Wednesday 17 April 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore X - Montjuïc Spanish Grand Prix

Lella Lombardi, the only female to score points in F1

I recently read the news of the future of Women drivers in F1 and controversy surrounding it. Sir Stirling Moss was quite vocal about women being incapable to handle F1 mentally; though physically he said it didn’t matter. This didn’t go well with many and the F1 world was divided, with many voicing their opinions and few openly disagreeing (mainly Susie Wolff, the Williams test driver) with Moss. According to me - Women are ready to race for F1 teams; it is just a matter of teams having them. Only time will tell as to when.

It isn’t like there were no women F1 drivers before. There were many who test drove but very few women were part of the F1 business. Till date, there have been only five women racers (when compared to thousands of male drivers) to have been part of the Grand Prix circus; the last female took part in a race thirty three years ago. Out of these five drivers, only one managed to score a point, well almost a point (0.5 points to be precise). So clearly, statistics are not the medium through which you can bias and deny opportunity to female drivers. F1 in its current state is a lot safer and hence it eliminates the fear of life or one can say, fear of flying if thing do go awry in a F1 car.
Lella Lombardi (one of the five female drivers) competed in 17 races and her moment of glory in F1 came amidst the chaos and death of few spectators in a race which was stopped midway. The year was 1975 and all this happened at the hilly circuit of Montjuïc, located in Barcelona. It hosted Spanish Grand Prix briefly in late 60’s and early 70’s before facing the wrath from the F1 drivers. In this edition of Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore, I will be featuring the enigmatic street circuit at Montjuïc.

Spanish Grand Prix first became part of the F1 calendar in the year 1951, when Pedralbes hosted the race. It hosted one more time in 1954 and was cancelled the next year as a consequence of the disaster that took place at 24 hours of LeMans disaster in 1955. With authorities calling for regulations governing spectator safety, the scheduled Spanish Grand Prix (like many others) was cancelled and the pedestrian-lined street track at Pedralbes was then never used again for motor racing.

It took some effort on the part of ‘Real Automóvil Club de España’ (RACE) known as Royal Automobile Club of Spain in English to bid for the races in Spain. There were two front runners, one from Madrid (Jarama) and Barcelona (Montjuïc) respectively. After hosting a number of F2 and F3 races in the 1960’s, Spain was ready for F1 action. In 1967, a non-championship race took place at Jarama, which is situated north of Madrid. The race was won by Jim Clark and the F1 fraternity was impressed and came to an agreement to have the Spanish Grand Prix regularly. The two venues - Jarama and Montjuïc were in concord to host the Spanish Grand Prix alternatively. Jarama would host the Spanish Grand Prix in even-numbered years and Montjuïc in the odd-numbered years. 
Montjuïc, also known as the ‘Jew Mountain’ in Catalan hosted its first F1 championship race in 1969. Located in the hills, the drivers had to drive their machines along the slopes facing the city. It was challenging, it was tricky, but was exciting too. It was the second race of the calendar and the Ford-powered engines of Matra driven by (Sir) Jackie Stewart took the top step of the podium. Bruce McLaren in his McLaren-Ford came second. The race marked the end of the high-wing era. Also, this was the first race where the winner finished the race two laps ahead of the runner-up. This feat was repeated just once since then (Australia GP, 1995).
 The Spanish Grand Prix returned to Montjuïc in 1971, a race which saw the introduction of slick tyres for the first time in F1 by Firestone, who had considerable experience in US Open wheel racing series. Jackie Stewart was once again unstoppable; won the race starting from fourth.
In 1973, Jackie Stewart could not complete the hatrick of victories at Montjuïc. He retired early in the race due to brake problems. Emerson Fittipaldi, the reigning World Champion at that time won the race in his Lotus-Ford.
Two years later, the race at Montjuïc came to be known as one of the horrific and controversial races in the annals of F1 was the last this circuit hosted the Spanish Grand Prix. This is how the drama unfolded.

Before the race started, many drivers expressed their displeasure over the barriers and how recklessly it was bolted. The situation got so heated up that, many of the drivers went on strike and refused to get their cars out for practice sessions, which forced the track workers to spend overtime in fixing the barriers. The strike didn’t cool down; it required a threat by the race organisers which prompted the drivers to call off the strike. The threat was simple – If the race were to be cancelled, all the cars parked in the circuit would have been seized as compensation.
The race finally did take place; few drivers took part hesitantly while one refused to race. Emerson Fittipaldi, then the youngest double World Champion protested the race and did not start this race. There was a big accident and few of the cars at the front were taken out; Wilson Fittipaldi and Arthuro Merzario withdrew from the race after lap one. By the end of three laps, eight out of 26 cars were out of the race. By the end of 25 laps, the number swelled to 18. On lap 25, the tragedy struck as explained by a report – “The rear wing on Rolf Stommelen's Hill-Ford broke, sending him into the barrier. He bounced off it and back into the road, hitting the barrier across the way, and flying over it.”  
While trying to avoid Stommelen as he crossed the track, the Brazilian driver Carlos Pace crashed. Five spectators were killed by Stommelen's flying car with the driver suffering a broken leg, a broken wrist and two cracked ribs. The race continued for four more laps before it was stopped. Jochen Mass won the race and since, only 29 laps out of scheduled 75 were complete, points were reduced to half. The Italian, Lella Lombardi who finished sixth became the first and till date the only female to score points in F1.
 After the tragedy of 1975, F1 never returned to Montjuïc and was deserted completely. Jarama became the sole custodian of the Spanish Grand Prix before the baton was passed on to Jerez, Circuit de Catalunya and Valencia.
With F1 being ruled out, Montjuïc was used extensively to build an Olympic park for the 1992 Summer Olympics. Few parts of the race circuit were included in the Olympic Park plan.

Montjuïc was in the headlines again in October 2007 when the circuit was used for the Martini Legends, to honour the 75th anniversary of the circuit.

With Circuit de Catalunya and the recently built street circuit at Valencia being in the calendar (agreed to host Spanish Grand Prix alternatively), it is unlikely Montjuïc will feature in the F1 calendar in the near future. It hosted the Spanish Grand Prix four times and as they say; you are only as good as your last race.