It had been a long two years since I last visited the Circuit De Catalunya, the Grand Prix track just up the road from the coastal town of Barcelona. The Spanish have a long and healthy relationship with motor racing in this area, stretching back well over a century. Maybe something about the adjacent Mediterranean, the shimmering heat and golden light triggers the enzymes in people’s brains that makes them want to drive cars fast, and the glorious location means that it has always had a gravitational pull for petrolheads from all corners of the world. It was good to be back.
The reason for my latest Spanish jaunt was for the Espíritu de Montjuïc festival, Barcelona’s classic celebration of its speed-based heritage, a cacophony of noise and a gathering of epic racing machinery stretching back through the decades, driven at anything but pedestrian pace.
Values be damned: lap times were all. Want to see not one but seven Lola T70s? A trio of Maserati 250Fs? Group C Saubers and Jaguars? Cobras, Cortinas and Coopers? Barcelona in April can’t be beaten.
Tracks have come and gone around the environs of the famous city, with the modern Catalunya track just the latest in a long line, but back in Barcelona itself, perched on the hilltop above the port, are the roads that make up Montjuïc Park. This was ‘The Magic Mountain’, used from 1955 primarily for motorcycle racing, which was home to four legendary Formula 1 Grand Prix between 1969 and 1975. The final F1 race involved a terrible accident that claimed the lives of five spectators, but this tragedy aside the track is still rightly lionised as one of the most challenging and epic tracks ever raced on – and one worth celebrating. That is the core of the Spirit Of Montjuïc festival.
In the UK I’m lucky to be spoiled for historic events, with quality weekends like the Donington Historic Festival, Silverstone Classic and of course the headlining Goodwood Revival. But things have also been revving up in Europe, with Spain just the latest country to kickstart its own revivalist trend.
The Spirit Of Montjuïc festival is a relative newcomer to the classics scene, with 2015 its fifth edition, but it’s already becoming set as both the perfect curtain raiser to the European historics season and as a fantastic commemoration of racing nostalgia in its own right.
This isn’t nostalgia in the sense of, ‘Oh, weren’t the old days so much better’. As someone who loves racing of any stripe, it’s more about the overwhelming emotional reaction I get from these kinds of events from the moment I first hear the shrill bark of a tuned engine fire up.
Faced with such a plethora of racing cars that have been created over the last century who could remain objective and emotionless? This is a comprehensive run-down of racers in every imaginable type and form taking innumerable approaches to solving the age-old conundrum of how to go fast.
It’s why I love events like the Spirit Of Montjuïc so much, where ‘eclectic’ barely begins to cover the range of racers on show. It’s like a window into different worlds. Here you would find 1970s Formula 1 cars howling and shrieking their way round, packs of classic tourers three-wheeling through corners, flaming big-banger prototypes from the ’60s, epic turbocharged Group C monsters and more.
Music is the closest analogy I can think of. One of my biggest pleasures is delving into long-forgotten back catalogues after finding out some particular band’s own influences. It opens up a feast of opportunity that I just drink in – and there’s almost an endless supply.
The best thing is that with every year that passes, it just means what’s termed ‘historic’ becomes richer still. It’s a constantly moving target, with the only negative on the horizon the complexity of things like modern F1 and LMP machinery meaning the chance of seeing those kinds of cars populate historic grids of the future are slight.
But that’s the future -we’re here to have a look at the present state of the past. Over the next couple of stories I want to take you through some of best moments of the weekend, like the mass gathering of Formula 1 machinery, the breathtaking Group C battles and my odyssey of discovery around Barcelona’s four – yes, four – Grand Prix tracks. This was a clash of eras, particularly in things like the combined practice sessions for the sportscars, where you had the incredible sight of gruff V8-powered Lolas being chased down by cutting edge Group C turbo cars.
Here though, let’s talk about the ambience, the Grand Prix cars of a nascent F1 World Championship, the packed touring-car grid and bluff ’60s sportscars.Dancing On The Edge
Location means a lot at an event like this – the backdrop is all important. It’s one of the reasons Goodwood in the UK works so well and is so immersive, whereas something like the Silverstone Classic might have an incredible number of cars but you have to defocus from the rather sterile surroundings often imposed by contemporary F1 regs.
Getting it right on track is one thing, but to truly engage people you need to put in the effort away from the spectator fences as well. An open and welcoming paddock is the first step, giving everyone equal access rather than just those with the right passes. But then a little period entertainment never goes amiss – especially delivered as only the Spanish know how.
Local car clubs had their own corral overlooking the start straight, welcoming all-comers, and then in the paddock there was even the chance to drive a Ferrari – for only two Euros. A bargain.
Another thing I appreciate about classic events is the respect the drivers have for each other on track. I think everyone is aware not just of the value or likely importance of their own cars, but also that contact ruins everyone’s weekend. Make the racing hard but fair – and if you wanted something with a little bit more rough and tumble, well you knew where you could go…
Alongside the seasoned machinery there were a couple of oddities that had snuck in via the back gate, viz a modern GT field of amateur drivers in the usual array of 458s, Astons and the like, but also a pack of stealth-fighter, up-gunned KTM X-Bows, part of the pan-European X-Bow Battle series. The 30-odd car grid was fronted by these vicious-looking, be-winged versions, barely slower than the GTs, which even attracted ex-F1 driver Jaime Alguersuari to the fray.
The Circuit De Catalunya might be young compared to most of the cars here, at just 24 years old, but it has so much more character than you’d imagine and is ageing rather well. There’s a little fading of paintwork and the odd bit which is rough around the edges, but it all just feels more real, less sterile. Between races I’d lean back on the barriers, soaking up the balmy conditions, and listen to the Armco gently popping as it slow-baked in the sun.
