Phil Hill, Ferrari, Spa-Francorchamps, 1961

50 years ago today: F1’s worst tragedy at Monza

1961 Italian Grand Prix flashbackPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Phil Hill, Ferrari, Spa-Francorchamps, 1961
Phil Hill won once before Monza in 1961, at Spa

On this day 50 years ago, a crash during the Italian Grand Prix claimed the lives of 16 people.

Wolfgang von Trips and 15 spectators were killed on the second lap of the race at Monza after von Trips tanlged with Jim Clark.

However the race continued and von Trips’ Ferrari team mate Phil Hill won the world championship on this bleak day for Formula 1.

Monza’s perilous oval

Fifty years ago, safety was not the paramount concern it is today. But when it came to the daunting banked oval circuit at Monza, some felt it was a risk too far.

In 1960 a group of British teams boycotted the race in protest at the use of the banking. For 1961 engine capacities were cut to 1.5-litres, speeds fell, and while the same teams still objected to the banking they agreed to race on it once more.

Monza, 2011
The banking pictured in 2011

The race organisers made one concession, reducing the distance from 50 laps to 43. Even so, at 430km (267 miles), this was around a third longer than tomorrow’s race will be.

The first half of the lap took the drivers around the circuit as we know it today, albeit without the chicanes. But on returning to the main straight the cars stayed to the right, the track divided by a line of cones down the middle.

This led them to the first of two 180-degree corners. These were fashioned from slabs of concrete propped up on concrete supports at a steep angle. With time, the surface had become increasingly worn and rippled, causing cars to buck violently on their suspension as they took the corners.

Even so, the drivers were able to tackle the corners without lifting at 255kph (160mph). The second of these bends returned them to the start/finish line and the end of the 10km (6.2 mile) lap.

A championship between team mates

Ferrari had reacted to the reduction in engine capacity for the 1961 season better than anyone. The Scuderia produced the benchmark car in the 156 ‘Sharknose’, powered by its V6 ‘Dino’ engine.

Heading into what would be the penultimate round, Wolfgang von Trips had amassed 33 points to the 29 of team mate Phil Hill.

Hill had won at Monza 12 months earlier, while von Trips suffered crashes in two previous visits to the circuit. Five years earlier his steering had broken at Curva Grande, sending him into the trees at 190kph (120mph). Two years after that he crashed into Harry Schell’s BRM on the first lap.

The championship protagonists were two decidedly different characters. Von Trips, a German Count, was a natural talent but one with a slightly wild streak in his early years that led him to be dubbed ‘von Krash’. Later his rivals referred to him more affectionately as ‘Taffy’.

Hill was more technical in his approach and had great mechanical sensitivity. Earlier that year he won the Le Mans 24 Hours for the second of three times in his career.

Hill was also acutely aware of the dangers of motor racing. It weighed heavily on his mind, and at times caused him to develop stomach ulcers from the stress, which disrupted his racing season in 1954.

Lotus were the only threat to Ferrari in the constructors championship, and a distant one. Stirling Moss had scored two remarkable wins with his Rob Walker-run Lotus at Monaco and the Nurburgring, which gave the team an outside chance of out-scoring Ferrari.


A huge entry of 37 cars was presented and 32 ultimately made it onto the grid. A cut-off limit was imposed on qualifying times, though it was rather less strict than today’s 107% rule: it eliminated drivers who failed to get within 15% of the second-fastest time.

With von Trips on pole the second-fastest time was set not by Hill but their new team mate, Mexican Ricardo Rodriguez. This was despite the 19-year-old having the older 60-degree V6 instead of the 120-degree unit used by his team mates.

While the young arrival dazzled with his speed, Hill later revealed concerns about the newest addition to the Ferrari driver roster, saying: “If he lives, I’ll be surprised.” Sadly, Rodriguez lost his life before the end of the following season, crashing in practice for the first Grand Prix in his home country.

Hill, fourth on the grid behind another Ferrari belonging to Richie Ginther, felt his engine was down on power and had his mechanics change it. A broken valve spring was found and Hill oversaw the repairs and ensured the new installation was to his satisfaction.

The highest non-Ferrari on the grid was Graham Hill’s BRM. During practice he had his first run in the P578, which would take him to the world championship the following year. For the race he switched back to his regular P57.

