Brooklands, 1907. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1909. Autodromo Nazionale Monza, 1922. The three original and most famous of oval racing circuits, crucibles of the new craze for motorsport from the dawn of the automobile. But there were two more major ovals built in Europe soon after: the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry in 1924, and the year before an enormous monster was dug into the dirt of north-eastern Spain: the Autódromo de Sitges-Terramar. Two kilometres of pure terror in concrete form.
The vast concrete parabola of Sitges-Terramar has been slowly baking in the sun for the last 90 years. It was scary then. It’s utterly frightening to behold now.
I had the chance to briefly visit the oval as a guest on a road rally organised during the Spirit Of Montjuïc vintage racing festival.
The rally was being run as an invitational regularity event that would start at Spain’s current Grand Prix track, Catalunya, and then follow the coastal road to Sitges before heading back into town and taking in the 1970s street track in the hills of Montjuïc above Barcelona.
I’d jumped on board with some of the organisers to get ahead and hopefully get a little bit of extra time at the oval. The old track is about half an hour out of town on the highway, which we had to take to get ahead and check the timing points for the competitors.
When we did turn off and take the local roads, I realised what I’d been missing: a fast and twisting route that tracked along the sea…
… with stunning views of the rugged coastline. Next time I think we’ve got the perfect route for a Dream Drive story!
To me the oval had seemed like a mythical entity, rarely talked about. The location is surprisingly close to the seaside resort of Sitges, not really stranded out in the middle of nowhere as I’d expected.
The entire area is privately owned, so this was a rare opportunity to take a look at another majestic vintage oval. As we turned onto the initial part of track, it didn’t really look that promising…
… but that proved to be very misleading. The curving start-line might have been relatively nondescript and overgrown, but all you had to do was look left across the farm…
… and then let your eyes follow the opposite line of track until they settled upon this sight. I think I audibly gulped.
I then edged towards what was the first corner of two linking the short returns on either side. Like most ovals, the opposing parabolas were of slightly different profiles, although here both sections of 60-degree banked turn have the same 100-metre internal radius at their apex.
The closer you get, the more the enormity of what lies before you becomes apparent. It’s like the vast Arecibo Observatory dish used at the end of the Goldeneye Bond film, but stretched out over a kilometre.
My compatriots offered a lap round in the car as a sighter, so I could get a better idea of just how extreme the track is. It was like driving into a vertical wall. The compression as we entered – at an unexpectedly high speed! – pushed me down into the back seat, meaning the only chance of pictures once in the meat of the corner were wild (and unsuccessful) Hail Marys.
The laws of gravity were turned around. Vertical became horizontal. I barely had a chance to recover on the couple of hundred metres sprint to the second banking when we were upon it and again compressed into our seats.
This is why. It is ridiculous. It’s easy to band around terms like ‘semi vertical’ when you see an oval, but Sitges-Terramar is like skating round a concrete cliff. I’ve swooned at Monza and worshipped at Brooklands, but here I was just plain dumbstruck.
It’s not just the width; it’s the height of the banking. It towers above you. As soon as I got out of the car, parked at the shallowest lower part, I still almost lost my balance.
Climbing anywhere near the top is an impossibility unless you have ropes or some kind of anti-gravity device.
The track was built in 1922 for today’s equivalent of around $450,000, using cutting-edge construction techniques: it’s why the track is still in such good condition, which is also helped by the dry climate.
The King of Spain himself opened the track, and some of the top drivers of the day competed there, turning 96mph average laps. The positive reaction to the oval and the first races in 1923 quickly turned sour, however.
The racing had barely got going when the financial reality hit home, and international races were banned as the money drained away to creditors.
The last serious races were held in 1925. And then that was it… The glory that had been promised disappeared. The books never balanced, and like so many other ovals the ever-increasing speed of cars meant that even the safety-neutral organisers of the time knew that the track had been outgrown.
Scratch races held by local clubs continued infrequently up until the 1950s, but then the gates were closed for good, and the track went into long-term hibernation to become the Marie Celeste of racing circuits.
Sitges-Terramar is now mostly ignored, though every so often the track has popped up into the mainstream, such as last year’s run by Audi with DTM driver Miguel Molina and WRC legend Carlos Sainz taking the wheel of a jacked-up R8 LMS GT3 car around the oval.
The team battled punctures, the dust and the frankly lethal banking to set a new lap record, 90 years after the track was built and half a lifetime since its last race. Impressive stuff: though only a fraction faster than the lap record from 1923. We should all tip our hats to the racing drivers of that era.
But in general Sitges-Terramar sits silent and undisturbed, its edges gently crumbling like the archaeological remains of a Roman gladiatorial amphitheatre.
My time at the track was running to a tight deadline: as I perched on the top of the return banking, the engines of the first competitors in the regularity rally could be heard echoing around the track.
Appropriately, the initial car to come into view was an old Bugatti, dwarfed by the width of the concrete arc.
The return banking at Sitges-Terramar might not be as death-defying as the first corner, but it was still like standing on the edge of a sheer drop. Finding a way up to these perilous perches meant fighting through the undergrowth that comes up to the edges of the track, though worse was to come…
Whereas the first section of banking has quite a harsh end that throws you down the following straight, the second section has a much more sweeping exit…
… the curve of which continues to arc in all the way to the finish line. But I was now getting more concerned about being stranded at the track – I was due to take a different car back to Barcelona, so basically threw myself through a thorn bush to get to the flatter section of track. Scratched to hell, but still giddy from the experience, it was sadly time to leave.
By happy coincidence that coincided with the final car coming into view – which was my ride! My short but invigorating trip to Terramar was over already, but now we had a trip through the countryside back to our starting point.
At first we stuck with a couple of the cars competing in the regularity event…
… before my C2 Corvette turned off with its escort, this brutal Alfa Romeo SZ, to make our own, more direct way back to the GP track whilst the rally continued on towards town.
Looking at the rear of the Alfa for an hour or so was not a chore for me, and neither was the landscape.
We cruised through the bleached countryside under the balmy afternoon sun, passing by some amazing old towns and hill-top buildings…
… as well as past several local gatherings and plenty of barbecues.
Riding shotgun in the Corvette on a cruise like this was a perfect bookend to the Sitges-Terramar visit, but it did also remind me that I’m never going to buy a convertible.
After several very pleasant hours we arrive back at the Circuit de Catalunya to rendezvous with the regularity rally teams…
… for one final special untimed stage.
A lap around the modern Grand Prix circuit itself.
I’d been happily shooting trackside the previous day, and driving around the perimeter road, but now I got to round off a day with experiencing the Circuit de Catalunya first-hand. Two tracks separated by 70 years, both in one day.
Next time, I think I’d like to be in the driving seat, with someone else holding the camera for once… Oh, although did you know that there are actually four Grand Prix tracks around Barcelona? Catalunya, Sitges-Terramar, Montjuïc – and Pedralbes, which was a street track used in the early 1950s. Four tracks! I can see another trip to Barcelona is required…