The Ingrid Pitt column: disaster at the Spanish Grand Prix
She's back! After technical gremlins at the Geek robbed us of her presence last week, Ingrid Pitt is back with a vengeance. Welcome back, Countess...
Reading all the hype on Lewis Hamilton and what he must do in Barcelona, at the Spanish Grand Prix, to restore confidence in his ability, reminded me of the last time I was the city – long, long ago.
It was 1975 and I was in the middle of doing a deal with film director, George Willoughby, (Masque of the Red Death, City Under the Sea, Summer Rain etc) and Lord Alex Hesketh. George to provide the nous, Alex the dosh and me the hype. At the time Lord Hesketh was still on a high after running his own, rather eccentric but fairly successful, racing team. His driver had been the charming but ruthless James Hunt. His taste for the limelight unabated, Alex was now considering turning some of his considerable wealth into celluloid.
I had a meeting with him a couple of days before the Spanish Grand Prix. As I was leaving he asked me if I was going to the race. Before I could think I said I was. When I told Tonio, my husband, what I had done he wasn’t best pleased. He had been a bit of a big-shot in the sport until I had yanked him out of it and he wasn’t particularly interested in doing a one off and explaining to everyone where he had been. But I convinced him that it was something we should do – so we went.
Getting a seat on a plane at the last moment was fairly easy compared to getting into the beautiful and highly dangerous Montjuic circuit. We could have paid, I suppose, but that seemed a bit naff and wouldn’t have given us access to the parts of the circuit, paddock and pits, where we wanted to be. First obstacle was getting through the main gate. Tonio flashed his FIA card but the eagle-eyed keeper of the gate noticed it was out of date. Tonio and the keeper of the gate went eyeball to eyeball.Things look like getting pretty brutal. I was wearing skin tight jeans and an even tighter denim bolero jacket. I took a deep breath and stepped in between the antagonists, did a bump and grind and made sure the hot blooded Spaniard got a good view of the cleavage while I explained, in Spanish, that it was all a mistake and our tickets were waiting for us at the pit of Lord Hesketh. I’m not sure if it was the cleavage or the mention of nobility-in-waiting that got us through the gate – but we were in.
It was pretty plain sailing after that. Tonio convinced the relevant authorities that we had every right to wander wherever we wanted and they gave us the necessary credentials. Unfortunately Hesketh was not having a good time. And he wasn’t the only one. Work was being done on the circuit and it still hadn’t been finished. The Grand Prix Drivers Association had a meeting and decided that until some more work was done on the track surface and the steel Armco barriers at the side of the track, the drivers were not coming out to play. This led to a lot of arm waving and shouting and an air of defiant angst settled over the circuit. The outcome was that the drivers agreed to do one lap of the circuit to honour their contract and then retire. That little proposition was ground to dust as soon as the wheels started to spin on the starting grid. Only Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi conformed to what had been proposed and left the others to fight it out. But not for long.
Tonio took me out to the first hairpin after the pits to watch the race. In those days straw bales provided a highly flammable cushion behind the Armco. The race had hardly got started when Tonio grabbed me and threw me into the straw. “Wey-hey’, I thought, ‘Such passion’. Then there was a hell of a thump and a couple of cars, locked together, hit the barrier. I was a little disappointed. The cars were cleared away and we stayed there and watched the cars roar passed, lap after stultifying lap. This wasn’t what I was there for. I needed to be chatting up his Lordship. I was beginning to wish we had stayed in the pits where at least I could have discussed nail varnish with some of the other girls.. Then there was a sound of a crash and lots of screaming. It was only about a fifty yards away but unseen on the other side of the hairpin.
Rolf Stommelen, driving a GH-Ford for the Graham Hill team, in the lead, had one of the aerodynamic wings on the back of the car break. Out of control he had veered across the track, hit another driver, Brazilian Carlos Pace, swung to the other side of the track, careened into the Armco, spun over it and landed among the spectators, killing five of them and injuring many others. When the news got through Tonio decided to go back to the paddock and see if there was anything he could do. As we walked back down the hill Tonio stopped to light a cigarette. A burly fireman leaped on him and extinguished it with his bare hands. What appeared to be a pool of water at the side of the track was in fact the residue of the petrol from Stommelen’s car.
When the race was stopped, four laps later, Jochen Mass was in the lead. As the race was only half way through when stopped it was decided to award only half points to the finishers. So Mass was the first winner of a Grand Prix to be awarded a half point. And Lola Lombardi was the only women ever to win a point in a Grand Prix. (Even if it was only half a point)
The disaster at the Montjuic led to its closure and the Grand Prix being moved elsewhere. With all the tragedy and mayhem at the race I suppose it was only to be expected that the reason I had gone there, to cosy up to Lord Hesketh, should be forgotten. I had a few more meetings with Hesketh after that but he was having problems convincing his mother that he was spending his pocket money wisely and nothing came of his yen to be a film mogul.
As for Lewis Hamilton he managed to stick within hailing distance of the Ferraris but still retains his enigma status.
Ingrid is here every Tuesday. Read her last column here.