In October 1991, Nigel Mansell was on the brink of losing the World Championship having had a comfortable lead and certain victory thrown away by another pit lane drama in the Portugese Grand Prix at Estoril. He lost one of his wheels after what appeared to be a smooth and tidy pitstop and was later given the black flag. The next stop after Portugal was Spain, but this time the venue was not Jerez. The F1 circus was about to visit a brand new purpose built circuit near Barcelona, the Circuit de Catalunya.
Today, this track is renowned for producing extremely dull races, especially after the 1999 event after there was only one reported overtaking manoeuvre the entire race! But it looks almost certain to stay on the calendar long-term after the impact which Fernando Alonso has had in his home country. In fact today the second Spanish race of the season was held in the new Valencia street circuit and that too was boring! Do the Spanish specialise in boring races or can we blame the modern aerodynamics or Hermann Tilke’s incompetent track design skills?
It’s all very well keeping a Spanish race on the calendar as a result of Alonso’s impact but why not move back to Jerez? There has been some great stuff there over the years such as Mansell and Senna’s battle to the flag in 1986 and the World Championship decider in 1997, but it was that year when the local mayor tried to force his way onto the podium celebrations after the race, which led to Jerez never being allowed to host a Grand Prix again.
So we are stuck with the dull Circuit de Catalunya – and also the Valencia street circuit as of today. This track is used so much by all the F1 teams for testing that there is not much work to be done on the cars come the race weekend and the drivers know the track inside out. There are a lot of turns on the track as well, but whilst it is no Monaco or Hungaroring, the frequency and the medium-speed, aero-dependent nature of the corners means that overtaking opportunities are limited to the fairly long start-finish straight and a large “field spread” is produced.
The organisers tried to improve overtaking down the start-finish straight by installing a new chicane for 2007, but sadly it doesn’t appear to have worked and its very obvious why because right after the chicane, there’s a fast corner where the aerodynamics of the car infront will force the car behind further back again. I mean who’s stupid idea was it? Probably Hermann Tilke!
When the most memorable things that have happened at this circuit are, for example, Johnny Herbert driving off with the rear jack still in the back of his Benetton, or one of Nick Heidfeld’s wheel nuts falling off and being picked up by a Toyota mechanic, you can see why I never look forward to the Spanish Grand Prix. Even this year’s race with Kovalainen’s crash, the safety car being brought out and the novelty in that race being Super Aguri’s last ever F1 race failed to disguise the tedious borefest that this race never fails to produce unless it rains.
In fact it’s almost like watching English Premier League side Middlesbrough who are also dull. Eddie Irvine said after the 1999 race, “I was so bored I wish I had brought my radio with me!”, but, just like today, most of the debate after that race was over the design of the cars and the use of grooved versus slick tyres. But even in the days of slicks there were still tedious races at the Circuit de Catalunya. Except in 1991 …
Going back to 1991, the first race at the Circuit de Catalunya was a classic. It had been raining, the track was damp and Mansell had all the odds against him. Ayrton Senna could have clinched the World Championship that day, but Mansell was not giving up without a fight. He got second on the grid ahead of Senna, but behind Gerhard Berger, but Mansell made a bad start and Senna passed him, then a few corners later Michael Schumacher even went by, but Mansell dispatched the soon-to-be 7 time World Champion and set off after Senna. One of the most memorable moments in Grand Prix racing happened on the start-finish straight when Mansell went side-by-side with Senna all the way down the straight to take 2nd place with Murray Walker’s BBC co-commentator James Hunt exclaiming, “Wheel-to-wheel stuff, look at this! They’re almost touching!”
Meanwhile, this was also the race where Murray Walker uttered one of his immortal lines, “The boot is on the other Schumacher!”. In only his fourth race Michael Schumacher was showing the world what he was capable of, harassing Mansell and Senna, and flinging his Benetton Ford around the track in a way which Nelson Piquet or Roberto Moreno – the man who the Benetton controversially replaced with Schumacher – had not managed throughout 1991. Schumacher looked as though he was on course for his first ever podium finish until he had a spin, but recovered to finish a fine sixth, while Mansell went on to win and ensure the Championship wasn’t going to be decided yet.
The only other time races here have been any good were the following year 1992 and 1996 when it rained. Every other year it has been boring. With next year’s regulations coming into play to allow more overtaking, if there’s one track the regulations will not work on, it’s Catalunya. I don’t think even a race held here in the Turbo era would have been exciting either, nor the 70’s or any races going back to the days of Jackie Stewart or even Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio! The bottom line is that Catalunya is the most boring race track ever.