Looking back: The 1970 Spanish Grand Prix

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When we think of the Spanish Grand Prix in this current age of Formula One, the Circuit de Catalunya immediately springs to mind. The circuit, located in an industrial heartland some half an hour north-east of Barcelona, is a favourite amongst fans and teams alike, with its long straights, tight corners and elevation changes.

But Formula One hasn’t always lived at Circuit de Catalunya.

In 1951, Juan Manuel Fangio won the Spanish Grand Prix at the Pedralbes Circuit in his Alfa Romeo, the series not returning to the country until 1954 when Mike Hawthorn won in his Ferrari. Spain then fell off the calendar between 1955 and 1966, but then in 1967, The Jarama circuit featured in a non-championship event. Between 1968 and 1981, the circuits of Jarama and Montjuic hosted the championship rounds on an alternating basis – until safety concerns required the Montjuic circuit to be removed from the calendar.

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The challenging – and dangerous – Montjuic Circuit. (Pic: Unknown)

In 1986, Formula One returned to Spain at the Jerez Circuit, Ayrton Senna winning the race in his Lotus-Renault by one of Formula One’s tightest ever margins – just 0.014 ahead of Nigel Mansell. Jerez hosted the series until 1991, when the Circuit de Catalunya was opened – moving Jerez back to a testing venue.

There have been many memorable and iconic races in Spain over years but the one that stands firm is the race that took place today in history some 47 years ago – the 1970 Spanish Grand Prix, held at Jarama.

The race was the second round of the season and got underway under a cloud, after the organisers of the Grand Prix reduced the amount of starters to just sixteen cars. Once word of this got out, members of FOCA were furious and demanded the grid be reinstalled to full size. The morning of the race, the matter was deemed to be resolved with the non-qualifiers actually allowed to race. However the Commission Sportive Internationale stepped in and forced the Spanish organisers to reverse their decision and only allow the sixteen cars who qualified to take part in the race. Such was the lateness of the decision that the cars of Adamich, Miles, Siffert, Eaton and Soler-Roig were all wheeled off the starting grid and back to their respective garages.

Australian Jack Brabham would start the race on pole, his Brabham BT33 Ford showing pace – proof that the Ron Tauranac chassis could deliver a race winning performance, with the McLaren of Denny Hulme alongside him. Jackie Stewart would line up third, Jean-Pierre Beltoise fourth, Pedro Rodriguez, Chris Amon, Jacky Ickx, Jochen Rindt, Henri Pescarolo and Jackie Oliver completing the top ten.

As the flag dropped, the field pulled away with Brabham taking advantage immediately. Hulme tucked in behind the BT33 with Stewart hot on his heels. Further back, cars jostled and dived, desperate for any advantage they could find as they approach that sweeping right hander that is Turn One.

As the cars filed through, disaster struck.

As Jackie Oliver threaded his BRM though the Bugatti Esses, a stub axle failed on his car, sending him spearing into the Ferrari of Jacky Ickx. As the two cars collided, the twisted mass of metal ruptured the fuel tank on the Ferrari, releasing some 45 gallons of highly flammable racing fuel onto the circuit. Then, the fuel tank on the BRM also gave way, spilling a similar amount of fuel onto the circuit. As the cars collided with the trackside fencing, sparks ignited the fuel into an inferno.

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The inferno consumes Oliver and Ickx as they struggle to clamber out. (Pic: Unknown)

As the flames consumed both cars, Oliver and Ickx struggled to release themselves. As the fireball ranged around them, Oliver punched the release on his Willians six-point safety harness and lept out of the inferno. As he did so, Ickx continued to struggle with his Britax belts inside the Ferrari. Finally, he was free and lept from the maelstrom, only to be on fire himself.

Disoriented and still on fire, Ickx ran to find a Safety Marshal, only to be called down the inside of the track, where a soldier threw Ickx to the ground and smothered the flames with a mixture of sand, grass and his own bare hands. When Fire Marshals finally appeared, they were carrying foam style hand-held extinguishers – which did little to quell the blaze. When the fire hoses were bought in to tackle the blaze, the water combining with the now molten magnesium componentry only made the fire worse.

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Ickx is thrown to the ground and has his flaming racesuit extinguished by a brave solider who was trackside. (Pic: Unknown)

The accident caused a great deal of havoc as the field of visibility was greatly reduced for the drivers – and the pool of flaming racing fuel just added to the danger. The fire fighting techniques were poor at best, (both Oliver and Ickx were lucky to walk away with minor burns as well as cuts and abrasions) and the resulting pool of water and extinguisher foam slid back down over the racing line, causing drivers to lose control and in some cases, spin out of the race.

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The Brabham BT33 spins on the foam and water, now sliding down the racing line. (Pic: Unknown)

The race continued and finished at full race distance. From the sixteen who started the race,  just five crossed the line to take the chequered flag. Brabham spun twice in the foam and lost the lead to Stewart. Fighting back – and almost catching him – the Ford engine in the back of the BT33 gave up the fight shortly before the end of the race.

The race was won by Jackie Stewart – giving March their first ever race victory (ironically, the March 701 was Stewart’s least favorite car) with Bruce McLaren second (scoring his final podium, points and race finish) and Mario Andretti scoring his first ever Formula One podium with third.

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Jackie Stewart would win the 1970 Spanish Grand Prix, earning March their first ever Grand Prix victory. (Pic: Unknown)

The 1970 season continued to be bittersweet, Jochen Rindt becoming the first ever posthumous World Drivers Champion, after being killed at Monza earlier in the year. 1970 also saw the death of Bruce McLaren, testing a McLaren Can-Am car at Goodwood, and Piers Courage who was killed at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. At the end of the season, after a career that began in 1955, triple World Champion Jack Brabham retired at the end of the season.

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