From 2013 the Spanish Grand Prix is going to alternate between the Circuit de Catalunya and the Valencia street circuit, previously used for the European Grand Prix. So it is a good time to look back at the other venues that have hosted the Spanish Grand Prix, since it first took its place in the Formula One championship in 1951.
The first venue, which hosted races in 1951 and 1954, was the Pedraldes street circuit in the western suburbs of Barcelona, a 3.925 mile circuit with long straights down wide streets, including one named for the then leader of Spain, Generalissimo Franco. The first race, at the end of the 1951 season, was won by Juan Manuel Fangio in his Alfa Romeo.
The Alfas outperformed the Ferraris, who had taken pole with Alberto Ascari, in the actual race largely down to making the right choice with their tyres. Ferrari went with a 16 inch rear wheel, as compared to Alfa’s choice of 18 inches, and all four Ferrari drivers lost a tread during the race. The Scuderia were forced to make several pit stops for tyres and by the finish could only claim second place for José Froilán González and fourth for Ascari, which meant that Fangio also won the first of his five drivers’ championships.
The race was not held in 1952 or 1953 and the next Spanish Grand Prix, held in 1954, was won by British driver Mike Hawthorne in a race which had seen 12 out of 21 starters forced to retire due to mechanical problems. Hawthorne clung on to the lead, despite being challenged by Fangio who eventually finished third having developed an oil leak. The race had no effect on the championship as Fangio had already won before the race started, but it did give Hawthorne his second career win.
The 1955 race, which had been due to take place at Pedraldes, was one of those cancelled after the fatal crash at Le Mans, and concerns for spectator safety after that terrible incident meant that the pedestrian lined streets of Pedraldes would not host any further motor races.
The Spanish GP did not take place at all between then and 1967 when a non-championship demonstration race was held to try out the new circuit of Jarama in Madrid. This was a very different circuit from Pedraldes: apart from the start-finish straight the rest of the course was a series of tight, twisty corners and overtaking was difficult.
The demonstration race was won by Jim Clark, and the following year a championship race took place, the second in the 1968 season and the first since the death of Clark at Hockenheim in an F2 race. Clark’s teammate Graham Hill took the win.
In 1969 the Spanish Grand Prix switched venues again and took place back in Catalonia on the Montjuïc street circuit outside Barcelona. This circuit was a challenge for both teams and drivers. It was an anti-clockwise circuit, with half of the circuit being high speed, with long smooth curves, and the other half being much slower and tighter, with two hairpin bends. The inaugural race was held there in 1969 and from then until 1975 the Spanish GP alternated between Jarama and Montjuïc.
That first race at Montjuïc was won by Jackie Stewart, who finished two whole laps ahead of second placed Bruce McLaren – something which has only occurred once more in F1, when Damon Hill won from Olivier Panis in Adelaide in 1995. Stewart went on to win the championship that season and he won the next two Spanish Grand Prix as well in 1970 and ’71, but the 1969 race also carried hints of what was to come at Montjuïc, as both Lotus cars suffered wing failures and were involved in serious accidents. Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt both survived, but the dangers of the tight confines of the street circuit were apparent.
The 1975 race should have been memorable just for the fact that it is the first, and so far only race, in which a woman driver has scored championship points, as Italy’s Lella Lombardi finished in sixth place, scoring half a point. The reason for it being only half a point rather than the full point awarded for sixth in that year’s championship, was because the race was stopped after 29 of a scheduled 75 laps had been completed after a crash involving Rolf Stommelen. On lap 25 the rear wing of his Embassy Hill failed and flew off, his car smashed into the crash barriers.
Despite the fact that the barriers had been repaired by team mechanics overnight, the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association went on strike because they felt that they were not safe. Even after these repairs Emerson Fittipaldi, winner of the 1972 and 1973 races, refused to take part in the race on safety grounds. As it happened, the barrier held, but Stommelen’s car bounced off it and flew into and then over the opposite barriers. Carlos Pace crashed trying to avoid him: both drivers survived with minor injuries, but Stommelen’s car killed five spectators on its flight over the barrier.
As a result of this tragedy the circuit at Montjuïc was never used for a Formula One race and the Spanish Grand Prix was just held at Jarama for the next six years, although the 1980 race was not part of the championship as it was bogged down in the political wrangles at the time between FISA and FOCA. The final race to be held at Jarama was in 1981, where it was won by Gilles Villeneuve in his final race victory. It was also one of the tightest finishes in the history of the sport as first to fifth place were separated by just 1.24 secs.
The Spanish Grand Prix disappeared from the schedules again for the next four years and, when it returned in 1986, it was at the Circuito de Jerez, in Andalucía – a region previously more famous for its fortified wines. The circuit is still familiar to F1 fans as being one of the two venues for winter testing, and it has a blend of fast straights and tight corners which makes for a track that is popular with drivers. However, it is comparatively remote and it was partly this that lead to it being replaced in 1991 by the race’s current home, the Circuit of Catalunya.
During its brief spell in F1 though, it saw several exciting races between three of the greats of that era – Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell. In the first race at Jerez, Senna beat Mansell by just 0.014 secs, one of the closest finishes ever, but this masks the fact that Mansell made up a gap of more than 19 seconds over the last ten laps after pitting for fresh tyres, in one of the sport’s greatest comeback drives.
The following year Mansell won, beating Prost in second by 22 secs. This win, combined with Senna finishing in fifth, allowed Mansell to overtake the Brazilian in the championship table to take second place behind Nelson Piquet, which was how the championship eventually finished three races later. The next three Jerez Grands Prix were won by Prost in 1988 and 1990, with Senna taking the 1989 race victory in between.
The 1990 race helped set up the showdown between these two drivers at the next race at Suzuka, but it also featured a career ending crash in Friday practice for Martin Donnelly, who was flung out of his Lotus 102, seat and all. It was this accident, as much as the remote location, which lead to the Spanish GP moving to Catalunya, although the circuit at Jerez was still used for the European GP in both 1994 and ’97.
The Circuit of Catalunya, which has hosted the Spanish Grand Prix since 1991 and has seen its share of great races, none so popular with the locals than 2006, when Fernando Alonso became just the second Spanish driver to win the Spanish Grand Prix and the first in the Formula One era, the only previous winner having been Carlos de Salamanca in 1923.
As of next year the circuit will be alternating with Valencia, but with the Spanish Grand Prix, the venue doesn’t seem to matter: wherever it is held there have been exciting races. It must just be something about Spain itself.