The rough bark of engines firing up just out of sight would be the only thing to wake me from my reverie and bring me back to earth; a quick check of the schedule to see what new delight would be approaching, and then action stations as I’d be transported back to another time.
Again, this isn’t about anything as superficial as old being better than new or vice versa. The age of a car doesn’t come into it – especially when without exception every car at Barcelona looked like it had just rolled off the production line. These cars were all new in period.
Each one was a snapshot of cutting edge performance, each car representing a moment in time for a specific team of people reaching for maximum performance using whatever expertise and materials they had. The only thing I’ll say along the lines of ‘old good, new bad’ is the freedom of regs that allowed such diverse machines to race against each other on track.
The Spirit Of Montjuïc was about being gifted the opportunity to witness the reigniting of old battles, seeing cars continue to duff each other up on track in the same way they’ve been doing for decades. Museums are fine for appreciating static objects, but racing cars… You’ve got to see them on track.
Take Grand Prix racers from the 1950s and ’60s. The Historic Grand Prix Car Association laid out the opening decade of F1 in the metal, starting with the bulbous, front-engined machines with upright driving positions of the early-’50s (early Coopers and things like the big Maserati 250Fs) through to the more svelte, low-line monocoque cars as the ’60s progressed (Brabhams, but Lotus in particular, of course).
Roll-hoops and safety belts the only additions, these cars still looked like they were real handfuls out on track, weighing little, under-tyred and over-powered.
It’s no wonder their drivers always look so pleased with themselves.
There’s always continuity, it seems. As with my recent trip to Classic Team Lotus (who were here in force), who have been continuously prepping racecars for almost three decades, so other famous period team names still feature prominently. Alan Mann’s operation ran Fords of all types but just two colours all through the ’60s, but since the sad passing of founder Alan his two sons, Tom and Henry, have taken up the mantle and continue to campaign the famous red and gold cars.
Just looking back through the weekend’s pictures brings a huge smile to my face; thinking of the period battles I’d only seen in black and white brought into technicolour focus. Massive Falcons and Galaxies which didn’t drift round the track so much as move laterally like chess pieces, massive weight countered with massive V8s, hounded by scampering Lotus Cortinas that danced and weaved around their heavyweight opposition.
Barcelona showcased that insoluble dilemma of whether power or handling is best, with its combination of fast sweepers and tight hairpins. It showed cars like Minis at their ultimate, foot flat to the floor, well, everywhere really. Barely changing gear and just keeping momentum up, annoying the hell out of bigger rivals as they dodged past at the hint of a gap in a tight corner before being inevitably reeled back in on the straights. Rinse, repeat.
The word ‘practice’ was taken literally by most, with it less about times as practising racing. Even in the initial open sessions, the beautiful ’65 Daytona Cobra and locally-run ’62 E-Type were rehearsing the dance they’d continue throughout the weekend at the head of the field.
Slammed to the ground, the Lotus Cortinas proved that tucked wheels and low stance is no new thing.
Lotus Elans were hilarious, with their little twin cams barely audible you just got a constant wail of tyre squeal all round the track as they pushed the limits of adhesion, whilst somehow maintaining impossibly perfect poise.Smoking Allowed On Track
Drivers I talked to all loved the place. There’s barely any time to relax around the Circuit De Catalunya: gradient abounds and cambers are all over the place. You can see why in the heyday of F1 testing the British teams used to escape here – and it wasn’t just for the weather.
From turn one all the way through to the final corner, commitment was the word that sprung to mind. As usual when I’m trackside, whilst many photographers seemed to be peering at their LCD screens I was too busy gleefully watching the track when not shooting.
One of the key things this year was that they opened up the track to its full, original configuration, missing out the fiddly cut-throughs and chicanes towards the end of the lap that were added in the recent F1 era. That meant the cars could truly stretch their legs.
It didn’t make things easier of course – just faster. The Circuit De Catalunya also has a nasty bite which is easily provoked – especially with more vintage suspension and brakes. The hard-braking, quick-apex corners caught out car after car, leaving yet more black scars on the already heavily marked surface.
Everything was more challenging than you’d think. Turn one comes at the end of the long rollercoaster straight, dipping down at the apex before rising up through two.
You could begin losing it in one before the car finally succumbed through turn two, pirouetting to a smoky halt. No one was immune, whether lightweight Ginetta, Group C Nissan or modern 458.
The older cars might have access to better, more modern compound racing rubber, but that’s about the only advantage the passage of time has brought.
A couple of the bigger stops might have been eased for the weekend’s entertainment, but that didn’t lessen the impact on the cars. Of course, racing drivers just push it that bit more…
It was funny to think that in just a couple of weeks the modern F1 circus will descend on Barcelona. The evidence was all around the catch fencing, with crews already cutting spaces for the TV crews. The fans will flock trackside, and rightly so, but I’m not convinced the show will be any more impressive than this low-key, far more accessible – and typical – side of Barcelona’s Grand Prix track.
I stayed in a hotel just down the hill from the circuit, well within glorious earshot, and every morning my heart would beat that little bit faster as the scream of F1 engines from the ’70s and ’80s were fired up ahead of the day’s battles. If motivation was needed, there it was: hardcore Formula 1 cars from what some consider the most glorious decades of the sport. Next up we’ll take a walk down the packed grid of Williams, Lotus, Tyrrells, Ligiers and more, adorned with the names of some of the most iconic drivers to have driven in F1.