Monza (Autodromo Nazionale)

They call it La Pista Magica - the magic race track - and as soon as you arrive in the old royal park at Monza you know why. The ghosts are there in the woods. The buildings talk of legends and of heroes, of great races and shocking accidents. You can feel your spine tingle with the excitement that emanates from the thousands of tifosi, the Ferrari fans who flock to Monza every year to watch the red cars from Maranello. For them, nothing is impossible. There is always a little magic to help them. Of all the racing tracks in the world this is the one to visit for it the embodiment of the joy and thrill that is always in the background when racing people gather.

You have to forget the bad points - and there are many. The traffic is awful, the pickpockets are busy, the policemen are lazy or frenetic but rarely anything in between. Fans drool at the gates, they jeer at Ferrari's rivals. They have even been known to throw rocks.

But go out into the woods and see the tree trunks with nails hammered into them so that the fans can climb to a perfect viewing point, or stay up all night with them and watch them dance on the track the night before a race and you begin to understand. If you've ever watched John Frankenheimer's movie Grand Prix you will know Monza - it hasn't changed much. It is where Jean-Pierre Sarti's Ferrari goes out of control on the banking and smashes through the trees onto the track below. It is where James Garner stands on the main straight in the early morning on the day after the race, mulling over his victory. The camera pulls gradually and majestically away into the sky.

But it is more than just the passion and the history. Monza is all about the brave. If you sit around long enough in the Formula 1 paddock you will hear people talk about Formula 1 being boring. Wander out along the muddy paths through the woods to the Lesmo corners and you will never again say that F1 is dull.

Monza dates from the years immediately following World War I when the automobile was new and exciting and those who had survived the fighting were keen to live life to the full.

The work began in February 1922 when racing stars Vincenzo Lancia and Felice Nazzaro laid the first stone. Two days later local conservationists stopped the work and it was not until May that the 3500 workmen were able to go back into action. The 6.25-mile track was finished by the end of July. It was an amazing feat. At the time it was only the third permanent racing circuit in the world, after Brooklands and Indianapolis. The first race was in September with Pietro Bordino winning in a Fiat. A week later Monza held its first Italian Grand Prix and 150,000 turned out to see it. Bordino won again. Ever since then the second weekend in September has been the Monza weekend.

The track has been rebuilt on several occasions but the basic design is much as it was. The original flat banking was replaced by the fearsome high banking that can still be seen today, built in 1955 but used for only a few years before drivers began to boycott the event on the grounds of safety. Stand on that banking and you will know why the bravest of the brave lost their nerve. Monza was always a high-speed track and while chicanes have come along to slow the cars and the old days of Monza slip-streaming battles are a thing of the past, the essential element of speed is still there. And when there is such speed there are always accidents.

Until the horrible Le Mans disaster in 1955 Monza was the place where racing's worst accident had occurred, Emilio Materassi crashing his Talbot opposite the pits in 1928, killing himself and 27 spectators. Wolfgang von Trips cartwheeled into the crowd after a brush with Jim Clark in 1961. The German and 13 others died.

In 1933 three top drivers (the opera-loving Giuseppe Campari, his protege Baconin Borzacchini and the Czech aristocrat Count Stanislas Czaykowski) died on the same weekend. In 1955 the sport's top driver Alberto Ascari died at the wheel of a Ferrari sportscar while testing in the corner that now bears his name. No-one knows why. In 1970 Jochen Rindt was on his way to the world championship when a brake failure sent his Lotus smashing into the wall at the Parabolica. He died before they could get him to hospital. Eight years later the start of the Italian Grand Prix ended in a cataclysmic accident as the drivers jockeyed for position on the run down to the first corner. Ronnie Peterson died. The list is long, longer than anywhere else other than Indianapolis.

And yet the track has seen some incredibly heroic moments as well. In 1956 Peter Collins was in a position to win the World Championship in his Lancia Ferrari but 15 laps from the finish, during a routine pit stop, he handed his car over to team leader and rival Juan-Manuel Fangio to let the Argentine take the title. Collins said that he would get his chance another day.

It was at Monza that Niki Lauda returned to racing in 1976 just a few weeks after his fiery accident at the Nurburgring. The frightened, bloodied figure, disfigured by his burns overcame his fears and created a legend.

If you read through the record books you will find that Monza is still - and probably always will be - the venue of the fastest ever Grand Prix and the one with the closest finish - the Italian GP of 1971 when Peter Gethin popped out from behind Ronnie Peterson to cross the line just 0.01sec ahead of Ronnie Peterson after averaging 150.754mph from start to finish. It was the last of the great Monza slipstreamers before the chicanes arrived.

It was at Monza in 1988, a few weeks after Enzo Ferrari's death, that McLaren was beaten for the first and only time that year when Ayrton Senna misjudged a maneuver as he tried to lap the Williams of Jean-Louis Schlesser with only a few laps to go and ended up in the sandtrap, allowing Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto to score an amazing 1-2 finish for Ferrari. That was magic. There is no other explanation.

Monza's fame lies more than anything with Grand Prix racing but the track has long been the venue of other great races, including the famous Monza Lotteria, when the young drivers were able to grab a moment of glory and, perhaps, a Grand Prix drive. The Monza 1000 sportscar race was another classic with stories which could only have happened at Monza. In 1985 the racing had to stop after 800km when the frontrunners arrived to find that a very large tree had been blown down across the track and Hans Stuck tried to convince his fellow drivers that they could lift the tree out of the way and get on with the racing.

Monza was the venue in 1957 and 1958 for a pair of curious Europe versus America races known as The Races of the Two Worlds in which Indycar roadsters battled with Formula 1 cars.

Everywhere you go at Monza there are stories - even in the camp sites. It was in one of these that Frank Williams used to have his head office when he was wheeling and dealing in his early days and where a Ferrari sportscar came over the wall while it was being tested and landed next to his tent.

The track is gradually being upgraded as F1 demands more and more but thankfully the great Monza grandstand remains where it has been since 1938, witnessing the amazing events in the park. In 1945 it was filled with Allied soldiers who watched tanks parade down the main straight. One can only hope that they will never tear it town, nor the curious Pirelli "scoreboard" towers which stand on either side of it.

Stand on the top of one of these - if you can convince someone to let you in - and on a clear day you will be able to see down to the Curva Grande with the Italian Alps visible away to the north and the old Monza banking curling away into the trees and you will get as near as heaven as you can at a motor racing circuit.