‘The circuit is now open for Formula One practice.’
You’ve come halfway round the world to hear those nine magic words boom out across the pits. But now you wonder if the announcer can really be serious. Just minutes earlier the world champion Emerson Fittipaldi, with Niki Lauda, Jody Scheckter, James Hunt and Graham Hill, took the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) out on strike.
The problem is the condition of the guard rail barriers surrounding the track: unless they’re fixed there’ll be no practice and no race.
The first session has already been cancelled and now, at 4.30pm, as the drivers return to the paddock, the circuit has been officially opened for practice. It’s almost a joke. In the pits Formula One cars are lined up and ready, except the cars are silent and there are no drivers. So you sit and wait and watch as the afternoon slips by. Every couple of minutes your eyes turn, hopefully, up the pit straight hill that leads to the paddock. In the paddock are the transporters, tents, caravans and trucks of the F1 circus. Now it also holds the drivers.
The spectators opposite the pits grow restless as journalists and photographers wander among the cars, talking to the mechanics who wait patiently, cleaning their spotless cars once again or fiddling pointlessly with mechanical bits. Talk that the race will be cancelled grows until you begin to believe it’s true.
With the coming of spring, the Spanish sun is warm so it’s not unpleasant to sit and admire the cars. But it’s not what practice is all about and the hum of a dozen different languages isn’t the noise you expected to hear on this day in Barcelona. Suddenly there’s a change in the mood of the crowd. All faces are turned, straining hard towards the paddock entrance. Then you understand. A solitary, white-clad figure, helmet in hands, walks quietly down beside the Armco that has caused all the trouble. It’s obviously a driver, but who? At first he’s too far away to distinguish.
Finally an English voice, attached to a large pair of binoculars, spells it out: ‘It’s Ickx!’
The photographers rush to get the first positive shot of the weekend, journalists hurry forward to get a word with the one driver who is defying the GPDA. The spectators don’t understand the politics, but they do understand that Ickx has come out to practise. There’s a spontaneous burst of clapping and cheering. Ickx passes through the throng and has a few words with Lotus boss Colin Chapman. Later you’ll discover that Chapman had advised him not to go out. But Ickx is adamant, pulls on his helmet and slides slowly down into the cocoon-like John Player Special Lotus, to be strapped in by the mechanics. His face has been expressionless from the moment he began his long, emotion-charged walk before hiding behind the anonymity of the helmet.
Chapman, kneeling on the ground, whispers in his ear. The Lotus is fired up, the roar shattering the still, expectant air. The incredible world of Formula One racing is about to burst open as Jackie Ickx accelerates through the pit crowd and onto the track. As he disappears over the top of the hill a voice from the crowd says it all: ‘This one is different.’
Two days later, just 29 laps and 45 minutes and 53.7 seconds after it began, the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix will come to a tragic end, leaving four spectators dead, 11 injured and one driver seriously hurt. This is the story of that grand prix, seen not through the eyes of an experienced motor racing journalist as a lap by lap account of the race, but through the heart of an enthusiast who had been dreaming of witnessing his first grand prix since discovering F1 as a boy in the age of Moss and Fangio, and the Mercedes W196s and Lancia-Ferraris.
And when you first learnt that you might be going to Europe you decided the trip had to coincide with a Grand Prix. But which? Initially, you thought Monaco, simply because it’s the most glamorous. Then you recalled that the Spanish Grand Prix is sometimes held in Barcelona on a road circuit that winds through a hilly park close to the city centre. Last year, the race had been held at dull Jarama near Madrid, but in 1975, sure enough, it’s Barcelona’s turn (but not the track we’ll grow used to in the 21st century). So you read all there is about Montjuich, as the Spanish call it, and decide it must be the one.
You know you’re on the right road when the Alfetta GT that has carried you from Italy to Perpignan in the south of France, rushes up behind a large transporter with ‘Matchbox’ across its tail. Your heart beats a little faster when you realise it isn’t a truck full of toys but contains a couple of Surtees F1 cars. You arrive early, days before the race, because you want to get to know the city and the track, and pick up your passes. The Real Automovil Club de Cataluna, which organises it all, presents you with a leather satchel containing race information and the all-important pass, and after a late dinner, the Alfetta heads to Montjuich.
