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Formula 1’s Forgotten Tragedy: 1975 Spanish Grand Prix

Written by Sean McKean, Edited by Ishani Aziz


For any recent fan, notorious races are often those controversial or dramatic ones, to include: the 2005 United States Grand Prix, Belgium 2021, Saudi Arabia 2021, or even the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. Through the ages of Formula 1, there have been far greater tragedies than controversial collisions, often some that fans wish to forget. The Spanish Grand Prix of 1975 is one such case, but one that mustn’t be forgotten.

Image Credit - Motor Sport Magazine

Build-Up

Prior to the race, controversy had already begun to build. Members of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA) were furious about the state of the track. The Spanish Grand Prix was then a street race held in downtown Montjuïc, and thus preparation during the build-up to the grand prix was seldom done as thoroughly as it is now.


The main area of concern was the barrier construction. Given that the organisers were in a rush to get the track done, many of the barriers were not bolted properly. This obviously infuriated the GPDA members, having lost Frenchman Francois Cevert two years prior at Watkins Glen due to a barrier failure. The workers worked overnight to fix the barriers, but the members of the GPDA still went on strike. The latter was brought down for many reasons. For one, the organisers threatened legal action if they didn’t run the race, which was common for that era. The second factor was the threat of the Guarda Civilia to seize the cars and not let them leave the paddock come the conclusion of the weekend.


The GPDA was then forced to concede, with the sole exception of Emerson Fittipaldi. Still furious about the state of the track, Fittipaldi did three laps at a very slow pace during qualifying before parking it in the pits. On the very same day, he flew home to his native Brazil and refused to take part. The remaining drivers took part. Niki Lauda would qualify on pole with Clay Regazzoni joining him on the front row. This didn’t stop the discomfort in the paddock, however, as Ken Tyrell would work overnight to fix the barriers himself, sensing danger for the drivers.


The Race

Chaos ensued from ‘lights out’. Lauda and Regazzoni’s Saturday glory would not last long, as Lauda would be caught up in a collision with Mario Andretti and Vittorio Brambilla and Regazzoni would hit the side of Andretti’s car.

Start-line incident with Lauda, Regazzoni, Andretti, and Brambilla | Credit: ESPN

While Lauda retired from the incident, Regazzoni was back on track after a pit stop to repair suspension damage. Three drivers retired from the race due to the crash, but only Patrick Depailler from terminal damage. As for the other two, Wilson Fittipaldi and Arturo Merzario, they withdrew out of protest. After much chaos James Hunt, Mario Andretti (even despite his damage), and John Watson emerged as the front three.


The status quo wasn’t held for long, as Jody Scheckter’s Tyrell blew up, dumping oil all over the track. On the very next lap, Alan Jones and Mark Donohue slipped on the oil and crashed. Two laps later, race leader James Hunt crashed out of the race as well by virtue of the same oil spill. Drivers continued dropping like flies. Watson suffered from terminal vibrations, Andretti’s suspension failed, and Tom Pryce and Tony Brise tangled in a collision. After Jean-Pierre Jarier and Brambilla stopped to change tyres, the top three were now Rolf Stommelen, Carlos Pace, and Ronnie Peterson. By lap 24, Peterson went out of the race as well, tangling with the lap-down Francois Migault.


14 drivers were already out of the race, it had become clear that it would be a race of attrition. This prospect was welcomed by race leader Rolf Stommelen, who had only achieved one podium prior to this race in the 1970 Austrian Grand Prix. Given his history, Stommelen was hungry for a win, but so was second-place driver Carlos Pace. Coming off his first career win two rounds prior in Brazil, Pace was hungry to continue the roll on what had been the strongest start to a season in his career.


Tragedy Strikes

On lap 26, the rear wing on Rolf Stommelen’s Embassy Hill would break, sending him into the barrier. After bouncing off it and back onto the road, his car would be sent flying over the barrier on the other side of the track. During this melee in front, Pace would also crash in an attempt to avoid Stommelen’s flying car.

Rolf Stommelen’s crash | Credit: Inside Markham Subaru

Though Pace escaped the incident without injury, the same couldn’t be said about Stommelen. In the crash, he suffered a broken leg, wrist, and fractured ribs. Despite the substantial injuries the German sustained, it wouldn’t be the worst part of the accident. Stommelen’s car flew over the barrier and landed on multiple spectators. The crash killed four people: fireman Joaquín Benaches Morera, spectator Andrés Ruiz Villanova, and two photo-journalists, Mario de Roia and Antonio Font Bayarri. Whether it was due to severed telephone lines from the destroyed Embassy Hill car or shabby race control, the race wasn’t stopped for another four laps (a full 10 minutes).


By the end, Jochen Mass was declared the winner with Jacky Ickx in second, and Jean-Pierre Jarier in third; however, Jarier was declared to have overtaken under full course yellows, due to which he was given a 60-second penalty and Carlos Reutemann was promoted to P3. With the race’s short ending, it became the first Formula 1 Grand Prix to award half-points from a stoppage.


Aside from the tragic events, the biggest talking point of the race was the driver scoring 0.5 points: Lella Lombardi. Finishing P6, Lombardi became the first woman to score points in a Formula 1 Grand Prix.

Lella Lombardi (#10) | Credit: IMAGO

The Aftermath

What became of the drivers and people involved in the accident? For Rolf Stommelen, he made very few starts after the crash, but his career continued as normal after the incident. Returning to sports car racing after recovering with Alfa Romeo, he won the 24 Hours of Daytona three times. On top of this, he co-drove with Dick Barbour and actor Paul Newman in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1979, nearly winning the race by virtue of the German’s blistering pace. However, Stommelen’s life would be cut short after another rear-wing failure sent him into a high-speed accident in the 6 Hours of Riverside in 1983.


Carlos Pace continued in Formula 1. The 1975 season went on to be Pace’s best, securing two more podiums in the Monaco and British Grand Prix, and finishing sixth in the standings. Though 1976 didn’t go to plan for him, 1977 looked to be the start of a great season for the Brazilian, as he opened the season with a second-place finish in Argentina. Unfortunately, Pace met with a fatal aircraft accident in his home country of Brazil. Another untimely death.


In the case of race winner Jochen Mass, 1975 would end up being the only win of his Formula 1 career, and his luck did not improve much after that. Mass became infamous for two major incidents in his Formula 1 career in 1982. The first incident would be the accident that killed Ferrari protegé Gilles Villeneuve. The nail in the coffin however was his high-speed crash with Mauro Baldi at the French Grand Prix. Mass’s car, along with Baldi’s, would be sent over the modern-day Turn 10 barriers and immediately burst into flames. Though Mass was uninjured, he left Formula 1 and decided to continue his racing ventures in sports car racing, with great success.


As for Jacky Ickx, it would be the last podium of his Formula 1 career, but he saw great success after leaving F1. Ickx would go on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans six times, as well as adding victories in the Bathurst 1000 and even Dakar Rally.


Third-place finisher Carlos Reutemann went on to finish third in that year’s standings but saw many more successes later in his Formula 1 career. He would go on to win nine races and surmount a great championship run in 1981, only just losing out to Nelson Piquet. However, a year later, Reutemann retired from Formula 1 to pursue a career in politics. On July 7th, 2021, Reutemann passed away from medical complications.


The Spanish Grand Prix of 1975 presents an eerie tale of tragedy that seems to follow its drivers from start to finish, and yet is often forgotten by fans.




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