Track tests Montjuich

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The extra speed of this Barcelona street circuit made it Superior to Monaco — and more vulnerable to the safety crusade. Paul Fearnley visits it during rush hour

The irony of it. This mind-blowing circuit for the superbrave, this mind-expanding track for the supertalented, is clogged with learner drivers. And not just cars. Mopeds, bikes, lorries and buses. Every junction is awash with indecision.

Add to this mix dozens of coaches, out of which spew hundreds of bored teenagers on anodyne school trips to the Olympic Stadium.

Now flow in squadrons of dumper trucks. The kerbs Ronnie once kissed, threaded between at 150mph, are being torn up by workmen for whom seat of the pants is an alien concept. The helter-skelter plunge that wriggles through the hairpins at Angulo de Miramar and Rosaleda and the 90 left at Font del Gap, that slices past the Greek Theatre and splices the ‘filmset’ buildings of Agriculture Hall the stretch of road that was once a photographer’s paradise is today besmirched by temporary, interlocking, canary-yellow barriers of pop concert ilk, ugly wire-mesh fencing, Portakabins and thousands of buzzboxes parked bumper to bumper. All hope of stumbling across an up-on-the-hill oasis in downtown Barcelona has been scotched. And all hope of sunshine has been quashed by a flat slate-grey sky. We could not have picked a worse time, frankly.

It’s still fantastic, though. Just as no amount of tacky gift shops can sully the majesty of Niagara, so Montjuich Park refuses to march to the beat of the humdrum. Look beyond the SEATs, Pegasos and Bultacos, and it leaps out at you: 25 mid-70s F1’s, noses down, rads out, tippling down the hill and pitching into Miramar; a 1-litre screaming F2 Brabham-Honda never lifting, aiming for, then arcing away from, the ornamental fountain on the outside of the sumptuous left at Sant Jordi; Nuvolari’s Monza Alfa cocking a wheel over the pavement at the 90 left opposite Guardia Urbana, the police station with its art deco frontage; Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus 72 averaging 103mph for the Spanish Grand Prix pole of 1973, a speed that would have been good enough for top slot two years later by a cool 1.6sec.

Of course, 1975 was when it all came unravelled. The year when petrol and water from Rolf Stommelen’s smashed Hill GH1 gurgled along the gutter. The bespectacled German was leading when his rear wing parted company. This was at the same flat-left-over-crest, a Rasante, that had collapsed those spindly skyscraper jobs on the Team Lotus 49s in 1969: Graham Hill emerged shaken but without a scratch; Jochen Rindt bust his nose, cheekbone and skull — and penned a public letter that helped clip the wings. Nobody was killed, though. Incredible given the low-flying shunts’ severity and the spectators’ proximity. Incredible given that no Lotus mechanic could weedle himself into Jochen’s banana-ed wreck once it had arrived back at the factory.

In 1975, his car torn from its envelope, poor Stommelen was gravely injured: legs, wrist, ribs. He pulled through. But four members of the crowd, mown down by his car,did not.

There was a fifth victim: the circuit itself.

This had been a whirligig of a GP. Several of the drivers wanted no part of it Some of their team bosses feverishly returned to their spannering roots, bustling round torqueing up the new layers of Armco that were at the root of their drivers’ safety concerns. The organisers, panicked by talk of cancellation, threatened to lock all and sundry in the football stadium that doubled as the paddock. Reigning world champion Emerson Fittipaldi cruised for half a dozen practice laps, left arm permanently raised, pitted and walked away. He was back home in Switzerland before the race started. In contrast, Jacky Ickx shunned his colleagues, venturing out while they argued the toss throughout Friday and Saturday morning. “Either you’re a professional driver, or you’re not,” he intoned.

Ferrari’s eventual front-row lockout came to nought when Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni, with unhelpful nudges from Mario Andretti and Vittorio Brambilla’s March, entwined at the hairpin. And so James Hunt’s Hesketh led. For six laps. Until he slid off at Vim on a mix of oil and cement dust Andretti’s Parnelli led. For nine laps. Until rear suspension, weakened by the first-comer shunt, failed and pitched him into the barriers.

So it was left to Stommelen and Carlos Pace’s Brabham to take turns out front. By lap 25, Rolf, looking increasingly confident, was starting to eke out an advantage… The day was clearly fated. Even Ronnie and Tom Pryce, men with car control oozing from every pore, had retired because of fools-rush-in collisions. A collective madness pervaded the air.

The race was ‘over’. But it went on. For another 10 minutes. The McLaren M23 of Jochen Mass snatched the lead from Ickx’s Lotus 72 on what turned out to be the last lap. Ever. It was the muscular German’s only GP win, for which he received just half-points. In a lapped sixth was the March 751 of Lella Lombardi, to date the only woman with a point (well, half of one) to her name.

