The Monza Circuit, Italy

Italy and its links to motorsport are entwined with the history of the motorcar, writes Iain Robertson. Utterly free of class consciousness and very much of the people, for the people, while some nations will talk of their ‘chattering classes’, all of Italy resounds to the impact of the Italian GP, with as much fervour as they excite towards soccer, cycling, skiing and the total fascination Italians direct towards Ferrari, on or off-track. Monza is the spiritual home to the ‘tifosi’, an ardent and emotionally open breed of super-fan. Roll out the colours for the Italian Grand Prix!

// The Blur of Park Life

Looked at, in plan form, the Grand Prix circuit of Monza has the appearance of a foot. It could well be the well-placed foot of a modern-day gladiator, ready to depress a roller-bearing throttle pedal. The wonderfully evocative venue has been home to the Italian round of the Formula One World Championship since its inception. Located within the glorious parkland surroundings of the Royal Villa, while open to the general public, it remains an homage to high-test fuel and roaring engines.

In fact, three circuits exist at Monza. The original oval section, now crumbling somewhat, although still highly visible, not just at the south end of the start-finish straight but also by the crossover bridge above the main GP track, was built in 1922, with help from the prestigious Milan Automobile Club. It was part of a weirdly shaped figure-of-eight that measured around 6.2 miles in track length.

A smaller, Junior Circuit, with a lap of less than 1.5 miles, is available, when the GP circuit is not required. However, the 3.6 miles of modern GP track take in the key features of both old and new circuits, with very minor alterations having taken place over the past ninety years. Many of its key elements have names that are steeped in both local and broader motor racing lore. Curva Grande. Curva di Lesmo. Varianti Ascari. Curva Parabolica. Just to hear them pronounced in that typical Italian way, with their extended vowels and languid ‘aa’s’ is enough to send a shiver of Latin romanticism up your otherwise rigid spine.

More on lapping the circuit momentarily, as I do want to explore the region and the circuit’s past in more detail, starting with the former. For years, I have pondered over the Italian fascination for the colour red. Blood red. Wine red. Perhaps it has as much to do with Roman heritage, as it does with viticulture?

// In The Alpine Shadow

While the City of Rome is located some distance south of this part of Italy, its influence over western civilisation is already well documented. Yet, it remains almost inconceivable that just one major township could carry such a massive impact over so many other nations. The Gauls (nowadays known as ‘the French’) used to venture over the natural barrier of The Alps to populate the area that was called Mediolanum (the Roman name for what has become Milan). They were referred to as ‘Insubres’ and they founded the village on the Lambro River, which would become Monza. It took until the third century before the Romans were able to ‘subdue’ the Insubres.

It was not until the sixth century that the warring Germanic tribe, the Lombards, claimed the region as their own and maintained control for the next few hundred years, until the arrival of the Viscontis in the 12th century. After King Berengar was crowned emperor in 915, using the iron crown of Lombardy, the town was fortified against Hungarian incursions. Monza’s importance grew during this period and it became a major financial and political centre, although its Germanic connections remained very strong.

The first signs of Visconti control at Monza took place with the demolishing of the city’s walls in 1322. So comprehensive was the task that nothing remains of the original structures. The Italianisation of the area was now taking place with somewhat greater effect. However, as a measure of the vast number of principalities and communes that existed at the time and still exist across Italy today, albeit in somewhat different form, Monza was important enough to operate its own mint and issue its own coinage.

Interestingly, after the War of the Spanish Succession, in 1713, the Duchy of Milan, which included Monza, was assigned to the Austrian House of Habsburg. It was an especially productive period, with sizable developments taking place in arable farming and craftworks. The Royal Villa of Monza, built for Ferdinand, the governor of Milan and son of the Emperor, was built towards the end of the 18th century. Its location was chosen for the sheer beauty of the area, as well as its strategic connections with Vienna (Austria) and its closeness to Milan.

Built within the walls of the parkland is today’s racing circuit. However, Napoleon Bonaparte of France, who carried out his conquest of northern Italy in 1796, purchased the Duchy of Milan, renaming it as part of the Cisalpine Republic, although it became the Italian Republic from 1802. Perceived as a symbol of the aristocracy, Monza’s Royal Villa was sold and was intended to be demolished. Fortunately, local resistance ensured that it remained intact, although abandoning it did mean that nature played a role in its early denigration.

In 1805, Bonaparte having declared himself Emperor, Monza was declared an Imperial City. The Villa was saved and used by both pre- and post-Bonaparte governors. Ironically, the Germanic links remained open, right up to the end of the Second World War in 1945, the town itself suffering terrible damage from bombs and local skirmishes. Yet, Monza’s importance meant that it grew significantly from a number of major building works and its post-war, industrial revival development was substantial.

// Racing at Monza

Fortunately, the core fabric of Monza, while it was dented, has been repaired and renovated tastefully over the years. The city offers a great attraction to tourists, while the park provides a focal point for visitors and local people, with concerts, events and many activities taking place throughout the year.

Monza’s links to Indycar racing, while not as close today, were incredibly strong in the late-1950s, when the banked oval aspect of the layout was very much in use. In fact, the Automobile Club of Italy organised a series of 500-mile races that, despite their ‘exhibition’ status, were intended to draw together the ‘Race Of Two Worlds’, pitting Indy cars against F1 and sports cars of the period. They became referred to as a ‘Monzanapolis Series’.

