At Monza the sense of history oozes from the very tarmac. The Italian Grand Prix has been a late-season fixture since the very first Formula One World Championship and is synonymous with the thousands of Ferrari-adoring tifosi who mob the circuit every year.
Last year these late races were of little importance to the championship – Michael Schumacher and Ferrari’s victories were assured if not already in the bag mathematically. But this year Monza could be crucial to the championship battle if either of the protagonists – Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso – suffers problems. Alonso cannot win the title here, but a DNF for Kimi would be a fatal blow.
The extremely basic circuit rewards top-end power, aerodynamic efficiency, braking and good traction in roughly that order. It has also been the setting for a series of breathtaking assaults on the fastest-ever Formula One lap record. F1’s resident nutter Juan-Pablo Montoya – who else – smashed Keke Rosberg’s 17 year-old record first in 2002 and again in 2004. Pre-race testing has raised the possibility of the record falling again – even with two-race engines!
The current form book has a few tales to tell. McLaren’s performance advantage over the others is now so great that only their poor reliability record could realistically get in the way of win number six in ’05 for Raikkonen. The crucial question is whether the resurgent BAR, which Jenson Button drove beautifully in Turkey, may get in between Raikkonen and rival Alonso. And, for that matter, Montoya, Schumacher or Barrichello.
Although Renault boss Flavio Briatore has angrily denied allegations that their Turkish lap-two driver swap was an instance of banned ‘team orders’, we can nonetheless rest assured that Giancarlo Fisichella will not be taking points off Alonso should the opportunity arise.
Toyota are a particular team to watch with their non-too-shabby power plant and the qualifying genius of Jarno Trulli. Renault were surely running light in Istanbul in the hope of avoiding these likely championship interlopers.
Italian Grand Prix history
On only one occasion since the championship’s inception in 1950 has the Italian Grand Prix been held anywhere other than Monza – in 1980, when the race went to Imola. The current circuit is essentially the original 6.3km circuit, albeit punctuated with chicanes to slow the cars before Curva Grande, the Lesmo bends and Curva di Vialone (now Curva Ascari). Only the magnificent, thread-the-needle Parabolica (which itself only appeared on the circuit in 1957) is still approached from top speed.
On four occasions the race was held on a hybrid of the classic Monza parkland track with a purpose-built oval with fearsomely steep banking. The cars completed a lap of the oval before shuffling onto the road track and continuing, and the present-day bridge before Ascari is where the oval crosses over. Those making a pilgrimage to Monza are advised to seek out the crumbling ruins and marvel that drivers blasted into the massive corners in the days before seatbelts and crash helmets.
The extended track was last used in 1961, when an horrific accident killed fourteen spectators and title runner-up Wolfgang von Trips. Ten years later the road course, too, was deemed unsafe after the death of Jochen Rindt in 1970. 1971 saw the the fastest-ever Grand Prix in which Peter Gethin took his only victory with six-tenths of a second covering the first five finishers.
But the writing was on the wall for the original track. In 1972 chicanes were added on the main straight and at Ascari to make the approach speeds to the faster corners safer. But it destroyed the classic appeal of Monza as being a course where the cars could constantly slipstream one another in the style of American oval racing. The days of endless multi-car dices for the lead were over.
For the 1976 race a further chicane – Variante della Roggia – was added before the Lesmo bends. The first chicane was modified into a pair of chicanes, but the safety of having two dozens cars decelerating from over 350 kph (200mph) to one-quarter of that speed came under question. In 1978 the popular Ronnie Peterson was killed after a massive start-line shunt as the cars funnelled together into Variante del Rettifilio.
The track layout remained untouched in the 1980s and its reputation as a temple of speed was bolstered by the performances of the mighty turbo cars. Alain Prost won in the turbo Renault in 1981, though Carlos Reutemann produced one of the greatest qualifying laps ever to take second in the normally aspirated Williams-Ford, over a second quicker than team mate (and champion) Alan Jones.
After the 1994 San Marino tragedies the Lesmo bends were tightened to reduce cornering speeds, and run-off areas were increased, to the outrage of various local tree-huggers. Attention was refocused on the perilous legal peculiarities of Italy as Williams team owner Frank Williams plus several of his colleagues were prosecuted for Ayrton Senna’s death on Italian soil at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. It brought back memories of Colin Chapman’s dilemmas after Rindt’s death in 1970 and Jim Clark’s involvement in the von Trips crash.
Five years later the track had again been reconfigured to appease safety sensibilities, with Variante del Rettifilio tightened into a hopelessly slow bend. But it did nothing to prevent (and perhaps precipitated) a violent first-lap crash on race day at Variante della Roggia, when a flying wheel struck and killed marshal Paolo Ghislimberti. Inexplicably, the race was continued under safety car conditions for a quarter of the full distance, even as Ghislimberti lay dying.
And yet, since that tragedy, no better solution has been found to the conflict of how to safely run a modern race at such a historic, but dangerous venue. But, of course, the danger and the history are woven into the very fabric of Formula One, and unpicking them would rob the sport of one of its finest challenges. Forza Monza!