Half-points? Had the powers-that-be never stood on the startline and looked up at the graceful sweeping right-left horizon of Estadio? Had the powers-that-be never taken ‘air’ over Rasante at 160mph, or landed with their brakes on after the second crest, or heaved themselves across the crown of the road into Miramar’s pull-you-in saucer, or smooched the barrier as the road’s width halved on its exit? Had the powers-that-be never swept joyfully wide onto the boulevard at the lowest point of the track and then kept it buried through the climbing, tree-lined left-right of La Pergola? Had the powers-that-be never braced their crash helmets against the cockpit side through that last, long, far from lazy, left?

They can’t have done otherwise they would’ve awarded double points. For in comparison with Montjuich, Monaco is an autotest around a supermarket car park. Monaco is a rat run; Montjuich is an eagle’s eyrie.

And a viper’s nest of car thieves and joyriders, apparently. Which is why two of the Guardia Urbana’s finest pulled me over. Driving along the same piece of road, back and forth, back and forth, with a walltie-talkie (my link to snapper Newton) pressed to my lips, made them suspicious. Even had my Spanish been A1, I would have struggled to explain away my actions. I produced black-and-white photographs of the circuit in its pomp, but they clearly did not compute. I could see their point: nobody would race over these roads, surely?

Fortunately, my new-found friend, the rhythmically-named Javier del Arco de Izco, author of Montjuich’s definitive history, came to my rescue. And did so again minutes later when a Nissan Micra shot backwards from its parking bay directly into the passenger door of my borrowed brand-spanking Toyota MR2. A collective madness still pervades the air up on Jupiter’s Mountain.

Or is that Jew’s Mount? Expert opinion is divided. The history of this outcrop is long and tortuous. There was an lberic village perched here before the Romans arrived, and a castle capped its summit in the Middle Ages. It became an outpost for the great city’s dispossessed — immigrants, brigands, gypsies — a gloomy, unwelcoming, garrisoned place, with a huge cemetery at its hub.

But as Barcelona’s conurbation expanded, so Montjuich was embraced by a grandiose urbanisation scheme, a process that was accelerated by plans to site the second Universal Exhibition of Barcelona there. The area was landscaped by 1914, but World War One, bureaucratic inertia and cashflow problems ensured a stop-start process. The exhibition was not held until 1929, when it proved a peseta-flushing, Dome-type disaster —just like the first exhibition, in 1905. But, unlike our unloved Dome, this social project at least left behind buildings of substance and roads that scribed a pleasing shape when committed to paper — and wowed Rudi Caracciola when he visited the site in 1931. With the support of Fernando de Vizcaya, a well-connected financier and the brother of ex-Bugatti works driver Pierre, moves to put the venue to motorsport use were gathering pace.

These came to fruition on Christmas Day, 1932, with a bike meeting that was dominated by Rudges and Nortons.

The cars had to wait until June 25 the following year for the first Penya Rhin Grand Prix. Tazio Nuvolaii was the main draw and he didn’t disappoint — in practice. He was three seconds faster than the rest over the 2.35-mile circuit, and his Monza Alfa was in the lead and pulling away when it lost 11 minutes at half-distance because of fouled plugs. This let the sister car of Jean-Pierre Wimille into the lead. But when its engine blew with nine laps to go, it was left to Swiss-Chilean Juan Zanelli to nurse his seven-cylinder 8C home to victory.

It was Alfa Romeo all the way in 1934, too, Achille Varzi fronting up a 1-2-3 for the Scuderia Ferrari P3s — Louis Chiron and Marcel Lehoux his ‘partners in crime’.

It wasn’t until 1935 and ’36, however, that Montjuich hit the big time, courtesy of the Silver Arrows. Luigi Fagioli and Caracciola scored a 1-2 for Mercedes-Benz W25Bs in ’35, but despite the additional presence of the all-conquering Auto Union C-Types (Bernd Rosemeyer and Ernst von Delius) in ’36, the German cars fell victim to another giant-killing performance by Nuvolari. The Italian’s victory over Rudi was the upshot of bravado driving and a smart fuel strategy (yes, they did exist then) at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo 12C.

The Spanish Civil War, though, was only a month way. Amazingly, its victor, General Franco, was still in power when Montjuich hosted its first international event for 30 years. The regime’s red tape made it difficult to race motor cars, but those who kept the faith, who ran meetings at the track during the 1950s and early ’60s, were rewarded when Jack Brabham’s Brabham-Honda won the 1966 F2 Grand Prix of Barcelona. More F2 races followed in ’67 (Jim Clark, Lotus) and ’68 (Jackie Stewart, Matra) and then, in 1969, the big fish was landed: it was to alternate as the host of the Spanish GP with Jarama in Madrid.

Stewart won the first in a Matra, and the second in a Tyrrell — both championship years for the Scot. Fittipaldi took a dramatic victory in 1973, skilfully balancing his Lotus 72 against a slow rear puncture over the closing laps; the crowd stood and cheered him to the echo.

Two years later he was booed. His actions were ‘vindicated’, although the track was not at fault on this occasion — its much-maligned Armco stood up to several hefty thwacks, its catch-fencing prevented a 1955 Le Mans-type disaster. But its shelf-life was surely short Chicanes were planned for 1977. And that would have been sacrilege.