A temporary circuit formed from the roads of an unfinished housing estate at Barnea Beach in Ashkelon, this was Israel’s first attempt at motor racing in November 1970.
The Grand Prix of Israel was organised under the auspices of the Automobilclub von Deutschland for a select field of Formula 2 racers. Despite initial political backing from the Ministry of Tourism, a catastrophically poor decision to schedule the race on the Sabbath caused religious uproar which threatened to cancel the whole event.
A compromise of a Sunday race seemed to have averted the disaster, however the race had to be abandoned after the largely uncontained crowed spilled onto the track. Understandably, enthusiasm for repeating the experiment evaporated and the circuit was never used again.
Please note: The location of the start and finish line and the pit lane are currently unknown as they do not feature on the official event map and we have been unable to uncover them through our historical research. If you have information about their locations, please get in touch!
The origins of the race lie not in Israel but Germany. In the second half of 1969, a conversation was struck up between Ingo Terfel, a businessman and racing enthusiast of German-Jewish descent, and his Israeli business partner, Eliyahu Sakharov. Why not try to recreate the success of the old Tasman racing series and provide a warm climate winter event closer to home for the European teams? Israel was an emerging economy with a young population but no motor sport history to speak of, so this would be an opportunity to get in at the ground level.
Evidently Sakharov remained unconvinced the concept would work, so Terfel took him to a race at the Hockenheimring to show how popular motorsport could be. The gambit worked and Sakhorev was persuaded there could be money to be made after all…
One issue that needed to be overcome before the race could really get going was enduring political support - motor racing was technically illegal and so would require some legislative changes before the event planning could begin in earnest. Sakharov’s political connections ensured an audience with the Ministers of Tourism and Transport, who seemed similarly enthused. The necessary changes to legislation were signed into law by future Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was then Transport Minister.
There was still one remaining significant issue before the race could be given the green light: with no history in the sport, Israel had no circuit or infrastructure of any kind to organise a race. To solve this, Terfel enlisted his friend Wolfgang Dimer, who owned a sports-marketing firm owner and was also a vice-president of the Automobile Club of Germany (AvD). The AvD and the Wiesbaden Automobile Club would help provide the marshals and organisational skills, effectively shipping in the needed expertise. They would then train local officials to ensure the future sustainability of the race.
A place for the race is found
That left the issue of finding a suitable circuit. Building a permanent facility was ruled out as too costly, so a street race was soon settled upon as the only action. But where? Terfel and Dimer hired a helicopter to fly across Israel hunting for a suitable location from the air. And at the seaside port town of Ashkelon, they found the answer.
Close to Barnea Beach a whole road network had been laid out in advance of a planned housing development. With relatively few houses actually constructed, it left a network of streets surrounded by open land which seemed ideal for handling race cars and a large crowd. Its beachside location was an added bonus and could only help in attracting drivers with a racing-with-a-bonus-holiday approach.
Furthermore, enquiries with the Ashkelon Municipality were extremely positive, with city leaders seeing it as an opportunity to bring attention and advertising to the city, helping drive further development. As a relatively blank canvas, the area also offered the bonus of less infrastructure changes being required, lowering costs.
The trio quickly set up a company called the Israel Racing Association to own the rights to the event, which was marketed as the Grand Prix of Israel.
Delegations of police, municipal representatives and the Ministry of Tourism were sent out to Europe to meet with race organisers and other officials, to gain a more detailed understanding of what was required to put on a successful race.
A November date was settled upon as being ideal due to it marking the end of the main racing season and helping to boost tourism at a time of year when it was normally waning.
A feature race for Formula 2 machinery was planned as the headline event, with support races for Formula Vee single-seaters and a touring car race for local drivers. The single seaters would all be shipped in prior to the event, along with the marshals and a Lamborghini pace car.
On the F2 entry list were Brabham BT30s for Derek Bell, Vittorio and Ernesto Brambilla, Tommy Reid, Peter Westbury and Mike Goth. An older BT23C was entered for Irishman Brain Cullen, while Patrick Dal Bo had a works Pygmée MDB15. Rising star Patrick Depailler was aboard a works Tecno 70, Bruno Frey in a Tecno 69 and Xavier Perrot a March 702. All were powered by the 1.6 litre Cosworth FVA engine. The Formula Vee field that was assembled also had some star names, among them Brian Henton, Bertil Roos, Helmuth Koinigg and Harald Ertl.
With a strong field of drivers for the races, a healthy sponsorship lineup and experienced organisers, all seemed to be going well. However, outside of the sport, the storm clouds were gathering.
Race draws condemnation from religious leaders
The consternation began in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, where more conservative members were opposed to the idea of motor racing altogether. Shlomo-Ya’akov Gross of the Agudat Yisrael party asked during a discussion on road accidents: "Should we run car races to stimulate running on the roads and to encourage the youth to see how crazy rides are made?”
Then in a debate about tourism, Menachem Porush called on the Minister of Tourism not to sponsor the event, saying: “This is alien to our spirit. The attraction of tourism to our country is at the Western Wall, the tombs of our ancestors, the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb. Not at a race track."
Perhaps these interventions could be put down to the usual political wrangling from opposition politicians, but they were relatively mild compared to the uproar that emerged when the date of the race - November 21 - was revealed. Quite how it slipped the organisers’ notice that this was a Saturday (the Sabbath) is something of a mystery, given the main players’ knowledge of Israel and its customs. Scheduling an event during Shabbat was always going to be controversial and unlikely to be viewed as compatible with the usual observance of engaging in restful activities to honour the day, particularly when it involved high octane racing…
Such was the outrage, it threatened to collapse the coalition government, as the religious parties threatened noisily that the Ministry of Tourism should abandon its backing of the event and call for is cancellation. Government ministers instead claimed ignorance while the Mayor of Ashkelon feigned impotence. Representatives of the religious community then turned their attentions to knocking on every conceivable door to register their displeasure, including the German embassy and the race sponsors.
