This month sees the planet’s fastest sport return to Barcelona for the resumption of a highly intriguing Formula One (F1) year. It’s a nine-month schedule boasting destinations as far afield as Melbourne and São Paulo, as wide-ranging as Montreal and Singapore and as rural as central England and Belgium’s Ardennes forests. The Catalan capital may not quite match the glitz and glamour of Monte Carlo, but has now been part of a star-studded global round trip for 25 consecutive years. However, should politicians get their way, Barcelona may soon be sharing the event with Valencia.
Fourteen years ago, F1 was a minority sport in Spain. There were no front-running local drivers to help the cause and, because of this, limited television coverage. Whenever it came to motor racing, bikes would always be the way to go. Even rallying would top F1, thanks chiefly to double World Champion, Carlos Sainz. But it’s a little-known fact that some of the earliest Grand Prix races, even before the days of Formula One, were held closer to home than you might imagine, not on tracks, but on local streets.
At the start of the 20th century, city and town racing was very much the norm—not least as country roads were scarce or only existed in conditions one might describe as less than ideal—with the sport developing in various European countries including Britain, France and Germany (which each had their own national livery), and Spain, and Catalunya in particular, was no exception. When strolling through the streets in and around the town of Sant Pere de Ribes, 40 kilometres south-west of Barcelona, you’d be forgiven for not realising that this is where it all began for the country. In the same way, most of us would be oblivious to the fact that, hidden away in the trees just a few hundred metres from the side of the Autopista de Pau Casals, is a motor-racing relic.
So what began the phenomenon of driving cars around in circles, sometimes inches apart and at speeds in excess of 200 miles an hour, for 90 minutes every other Sunday? Rewind to France in 1894. An 80-mile sprint from Paris to Rouen, complete with a lunch break, was organised through a newspaper by a man named Pierre Gifard. Confusing onlookers at first, the idea soon caught on as street races began attracting greater numbers of competitors and spectators alike; more purpose-built venues would start to sprout up when accidents on the roads became frequent. The first disaster occurred when two men, one being the Marquis of Martaignac, lost their lives during the 1898 Paris to Nice road race.
It was a similar story in Spain, but not in or even near Madrid. Catalunya was and still is the nation’s home of motor racing. While it is true that the first Spanish Grand Prix was staged in the town of Guadarrama, near the capital, in 1913, the earliest Spanish motorsport event was the Catalan Cup of Sant Pere de Ribes. The race was staged twice, in 1908 and 1909, and was won on both occasions by Frenchman Jules Goux—no slouch, he was also the first European to clinch victory in America’s legendary Indy 500. In fact, the ‘Copa’ was so popular that demand rose for a lasting venue, which duly came in the form of Sitges-Terramar. Remarkably, this two kilometre-long oval took only 10 months to build at a price of four million pesetas. It was also impressive thanks to its 60-degree banking; to put that in perspective, the Indianapolis banking boasts a gradient of just nine degrees.
Sitges hosted the Spanish Grand Prix of 1923, won by another Frenchman, Albert Divo, who did the honours in a Wolverhampton-built Sunbeam. During its time, the track welcomed Tazio Nuvolari, arguably the greatest ever competitor in motor racing’s pre-war period. But all was not well at Terramar; the rushed construction had left organisers with empty pockets. Unpaid workers grabbed the takings and those behind the event were embarrassingly left with nothing to reward the drivers. The track’s popularity petered out over the following three decades until it was eventually closed as a racing venue. Fortunately, unlike many of its siblings across the continent, the oval was not destroyed and (despite being almost one hundred years old) it remains in fantastic condition. Nowadays, the grounds are private property and occupied by several houses, but are well worth a visit if you get the chance. When travelling on the C-32, just after junction 26 in the direction of Barcelona (part of the stretch known as the Autopista de Pau Casals), look out for the oval amongst the hills on the right-hand side.
