FEATURE

Why I look forward to ... the Italian Grand Prix

No circuit in Europe has the combination of history, atmosphere and sheer speed which you will find at Monza. It has been the home of Italian motor racing since the early Twenties, and, in the 38 years that I have been attending it, the Italian GP race has been held, with one exception, at the ochre-coloured autodromo in the magnificent Parco Reale (Royal Park) north of Milan which was once a huge private hunting estate for the kings of Lombardy. That exception was in 1979, when the race transferred to Imola, where Ferrari has influence. In typical Italian style, the dilemma of accommodating Imola as well as Monza on the calendar was neatly sorted out by inventing a second race with a spoof name (the GP of San Marino) just for the rival circuit.

If you're into Italian culture, or the food and wine, as most journalists are, tricks like that suit us fine. I can easily manage two trips to Italy per year, and Monza is full of memories. Not all of them are happy, of course, but I will never forget the first time I went there, which was for a Formula 2 race in 1969. Perhaps the most exciting F2 driver of the year was Billy Ivy, a pugnacious motorcyclist who was getting bored with two wheels and wanted to copy his mate Mike Hailwood by switching to cars.

Billy bought a Brabham, got himself a good mechanic and immediately impressed everyone with his uncanny speed and lightning fast reaction times. Monza was only his third or fourth race, so he was anxious to start practice and his car was therefore the first in line when the track opened. As he drove out of the paddock there was a man waiting to take his scrutineering ticket, which he handed over. He trundled down to the end of the pit lane, where there was another man ... who also demanded Billy's scrutineering ticket.

Our hero was already pumped, and now he was steaming. It didn't help that his blonde curls overflowed his crash helmet, and the second ticket collector may have imagined that he was dealing with a rather girly driver. Big mistake. Billy leaped out and tried to reason with Signor Jobsworth, who foolishly jostled him. Billy's mechanic stepped in, punches were exchanged, and as my race report for Motoring News recorded, "the score was very quickly England 2, Italy 0." Billy, however, was shown a red card and not allowed to race.

Alas, Billy couldn't resist the offer of a big payday to ride a few more bike races, and later that year he was killed when his Jawa seized on him in East Germany, as two-strokes tended to do in those days. At his funeral, the church was packed with mourners, among them a dozen mini-skirted young women all looking at each other with daggers drawn in their eyes, almost as if none of them had been aware of each other's interest in the late curly-haired dynamo.

Monza has seen some grisly crashes of its own, involving both cars and bikes. Among the great racers who perished in the park were Alberto Ascari (1955), Jochen Rindt (1970) and Jarno Saarinen (1973), a much-loved bike racer from Finland who inspired Mr and Mrs Trulli of Pescara to perpetuate the name when their son was born the following year. In the unlikely event that Master Trulli gets his Toyota across the line in front of everyone on Sunday, he will be the first Italian to win the Italian GP since Ludovico Scarfiotti in 1966.

There would probably have been many more deaths at Monza if the infamous banking had continued to be used. It was a post-war addition to the track in 1955, intended to allow Indianapolis-type cars to race in Europe, and in 1957 the "Race of Two Worlds" - the first of two - attracted a goodly selection of top Americans in their Offy-engined roadsters.

The flaw in the whole plan was that someone had taken a few liberties with the architect's plans when building the banking (or is it possible that some of the budget disappeared into the wrong pocket?), and it was not constructed symmetrically. The result was that there were some horrific bumps which made lapping the track at over 180 mph a pure lottery. It was nothing more than good luck which saved Stirling Moss from crashing to his death when his Maserati Special broke its steering. Subsequently the British F1 teams actually tried to boycott the banking, which mercifully wasn't used after 1960.

In recent times, a bunch of muddle-headed romantics have mounted a campaign to have the banking (now in ruins) rebuilt in its former "glory." This reminds me of those classic car magazines which publish cover stories on how to restore horrid old things, like the Jensen-Healey sportscar which I briefly used while working on Motor magazine in the Seventies. Forget it, boys, it was hatefully bad when it was new, and no amount of TLC is ever going to turn it into something you would want to drive today.

Let's remember Monza, then, for some of those historic moments, many of them associated with outright speed. There was the famous 1971 GP which Peter Gethin won for BRM at an average of 151.6mph, beating Ronnie Peterson by the thickness of the red paint on the Swede's March, with three others just inches behind. The dangers were obvious - and by the following year the dear old place had been infected with the chicanes that are still there today, albeit in a different form.

The chicanes demand accurate braking at three points on the circuit, dragging speed down from 225 mph to as little as 80 mph, but Gethin's record was never safe. Increased power and vastly improved tyres allowed Michael Schumacher to average 153.875mph in 2003, and the following year Juan Pablo Montoya lapped the 3.6 miles in 1m19.525s, an average speed of 162.968 mph, to become the fastest-ever one-lap qualifier. He did it in a Williams, too.

Then there were the moments of high emotion, like Niki Lauda's appearance, head swathed in bandages, just six weeks after his life-threatening accident at the N?rburgring in 1976. Amazingly, he finished fourth. There were tears and recriminations after Ronnie Peterson, a three-time Monza winner, crashed at the start in 1978, and tears of a different kind when Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto took an unexpected 1-2 for Ferrari in 1988, barely a month after the death of Enzo Ferrari. It was the only race of the season that McLaren-Honda failed to win.

There were tears, too. The TV cameras caught Mika Hakkinen hiding in a bush and blowing into his hanky after he had crashed out in 1999 (he thought he had lost any chance of the title, though he was to snatch it out of Schumacher's grasp). One year later, in the post-race press conference, Michael Schumacher's eyes misted over when someone reminded him that he had just equalled Ayrton Senna's tally of F1 wins.

Despite such moments, perhaps some of the magic has deserted Monza in recent years, with the extensive pre-race testing allowing engineers and drivers to find their cars' best settings in advance, which discourages overtaking. Certainly the fans have been staying away in alarming numbers, and last year's crowd was said to be 60,000, a record low. In fact, even that looked like an over-estimate to me. One reason is the high cost of tickets, although it is also felt in Italy that race-goers are no longer in tune with Michael Schumacher, or, by extension, with Ferrari. If the stories about his plans are true, perhaps they'll be back this year to wish him farewell.

We must therefore hope for better things on Sunday. I understand that the circuit authorities have done some extensive resurfacing for this year's race, without bothering to tell anyone in advance. It is possible, of course, that the Monza people deliberately forgot to mention the resurfacing because they knew that this would discombobulate the tyre companies, and the confusion might give the race a bit of interest. It has, after all, been rather a predictable affair for several years now ...

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