A HACK LOOKS BACK

Monza

History hangs heavy over Monza, much as it does over ancient cathedrals or battlefields. Here in the Royal Park, the Kings of Lombardy once hunted deer and wild boar, in between fighting bloody local turf wars. The road circuit was first used for racing in 1922, and it has been the scene of every world championship Italian GP since 1950, except for just one edition held at Imola in 1980. This superfluity of tradition lends a tangible solemnity to the parkland and its much venerated race track.

Not for a moment would I suggest that there is an air of foreboding this year, at least not enough to silence the bird song in the sacrosanct forest trees, although I suspect that one way or another we're going to see some startling racing history made in the course of the next few days.

It remains to be seen whether the momentous events which I am anticipating will take place on the Milanese track or over a conference table in Paris. McLaren and Ferrari are doubtless limbering up for both confrontations, with Ferrari well ahead in the running for race success, at least if we look at the statistics. Since 1950 the Scuderia has won 17 times at home, twice as many wins as McLaren (eight) and Williams (six). This is also one of only five GP venues at which Fernando Alonso has yet to climb to the top step of the podium.

If you like cliches, then to describe Monza as a "cathedral of speed" does have a certain resonance. There's something romantic about knowing that aspiring would-be champions once found their way, illegally, into the place. Back in the early Fifties an impoverished refugee kid named Mario Andretti famously got in under the wire to see his hero Alberto Ascari in action, and I remember Michele Alboreto telling me how he once managed to get in without paying. He was so impressed with the driving of Ronnie Peterson that he would later adopt the Swedish colours for his own helmet. For some reason the Italians describe the illegal intruders as "Portuguese," presumably from some ancient military grudge. Driving into the park on race day mornings I always wonder if one of the agile youths climbing over the old moss-clad walls and trying to evade the stick-wielding guards might one day be a championship contender.

Many of the once familiar landmarks of the place have gone forever. When I first went there, in 1970, it seemed only right that the cars should be tended in the cramped old concrete garages, if only because that had been where the likes of Campari, Caracciola, two generations of Ascaris and so many others had once instructed their mechanics (no race engineers then) to adjust tyre pressures and richen the mixture by tweaking carburettors. How many of this year's spectators even know what a carburettor is (or, more accurately, was)?

On the face of it, as a race track Monza doesn't have much going for it. It's very fast, of course, and uncomfortably narrow in places, but the difficulties presented by the famously named original corners like the Lesmos and Ascari (that's where two-times World Champion Alberto crashed to his death in 1955) are overshadowed by the three chicanes introduced for the 1972 race. These require good brakes of the car and sheer bravery from the driver, a commodity which seems almost as unfashionable today as the good old carburettor. There have been some changes this year at the second chicane, long overdue, and I hope very much that the new run-off area there will prevent some of the silly collisions which have blighted races too often in recent years.

Sad to say, the combination of high speeds, personal commitment and tradition don't always add up to great racing. Overtaking here is too risky at what is always a critical point in the season that the event frequently becomes a parade. I still remember the GP here when the only driver creative enough to dare to overtake throughout 90 brain-numbing minutes was Johnny Herbert, who made an honest attempt to outbrake Ralf Schumacher at the first chicane. The unfortunate Johnny's reward was one of the longest, scariest high-speed spins I ever saw.

I had the dubious pleasure of seeing two Italian GPs run on the old pre-chicane circuit. It horrified me in 1970 to see the crowd chanting "Reg-a-zzo-nee" as their new Ferrari idol sped towards his first ever F1 victory, apparently ignorant of the fact that my friend Jochen Rindt, the leader of the championship, had perished less than 24 hours before in a particularly gruesome collision with the incompetently aligned guard rails at the Parabolica. When I walked into the Motoring News offices on Monday morning, however, I was even more aghast to discover that the headline for my race report, already on the page layout, was also "Reg-a-zzo-nee" and that I was instructed not to mention Rindt's name in my report: that bit of negative news was reserved for a short obituary which would appear on half a page near the back. The paper's management, I suddenly realised, was every bit as callous as the tifosi.

Although nobody got killed in the 1971 race, that was a matter more of luck than good judgment after a slipstream thriller which would set a record for the fastest-ever GP at 151.6mph. The record stood until Michael Schumacher set a new mark of 153.875mph, also at Monza, in 2003. It took 32 years, but the chicanes have obviously been a failure! I was always glad in 1971 that the amiable and stylish Peter Gethin happened to be the bloke who got the nose of his BRM in front on the lap that mattered, but it could well have been one of the four other blokes who crossed the line within less than a second of him. In those days, driving at close quarters required an understanding between competitors which disappeared from F1 with the arrival of the assassin-driver complex with which we're all now familiar.

BRM's sleek P160 was undoubtedly the best car at the end of that 1971 season. Sadly, team boss Louis Stanley failed completely to learn the lesson that pride comes before a fall. Somehow he managed to overlook the fact that his team was already overstretched, as anyone could deduce from the preparation failure which sent Jo Siffert crashing to a fiery death in his BRM at Brands Hatch a few weeks after Gethin's Monza win. Undaunted, "Lord" Louis went off to do a deal with a new sponsor (Marlboro cigarettes) under which he promised to run no fewer than five red-and-white cars in 1972. They managed a fluke victory in the rain at Monaco, but the pressure on the hard-pressed staff soon told as BRM collapsed into near-anarchy.

