The race returned to the tight track in the rather bleak desert, north of Madrid that had hosted the event in 1967 and 1968. But after having seen the Barcelona track, in a part of the country that actually welcomed the race, the teams were less enthusiastic about returning.
BRM: The team suffered several stub axle failures at the Race of Champions. They were now using stub axles that were machined from solid metal, as opposed to parts cast in the shape needed. Two of the cars were in the new Yardley colors, but George Eaton's car was still in the British green with a gold nose.
De Tomaso: The car showed up with a new chassis number, but it was obviously the same car that had run in South Africa. The track had been widened both front and rear. The anti-dive system in front and anti-squat system in the rear had been both removed. Despite that, the car was still more than 100kg overweight, and was not competitive.
Ferrari: Both the primary and spare cars had only detail changes since South Africa.
Lotus: The long-awaited Lotus 72 made its debut at the race. Featuring an almost perfectly wedge-shaped chassis, inboard front brakes, side radiators, progressive suspension and a triple level rear wing, this was literally the most advanced car in the world. But with something this advanced, there were bound to be teething problems. Since the car had been introduced, the openings for the side radiators were wider, due to overheating. And during practice at Jarama, bolts securing the inboard front brakes to the brake shaft were breaking, also due to overheating. This problem was solved by using ventilated discs, instead of solid ones. But Jochen Rindt was not 100% certain that the cars were ready to race.
March: The two primary factory cars were both fitted with upgrades to the rear suspension and brakes. The team also had the latest chassis built as a spare, which was claimed to be 15kg lighter, but the car was unsorted, and not driven at this event.
The Tyrrell Marches all had the latest rear end upgrades. The team had also rebuilt the noses of their cars, to the same shape, but with larger wings that were fully adjustable. By comparison, the cars as shipped from the factory came with smaller, fixed wings, with only a small tab on the rear that could be adjusted.
Mario Andretti's STP March was the only one still in the original configuration.
Matra: The cars were sporting new rear wings, and rear hubs made of titanium. They had also reverted to the original front suspension design, which was altered when trying to find a source of vibrations in the front end. The vibrations were cured by switching the type of brake discs used.
McLaren: Bruce McLaren's car was a replacement of the car he crashed at the Race of Champions. For some reason they gave it the same chassis number as the old, now totaled chassis.
Once the brutal scene on the grid (later found to be instigated by the CSI) ended, the cars took a warmup lap, and at the start Stewart had just the right amount of wheelspin to shoot ahead of Hulme, Brabham, Rodríguez, Ickx and Oliver. On the first lap, at the Bugatti hairpin, just to the north of the pits, Oliver suddenly lost control. The car went straight ahead at the right hand kink just before the hairpin, shot across the grass and T-boned Ickx's Ferrari. Both cars were pushed up to the outside edge of the corner, as gas leaked everywhere and the cars were suddenly consumed by large flames. Oliver was able to hop out without injury, but Ickx had fuel splashed on his driving suit, and ran across to the inside of the track to the marshal station. He then dropped face down on the grass while the marshals extinguished the flames on his arms, back and legs. His worst injuries were burns to the back of his legs, which would trouble him for a couple of months.
Meanwhile, the cars were becoming infernos. Both of them were constructed largely of magnesium, and neither one used racing fuel cells, so a rupture to a fuel tank caused an immediate large spillage. The nose of Oliver's car had impacted directly on the left side fuel tank of the Ferrari, causing a spill, and gas to splash on Ickx. The fuel immediately ignited, and quickly reached the ignition temperature of magnesium, setting both cars' chassis ablaze. The incompetent marshaling trained water on the cars, which in the case of magnesium, simply makes the flames hotter. Eventually a foam truck was brought to the location, but before then Ickx's car slowly rolled on its own down to the inside of the corner, in front of several cars racing. Fortunately the car continued onto the grass, but that placed it beyond the reach of the foam truck. The flames and pall of smoke were a feature of the race almost until the checkered flag.
As soon as the word and circumstances of the accident got back to the pits, BRM decided to withdraw Rodríguez' car as a precaution, as they suspected another stub axle failure. Rodriguez was quite unhappy about being withdrawn, but cooler heads prevailed. Ironically the fire burned up the cause of the accident. When the cars passed the accident on lap 2, they found that they had to pick their way through the flames, with the officials just standing around. Soon after the start, Amon's engine started running roughly, and a couple of pit stops did nothing to alleviate the problem. Stewart was leading from Hulme, Brabham, Pescarolo and Beltoise. Brabham was right behind Hulme until he spun on the water being used on the cars at the hairpin. Pescarolo promptly did the same thing, allowing Beltoise to pass him.
Stewart had pulled out a five second lead before Hulme's car suddenly quit just behind the pits. He managed to determine that the distributor had a broken rotor, and after a mechanic brought him a new one, he restarted the car, but now several laps down. A couple of laps later, the car died again, and it was retired with a suspected bent rotor shaft. Rindt had retired with ingition problems, so they were already down to 10 cars. Beltoise was lapping quicker and quicker, and got past Brabham for second. But Stewart was sailing away, and the best that Beltoise could do was keep the gap steady.
At 20 laps, Stewart was more than 10 seconds ahead of Beltoise, followed by Brabham, Pescarolo, Surtees and McLaren. Stewart had already lapped his teammate Servoz-Gavin, running a lonely race at the back of the field. On lap 29 Beltoise suddenly started slowing, and on lap 31 he pulled into the pits with a seized engine. Two laps later, Pescarolo had his engine seize up suddenly, putting him off into the dirt and out of the race, emitting a large cloud of white smoke, which contrasted with the black smoke from the other two burning cars. Stommelen was the next to suffer engine problems, retiring on lap 44. Several drivers were having gearbox problems, from the constant shifting required at this track, even more than at Monaco. One driver with that problem was Stewart, which enabled Brabham to catch up, but not pass. For more than 10 laps, the two champions had quite an exciting duel for the lead, with Brabham sometimes pulling abreast of Stewart, but never able to pass. Sadly, the battle ended quite suddenly when Brabham retired on lap 61 with a broken piston.
Stewart was left with a huge lead over Surtees, the only other car on the lead lap. The remaining cars were McLaren, Hill and Andretti (one lap down, with the latter two fighting gearbox problems) and Servoz-Gavin in the second Tyrrell March, now two laps down. Suddenly the gearbox bug bit Surtees. First losing second gear, and then fourth, he had no choice but to give up a sure second place on lap 76. Following that, the only interest was provided by Andretti, who had been driving a quiet race, but suddenly figured out how to work around his gearbox problems. He passed Hill for third, and set out after McLaren, but ran out of laps. All five finishers were fighting some type of mechanical problems at the end, and no one was sorry to see the end of a very poorly organized and unpleasant race. At the end, both cars involved in the first lap crash had been reduced to random smoldering steel and aluminum parts, and engine blocks.