Stirling Moss also used a new development V8 engine from Climax during qualifying. But he suffered cooling problems and overnight switched to Innes Ireland’s factory Lotus using a four-cylinder engine, while retaining parts from his own machine. This left Moss driving a car he was unfamiliar with in the race, with an unusual livery part Lotus green and part Rob Walker blue.

Starting from pole position, von Trips could clinch the championship the following day. But that evening, sitting in a cafe with journalist Robert Daley, he revealed his own concerns about mortality.

“It could happen tomorrow,” he said, as reported in Daley’s book The Cruel Sport. “That’s the thing about this business. You never know.”

1961 Italian Grand Prix grid

Row 1 Wolfgang von Trips 2’46.3
Ricardo Rodriguez 2’46.4
Row 2 Richie Ginther 2’46.8
Phil Hill 2’47.2
Row 3 Graham Hill 2’48.7
Giancarlo Baghetti 2’49.0
Row 4 Jim Clark 2’49.2
Jo Bonnier 2’49.6
Row 5 Innes Ireland 2’50.3
Jack Brabham 2’51.6
Row 6 Stirling Moss 2’51.8
Dan Gurney 2’52.0
Row 7 Tony Brooks 2’52.2
Bruce McLaren 2’53.4
Row 8 Carel Godin de Beaufort 2’53.8
Jackie Lewis 2’54.0
Row 9 Masten Gregory 2’55.2
Roy Salvadori 2’55.2
Row 10 John Surtees 2’55.6
Nino Vaccarella 2’56.0
De Tomaso-Alfa Romeo
Row 11 Lorenzo Bandini 2’57.7
Maurice Trintignant 2’58.7
Row 12 Henry Taylor 3’00.6
Roberto Bussinello 3’01.7
De Tomaso-Alfa Romeo
Row 13 Gerry Ashmore 3’03.0
Jack Fairman 3’04.8
Row 14 Tim Parnell 3’05.7
Wolfgang Siedel 3’06.0
Row 15 Renato Pirocchi 3’06.5
Gaetano Starrabba 3’07.9
Row 16 Brian Naylor 3’08.1
Roberto Lippi 3’08.9
De Tomaso-Osca

Von Trips’ pole position time of 2’46.3 for a lap of the 10km (6.2 mile) track was 2.7s off the previous year’s lap record set with more powerful cars.

Rodriguez was just a tenth of a second off, setting the 115% cut-off time at 3’11.36. This meant Andre Pilette failed to qualify by less than three-tenths of a second.

The tragedy

Race day dawned hot and activity at the circuit began with a pair of three-hour races for GT cars. At 3pm, the F1 cars were on the grid awaiting the start.

The Ferraris were using long gearing for the high-speed straights, and moved away as the race began. That allowed Jim Clark, who started seventh in his Lotus, to get in among them, briefly holding second.

At Parabolica Gerry Ashmore’s Lotus spun off and hit the grass bank along the track and the driver was badly injured.

A trio of Ferraris led the field as they came off the Curva Sud Alta Velocita for the first time to complete lap one, Hill ahead of Ginther and Rodriguez. Clark lay fourth with Jack Brabham, von Trips and Baghetti behind him.

Halfway around the second lap, Clark had fallen behind von Trips and was trying to re-pass the Ferrari as they sprinted from Vialone to Parabolica.

“I was preparing to overtake him and my front wheels were almost level with his back wheel as he started to brake,” Clark described afterwards.

“Suddenly he began to pull over towards me and he ran right into the side of me. I honestly don’t think Taffy realised I was there. I am sure that, when he passed me earlier, he had decided his was the faster car and I would be left behind.”

Clark was on the left-hand side of the track as von Trips moved across. The contact fired the Ferrari left towards the crowd.

It rode up a 1.5m-high bank and flipped over. With only a chain fence between the spectators and the track, there was precious little to separate car from bodies.

The car gouged into the crowd before flipping back onto its wheels on the track. Following cars braked hard and ducked around the wrecked Ferrari.

Von Trips was thrown from his car and killed, 11 spectators died at the scene, and four others succumbed to their injuries over the following days.

(Different figures have been given for the total number of people who lost their lives. Motorsport Memorial lists those understood to have lost their lives due to the crash by name.)

Only those close to the accident knew what had happened. Many, including the circuit commentators, remained unaware of the scale of the crash. Hill, still leading, could tell from his pit signals that von Trips was out but had no idea of the extent of the carnage.

