30 years of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya

News | September 1, 2021

In 1991, the home of the Formula 1 Spanish Grand Prix hosted its first-ever motor race. In the ensuing three decades, far more than F1 have ventured to Montmeló-wards…

In 1986, buoyed by a successful World Cup bid for 1982 and with the Olympic Games also in its pocket for 1992, the Catalonian government was positively awash with national sporting pride. Danders suitably up, and with two of the world’s biggest sporting extravaganzas (and the tourist dollars that came with it) already banked, Catalonian eyes soon turned to motorsport. Time for Barcelona, one of the most heavily visited cities in the world, to become the official Spanish home of Grand Prix racing once again. 


A decision that was not without precedent. Dating back to 1913, the Spanish Grand Prix had already been held in Guadarrama (’13), at the Autódromo de Sitges-Terramar (‘23), the Circuito Lasarte (’26 to ’35), the Circuit de Pedralbes (’51 and ’54), and the Circuito del Jarama (’67 and ’68) before arriving at its third Catalan home in 1969: Montjuïc. Essentially unchanged since its introduction in 1933, the undulating, tree-lined – admittedly beautiful – street circuit in the hills above Barcelona was nevertheless unspeakably dangerous. Drivers famously threatened the cancellation of the F1 Spanish GP in 1975 when the guardrails were found to be woefully underprepared for Grand Prix machinery growing faster and faster with each passing year. Incredibly, with tensions rising between circuit and series officials, team mechanics spent most of Friday before the race bolting the barriers together themselves! 


All, as it turns out, to no avail: during the race itself, 24 laps after reigning World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi had parked his McLaren M23 in protest, a collapsed rear wing sent Rolf Stommelen into the crowd at high speed. The hellacious incident cost spectators their lives. It was the final nail in Montjuïc’s F1 coffin.

In 1976, F1 was back to Jarama full-time, but despite Gilles Villeneuve’s heroics against four faster cars in 1981 and James Hunt’s initially disqualified (later restored) win in ’76, the controversial decision to rescind the event’s championship status in 1980 and the narrow circuit’s inability to host turbocharged GP machinery meant the Spanish GP disappeared altogether in 1982.  


Its successor – Jerez – built specifically to host the 1986 Spanish GP didn’t fare much better. During Free Practice for the 1990 Grand Prix, Martin Donnelly suffered a sickening accident when his Lotus 102 speared into the wall, disintegrating on impact and sending the Brit, still strapped to his seat, spinning onto the track with monstrous leg injuries. Somehow, mercifully, Donnelly lived, but the die had once again been cast for the home of the Spanish Grand Prix. 

Enter the new Circuit de Catalunya. 

It was a project heralded by a consortium involving the Government of Catalonia and the Reial Automòbil Club de Catalunya (RACC). With fiscal support from the Spanish government in-place and a plot of land scouted just outside Montmeló, the circuit’s foundation stone was laid in February 1989, and, minus the occasional delay, inauguration day arrived on 10 September 1991, just over two weeks before that year’s Gran Premio de España. Fittingly, victory at the first-ever event held at the new venue – the penultimate round of that year’s Campeonato de España de Turismos – was taken by event series champion Luís Pérez-Sala ahead of the late Pep Bassas. 20 years later, Sala would become team principal of Formula 1’s last ‘all-Spanish’ team to-date, HRT. 


Despite the autumnal drizzle, Catalunya’s first Grand Prix since 1975 hit the ground running, Messers Mansell and Senna creating a moment for the ages when they went wheel-to-wheel down the start-finish straight mere inches from each other. One of a surprising number of historic moments to have emerged from Montmeló across the last three decades. The following year, the road team time trial cycling was waved away on the start-finish straight. 

In 1994, and with F1 having been freshly run through the ringer after the tragic events at Imola and Karl Wendlinger’s violent shunt at Monaco, Michael Schumacher completed an extraordinary drive to finish 2nd behind Williams’ Damon Hill despite being stuck in 5th gear. Two years later, and in appalling conditions, a peerless drive from the future seven-time World Champion at the same venue secured the first of an incredible 72 wins for the Scuderia. Heartache struck Mika Häkkinen in 2001 when the Mercedes engine in the Finn’s McLaren MP4-16 failed on the very last lap, costing the two-time World Champion a deserved win. In 2006, reigning World Champion Fernando Alonso sent the 130,000-strong crowd into raptures by becoming the first Spanish winner of his home event since 1913.  


Between 2007 and 2016, the event featured 10 different winners, including a shock win for Pastor Maldonado (plus the added drama of the Williams pit garage fire post-race) and the maiden victory for one Max Verstappen in both his first race for Red Bull Racing. So synonymous has Barcelona become with F1, courtesy of its now traditional winter testing program, there are those in the paddock who (un)ironically dub it the ‘unofficial home of F1’. 

Admittedly, F1 is only one of many high-profile series to have ventured Catalonia-wards in the last 30 years. From 1992 to 1995, the circuit hosted MotoGP for the first time under the ‘European Grand Prix’ banner, an event that proved so successful, Montmeló has featured the Catalan Grand Prix on its calendar every year since 1996. Since then, former World Champions  Àlex Crivillé, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez, 2011 World Superbike Champion Carlos Checa and 31-time race winner Dani Pedrosa have all tasted victory in front of their home crowd. Nobody comes close to ‘The Doctor’, however: alongside his barn-storming on-track battles with Casey Stoner in 2007 and Lorenzo in 2009 – the latter of which included a sensational last lap, last corner pass for the win – Rossi has taken victory 10 times at Catalunya. 


Further afield, the lesser-known FIA Sportscar Championship was a circuit regular between 1999 and 2002, while the World Series of Renault (slash Nissan) ran from 2002 to 2011. For the third time since 2015, the circuit opened the FIA World Rallycross season. Endurance racing? The 24H SERIES arrived in 1998, and has visited annually ever since.

Though moderate, the circuit has also featured a number of modifications across the last 30 years. With the former ‘Nissan’ chicane bypassed altogether from 1995 onwards, the excess speeds competitors reached down the back straight meant revisions were made to turn 10 (‘La Caixa’) for 2004. The final, balls-to-the-wall corner though was management’s main focus however, a response to a frightening incident during the circuit’s Formula 3000 race in 2000. 


Having spun through the gravel at the final corner, former British Formula 3 champion Mario Haberfeld was t-boned by an unsighted Andrea Piccini and Nicolas Minassian through the ensuing dust cloud, and it would be 20 minutes before the Brazilian was cut free from his car. Amazingly, he suffered only relatively minor injuries, but it was the beginning of the end for the original ‘Europcar’. Since then? In 2018, the circuit received its first full track re-surface since 2004, and in 2019, the gravel disappeared from turn one in favour of revised asphalt run-off.  


30 years. Feels like yesterday, doesn’t it…?

-       ImagesEric Teeken, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Ferrari, and Red Bull

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