Following the Second World War, the Formula One World Championship was launched in 1950. The first race was staged at Silverstone in England, watched closely by the Royal Family. Spain joined the fray a year later, as a 20-car field took to the streets of what is now a hustling part of Barcelona. The Pedralbes circuit essentially consisted of five straights, with the start/finish stretch being the Avenida del Generalísimo Franco, now Avinguda Diagonal. This was no normal race either. The championship finale saw the late, great Juan Manuel Fangio clinch his first of five world titles; a sum that wouldn’t be equalled until 2002, by Michael Schumacher.
Just one other race would be staged at Pedralbes, in 1954. Between 1968 and 1975, Spain’s race was shared by two venues: Jarama, north of Madrid, and another Barcelona street event, this time in Montjuïc. The fantastic loop took cars back and forth from Avenida del Estadio, bypassing the famous fountains of Plaza de España; the road there still bears fading painted grid hatchings. At the top of the mountain, the current site of the Olympic Stadium was home to the pit lane and paddock complex.
Unfortunately but justifiably, Montjuïc was scrapped after a catastrophic and premature end to the 1975 race, from which several drivers (including then reigning champion, Emerson Fittipaldi) had withdrawn because of safety worries. Sure enough, the car of Germany’s Rolf Stommelen flew off the road, killing five people. F1 reverted to Jarama, with the Circuito Permanente de Jerez taking the reins between 1986 and 1990; it would return there once more in later years, hosting the 1997 European Grand Prix in which Schumacher infamously drove into title rival Jacques Villeneuve.
In 1989, ground breaking took place at the Circuit de Catalunya, which is one of the first truly modern Formula One tracks. It is located on an industrial estate, a few minutes from the small town of Montmeló. The facility is a shining example of an international Catalan sports setting and was born in a golden era for the region, opening in the period of Barcelona’s transformation before the 1992 Olympic Games. The first race, staged in 1991, delivered one of F1’s all-time famous sights, as sparks literally flew when Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna battled wheel-to-wheel.
The track also played host to Michael Schumacher’s first Ferrari win on a soaking wet afternoon in June 1996. Ten years later, a now partisan Spanish crowd finally celebrated a home winner as Fernando Alonso delivered the goods in his Renault in 2006.
Thanks to Spain’s F1 boom and two world titles, coupled with a dramatic year for Alonso alongside Britain’s Lewis Hamilton in 2007, a second race was added to the schedule as the port of Valencia welcomed the European Grand Prix of 2008. Hosting the maiden race in the height of August was not the cleverest of ideas, however: many residents spend the month away and those who did attend were subject to the intense afternoon sunshine of a summer’s day in the Mediterranean.
The Valencia race is government-funded and local officials are currently looking to cut costs where possible, with the economic downturn clearly an important reason for that. Barcelona is also struggling. Indeed, attendances at last year’s Spanish Grand Prix were the lowest at the Circuit de Catalunya since the end of the Nineties. The upshot? Alternative Spanish races from 2013 onwards. The deal is yet to be confirmed, but is highly encouraged by both Valencian politicians and Bernie Ecclestone, CEO of the Formula One Group, who is keen to cut back on more traditional events in order to make space for the likes of New Jersey in 2013 and Sochi in Russia a year later.
The demise of one Spanish race may be disappointing, but is no surprise as both Italy and Germany have compromised one of their own two in recent seasons. Thankfully, the chances of us losing F1 completely are low, for now. Let us hope that Catalunya will not be missing from the F1 calendar in the near future. But with sport architects France having already been absent for three years, what chance does anybody have? Ultra high-tech Abu Dhabi and diverse, developing India may deserve a slot for their own reasons, but surely history alone (and not money) should be enough to retain a Grand Prix? Nuvolari and Fangio would doubtless agree.
This year’s Spanish Grand Prix takes place from May 13th to 15th.
Follow Gregory on Twitter: @GregHainesTV
This article was last updated: April 2016.