Barcelona’s Avenida Antonio Primo de Rivera, which is almost as long as its name, takes the Alfa to the Plaza de Espana. Then you are there. Brake marker signs before a corner show you you’re travelling in the right direction. Hell, you’re virtually alone, on a grand prix circuit, in an Alfa. The temptation to drop down a couple of gears and just go for it is hard to resist. You push on, marvelling at the way the circuit twists and dives between the trees and gardens, restaurants, a fair ground and the magnificent national palace that is now a museum of fine arts. An incredible setting for such a race.
The circuit is tight and has only a couple of fast sections which all seem to end in a downhill corner of about 110 degrees. It winds on for 3.79 spectacular kilometres so it isn’t long before you’re back on familiar ground. You speed up and begin to appreciate just how daunting is this circuit. Corners disappear out of sight so the apex isn’t visible at the point of entry. There’s a hump at the top of the pit straight which, surely, kicks GP cars into the air before they scramble down through the gearbox for an ultra-tight left-hander. It’s obviously not a circuit on which to make mistakes and, as at Monaco, consistency and speed rather than sheer courage and a heavy right foot, are probably the qualities that matter most.
Thursday is quiet, there’s no practice, but you’re drawn to the Montjuich again and discover that it’s used by learner drivers taking their licence test. With every additional lap in the Alfetta – what was going to be just one swells to four – the circuit grows more spectacular and demanding.
Friday is first practice and the Alfa sets off early to ensure you don’t miss anything. The paddock is in the centre of an old sports arena next to the circuit and, after showing the officials your pass, you pause at the gate – your eyes and heart taking it all in as you head left towards the Ferraris. There are three scarlet 312Ts: one for Lauda, another for Regazzoni, and a spare. The mechanics are immaculate in their yellow overalls and the lack of a major sponsor is obvious. A Ferrari is still a Ferrari, which is quite different from a John Player Special which is a Lotus, or a Texaco McLaren which is a McLaren. A Ferrari uses a Ferrari engine and a Ferrari gearbox while, of the others, all except the single BRM run essentially Ford engines and Hewland gearboxes.
Clay Regazzoni wanders out of the caravan, the swarthy Swiss looking for all the world like a Hollywood caricature of a racing driver. Only feet away, the intense young Ferrari team manager Luca di Montezemolo talks to chief engineer Mauro Forghieri. You move on from team to team. Chapman wanders out of the JPS tent to talk to Ickx. James Hunt, minus shirt, is shouting to friends. Jackie Stewart is drinking coffee with Tyrrell designer Derek Gardner; Emerson Fittipaldi and Jochen Mass are talking to some girls. The small crowd around the Brabham camp are Spanish journalists talking to the incredibly handsome Carlos Reutemann, who grins with his entire face and flirts with his eyes, to the delight of the surrounding women. The cars are like long wedges with a giant periscope jutting up between two huge, flat black rear cushions with two smaller ones on either side at the front.
You see another antipodean, New Zealander Eoin Young, who writes features and the Pit Talk International motor racing column. He introduces you to artist Michael Turner and Derek Gardner. Tiny, scruffily bearded Denis Jenkinson, the fabled motor racing journalist whose race reports in Motor Sport launched you into the sport, walks past, hands clutched together behind his back, eyes moving from car to car, seeing everything that his readers need to know. To say you are over-awed is a gross understatement. You are there, among the fastest cars in the world and their drivers, not hidden away behind catch fences and Armco, but within reach. It isn’t all a dream.
Practice starts at 1pm and the cars are fired up for the short drive down the pit straight, as if everything were normal. But the drivers have already agreed among themselves not to practise. Slowly, in dribs and drabs, the cars file out of the paddock, engines blipped by the mechanics to keep them alive. The pit straight is lined with photographers and journalists, plus spectators who have beaten officials by climbing fences. The afternoon slips by the cars just sitting silent. Conjecture is rife. Then Fittipaldi, replacing Stewart as the drivers’ spokesman, leads the others down the pit straight for a meeting with the organisers, only to have Ickx, who is not a member of the GPDA, completely upset the applecart.
Ickx circulates relatively slowly at around 1.29.0, well below the lap record set by Ronnie Peterson two years earlier, of 1.23.6, but he keeps faith with the spectators and learns his way around the circuit again. While Ickx is out, Vittorio Brambilla, in the March 751, slips out of the paddock and does a few laps at a similar speed. Ickx comes in, has his brake pads replaced and is out again. Finally, he comes in to the cheers of the normally hard-bitten press and photographers, the spectators and even mechanics from opposition teams.