It's interesting to see that Marlboro is still skulking on the fringes of F1. Italy was the first European country to introduce laws forbidding tobacco sponsorship of sport, but Italian legislators have never been anything but pragmatic. This explains why, instead of prosecuting teams which wanted to compete in their full fag packet livery, they merely sent a nice man from the ministry into the paddock, where for many years he went round the motorhomes collecting fines calculated according to a strict schedule of offences. I know that the Marlboro name won't be visible on the Ferraris or their drivers this weekend, but it would be interesting to know if the man from the ministry will be visiting Jean Todt to discuss the appearance on Italian TV of Marlboro-branded Ferraris at certain overseas races earlier this year.

But let's hurry away from such negative meanderings.

I have mixed personal memories of Monza, and especially of the 1970 race which would prove so painful. I had arrived at the circuit on Thursday to receive a message that Denny Hulme wasn't at all happy about something I'd written and he wanted to see me. Given that Denny's gruffly uncompromising attitude had earned him the title of "The Bear" (with a sore head implicit in there somewhere), I somehow knew that I wasn't going to enjoy the encounter. Nevertheless, I headed off to the McLaren area of the paddock, where the team had installed a rented motorhome. Denny, I was told, was topping up his tan on the roof.

I was left in no doubt that a piece I had written in MN's news pages that week was not so much misguided as contrived by the insider who had planted the story on the gullible reporter that I then was. Much to my amazement, though, Denny quietly pointed out where I had gone wrong and gave me his home number, just in case I needed to double-check anything with him in future. We remained on such good terms that he never turned bear-like with me. On a couple of occasions when his pal Eoin Young was unable to do Denny's personal column, the job was entrusted to me. After Denny retired from F1 racing in 1975, I made a rare call to him at home. The upshot was an invitation to spend a morning with him at his house in St George's Hill, Weybridge, chatting into a tape recorder. He was in a wonderfully reflective mood and it is one of the greatest regrets of my years as a reporter that I managed to lose that tape.

Having trashed a cigarette company earlier in this piece, I must confess right here and now that I spent the 1972 and 1973 seasons in cigarette livery myself as I divided my time, not without some pangs of conscience, working weekends as F1's first uniformed PR man with the JPS Lotus team before slipping into civvies on Mondays and nipping down to the Autosport printers, where I helped to put the news pages together.

Those were wildly successful years for Lotus, with Emerson Fittipaldi winning the championship in 1972. He clinched the title with a thoroughly conclusive victory at Monza, where I proved to be less than capable of handling the post-race press onslaught. We gave the TV channels first rights, inside what seemed at the time to be a very luxurious paddock motorhome, but with time slipping by and the print media getting impatient, a certain amount of hammering on doors ensued. One over-emotional Brazilian journalist got on to the roof, where he burst into tears and accused me of deliberately denying him access to Emerson. "You will not let me talk to him because I come from a third world country," he wailed. The worst thing about being in PR is that you can't satisfy everyone, regardless of how hard you work. I was glad to get back to full-time journalism in 1974.

When the BBC secured its first permanent contract with Bernie Ecclestone to televise GP races in 1979, I was invited to join the crew as Murray Walker's lap charter and spotter. The word 'crew' is a bit laughable now, given that at some races there were only three of us (a producer plus Murray and me). The numbers increased when James Hunt joined us after his sudden retirement in 1979, and then we got a sound man in to make sure that our land lines were secure and working. Today, ITV sends a couple of dozen people to every race, and the penalty for their excellent coverage is of course the retrograde step of inflicting commercials on the viewer.

Yes, we're supposed to get used to the ad breaks. But they don't interrupt football matches or World Cup Rugby, so why should F1 fans have to put up with it? Even though this year's MotoGP races have been disappointingly processional, you'll know what bliss it is to be watching on BBC and not to have the event interrupted every ten minutes to advertise products which real fans will instinctively shy away from buying. Perhaps I am the only telly spectator who wants to boycott the sponsors who spoil the races with their tawdry and repetitive advertising ...

Lap charting for Murray at Monza was always a delightful experience. Instead of being cooped up in a tiny box with a heavily restricted view of the track, we sat in wide-angle lapchart-friendly splendour at the back of the grandstand overlooking the start-finish line and the pits. Getting over there could be a hairy experience because it involved descending into a tunnel which was under constant assault from noisy race fans without the appropriate credentials. The entrance to the tunnel was guarded by dark-jowled carabinieri armed with batons which they didn't hesitate to use, and not all of them seemed to recognise a press credential.

It was while waiting to get into the tunnel after a race about 15 years ago that some light-fingered rascal managed to pick my pocket so delicately that I didn't feel a thing. I suppose it could just as easily have happened in England or Spain, but somehow losing my wallet in Italy seemed to be part of the Monza experience.

Should you go? Of course you should. Monza is just as much a part of F1 racing as Monaco, and every true race fan should experience the thrill of seeing the drivers build up speed to well over 200 mph before slamming down through the gears for a 50 mph chicane. Take my advice, though, and make sure before you go that you've got some sturdy ear defenders and a money belt. You won't regret it.

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