The video below shows scenes from the race but does not include any of the harrowing footage of the crash and its aftermath:

The race goes on

Despite the carnage, the race continued. Hill and Ginther pulled out a 20-second lead and briefly swapped places. But one by one technical problems claimed the Ferraris: first Baghetti, then Rodriguez and finally Ginther on lap 24. Hill’s was the only one still running at the end of the race.

Brabham pulled over after eight laps, his new V8 Climax engine running low on water. He had witnessed the crash and said: “I don’t think either Jimmy Clark or Taffy von Trips were carving each other up as was suggested at the time.

“Jimmy was always a driver you could drive really hard against and be quite confident that he wasn’t going to do something stupid.”

Moss had worked his way up to second place before the pounding dished out by the banking caused a wheel bearing to fail.

After two hours and three minutes of racing, Phil Hill crossed the finishing line. The muted response from his team and the expression on the face of chief engineer Carlo Chiti told Hill something was wrong.

He went through the motions of the prize-giving. With von Trips dead, Hill’s victory had made him world champion. But there was to be no celebration.

1961 Italian Grand Prix result

No. Driver Team Laps Gap/Reason
1 2 Phil Hill Ferrari 43
2 46 Dan Gurney Porsche 43 31.2
3 12 Bruce McLaren Cooper-Climax 43 2’28.4
4 60 Jackie Lewis Cooper-Climax 43 2’40.4
5 26 Tony Brooks BRM-Climax 43 2’40.5
6 40 Roy Salvadori Cooper-Climax 42 1 Lap
7 74 Carol Godin de Beaufort Porsche 41 2 Laps
8 62 Lorenzo Bandini Cooper-Maserati 41 2 Laps
9 48 Maurice Trintignant Cooper-Maserati 41 2 Laps
10 16 Tim Parnell Lotus-Climax 40 3 Laps
11 20 Henry Taylor Lotus-Climax 39 4 Laps
12 58 Renato Pirocchi Cooper-Maserati 38 5 Laps
28 Stirling Moss Lotus-Climax 36 Wheel bearing
6 Richie Ginther Ferrari 23 Engine
72 Gaetano Starrabba Lotus-Maserati 19 Engine
44 Jo Bonnier Porsche 14 Suspension
8 Ricardo Rodriguez Ferrari 13 Fuel pump
32 Giancarlo Baghetti Ferrari 13 Engine
50 Nino Vaccarella De Tomaso-Alfa Romeo 13 Engine
22 Masten Gregory Lotus-Climax 11 Suspension
24 Graham Hill BRM-Climax 10 Engine
10 Jack Brabham Cooper-Climax 8 Overheating
14 Brian Naylor JBW-Climax 6 Engine
38 Innes Ireland Lotus-Climax 5 Chassis
30 Jack Fairman Cooper-Climax 5 Engine
42 John Surtees Cooper-Climax 2 Accident
4 Wolfgang von Trips Ferrari 1 Accident
36 Jim Clark Lotus-Climax 1 Accident
54 Roberto Bussinello De Tomaso-Alfa Romeo 1 Engine
52 Roberto Lippi De Tomaso-Osca 1 Engine
56 Wolfgang Seidel Lotus-Climax 1 Engine
18 Gerry Ashmore Lotus-Climax 0 Accident


The dreadful loss of life was the worst seen in a world championship race. It was one of a series of fatal accidents involving spectators including the 1953 Argentinian Grand Prix (13 killed), 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours (84), 1957 Mille Miglia (11) and 1958 Cuban Grand Prix (seven).

As had happened previously, the crash led to further calls for motor racing to be banned. In response Ferrari withdrew their cars from the last round of the championship, at Watkins Glen.

Hill was unimpressed by what he thought was an insincere gesture. Ferrari, he believed, would have kept racing had they not clinched both championships at Monza. Instead of racing in front of his home crowd Hill toured a lap of the circuit in a convertible.

Although the crash did not happen on the banked circuit, that course was never used again for F1 and was abandoned after 1969.

Some contemporary reports of the race expressed the view that adequately protecting fans from such accidents would be impossible without moving them so far away from the action it would lose its appeal.

Fifty years on, this claim no longer holds up. Today the stretch of track approaching Parabolica is bordered by a double-height debris fence.

But containing an accident at the fastest circuit on the F1 calendar remains a challenge. In 2000 marshal Paolo Ghislimberti was killed when he was struck by debris in a first-lap crash at the Variante della Roggia.

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Images ?? Ferrari spa/Ercole Colombo, Mercedes