Meanwhile, the debate about the guard rails continues in the Texaco Marlboro truck where the drivers have gathered. At 6pm they finally address the press after yet another meeting with the organisers. This time Graham Hill is spokesman. He explains that the Armco is loose in many areas around the track, that washers are not fitted behind every nut and bolt and that the catch fencing is secured only by wire in some places. Unless the organisers fix it all there will be no race. He reminds journalists of his and Rindt’s crashes at the circuit in 1969, when the Armco saved plenty of lives, and of the fatal accident at Watkins Glen last year when Helmuth Koinigg went under the Armco and was instantly killed.
Jenkinson suggests the mechanics go out and help tighten the bolts. Hill says that has already been mentioned and you can guess their reply. There is a sprinkling of laughter. Hill doesn’t know how the organisers can fix the Armco in time. You ask Lauda how he feels about Ickx: ‘He must need the practice’ is the sarcastic reply. Fittipaldi says that all the drivers except Ickx agree they won’t race unless the track is fixed; then somebody reminds him of Brambilla, to which he replies that he practised ‘because he didn’t know what was happening’. Might they run a race for only one driver?
That night there’s a cocktail party which few drivers attend, and then a dinner. You sit with the international motoring press and shake hands with Jenkinson at least three times. Like enthusiasts the world over, the night ends with a discussion on the relative merits of the great drivers of old. Was Clark better than Stewart? I remember when Stirling… Then, before leaving you check the guard rail and, sure enough, the bolts are hardly on the thread and the Armco almost flaps in the breeze. There is no sign of any workmen.
The drivers inspect the circuit early on Saturday morning with the CSI – the controlling body of world motor sport – and agree that about 90 percent of the work has been done, though some areas are still dangerous. Fittipaldi says they won’t race unless the work is complete. Lauda says, ‘We can’t race. It is now that we have to demonstrate that the GPDA is united.’ Scheckter simply adds, ‘No racing.’ Everybody agrees and the drivers re-visit the organisers. Then the CSI refuses to say outright to the organisers that they will declare the track unsafe, so the drivers step back a little from their position and attempt to pass the decision over to the CSI. It’s a stalemate, and at 2.30pm on that Saturday afternoon the world of Formula One is split into two apparently widely separated groups. The rebels, like Ickx, Roelof Wunderink and Bob Evans are on track practising; the others are in the Texaco Marlboro truck arguing over the same old ground.
Montezemolo tells you he will leave the decision to his drivers, but that Ferrari himself had told him that he considers both Montjuich and Monaco to be too dangerous. The problem is that Montjuich isn’t a permanent circuit where lasting safety measure can be made and inspected weeks before a race. Monaco is thrown up at him and he responds that the safety measures there are better, but that it’s also a slower circuit. Ask him if he wants to see an end to road circuits altogether and he says, slowly, ‘Perhaps, yes.’
‘Even if that means all the races will be run on dull artificial tracks?’
He pauses, neatly avoiding a direct answer: ‘We must be concerned about driver safety. They are the ones in danger, not you or me.’
The drivers have yet another meeting with the organisers and then the team managers. The organisers, after getting legal advice, threaten to impound all the cars and transporters unless the team managers force the drivers to practice. While all that is going on the first signs of a split in the drivers’ ranks appears. Andretti says he hasn’t come all the way from America to sit on his bum and that he will race. Then he changes his mind, saying he will go along with the majority. Finally, the team managers arrive en masse at the Texaco Marlboro truck.
Chapman calls Peterson out: ‘Ronnie, come out and practice.’
‘Remember, you’re under contract to Lotus.’
‘I know, but I have to wait for the decision of the other drivers.’
‘Come out and do three laps.’
‘No, not now.’
Chapman threatens him: ‘Remember, sooner or later you have to drive a Lotus.’
Max Mosley, of March, goes into the truck and calls out Brambilla and Lella Lombardi, but Wilson Fittipaldi grabs Mosley by the jumper and almost throws him out of the truck. Tempers are short, threats are thrown around. Fittipaldi intervenes and dismisses the team managers with a wild gesture: ‘Go away, all of you. This is a meeting of the drivers, we are not talking about money, but our safety.’
Finally, at 3.30pm the drivers take a secret vote, although Fittipaldi says he won’t drive whatever the outcome. The majority decide to race, but still they argue. Finally, Peterson says he is going out. Slowly the other drivers drift back to the pits. Fittipaldi stays and still says he won’t race. Out on track the drivers, who only minutes earlier had been adamant that they wouldn’t practice and then, when they were finally forced out claimed they would only circulate slowly, do a complete about-face and run hard and fast.
