(By Mònica Angla/CNA) The Formula 1 World Championship comes to Catalonia once again thanks to a long tradition which blends the motor industry and competition. Catalonia has several industries related to cars and motorbikes. Aside from SEAT, Nissan, Honda and Rieju, there are important factories which supply components worldwide.
Catalonia is also known for its competitions organized throughout the year and plays host to a packed motor sports calendar. The Formula 1 Grand Prix, the GP Motorbike Grand Prix, the World Rally Championship all take place in Catalonia among other endurance series, classic races and indoor or outdoor motorbikes championships. Moreover Catalan drivers are competing in a lot of international categories. For instance last year the three Motorcycle World Champions – Marc Márquez, Pol Espargaró and Maverick Viñales – were all Catalans.
This long tradition of motor sports in Catalonia goes way back. In 1901 the first automobiles were registered. Shortly afterwards, some small companies appeared in Spain such as Hispano-Suiza Automobiles. Right from the start, cars caused fascination in Catalonia. The Royal Automobile Club of Catalonia (RACC) was created in 1906 and has controlled motor competitions and protected Catalan drivers. RACC organized the first race in the peninsula on the Sitges-Vallmoll-Vilafranca circuit, an international competition called the Copa Catalunya.
The dictatorship years
After the Spanish Civil War, the Catalan motor world was impoverished. In the 1950s the automobile industry was revived by Biscúter, SEAT and Pegaso – which built on the success of Hispano-Suiza. At the same time, Catalonia started to be relevant on the rally circuit with races in the European championship. Several races took place at Montjuïc, the mountain in Barcelona famous for its curves and steep hills. This mountain became a historical motorsports icon, especially in Catalonia. In 1975, Montjuïc stopped hosting races as five people died in an accident during the Formula 1 Grand Prix.
Motor competitions aside, local industry has been very important in developing vehicles, employing a large amount of local people and placing Catalonia on the world automobile map. SEAT was created during the dictatorship in order to make cars financially accessible to the middle classes. After the end of the regime, SEAT became an international and strong brand and now belongs to the Volkswagen Group.
Several motorbikes’ factories have left their mark on motor tradition in Catalonia. Montesa, Derbi, Rieju and OSSA, among other brands, started producing motorbikes in the early 1950s. They were successful, especially as motorbikes became a transport alternative in Spain. The appearance of the Seat 600 which became very popular in the 1960s, caused a crisis in the sector of motorbikes. In 1977, bikes reached a production record with more than 260,000 units produced in Spain.
There was no peace for local factories. Another crisis affected them in the 1980s and several Catalan companies such as OSSA became non-profitable. The brands looked to work inside Catalonia and worldwide, primarily in Japan, in order to survive. This led that several Japanese big companies, such as Yamaha and Honda, to buy or to build new plants in Catalonia.
The current industry
The excellent cost-quality relationship has attracted a lot of car manufacturers in Catalonia over the last sixty years. Nowadays, even during the crisis, the Spanish motor industry is in second place in motor production in Europe and is twelfth worldwide. 25% of all vehicles made in Spain come from Catalonia. According to the Catalan Government the sector generates 14,000 million euros yearly. The Director of the Catalan Automobile Industry Cluster, Vicenç Aguilera, said that in Catalonia the production is reasonably competitive and Catalan components’ assemblers are innovative.
One of these assemblers is FICOSA, established in Viladecavalls (Vallès Oriental). FICOSA is represented in 19 countries and supplies components to technologic companies like Hewlett Packard and to a lot of vehicle companies. It is the leader in the international rear-view mirror market. The company combines technology and engineering to innovate in automobile components. It is one of the pioneer companies to completely integrate 4G in cars.
Changes and troubles
There is, however, unrest in the motorcycling factories. Derbi, one of the most popular Catalan brands, closed recently in March 2013. In Europe motorbike production descended by 55% and Spain is now the fifth country in the European rankings. Sales have reduced too. This leaves industry and the stores in a difficult situation, but there is some good news for Catalonia. Rieju is still working and produces about 20,000 motorbikes a year. The brand is 80 years old and all its financial capital is Catalan. Ossa has been reborn under the name Ossa Factory, which makes trial and endurance motorbikes. Gasgas is other successful motorbikes company, established in Girona, which is in a merger process with Ossa. Their off asphalt bikes are exported to more than 60 countries and the brand has won 10 trial World Cups.