Just as today’s racing cars place special demands on Pirelli Tyre Company, in 1957, Firestone, the primary supplier, had to make reinforced sidewalls to tolerate flat-out operation on Monza’s bumpy surfaces and the notably rough ride provided by the steeply banked section. The Americans were victorious at their first outing. Jimmy Bryan, Kuzma-Offenhauser Dean Van Lines Special, and Troy Ruttman, Watson-Offenhauser John Zink Special, won the first two races. In the following year, despite Jaguar, Ferrari and Maserati putting up a stronger defence, Jim Rathmann took each of the three race wins in his Watson-Offenhauser car.

However, this combination of ultra-high speeds and excessive demands on the cars and drivers led to a death tally that had become intolerable. Yet, it is the tifosi, who gather at the circuit, who genuinely bay for blood to be spilled. I repeat my earlier question; is it the blood or wine that makes red such a popular colour in Italy? Over the years, no less than 52 drivers and 35 spectators have died at Monza.

While F1 cars used to circulate the banked element of Monza, perhaps one of the most infamous demises of a renowned driver came with the death of Wolfgang von Trips in 1961. Driving a Ferrari, the talented, much-liked and aristocratic German came to grief following a collision with Jim Clark’s Lotus. Clark reported, at the time, that von Trips had clashed lightly with one of his car’s wheels, on the approach to the banked section, at the southern end of the circuit.

It started a sequence of tragic events, as the Ferrari spun twice, before connecting with the guardrail on the inside of the track. It spiralled back into Clark’s path. The resultant collision set it spinning upwards and it bounced into the crowd. Both driver and fifteen ardent fans were killed….

Von Trips had established a kart racing circuit at Kerpen, in Germany, a place that would become instrumental in the development of both brothers, Michael and Ralf Schumacher, in their racing careers. Von Trips had been on such a fantastic winning streak that the World F1 Championship title would have been his property in that hatefully fateful year. It took 31 years before Michael became the next German to win a GP (Belgium 1992). The banking at Monza ceased to be used competitively after 1969.

// Lapping Monza

Making my (non-competitive) debut at Monza was a thrill beyond all others. On an open circuit, issued with careful instructions not to ‘stuff it’, as there were no marshals about to clear up any subsequent mess, the initial burden of keeping my pace at a low ebb proved impossible.

Monza is an incredibly fast track. It has been resurfaced over the years, an effort that has removed much of the roughness, for which it was renowned. Added kerbs, new run-off areas and the squeezing of the entries to chicanes, designed to slow the cars and the drivers’ enthusiasm for out-braking their rivals, have actually done very little to curb the speeds.

The bulk of the layout consists of long, engine-buzzing straights and tight chicanes, which combine to place huge strains and stresses on transmissions and chassis set-ups. Get the gearing wrong and the lap will be slow. Reduce the downforce and the lap will be skittery, to say the least. For well over 80% of every lap, the engine will be at full-throttle, which poses durability issues and places the potential of longevity into question, which can factor in lost grid places and even fines.

Most of this weekend’s combatants will feature low-drag set-ups on their cars, because there are only three proper bends on the circuit, linked by the aforementioned series of straights. Long-gearing means especially high speeds and an F1 car will reach its maximum on the start-finish straight, of around 340kph (210mph). The first deviation is the Variante del Rettifilo, which demands downshifts from seventh to first gears to negotiate the flick-right-left chicane with any confidence.

There is a safety run-off area on the approach to Rettifilo, which the marshals watch closely, to ensure that it is not used as a short-cut. If Spa was anything to go by, last weekend, there is likely to be a minor pile-up here. Yet, for the drivers managing to weave their ways through this needle’s eye of a chicane, which features particularly severe kerbs to discourage leaping over them, keeping wheelspin in check will be vital.

With Rettifilo disappearing behind, the cars enter the Curva Grande, which is flat and continues never-endlingly to the right. The next deviation, Variante della Roggia, is a hard-braking, slow-in to the left, followed by a fast-out to the right. However, the approach to Roggia creates a temptation to out-brake and carry out last minute overtakes. Of course, it is dodgy ground and it is not unknown for the very best to remove the Pirelli tyre branding against the right-hand section of Armco.

After a short straight, the first of the Lesmo bends, effectively a 90-degree right-hander, hoves into view, connected by another brief straight to Lesmo 2, another not-as-tight right-hander. Fortunately, there is a small run-off area to the left side of the circuit, which is just as well for the braver overtaker. The circuit then continues slightly uphill, the only incline at Monza, through the flat-out Curva del Serraglio, which is the gentlest of left-hand bends. It then courses back downhill to pass beneath the old banked circuit overpass and exceptionally hard braking in readiness for the infamous Variante Ascari.

Spectators report that this left-right chicane is one of the most exciting to view at close quarters, because of the speeds carried through the bends. Another long straight will create an inevitable drag race between rivals, as they prepare themselves for the tight, almost hairpin-like, right-hand entry to Curva Parabolica, where the old banked circuit also rejoins the GP track, over the drivers’ left shoulders as they accelerate out of it.

Having returned to the exceptionally wide Rettifilo Tribune, or the start-finish line, survivors can continue to tell the tale of their next and subsequent laps. Not the most challenging of circuits, in terms of features, Monza’s history and the sheer speeds generated are what keep the tifosi contented and ensure a genuine spectacle of gladiatorial proportions.