Lauda, super cool, takes only a couple of laps to get below Ickx’s best time of 1.28.6 and has the Ferrari on full song, driving as if nothing has happened. It’s an impressive display, although there are people who say he has deserted Emerson who, if nothing else, is at least consistent in his claim that the circuit is dangerous.
Finally, very late in the afternoon Fittipaldi, under impossible pressure from McLaren manager Teddy Mayer, walks down the pit straight. Unlike other drivers, though, he is on the outside of the track. The spectators see him and boos and hisses greet the world champion. He angrily pulls on his helmet and goes out, not to practice seriously, but drives around, one arm in the air, and records a time of 2.10.2 for the final position on the grid. It is a very sad moment for F1.
When practice is over, the grid chart has the two Ferraris up front, with Lauda on pole at 1.23.4. Next are Hunt in the Hesketh, Andretti in the Parnelli, with Brambilla and Watson, in a Surtees, on the third row. Peterson and Ickx are well back with tyre and suspension setting troubles on their now six-year-old Lotus 72s. So, after all the drama, there will be a race, but heated arguments about the rights and wrongs continue and you get the feeling that grand prix racing will never be quite the same again after all the bitterness and broken loyalties and friendships.
The Sunday begins well. Old friend and now Car magazine editor, Mel Nichols, flies in from London. You pick him up and still have plenty of time to get to the circuit where, after the flamenco guitars and marching girls, the cars are fired up and scorch off on the warm-up lap. Less than two minutes later they reappear and pull up on the dummy grid 200m down the pit straight from the starter. The one-minute board goes out. Fittipaldi has flown home to Switzerland.
The engines burst into life… rraapppaaa…rraapppaa… as the drivers blip the throttles open and shut them off again. The anticipation and tension build, your heart pounds almost as fast as if you’d been behind the wheel. The starter raises his flag – the drivers hold their engines at the redline. The flag drops.
The noise is shattering, overwhelming, and for a few fleeting seconds there is nothing but the thunder of 25 F1 engines. It’s a moment of purity, of exhilaration. You scream with ecstasy, but nobody hears as the dream of 21 years is shattered by a reality that’s better, infinitely better, than the dream.
The sound is unbearable, your ear drums vibrate to the point of bursting. Then they are gone and a strange quietness descends, and all that remains are 50 long black stripes wiped onto the track. Nichols, eyes sparkling, tells you what you want to hear: ‘It doesn’t matter how many times you see it, it’s always the same totally magnificent sensation.’ You can only nod in agreement and grin a hopeless grin of utter pleasure. Then you wait for the first car, all eyes straining for a glimpse… will it be the Ferraris or has one of the others slipped past the Italian duo? The guessing ends abruptly as a rapid-fire staccato voice issues from the PA system: ‘The two Ferraris have crashed at the first corner.’
You cannot believe it. You curse Lauda and Regazzoni. How the bloody hell could they? What happened? Oh, shit, the Ferraris, of all cars it’s the bloody Ferraris. You sit down and try to comprehend. Then the noise returns, this time spread out as a powerful drone that rises and falls as the cars blast past. Hunt leads, then Andretti with a slight gap to Watson. After that there are too many going too quickly to pick out individuals. At the tail end two cars, Wilson Fittipaldi’s Copersucar and Arturo Merzario’s Williams, pull in out of sympathy with the world champion. Hunt leads for the next couple of laps and looks like taking command. You’re still muttering about the Ferraris as you climb down out of the press area and walk up the circuit to watch the cars close up.
But by the time you’re through the gates and close to the first corner Hunt is out and Andretti has taken over. You’re over the brow of the hill, out of sight of the pits and virtually at the apex on the outside of the corner. Now’s the time to turn and face the cars head-on from your position behind the Armco, just inches from the track. The first car arrives: it’s Peterson. The Lotus storms into view, crests the first hump and is airborne, the revs rise instantly, and then it’s down on fully compressed suspension, the whole thing taking one tiny moment. Immediately the back wheels are off the ground again over the second hump, he is really trying. The car snakes down towards you, apexing within arm’s reach on the other side of the Armco as it sweeps past, the noise tearing at your ear drums.
You want to run, fear spreads through your brain, you want to escape. Other cars arrive, aiming directly at your few yards of guard rail while you watch, spellbound, unable to move, fear defeated by fascination that freezes you to the spot. Each car delivers a moment of almost unbearable tension. They all seem to fly over the first hump, but only a couple get the wheels off over the second, then there’s just 300m in which to scramble down from 170mph to less than 40 for the hairpin.
