Around 40 years ago, the world of public roads and Formula 1® only collided on one occasion: Monte Carlo. That’s not to say that there was no such thing as grands prix round the houses before: Parables, an upmarket district of Barcelona, hosted a race in the early 1950s. This was something that Francisco Franco wanted to happen at all costs, reasoning that flat-out racing would somehow unite the passionate hearts and minds of the Spanish people. It was an interesting theory.
The tradition continued in Spain at Montjuic – which means ‘small mountain’ in Catalan and describes the prominent hill that overlooks Barcelona opposite the port. Montjuic was a demanding circuit: not the quickest, but full of ascents, descents and blind corners – often right next to a wall or gate. It was no surprise then that an accident spelt the end of the grand prix on the little mountain: or rather a series of accidents. It came to a head in 1975: a race that will always be remembered not for its result (two Ferraris on the front row, with Lauda and Regazzoni crashing into each other, then Jochen Mass claiming his sole F1® victory) but for a tragedy. The rear wing of Rolf Stommelen’s Lola Hill came flying off, ending up in a grandstand like a missile and claiming four victims. For Montjuic, it was game over.
In any case, Monte Carlo was something else. Leaving aside the jet-setting glamour and ostentatious wealth, blue blood was sometimes mixed with the genuine red article, due to the notorious hazards that have sometimes caused serious accidents at the jewel in F1®’s crown. And yet its place in the calendar has never been called into question. It’s a race that is just too special and unique ever to be tainted by negative connotations.
Midway through the 1970s, Bernie Ecclestone aimed to bring the Monaco formula to the United States. He understood that both riches and popularity lay there, and that the rather remote race that had been held for many years in Watkins Glen on the north Atlantic coast didn’t really fulfil that need. Long Beach meant California. And that in turn meant glamour and wealth and mass appeal: right on the doorstep of Hollywood.
It was to have been the seaside race of Los Angeles – already the alternative capital of the United States back then, especially when it came to ambition, modernity and style. The circuit itself turned out to be an infinite sequence of corners – right then left then right then left again – almost all of which were 90-degree corners, overlooked by traffic lights hanging over what were normally six-lane highways.
Formula 1® arrived there in 1976, greeted by the Queen Mary cruise liner that was moored not far from the pits. And Long Beach was just the first of a series of street circuits in America. In the 1980s, Detroit joined the calendar, in the industrial heartland of the American automotive world. Dallas was yet another street grand prix venue, with the expansive asphalt melting under 50-degree heat.
Las Vegas went even further. Having abandoned the concept of 90-degree left and right-handers, typical of Detroit and partly of Dallas too, the organisers built a circuit in the enormous Caesars’ Palace hotel car park. But none of the locals were particularly enthusiastic about it, preferring the air-conditioned lure of the slot machines in the casino rather than the intriguing circuit outside, delineated by concrete blocks, where Brabham driver Nelson Piquet claimed the first of his three championship titles.
At the helm of the Brabham team back then was Bernie Ecclestone. In the 40 years following the first American street race at Long Beach, Ecclestone tried several times to build a solid fan base in the United States.
But never with the success he had hoped for, while the dream of having a grand prix in New York remained just that – a dream. And so, onwards to Asia instead. Where the success of the Singapore street circuit (the first ever to be held under lights) remains uncontested. And where Formula 1® lands once more: in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Sunday 25 June…