo’s fire along the wings. Suddenly we dropped into so profound an air-pocket that I had a vision of the photographer’s cameras halfway between the empty seat on which they had been lying and the roof. And still the editor wrote his race report (having completed his Motor Show comments just before leaving for Spain!). I do not think that storm did our radio much good, but we made Lyons to refuel, and just before midnight, we made Croydon. For me it was the end of a perfect weekend. For the editor and the photographer, as they departed to get the story printed and the photographs developed, it was the beginning of another working day.”
Our problems were accentuated because just before the storm closed in, a smaller aeroplane was seen to be converging on us. It seemed unlikely that we would survive, but obviously we did, although at Lyons, where the storm still rumbled, the radio operator was out cold and it was only a tactful suggestion by Karslake that the petrol tanks be dipped before we took off again, that showed we hadn’t actually been refuelled…! Adios, Barcelona!
In the space remaining I do not intend to subject you to a list of all the races which have taken place on Spanish soil. They can be said to have begun with the victories by those odd long-stroke, twin and single-cylinder. Peugeots in the Catalan Cup contests of 1909 and 1910, for the prize given by HM the King of Spain. They include the 12-hour Touring Car GPs. or GP Guipuscoa, of 1925 to 1929, won respectively by Ballot, Chenard-Walcker, Georges-lrat and Chrysler, those well-remembered San Sebastian GPs of 1923 to 1928, where Segrave revenged his Sunbeam’s failing in the 1924 French GP, and Jules Goux’s Bugatti beat Delage in the European GP of 1926.
Races run at Barcelona include the Pena Rhin GPs aforesaid, the 1954 Spanish GP which Mike Hawthorn won for Ferrari, beating the Maseratis of Musso and Fangio, and a couple of 1950s sports-car events, for the Montjuich Cup, both won by Ferraris but notable for the Jaguars of Roy Salvadori and Ninian Sanderson being second and third in the first race and Pegasos taking the same places in the second. And, of course, the Spanish GP continues to be held at Barcelona, though on a completely new circuit; it was won this year by Mansell, at 99.017 mph. W B