Thursday 26 September 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XVI - Pedralbes, Spanish Grand Prix

Track Photo Courtesy - allf1.info

Last month I visited Barcelona. It was my first time in Spain and I loved it. It was a short stay of three days in one of the beautiful and happening cities of the world and this abrupt stop was memorable nevertheless. I recall the crowded street of La Rambla, the Mediterranean Sea side, the monumental Sagrada Familia, the colossal ‘Camp Nou’ – abode of FC Barcelona, Poble Espanyol and the Olympic Stadium which also was the venue for Montjuïc race track. There were many other memoirs too like the colourful water fountain in its glory at night, Arc de Triomf, random Tapas joints, introduction to Gazpachos and an unforgettable dinner at the roof top restaurant of Vila Olimpica.

Amongst all this, I also went around the streets in a relatively busy locality called ‘Pedralbes’. Famous for its monastery - ‘White stones’ as translated in Catalan also was the first place in Spain which drew the likes of Fangio, Ascari and the rest of the 50’s Formula 1 drivers. It was a street circuit, a quick one where cars could reach up to a speed in excess of 300 km/h. The roads were wide, slightly grand and featured city’s broom corners. 
With the driver’s championships hanging in balance, the final event of the 1951 season was to culminate at Pedralbes, which was making its F1 debut. Which driver would it be? Alfa-Romeo having won the previous year looked good with their driver Juan Manuel Fangio, who led the championship at the start of this race. Ferrari on the other hand had hopes on their star driver Alberto Ascari to overcome the two point deficit and win the driver’s title. The job was half done with Ascari taking the pole and Fangio coming in second.

Crowd gathered in good number to watch this thriller unfold. Both drivers were pumped up to win their maiden F1 driver’s title. And so, the race started. Engine wise both Alfa-Romeo and Ferrari were evenly matched for speed. But it was the tyre choice that was going to be decisive. Ferrari opted for 16 inch rear tyres while Alfa Romeo went for 18 inch. This difference of 2 inches turned out to be a big disadvantage for Ferrari. They soon found their cars struggling with grip issues and tyres losing their thread rapidly. Ascari suffered the most and his championship hopes now solely rested on Fangio’s retirement and him taking 2 points or more. 

Fangio went on to win first of his five world titles. Ascari could manage only fourth. After having two successful seasons in F1, Alfa-Romeo announced of their F1 withdrawal from the 1952 season onwards owing to finances and the lack of it. In 1952 and 1953, the Spanish Grand Prix was replaced by Dutch Grand Prix. Pedralbes was back for the 1954 season in place of Zandvoort track of Netherlands.

Like it was in 1951 Pedralbes again hosted the ninth and the last race of the season. This time there was no such pre-race drama. Fangio was already a world champion coming into this round and he now driving for Mercedes could race without any title pressure. Barring for the two races he drove for Maserati, Fangio won four races with Mercedes.

Ascari was a double-world champion by this time and repeated his feat of 1951 by taking the pole position at this 6.3 km circuit. He was racing for Lancia and they had brought in their 90 degree V8 engine as a part of their chassis for this race. The pace was there to be seen - fastest practice lap, pole position and the fastest lap of the race. By the end of nine laps both the Lancia driven cars were out of the race. Luigi Villoresi retired on lap 2 struck by brake problems and seven laps later his mate Ascari would end his race and season due to clutch problems. The fastest car didn’t last the distance.

Mike Hawthorn who went on win his solitary World Championship in 1958 won this race for Ferrari. This win was made easy by leakage issues which Fangio had to deal with as he lost oil towards the end of the race. The duel of Hawthorn and Fangio didn’t reach the climax as a result of this unfortunate incident. Fangio lost his second position and finished in third. This third position is quite a significant one. Out of his 52 entries in F1, he won a Bradmanesque 24 times, came second 10 times, retired 10 times, DNQ (Did Not Qualify) once, finished outside the top three 6 times and this result in Spain was his sole 3rd place of his F1 career.

The year 1955 is considered to be a black year for motorsports. The LeMans Disaster of 1955 was catastrophic and the sport became a lot stricter than it was as a result of this tragedy. Pedralbes was one of the casualties to suffer aftermath of what happened in LeMans. Stringent rules meant Pedralbes was out of the calendar. It never did any significant attempts to win back its place in F1. However, Spain did host and continues to host F1 races albeit it had to wait for another 13 years. 
Now all that remains of Pedralbes is the street and long stretch roads which once, rather twice had some of the fastest road cars on them with drivers accelerating, changing gears and braking at will. Looking at the roads, it was tough for me to visualise the events that took place nearly 60 years ago. There is a tramway on the middle of these roads, a freeway very close by to the road and few corners from the original Pedralbes circuit are still retained. The memories though remain and unfortunately I couldn’t get hold of any elderly gentleman or lady who had witnessed this event. 

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