Reflections in the Monza Park

The Autodromo Nazionale di Monza takes up only a very small part of the royal park of Monza and apart from motor racing the park provides relaxation and amusement centres for all sorts of activities, from horse-riding to camping, so that in its overall management the Autodromo authorities do not have a very big say. For some reason there are people who want to alter the Monza track and to add some more corners but this would mean cutting into the forests of trees around the circuit and the park authorities will not hear of it, so the so-called “improvements” to the Monza track have been stopped. Quite why the people concerned want to alter things is not very clear, for there is nothing particularly wrong about the track, but it seems there are people who must change things just for the sake of change. Why they can’t leave Monza alone I don’t know and I just do not see what is so special about today’s Grand Prix world that it requires things to be changed.

The Italian Grand Prix was first run in 1921 on a circuit at Brescia, and in 1922 the Monza track was opened and the Grand Prix took place there on September 10th of that year, and with only three exceptions, 1924, 1931 and 1932, it has always been held in September, usually on the first or second weekend, and since 1922 it has always been at Monza. In 1937, for Fascist political reasons, it was held at Livorno, and in 1947 it was in Milan and 1948 in Turin, the last two occasions being because the Monza Autodromo was being rebuilt after suffering a lot of war damage; in 1949 the Italian Grand Prix returned to Monza and has been held there every year since then without a break.

During the last 22 years the average speed of the race has risen from just over 100 m.p.h. to just over 150 m.p.h. and the length of the race has been reduced by a third from 300 miles to 200 miles. The rebuilding of the Autodromo after the war was completed in 1948, just too late for the Grand Prix to be held there, but in time for the motorcycle Grand Prix of the Nations, and I well recall how impressed I was when we arrived that year to take part in the sidecar race. After the aerodrome circuits of Britain and the temporary atmosphere of races in France, Switzerland and Belgium, the great concrete grandstand, the pits, paddock and entrance gates of Monza presented a wonderful feeling of solidarity and a feeling that racing was back to stay in Italy. And now someone wants to change it all and I bet some idiot soon suggests running the Italian Grand Prix at the Vallelunga circuit near Rome. Monza is synonymous of speed and endurance and that means the Italian Grand Prix to me, not scratching about on some “mickey-mouse” artificial road circuit. It is just 50 years since the first Italian Grand Prix was run and the Italians were very proud of the fact and it was with a feeling of pride that they spoke of this year’s “Gran Premio d’Italia”, unlike the French and the British this year who sold their pride to commercial interests. With 120,000 spectators at this year’s race the Italian organisers were more than solvent, even if lots of people do get in for nothing.

Apart from the racing the public had a racing-car exhibition that they could go into without paying, this show now being an established part of the Italian Grand Prix scene. This year’s show concentrated on cars unconnected with Grand Prix racing so that the racing enthusiast could see things that were completely new to him, such as the first rally-winning Citroën-Maserati SM.

With such a large crowd it was difficult for the latecomers to see anything, and everything that could be climbed was climbed upon and they stood on roofs that were only meant as sunshades and swung from trees and advertising hoardings and almost certainly a lot fell down upon seeing Regazzoni’s meteoric start. After the race the swarthy Swiss was reported as saying: “If you get away gently people say you are asleep; if you get away smartly they say you are jumping the start.” Whatever they said it was the best start we have seen in a long time and must have stretched the official ruling about a race starting when a car crosses the starting line to the absolute limit. It was a great pity his engine blew up because Regazzoni is a good chap to have about in a flat-out blind like the one that went on this year.

On the other hand, the retirement of Ickx was no great loss for the young Belgian lad does not like Monza racing and makes no bones about it; however, unlike some “stars” who want to change everything that they don’t like, Ickx just shrugs about Monza and says: “I race there but I don’t enjoy it.” Apart from some racing drivers there are other people who don’t enjoy Monza and after the race they could he heard moaning about it. The first four cars were covered by a quarter of a second and before the last corner any one of four drivers was a likely winner, and yet these people thought it “wasn’t much of a race”. They say the same thing when Stewart walks away from everyone at Silverstone or the Nurburgring; I sometimes wonder what they consider to be a good race, or perhaps they don’t really like Grand Prix racing and were there by mistake.

While I always enjoy Monza it does not mean to say that I want all races to be like the typical Monza ones. For me the fascination of European Grand Prix racing is the variety of the circuits used and a flat-out blind once a year keeps the engine people on their toes as well as allowing the cut-and-thrust driver to have a real go. Just as we all enjoy the annual scratch round the streets of Monte Carlo once a year we should equally enjoy the Monza track race at over 150 m.p.h., for variety is all-important. When all Grand Prix races are run on clinical, Paul Ricard-like circuits the scene will be very dull indeed.

During practice there was a lot of “slipstreaming” and “towing” going on, some of it of use, much of it wasted, especially when four or five cars got into a bunch, for they would all get in each other’s way. However, they could be useful to a lone car behind them for it could gain speed in their wake, until it caught them up. If it could gain speed down the back straight and up the pits straight and not catch them until after crossing the timing line, it could make a big difference to a single lap time, and it was just this that Pescarolo managed on Friday when he got in his fast lap, and what Schenken was doing on Saturday when Amon used the Brabham to help with his fast lap.

