During the regular debates concerning Formula One’s move into new markets, with races held on super costly, safe and sanitised circuits, you often hear folks mention Monza when it comes to protecting the sport’s heritage. And for good reason. If you have ever visited the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, you won’t need me to describe what it is like. It can be hard to explain what it is about this place that makes it so special.
Visitors often comment on the passion of the Tifosi, the adoration of Ferrari at their home race, the sea of red which reduces the other teams to mere supporting cast.
However, when I think of Monza it starts with the trees because, first and foremost, it is a truly beautiful park. At 1700 acres it is Europe’s fourth largest walled parkland, and when they decided to build a race track in 1922 you can only be glad that there were not too many environmentalists around to complain. As with Wimbledon, or indeed the Monaco Grand Prix, if the Autodromo Nazionale Monza had been conceived as a sporting venue in this century it would never have happened.
The trees can provide welcome shade or forbidding shadows in the early autumn sunshine, and they act as a dramatic backdrop to the flat-out nature of a track which promotes great racing and, famously, resulted in Formula One’s closest ever finish. Peter Gethin won the 1971 Italian Grand Prix by one hundredth of a second.
The old track featured the famous banking, long since disused for safety reasons, but still there for you to attempt to walk up its slopes and stand in awe at the challenge it represented for racers from a different era. Stirling Moss told September’s Motorsport that he once suffered broken steering in his Maserati whilst on the banking; he closed his eyes and, thankfully, the car opted to spin down to the infield. If it had cleared the top, Stirling might be landing about now.
The sense of history is all around, and as the circuit fast approaches its centenary you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone in the F1 paddock who won’t happily regale you with a Monza story.
For me it was the 1999 Italian Grand Prix when our Jordan driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen qualified second, won the race when the dominant Mika Hakkinen misplaced a gearshift, and promoted us to third place in both the Drivers and Constructors World Championship. Ten points separated H-HF from Mssrs Hakkinen and Irvine that evening, with only three races remaining. For a small, independently owned team, that was a Monza weekend never to forget.
One year later Monza introduced us to the other side of its personality. A collision between our cars on the opening lap of the 2000 Italian Grand Prix resulted in the death of a track marshal, 19 year old Ferrari fan Paolo Gislimberti.
People talk about the ghosts of Monza; it is indeed an eerie stadium of speed.
Some 52 drivers and riders have lost their lives in Monza over the years. When you consider that among their number are Jochen Rindt and Ronnie Peterson, it is no wonder the park holds dark memories.
Indeed the worst accident in motor racing prior to the 1955 Le Mans disaster occurred at Monza in 1928 when Emilio Materrasi’s Talbot veered of the main straight, cleared a 4 metre trench and landed in the main grandstand. The driver and twenty spectators were killed instantly. More died of their injuries in the days which followed.
This is all part of the Monza story.
It makes for a heady cocktail of triumph and disaster; of speed, passion, raw and visceral experiences that make the annual pilgrimage to the famous park outside Milan an essential trip for any warm blooded fan. So whether you are parking up under its shady trees or watching it on the box this weekend, enjoy. It is a precious part of Formula One’s rich heritage.