F1 circuits history part 5: 1961-6

Bruce McLaren, McLaren-Ford, Watkins Glen, 1966Some of F1’s most famous and popular circuits feature in today’s instalment of the guide to F1 tracks. Watkins Glen in America, Clermont-Ferrand in France and Brands Hatch in Great Britain. And one of my own personal favourites, the Mexico City circuit.

But as ever there are a few oddballs as well – East London and Zeltweg held only four races between them.

Watkins Glen

After finding little favour in Sebring and Riverside as venues for the United States Grand Prix, F1 found a long-term home at Watkins Glen. The circuit in Elmira, New York State remained on the calendar until 1980.

Although the track (pictured top) has undergone several changes the distinctive S-bend after the start line has always remained the same. The shorter version of the track shown above remained until 1970, by which time the fastest lap time had been whittled down to 1’2.740 (Jacky Ickx, Ferrari).

East London

East London was the first home of the South African Grand Prix, before the more popular Kyalami (which will be covered in a future instalment). It was built in a natural bowl, making it particularly appealing for spectators. It held three F1 Grands Prix, the last of which on new year’s day 1965, won by Jim Clark.

Mexico City

Originally named the Magdalena Mixhuca Circuit and later renamed Autodromo Hermanos Ricardo y Pedro Rodriguez (after the country’s two most famous F1 drivers, both of whom died racing), the only track to hold the Mexican Grand Prix is smack in the centre of Mexico City, a vast urban sprawl, one of the largest cities in the world.

The original circuit was a part of the F1 calendar from 1963-70, and presented several unusual challenges to the participants. The high altitude (2,250 metres) caused difficulties for man and machine, as did the bumpy surface caused by the circuit being built on a lake bed, exacerbated by occasional earthquakes.

The first of the Rodriguez brother, Ricardo, died during practice for the inaugural (non-championship) Mexican Grand Prix in 1962. Clark won the Grand Prix in 1963 but the following year he lost the championship to John Surtees in a tense three-way shoot-out in which his other rival Graham Hill was eliminated in a collision with Surtees’ team-mate Lorenzo Bandini.

A hiatus followed the 1970 race which was marred by severe problems with crowd control, not unlike those at Buenos Aires in 1953. The crowd pushed up to the edge of the circuit, and a spinning car might easily have mown down dozens. Fortunately no-one was hurt, but Jackie Stewart had to retire after hitting a dog that ran onto the track.

F1 did not return to the venue until 1986, as we shall see later in this series.

Brands Hatch

Brands Hatch in Kent, east of London, proved a popular alternative to Silverstone as the home of the British Grand Prix and the two venues shared the race until 1987. Throughout that time Brands Hatch changed little, except for the straightening out of the short straight that ran along the paddock.

With half of the circuit set in a bowl the crowd had an excellent view of much of the track and crowd power was much in evidence when a British driver was challenging for a win. When the officials threatened to exclude James Hunt from the re-start of the 1976 the crowd booed until he was let in (although he was later disqualified).

There were roars of approval when Nigel Mansell scored his first win in the 1985 European Grand Prix at the track – and again the following year when he defeated team mate Nelson Piquet in the circuit’s final F1 Grand Prix.

Brands Hatch was briefly linked to a bid to win the British Grand Prix away from Silverstone, but that came to naught. Today it is owned and operated by ex-F1 driver Jonathan Palmer’s Motor Sport Vision company.

Zeltweg

Think that bland autodromes are a modern innovation? Well they had them in the sixties too – the difference was they didn’t keep going back to them. The unpopular Zeltweg airfield circuit was used once and then dropped.

Clermont-Ferrand

France’s Nurburgring in one-third scale – Clermont Ferrand was so twisty and undulating in parts that it provoked motion sickness in some drivers. It took over from Reims as one of the hosts of the French Grand Prix, holding the race four times in 1965, ’69, ’70 and ’72.

Only 13 cars started that first race and Stewart led all the way. But roadside stones proved a problem in the 1972 race – the perennially unlucky Chris Amon was leading until he incurred a puncture from one late in the race. Helmut Marko, today one of the top men at Red Bull, lost sight in one eye when a stone shot through his visor while driving his BRM.

That was Clermont-Ferrand’s final race. Today an abbreviated version of the track remains at the south, and the rest is some truly appealing public road…

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3 comments on F1 circuits history part 5: 1961-6

  1. Number 38 said on 11th January 2008, 6:05

    Watkins Glen 1973, my first GP.
    I raced in support races here 1973 to 1980. They were 10 lap affairs Sunday morning prior to the GP.
    It was a somber weekend as Francois Cevert was killed in practice.

  2. gideon said on 17th May 2010, 18:39

    bernie you must back clermont ferrand

  3. Susie said on 8th December 2012, 15:46

    Anyone know if there is any Motorsport on in Mexico City in January 2013?

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