Montjuïc Park's modern-day F1 equivalent – that won't suffer the same fate

F1

Montjuïc Park is often thought of by those in the 'know' as the great lost F1 circuit – but there might just be one track on the calendar which shares many of its virtues

Baku Azerbaijan 2021

Tight street circuit in vibrant city which blasts underneath an urban canopy – sound familiar?

DPPI

Montjuïc Park, the Barcelona street circuit which briefly shone bright at the start of the ’70s, is often spoke of in revered tones by those who ‘know’, as one of, if not the, ultimate race circuit.

Flowing sweeps though tree-lined boulevards, beautiful period architecture in a vibrant city centre location and barriers never more than a few feet away from Formula 1 cars spending much of the lap at 150mph-plus. Further increasing the drama, crashes were plentiful and safety was threadbare.

It all made Montjuïc Park sublime to drive, beautiful to watch but also took more bravery than most to get the best out of.

It was a throwback as soon as it arrived in the championship in 1969 – if only F1 could race somewhere like that now…

But maybe it does. Sunday’s chase through the Baku cityscape last week was a clear reminder that the F1 calendar indeed features a track which has many of Montjuïc’s virtues.

Whilst the Catalunyan track inspired “an instant love affair” in the words of grand prix winner John Watson, Jenson Button labelled Baku as quite simply “mad”.

There’s a strong case for saying the Baku thrill-ride is the modern day equivalent of the Barcelona track. The key difference is that, despite recent high-speed accidents, the Azerbaijan circuit won’t suffer the same fate as its parkland predecessor – i.e. being struck off the calendar due to safety fears.

Both tracks possess unifying qualities which mark them out on F1’s global trawl. The Spanish layout began with a thrilling uphill crawl into a more technical section before sweeping round the Barcelona parkland through an abundance of elevation change.

Speaking to Motor Sport about the circuit earlier this year, three-time F1 world champion and twice Montjuïc winner Jackie Stewart looked back with fond memories.

“Montjuïc was one of the great circuits in the world” Jackie Stewart

“Montjuïc was fantastic, very demanding,” he said. “One of the great circuits in the world in my opinion, because it had both slow corners, fast corners, good long straights. Ups and downs, I mean a real difference in altitude. Barcelona, you know, really lived it. It was a very exciting place to race.”

Baku, on the other hand, could be argued to be the track that has a bit of everything – and much of what Montjuïc had.

Tight 90-degree corners (which seem to work at Baku but not elsewhere) between city apartment blocks, a claustrophobic wind through the medieval town before the final swooping, flowing boulevard section onto a start/finish straight which opens out like a vast tundra before funnelling back into the city to start the rollercoaster all over again.

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On F1’s arrival there in 2016, Jenson Button described the track as “mad, really” adding that Turn 14 was “right on the edge”.

As well as racing in the tight barrier-lined confines of city streets, perhaps what makes Baku so reminiscent of Montjuïc is the canopy of trees the drivers race under.

The sensation of speed is almost palpable as the foliage flashes by, the shadows cast by the overarching branches ramping up the challenge in between shafts of light blasting through gaps in the leaves.

It’s some antidote to the wide expanse of nothingness which domes the Abu Dhabi and Bahrain circuits.

What further contributed to Baku and Montjuic’s brilliance is similar to what makes the concept of NASCAR going road racing so entertaining. Modern F1 cars weren’t designed to race on this kind of circuit. When they do, the resultant thrills and spills are brilliant.

The first race held in Baku as the 2016 European GP didn’t exactly set the pulses racing, but subsequent events on the city centre street circuit threw up thrilling races and unexpected results.

Mont DPPI 2

Montjuïc – beautiful but deadly

Daniel Ricciardo pulled off some audacious moves to come through to win from 10th on the grid in 2017, while Lance Stroll became the youngest ever podium finisher at the same accident-filled race.

The next year saw Fernando Alonso drag his almost three-wheeled McLaren round almost the entire lap after early collisions, the Red Bulls ended a race-long duel with a collision and a late puncture cruelly took the win away from Valtteri Bottas.

Montjuïc Park was similar in combining exciting racing with hair-raising accidents. 1969 saw Jackie Stewart take Tyrrell’s first F1 win on the park street circuit, the Scot completely dominating a race of attrition – both rear wings failed on the Lotuses of Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt, the latter particularly lucky to escape after his car flipped over, leaving the Austrian trapped inside.

In 1971 Stewart won out again after an intense duel with Jacky Ickx, the Scot’s win being Tyrrell’s first ever win with a car of its own construction.

Part of what makes the Azerbaijani circuit so difficult is the lack of run-off on most of the circuit; mistakes can be easily punished.

If you venture on to YouTube and watch simulated onboard laps of Montjuïc, what it makes it so terrifying is that there’s basically no run-off. The slightest error or mechanical failure could make a driver the first person at the scene of the accident (to quote Brundle).

Despite being a dream in terms of circuit layout and location, in 1975 F1 had reached its nadir in terms of safety at Montjuïc.

Drivers protested before practice that unsecured barriers made the track to risky to race on. Alterations were made, and all but Emerson Fittipaldi were persuaded to take the start.

The dangerous dream racetrack ultimately conjured up a nightmare scenario: Rolf Stommelen’s Embassy Hill lost its rear-wing whilst he was leading, vaulting the barrier and killing five spectators.

F1 was never to return.

Baku Azerbaijan GP 2021

Baku’s city centre scramble often entertains – 2021 was no different

DPPI

Although there have been some frightening accidents in the ‘Land of Fire’, circuit designer Jarno Zaffelli says Baku is ultimately much safer and wouldn’t go the same way as Montjuïc Park.

However, as he explained to Motor Sport, the track design is not the main reason for this, but what it means is that more thrilling tracks can be raced at.

“You cannot say street circuits are more dangerous than normal tracks, but this is mainly because of the work the FIA has done with the regulations for the cars, the chassis and the wheel tethers,” he says.

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“A crash into a concrete wall, like Ayrton Senna’s where the suspension came into the cockpit and hits the driver’s head, simply couldn’t happen now.

“We saw some big tyre failures in Baku [last weekend], but there were no injuries, no issues at all.”

He goes on to say that despite the track being hugely quick at points, this doesn’t necessarily create a greater risk.

“I don’t think anybody can even say ‘Oh it’s dangerous because it’s fast!’” he says. “Fast is not dangerous per se. Any time your body goes over 35km/h (22mph) you are over the limit of your body.”

For the technically-minded Zaffelli, who constantly evaluates corner camber, elevation change and surface abrasion, the thrill of a varied circuit like Baku is in the set-up conundrum it presents.

“The track has very long straights going into hard braking areas, with slow sections afterwards,” he says. “When you can challenge the engineers with the balance of the car, you will get something dramatic.”

If the Azerbaijan GP stays on the calendar beyond its current contract, Baku could be serving up drama for years to come.