A HACK LOOKS BACK

On the Italian Grand Prix

If there had been an Italian among the three FIA stewards who so perversely ruled against Lewis Hamilton at Spa earlier this week, their decision would have been a little more understandable. After all, in recent years Monza hasn't been pulling in the fans like it used to do, and the old place needs a bit of a boost in order to stem the tide of red ink. Perish the thought that any steward - Italian, Greek or Chinese - would have had that in mind when he was considering his verdict, of course. In theory, the prospect of Felipe Massa battling it out with Lewis for the championship lead should have the tifosi pouring through the turnstiles, or at least doing their ingenious best to get in for free. I'm glad I've never had to try it myself, because those guard dogs look a bit fierce. Still, as I may have mentioned before in this little bit of cyberspace, Mario Andretti and the late Michele Alboreto both told me that they had got their first sight of GP racing at Monza after an illicit trip over the wall or under the wire. Mario won there in 1977 but Michele never did.

Monza, with its history and undeniable atmosphere, is exactly the kind of place that any red-blooded F1 fan should visit at least once in his life. It certainly frightened the bejeesus out of me when I went there for the first time in the old pre-chicane days, back in 1969, for an F2 race that involved ferocious but utterly meaningless slipstreaming. Rather appropriately, given that getting a good result depended on timing your final dash to the line correctly, those mid-summer F2 events were sponsored by the Italian state lottery. The previous year, there had been a monumental pile-up on the pits straight after Derek Bell spun his Ferrari Dino while leading and several drivers were cruelly injured. In his book, Derek claims that he didn't know whether the car broke or he had made a mistake. Soon afterwards he was offered a place in the Cooper F1 team in return for signing a long term contract. He declined when he learned that the Cooper management's idea of a suitable figure for a two-year retainer was a nice round five pounds ...

The two F1 races that I reported from the old Monza circuit were among the most closely-contested GPs I ever saw, again because they involved slipstreaming. My memories of the 1970 event are inevitably clouded by the loss of Jochen Rindt on the previous day, not to mention by the apparent callousness of the crowd as they ignored the loss of Rindt and lustily cheered Clay Regazzoni's Ferrari on to the first of his five GP victories. Then, in 1970, those long straights were responsible for a rash of mechanical carnage (20 starters and nine blow-ups), but the 1971 race was blessed with greater reliability. It was usually an advantage to have a 12-cylinder engine at Monza, and on that occasion Peter Gethin got himself into the right place on the last lap to use the acceleration of his BRM to squeak across the line 0.01 second in front of Ronnie Peterson's March and a gaggle of three other cars, all five of them within 0.6 second. I would be interested to know how they timed the gaps on the mechanical stop watches that were used in those pre-electronic days.

The end of the "old" Monza also marked the end of several trade-mark corners, most notably the aptly named right-hand Curva Grande after the pits. It didn't have the three-dimensional grandeur of the Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex at Spa, but it required raw courage and the driver's complete faith in his car's set-up and preparation. I remember asking Billy Ivy - the lovable cockney motorcycle ace whose light shone briefly in F2 racing before being snuffed out at the end of 1969 - how he got on with the Curva Grande after his first run at the circuit. "Which one's that?" he demanded to know. "Right-hander after the pits," I replied.

"Blimey, that dangerous f***er," he snapped back. It was one way of describing it, I suppose.

Monza's management had never been noted for being particularly understanding about circuit safety, as a look at the doleful list of its victims will reveal, but they woke up when Jackie Stewart started making noises about a possible boycott unless something was done. By the time the 1972 Grand Prix rolled around, chicanes had been installed and suddenly everyone discovered that brakes were just as important as a strong engine.

In the intervening years, the chicanes have been constantly changed and relocated. Guard rail came and went, then we got arrester fences and gravel beds. Nothing really helped the quality of the racing, which has always tended to be processional. That's hardly surprising when you look at those straights (they still seem tremendously long) and consider the narrowness of the chicanes. Getting stopped from 200 miles an hour for a 50 mph chicane twice a lap keeps a man so busy that it's asking a lot for him to be trying to overtake someone at the same time. It's even more difficult with the latest mandatory high cockpit sides blocking any side vision at all.

These days, with such closely matched chassis performance and engine reliability much less of a problem than it once was, the nature of the Monza track virtually guarantees a predictable result. Last year, when Alonso won for McLaren-Mercedes, I was delighted to see that Lewis Hamilton hadn't bothered to read the script. Just after the second round of pit stops Lewis pulled off a pretty exciting pass on Kimi Räikkönen, whose neck had been jolted in a crash on Saturday, to regain the second position he'd lost in the pits. Assuming that Kimi will by now have been persuaded to run interference for Felipe Massa, Lewis may find that he has to repeat the performance at some stage on Sunday.

It may also be worth reminding you all that Felipe's record at Monza is less than stellar. In five appearances there he has failed to log a single world championship point. I hope somebody tries to winkle an explanation out of him about his retirement last year, when he disappeared after nine laps with something broken in the rear suspension. Ferrari made the usual excuse that the problem "will have to be analysed," but in fact they already knew that it was their new inerter - part of the so-called 'J-damper' - which had failed. You may be interested to know that this nifty little device, which does away with conventional springs and dampers, was invented by a British boffin at Cambridge University.

By the time Ferrari had cottoned on to the thing last year, McLaren, (who had negotiated an exclusive use agreement with the said boffin) had been using it for more than two full seasons. Knowing that McLaren wanted to keep the device secret from everyone else, Ferrari cynically calculated (correctly, as it happened) that McLaren would prefer to let Ferrari make its own copy without permission rather than make a fuss.

Go and stick that in your pipes, all you rabid Ferrari fans who still naively believe that spying in F1 only goes one way and that Ferrari is oh, so much cleaner than the low-lifes at Woking. Sadly, I won't be at Monza this weekend. I am to be more fruitfully occupied as a removal man for my darling younger daughter as she settles in to the second year at her university on the other side of the country. With a bit of luck, she will appreciate the sacrifice I'm making.

It's only the second time I will have missed out on the Italian GP in 38 years …

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