HISTORICAL

Happy birthday Monza

Today (Thursday) marks the 70th anniversary of the first Italian Grand Prix at the Autodromo Nazionale at Monza, in the northern suburbs of Milan.

In Italy there are times when motor racing seems like a religion and for the tifosi - the fervent Ferrari fans - Monza is hallowed ground - the cathedral of Italian motor racing.

Even Enzo Ferrari - the nearest thing to God in Italian racing - felt the track was a bit different.

'Victory - and even mere participation - have a special flavour at Monza,' he said.

The track is situated in magnificent parkland - the grounds of the old Monza royal palace - which still stands on the road between the circuit and Monza town.

The first stone was laid on February 26,1922 by drivers Vincenzo Lancia and Felice Nazzaro, but two days later conservationists stopped the work.

It was not until mid-May that the workmen were given the official go-ahead. With 3500 workmen, hundreds of horse, carts, lorries and even a small railway, the work was completed by the end of July and driven for the first time by racing stars Pietro Bordino and Nazzaro.

It was an amazing feat - 6.25miles of tarmac, with a high-speed banked oval linked to a road course. At the time it was only the third permanent racing circuit in the world, after Brooklands and Indianapolis.

The official opening took place on September 3 with Italian President Facta present. There was a small voiturette race, won by Bordino in a Fiat 501. Five days later Monza hosted a motorcycle GP and, on September 10, there were 150,000 present for the Italian GP. There were six starters and, after 80 laps of racing, three finishers, led home by Bordino in a Fiat 804n.

Much has happened at Monza since then but the road circuit used that day is virtually the same - apart from chicanes - as the track which Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna and the F1 field of 1992 will use on Sunday.

The track has undergone several facelifts - not least in 1938 when the original banking was pulled down and a new grandstand - still standing today - was constructed. During the war it was used as a military dump and hosted an allied tank parade after the conflict was over.

In 1948, however, reconstruction began and in 1955 steeper banking was constructed following the shape of the original speed-bowl. It was Monza in 1957 and 1958 which hosted the two Races of Two Worlds, Americans roadsters up against European machinery, but by 1960 drivers were boycotting the great oval - safety was becoming an issue.

The banking still stands today - fenced off and locked up to keep out the tifosi - a memory of times gone by.

Monza is a track where there are always memories. On a clear day, with the mountains visible beyond the Curva Grande and the old banking stark spearing off into the trees, it is magic - they call it the pista magica, but it has not always been a happy place. The track has been a killing ground. In 1928 Emilio Materassi crashed into the crowd, killing himself and 27 spectators - until the Le Mans disaster in 1955 this was motor racing's worst accident.

In 1931 Gigione Arcangeli crashed in the Lesmo and was hurled to his death. The same year - in the same place - three spectators died when Phi-Phi Etancelin went off. Two years later Giuseppe Campari, Baconin Borzacchini and Count Stanislas Czaykowski all died on the same black day. The great Alberto Ascari was killed testing in May 1955; and Wolfgang Von Trips cartwheeled into the crowd in 1961 killing himself and 10 others in 1961. Nine years later the World Champion-elect Jochen Rindt died at the Parabolica and in 1978 Ronnie Peterson died after a huge multiple accident at the start of the Italian GP. The list is terrifying.

But even with the disasters there have been breath-taking races - not least in the days before chicanes when drivers slip-streamed along the straights. Monza still holds the record for the fastest average speed for a GP - and the closest finish - both in the same event when Peter Gethin took the flag just 0.010sec ahead of Ronnie Peterson in 1971 - after averaging 150.754mph from start to finish in the last of the great Monza slipstreamers.

Monza is still quick but the high speed flow of the curves has been broken by the chicanes. The cars are flat out, screaming in the high-rev ranges down past the new pit buildings towards the Curva Grande. In former days the cars kept up the speed, the drivers sweeping thorugh the long right-hand curve, but today there is a chicane, known as the Rettifilo. As the modern drivers pass the point where the old banking swings away into the trees on the right, they hit the brakes and thread their way left-right-left-right through sandtraps. Exiting Rettifilo the drivers floor the throttle for what is left of the Curva Grande before diving under the Campari bridge and braking for the chicane at the old Curva Roggia.

From there, through the trees, the track hurtles into the two Lesmos, tricky right-handers with no real run-off before diving downhill, passing houses hidden in the woods, and through the underpass beneath the old North banking. The track rises up to the Curva Vialone, once a fast left-hander, but today a chicane named after Alberto Ascari chicane who perished at this spot.

From there it is down the back straight to the Curvetta - known today as the Parabolica - where the brakes go on once more, and a teetering corner begins, curling back towards the main straight.

On paper it does not sound much, but to visit Monza should be one of the ultimate ambitions of a motor racing fan, for there are few places where motor racing is so vividly painted. Monza is unique and when the Grand prix cars are running - and Ferraris are doing well - there is an electricity in the air that exists nowhere else.

Out in the woods, each robust tree has nails hammered into it, footholds up which the fans scamper to perch in the branches to catch sight of their beloved Ferraris. It is difficult to explain to those who have not seen the tifosi in action, the strength of their feelings twoards the blood red cars bearing the yellow shield with its black prancing horse logo.

The mystique of Ferrari is everywhere and backed up by the stories in the history books. It is somehow comforting to know that by visiing Monza one can become part of history.

Those who were present in 1988 when, with a couple of laps to go, Ayrton Senna went off leaving the Ferraris of Grhard Berger and Michele Alboreto to finih 1-2, just a few weeks after the death of Enzo Ferrari will probably always believe in the supernatural. They know they are part of the Ferrari legend.

Remembering that day it is easy to feel a little shiver go down the spine. We laughed about ghosts that evening but only because we did not know how else to explain the feelings.

The Autodromo Nazionale is all about ghosts, legends and heroes. Long may it continue to be so.

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