It is difficult to manufacture such situations, you just have to keep your eyes open and watch for them to develop and to do this the drivers were cruising down the back straight at 80 or 90 m.p.h. Over at the pits the timekeepers and pit crews could have no knowledge of what was happening apart from what the stopwatches told them, and while a driver hanging about and waiting his lap time might be as low as 1 min. 45 sec. He might do two or three laps at this pace and then suddenly put one in at 1 min. 23.0 sec. so that the official timekeepers must have had a terrible time sorting out the fast laps from the slow laps, especially as they could never know when a driver was going to dive into someone’s slipstream and try for a quick lap. As Amon explained, you did not gain anything on maximum speed, you still reached peak revs in top gear, but you got up to them more quickly if you were in someone’s slipstream coming on to the back straight.

During the last-minute dice on Saturday afternoon I went over to the back straight to watch, for one of the March people told me Peterson was doing 200 m.p.h. and I felt I must see this. When I got there everyone was cruising by waiting for opportunities and even those who were not looked to be doing about 150 or 160 m.p.h. Then Peterson came by with the March on full song at what I would estimate to be 180-185 m.p.h. When a BRM and the Matra went by they were visibly faster and their estimates of speed was “knocking on 190 m.p.h.”. I think March had got their sums wrong somewhere.

With all the speed, slipstreaming and strain on timekeeping with cars so closely matched it really is time that Monza gave some serious thought to Indianapolis-type qualifying over two flying laps with cars running singly. It would make a marvellous spectacle for the crowds in the grandstands if it was stage-managed properly. The way things are at present the whole affair is a shambles and no one saw Amon do his pole-position lap, apart from the few people who happened to have a stop-watch on him, and none of them saw Ickx do his lap at 1 min. 22.82 sec.

Monza usually produces something new and interesting mechanically as a prelude to the next season, but this year was an exception and it was depressing how many 1970 cars appeared again, Ferrari and McLaren using old cars, while Tyrrell, Surtees and March seemed to take a 1971 backward step. In spite of this, lap speeds were much faster and this can only be attributed to tyre development, for I am sure none of the regular drivers were any more skilled or any braver, and there has not been all that much increase in power outputs. Tyres could improve cornering on the fast Curva Grande and the Lesmo corners and could also improve braking for the Parabolica.

At most of the other races his year the number 1 in the entry list has been left blank as a tribute to Jochen Rindt, the posthumous 1970 World Champion. The Milan Automobile Club omitted to do this and gave Stewart number 1 in the programme, so that when he arrived he was very upset that his friend and neighbour should have been forgotten so soon, and at the track on which he was killed. As a gesture Stewart elected to forego the number 1 and take number 30, at the end of the list, which is why Cevert headed the entry list with number 2 and Stewart was at the end of the list behind Bonnier.

After the race it was interesting to listen to Cevert and Peterson explaining why they did not win, when they started the last lap each confident that he had got it all worked out for victory. During the closing laps Peterson’s March split an exhaust pipe and he told how he was 300 r.p.m. down on maximum due to this. However, he explained that he was able to stay with Cevert by braking harder and later. (Who asked why he was not braking at the maximum before the exhaust pipe split?) He had it worked out that he could pass Cevert’s Tyrrell between the last corner and the finish if necessary, as he had tried it a number of times during the last 15 or more laps. Cevert counteracted by saying that he had a much more powerful engine than Peterson and could pass the March any time he wanted to, but did not intend to show Peterson this until the final sprint (and I thought they were racing “Harry Flatters”!). Cevert’s plan was to lead down the back straight, let Peterson lead into the last corner and pass him on the run-in to the finish by reason of his superior engine. He did not want to lead at the last corner in case Peterson got in his slipstream and “jumped” him at the line.

At this point Peterson asked Cevert why he braked so late into the last corner, because it forced the Swede to brake even later and go sliding wide. Cevert insisted that he had not braked late, and in fact had braked early to lure Peterson by. Seeing the March in a full-lock slide on the outside of the last bend Cevert decided to pass on the inside but at that moment saw his right-hand mirror full of BRM with Gethin really standing on the brakes and also heading for the inside. Thinking he would get run into he moved to the left, nearly collecting Hailwood’s Surtees in the process, and Gethin nipped through to lead the sprint to the finish. Normally he used third gear on the BRM for this corner, revving to 11,500 r.p.m. in third and fourth up the finishing straight. This time he used his very high second gear, which got him out of the corner quicker and helped him to hold the others off in the acceleration match.

After all the explanations by the Frenchman and the Swede I suggested to Gethin that he had been a bit unruly on the last corner. He grinned and said: “They left the door open and there was room for my BRM so I went through.” Then he added: “It was a bit tight, but isn’t that what racing is all about?” My only comment was “good on you, mate”. I may be wrong but I got the impression that neither Peterson nor Cevert fitted Gethin into their calculations, which is strange considering that he appeared from way behind to lead on lap 52 and 53, so they must have known he was about the place. Later when I mentioned to Gethin that Cevert said he had had to move over to avoid an accident, saying (righteously, I thought) that he would rather settle for second place than risk an accident, the Londoner looked all innocent and said: “I thought he’d move over when it got tight.”

That last corner fracas was really rather interesting for in it you could see the characters of the three drivers concerned. Peterson is a charger, with not too much racing intelligence. Cevert is a beautiful young man who is timid and doesn’t want to get hurt, and Gethin is a tough little Londoner who has obviously grown up the hard way. Poor old Hailwood, who was there on the spot, didn’t get a look in, apart from nearly being struck by Cevert’s Tyrrell.

The timekeepers gave a new lap record to Pescarolo in the Williams March 711 in a time of 1 min. 23.8 sec. on lap 9. At this point Pescarolo was in 13th place and dropping back. There is no comment to make except that the timekeepers gave Oliver a lap record in similar circumstances in 1968.—D. S. J.