You lose all track of who is winning, but Andretti is out. Alan Jones, the young Aussie in his first grand prix, walks up the hill with Scheckter. Jody has blown his engine big time. Mark Donohue slid on the oil and knocked his Hesketh through a gap in the barrier. Disappointment pours from Jones’s eyes.
Carlos Pace, Peterson, Jean-Pierre Jarier and Jochen Mass engage in a staggering dog fight that goes on for laps, the cars spread all over the track, fighting to gain an advantage on the desperate run to the hairpin. There’s too much happening for the mind to absorb. Finally fear wins and you move down the guard rail, closer to the corner where the cars run relatively slowly. Tony Brise spins his Williams and hits Tom Pryce at the hairpin. Peterson disappears from his foursome. All the time there is the noise. It’s virtually impossible to talk. The feeling grows that it’s more a trial of attrition than a race, as so many cars drop out.
Then it happens. As they crest the hump Rolf Stommelen’s Hill cannons through the air across the track, clips the top of Pace’s Brabham which itself is taking desperate avoiding manoeuvres, rolls across the Armco, hangs for a split second, then drops over the edge on the outside of the track. An ominous pall of smoke rushes up… It comes from where you were standing only 10 minutes earlier.
The Brabham smashes into the guard rail. The crowd rushes from the barrier, photographers scramble for cover, not knowing if it, too, will jump the railing. There’s a light metal pole close by and you think only of getting behind it. It’s not until you are in comparative safety that you think of Nichols… but he’s beside you. The Brabham slithers past, graunching painfully against the metal barrier that tears out its side. Finally it slides to a stop on the escape road besides Lauda’s Ferrari. Pace is OK.
Up the hill, in the smoke, you know something dreadful has happened. Maybe Fittipaldi was right after all? Maybe the circuit is unsafe. You can only stand and look while flag marshals frantically wave down other cars under the yellow flag. Then the waving down is interrupted by a shriek: ‘Gasolina, gasoline!’ There’s terror in the voices. An American screams, ‘Get the hell out of here, that’s raw petrol.’ And it’s coming down the hill in the gutter beside the Armco where you’re standing.
Panic grips and even later you’re not ashamed to admit it. You pull at the catch fencing, it falls down and you scramble over, tearing your jeans. There’s only one thought: get as far away from the guttering as possible. People jump the guard rail and sprint across the track even though the cars are still running. Officials shout and wave them back. You’re caught in a mass of people, all searching for a way out of the path of the deadly liquid. Ambulances arrive, their sirens adding to the chaos. Everything feels out of control. Somehow the fuel flows by, then it’s diluted as firemen drench the track with water. Slowly order returns… the race cars are only crawling now, and a Spanish policeman waves his arms. The race is over. It’s an hour before you get back to the press room, your mind numb. An Australian journalist runs over and says he thought you were among the dead lying beside the track.
Four dead, 11 injured. It’s stated as historic fact. Stommelen was leading when his car’s wing snapped off going up the main straight, the car darting to the left, hitting the Armco on the other side which catapulted it 20ft in the air before crashing onto the guard rail further down the track, mowing down a photographer, a track marshal and two spectators.
Your mind is in conflict. You understand the arguments in favour of road circuits, you appreciate that a driver should only go as fast as makes sense and if that means not winning, then too bad. If he feels the circuit isn’t safe then he doesn’t have to drive, then somebody else will and he won’t become world champion. You believe it, but at Montjuich the spectators and even the photographers were too close to the track. Are the cars are too fast for the drivers?
Nichols says, ‘The drivers have a choice but the spectators don’t, they’re the innocents.’
Maybe the lack of practice contributed to the number of incidents. Ickx, who drove steadily, ended up fighting for the lead with Mass, to finish second. A great sadness descends, not only because of the accidents, but because, for purely selfish reasons ‘your’ grand prix was over after 29 of 75 laps and you hardly feel you’ve seen one. You never got to the point where you settled down enough to watch properly, to pick up the small points that separate the aces from the triers.
You feel cheated. But you see why F1 is irresistible. It is the best, the fastest, the most dangerous and spectacular form of racing in the world, especially on a circuit like Montjuich. You embrace, fully, the passionate drug-like hold it has over so many people, and that spellbinding, magic moment at the start when the centre of the universe is a motor sport grid.
There may never be another F1 race at Montjuich. Barcelona was your first… but there must be another race in another year. Until then you live on the memory of your baptism into the world of grand prix racing – in its most exhilarating, alarming, visceral form.