In the meantime, they organised, with bus loads of the devoutly religious heading to Ashkelon to protest, with plans to hold services on the race route on the Sabbath if needed to publicly register their shock and dismay. It was not quite the race day crowd of 50,000 that the organisers had expected.
A compromise is reached
Facing a PR nightmare and a very real threat to the event taking place, race organisers were forced into what seemed like an inevitable decision; move the race date or risk not being able to run at all. Discussions took place as the drivers began their first exploratory laps of the new circuit, with religious leaders agreeing to a compromise which seemed to suit the visit majority. If the race was moved to the Sunday, the religious groups would have no objection, while if they in turn agreed to underwrite any loss of anticipated revenue caused by the date switch, the race organisers would be similarly happy.
While not all in the religious community were happy with the latter point, the deal was announced to the gathered crowds of the Friday afternoon. The race was now definitively ‘on’.
Meanwhile, on the circuit, the drivers were finding conditions less than ideal. The roads were narrow and the beachside setting inevitably meant the ground around the asphalt was sand covered, with every errant wheel dragging debris onto the racing surface. The route was lined with tyres marking corner apexes, but there was little else in the way of protection. The paddock was similarly bare, with no awnings to protect mechanics or drivers from the heat of the sun as cars were worked on.
Formula 2 practice got under way at 10am. American racer Mike Goth was quickest in his Brabham, followed by the March of Perrot and Depailler’s works Tecno.
Next up was the local touring car race, which featured many novice drivers for whom this was a first racing experience. Inevitably there were many spins and incidents, bringing numerous red flags and session stoppages.
The Formula Vee practice session was smoother on track, though there several enforced stoppages when the crowds got too close to the track. It was a taste of what was to come on the Sunday.
After 2pm, the racing action came to a close, with the drivers forced to kick their heels until racing resumed on the Sunday. Many were shipped into Jerusalem by bus for a bit of impromptu sightseeing.
The race does not go as planned
Prior to the event, race organisers had been asked by Major General David Ofer, commander of the Southern District of the Israeli Police, to add 1.2 metre high barriers around the entire course to assist with crowd control - much more than usual wire fencing that was then the norm at European events. It was a prophetic move, though it did little to contain the problem that Major Ofer anticipated; unused to racing an its dangers, the crowds were keen to see the action unfold to them as close as possible.
As expensive as the fence might have proved for the organisers, it proved entirely ineffective. An estimated 20,000 enthusiastic spectators (many without tickets) simply trampled down the fences or burrowed through the sand underneath to make their way directly to trackside, where they stood 20 or 30 deep as the action was due to unfold. There were too few marshals and police to move the crowds back, who seemed oblivious to the dangers.
The F2 cars took to the track for final practice and qualifying at 10am, despite serious misgivings from the drivers about the safety. Tino Brambilla took pole position, lapping in 1min 23.8sec to head the field from Depailler, Bell, Goth, Perrot, Westbury, Dal Bo, Cullen, Vittorio Brambilla, Reid and Frey.
The touring car race eventually got under way, with the crowds seemingly continuing to be unaware of the dangers, only stepping out of the road as the cars approached. Predictably, the race was chaotic, with a major crash on lap two seeing the BMW of Dan Oren clip a curb and overturn twice. The hapless driver was thrown clear after his seat belt was torn off and it was something of a miracle that he was the only one taken to hospital, having suffered relatively minor injuries.
With mounting concern, the Formula Vee race took to the grid next and blasted for an expected 20 laps. After several close calls with spectators, race director Gerd Kroeber had seen enough and after 15 laps and threw the red flag. Bertil Roos was declared the victor, from Helmuth Koinigg.
“I have never seen such a crowd. I’m still having trouble digesting what happened. I’ve run more than 100 races all over Europe, but I’ve never seen anything like it. I thought the crowd in Sicily was the least disciplined of all. Now I must say that the Israeli audience is surpassing it wildly.”
The prospect of the more powerful F2 cars attempting to navigate a path through the crowds was simply too much to contemplate. The drivers got together and said they would not race but, with a sizeable and unconfined crowd cheerily expectant of a race, the organisers feared a riot would unfold if the race simply cancelled.
Another compromise was reached; the cars would grid up, do one lap at reduced speed and then head to the paddock, where they would be driven straight into their transporters where the crews had already packed up. The whole paddock would then simply depart for the boat back at Haifa and Genoa beyond.
Brambilla duly set off from the grid with (perhaps in trademark style) barely abated speed, parting the crowds enough for the rest of the grid to follow. Sure enough, after just one lap, they all pulled into the paddock and the race was aborted, without injury to any spectators.
And that was that, as far as Ashkelon as a racing circuit, was concerned. While some forms of motorsport did take place in the area - notably rallying and rally raid events - circuit racing remained out of bounds for more than 40 years until new facilities at Eilat, Pazael, and the Hatzerim Motor City sprang up in the 2010s.
This is a historic circuit which is no longer in operation.
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Today the area around Barnea Beach has been highly developed, with empty plots of land from 1970 very much filled with the housing that they were designed for.
Many of the roads used to form the circuit are still fundamentally in place, though have seen considerable alterations as the years have gone by, with road widening, lane changes and the additions of roundabouts and other interruptions to the smooth flow of the layout. It looks very much like any other residential neighbourhood and doubtless very few of its current inhabitants will be aware of its brief dalliance with motor racing.