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What you may not know about Monza

THE Autodromo Nazionale at Monza is in the northern suburbs of Milan, in parkland which once belonged to the Monza royal palace. When it was built in 1922, it was only the third permanent racing circuit in the world, after Brooklands and Indianapolis.

The first stone was laid on February 26, 1922, by racing drivers Vincenzo Lancia and Felice Nazzaro. Two days later conservationists stopped the work and it was not until May that the workmen were able to start again. The construction of the 6.26-miles of tarmac, a high-speed banked oval linked to a road course, was a remarkable affair. It was completed in 100 days - by 3500 workers. The first men to drive the circuit were Nazzaro and another star of the day Pietro Bordino. The official opening took place on September 3, with Italian President Luigi de Facta present to watch Bordino win the first race. A week later 150,000 people turned up to watch the Italian GP. There were six starters and, after 80 laps of racing, three finishers, led home by Bordino.

Monza immediately became one of the great circuits of the world and soon became known as the pista magica - the magic track. Because of its high-speed nature, Monza has always been dangerous and in 1928 witnessed the worst disaster in racing history before Le Mans 1955, when Emilio Materassi's Talbot cartwheeled into the crowd opposite the pits, killing himself and 22 spectators. Three years later Gigione Arcangeli crashed his Alfa in the Lesmo and was hurled to his death, and in 1933 Giuseppe Campari, Baconin Borzacchini and Count Stanislas Czaykowski all died on the same day.

Monza was also the track which killed the great Alberto Ascari in testing in May 1955; Wolfgang Von Trips, who cartwheeled into the crowd in 1961 killing himself and 10 others; World Champion-elect Jochen Rindt in 1970 and the great Ronnie Peterson in 1978. These are just a few of Monza's victims...

Over the years Monza has undergone several facelifts - not least in 1938 when the original banking was pulled down and new grandstands - still standing today - was constructed. When the war came Monza became a military dump and in 1945 played host to an allied tank parade.

Three years later reconstruction began and racing started again. In 1955, new terrifyingly-steep banking was constructed following the route of the original speed-bowl. In 1957 and 1958, Monza hosted the unusual Races of Two Worlds - with American roadsters taking on European Grand Prix cars.

By 1960, however, the great oval was considered too dangerous and all the British teams boycotted the event. Thereafter the banking was not used although it still stands today.

Before chicanes began to arrive Monza used to have remarkable slip-streaming races and it still holds the record for the fastest average speed for a GP - and the closest finish - both in the same event in 1971 when Peter Gethin averaged 150.754mph from start to finish and took the flag just 0.010sec ahead of Ronnie Peterson.

Today the track boasts three chicanes but it remains fast and very popular. The Ferrari fans come in their tens of thousands and in the woods around the track you find countless trees with nails hammered into them which the fans use to scamper to perches in the higher branches.

The mystique of Ferrari is everywhere and those who were present at the 1988 Italian Grand Prix - just a few weeks after the death of Enzo Ferrari - will probably always believe in the supernatural as Ayrton Senna spun out of the lead with a couple of laps to go and left Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto to finish 1-2 for Ferrari. Remembering that day still sends a shiver down the spine. The Autodromo Nazionale at Monza is all about ghosts, legends and heroes...

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