The 1974 championship fronted up in Spain at the end of April for the fourth round of the season after the first three races had produced the same number of different winners. In Argentina, victory went to Denny Hulme in the McLaren, then Carlos Pace won in Brazil for Brabham, while South Africa fell to McLaren and Emerson Fittipaldi, although Ferrari’s new signing, Niki Lauda, started from pole. None of these winners had scored at any other rounds, so that leading the classification with ten points was the Scuderia’s other driver, Clay Regazzoni, who had finished third in Argentina and second in Brazil.
The 312B3-74 was quick out of the box, although it still suffered some reliability problems, while Lauda, whom Regazzoni himself had recommended to Enzo Ferrari, seemed to be progressing with every passing race. On the track on the outskirts of Madrid, Scuderia Ferrari was clearly on great form. While other drivers were mired in fine-tuning their cars, Lauda and Regazzoni immediately found the best configuration and were able to set one fastest lap after another, irrespective of the variation in temperature depending on the time of day. Sweden’s Ronnie Peterson, who also drove for Ferrari in the World Championship for Makes, had to be on top of his game in the Lotus to ensure that the front row was not a Maranello lockout. Lauda took pole in 1’18”44, just three hundredths better than Peterson. Regazzoni was third in 1’18”78.
On race day, completely unexpectedly the skies were leaden and heavy rain fell on the 3.404 kilometre track. As a precaution, drivers were given the chance to go out and assess the track in these new conditions. All the drivers went out, keen to experiment with the kerbs at the final corner, as cutting these aggressively was required in qualifying to set a time and might now be a trap for the overly confident.
All cars started on rain tyres and Peterson led the field through the Nuvolari corner ahead of Lauda and Regazzoni. On the opening laps, it was hard to tell what was going on behind the leading trio because of the plumes of water thrown up by the rear wheels that were particularly wide and imposing at that time. Around lap 15, the rain stopped and the wind got up so that the track began to dry out quickly. Regazzoni was the first of the leaders to pit for slicks, followed by Peterson and Lauda. The Austrian was pushing harder as the track dried out and even managed to overtake the Swede just before his tyre stop. The Scuderia mechanics were very rapid and 35 seconds later, Lauda was back on track.
On the following lap, Lauda led on his own, from Regazzoni, as the engine on Peterson’s Lotus had blown up leaving the dejected Swede to walk back to the pits. With the only real threat to the Scuderia out of the way, Lauda and Regazzoni steadied the pace to look after their 312B3-74s. The race was due to be run over 90 laps, but it was stopped early on the two hour maximum as per the regulations.
In the Scuderia pits, the team watched the seconds tick by to the end of the race, hoping that nothing would change the perfect result. Lauda crossed the line at the end of the 83rd lap after one hour and 59 minutes, meaning the race would run to 84 laps, with only the two Ferraris going the distance. In third place Emerson Fittipaldi was a lap down on the Austrian. The press had no doubt that a star was born as Niki was triumphant, taking a great triple of pole position, the win and fastest race lap. It put an end to a fallow period of 20 races without a win for Ferrari, dating back to Jacky Ickx’s victory in the 1972 German Grand Prix. It was the Scuderia’s 50th win in Formula 1 and, thanks to another second place, Regazzoni consolidated his lead in the championship.