San Sebastian – Grand Prix in Spain Part 1

Think of motor racing in Northern Spain, and the natural default is the Barcelona circuit used as a F1 test track for so many years, not the epic days or yore. Looking more closely it seems pre-fascist Spain was pretty keen on motorsport, in the wealthy nobles-and-amateurs-only way similar to the sport elsewhere in Europe, with cursory reading revealing three events: Penya Rhin, San Sebastian and Sitges-Terremar. I was recently able to recce two of these, and jolly rewarding this proved to be.

The San Sebastian Grand Prix took place from 1923 to 1930 on the Lasarte circuit just south of San Sebastian. When Sir Henry Segrave won for Sunbeam in 1924, it was only the second ever Grand Prix victory for a British driver in a British car, victories perhaps a little blunted by the knowledge that the car was a rather shameless copy of a 1922 Fiat. The event that year was also notable for an accident which changed motorsport significantly, and took Grand Prix a step away from the early days of city to city racing. Traditionally, a driver had a riding mechanic who came along with him to assist with breakdowns, or the punctures which were so common in the days of poor rubber / plenty of nail-shedding horse-drawn traffic, but by the mid-twenties cars and tyres were more reliable, and courses shorter – the Lasarte course, for example, is 11 miles round – so the need for the riding mechanic was diminishing. Typically riding mechanics were of a lower social class than the driver, almost a medieval squire, readying his knight’s armour and steed for battle, yet receiving no recognition for a good result; often even when pictured riding mechanics are not credited in period photographs. The role was dangerous too; fatal injuries were more common amongst riding mechanics than drivers, perhaps because the driver was able to cling onto the steering wheel in the event of a mishap. On lap 11 of the 1924 San Sebastian Grand Prix, Segrave’s team-mate, Kenelm Lee Guiness, of the Guiness brewing family, lost control of his Sunbeam, and both he and his riding mechanic, Tom Barrett, were thrown out of the car into a railway cutting, Barrett dying immediately.

The circumstances of the accident speak to the poor organization and communication of the period – the weather was wet and the track slippery; knowing this the organizers ordered that sand be sprinkled on the track, but somehow this became interpreted as using earth from the fields ajoining the track, which had more clay, actually serving to make the track more hazardous. As a result, riding mechanics were banned from Grand Prix.

The track was noted for being rutted; even today as my film shows the roads are crowned, undulating, tree-lined – frankly, the circuit must have been terrifying with the narrower roads of the period. Rarely straight, there are many sections where full throttle could be used, and most corners seem to be curves, although each individual. Driving the lap I found myself seeing many opportunities where the courage/skill of a Nuvolari could make up for lack of horse power.

As my video shows much of the circuit has been lost to urban sprawl as San Sebastian has grown south, and has developed a modern road infrastructure of dual carriageways and roundabouts – even only a decade ago, my impression is that the circuit would have been far more complete. The paddock was located in the hippodrome, and this remains a horse racing track; I parked up there and fiddled around fruitlessly trying to fix my GoPro to the dash of the BMW rental while a couple of locals were busy trying to bump start an old Peugeot 309.

Thanks to The Boss for steady hands filming.

Part of the circuit has to be driven in reverse – for the sake of completeness: