Our second series of track tests starts with the grand-father of Grand Prix racing. Andrew Frankel heads to Italy and discovers all is not well at Monza.
Monza. No word in racing has a more bitter-sweet taste. Monza. The oldest Grand Prix circuit of all, faster than Spa, more lethal than the Nurburgring.
Above all, it’s a place of contradiction. Go there and the ghosts come at you in a way I have never felt at any other state-of-the-art Grand Prix facility. Go to Silverstone today and it’s hard to connect the concrete and steel with Gonzalez delivering that fatal blow to Alfa-Romeo’s racing career in 1951. Even at Spa it’s hard for your mind to hear Jim Clark’s Lotus screaming around the circuit in 1963, starting eighth and finishing five minutes ahead of anyone else, unless you head out beyond the Armco and gravel, out to Bumenville, Masta and Stavelot.
Monza is not like this. Though there have been 14 different configurations in its 77-year history, the shape of the circuit today follows the line of the 1922 original with almost incongruous accuracy. Now of course there are chicanes and all the comers have been reprofiled over the years but the essential character, the essence of the circuit, has been harmed only by the introduction of two chicanes. No other used today for Formula One save, and only at a pinch, Monaco, can say so much.
And Monza, believe me, speaks to you. It tells a tale as tragic as it is triumphant, one of incredible heroics and of appalling loss. Monza is an enigma, a place from the past that never got off the bus. Like I said, it is a place of contradiction.
Nowhere is this more obvious than on the banking. The very mention of the famed, arcing oval that, on four occasions was incorporated into the Italian Grand Prix, is enough to widen the eyes of any enthusiast and the thought of Fangio pounding to victory in the Mercedes W196, Moss in a Maserati 250F or the Ferrari-borne Phil Hill is already the stuff of legend. What is curious, therefore, is just how little it was liked at the time.
The most telling example of this is that, in 1960, the British works teams were so appalled about returning to the banking for the first time since 1956 that they (Cooper, Lotus and BRM) issued a joint ultimatum decreeing that unless the race reverted to using just the traditional road circuit, they would boycott the meeting. Faced with losing the teams that were, respectively, first, second and fourth in the championship, the Italians pursued the only logical course available and told the British what they could do with their ultimatum, simultaneously saving Ferrari the ignominy of failing to win a single race all season and providing the venue for the last ever victory of a front-engined Formula One car.
The teams disliked the banking even more than the drivers. It made tyre choice nightmarish as the requirements and relative wear-rates of traditional Grand Prix track and banked oval bore no relation to each other at all. More worryingly, the banking was (and is) profoundly bumpy, pummelling drivers who had little choice but to sit there at, or very close to maximum speed in a car suffering shocks and lateral forces it was never designed to absorb, waiting for something to break. When Stirling Moss drove the Maserati Eldorado special in the Monzanapolis’ Race of Two Worlds in 1958, he describes the moment when his steering snapped on the banking at over 160mph as “a very frightening moment, probably my worst ever.” Given who was doing the talking and some of the scrapes he survived, this is indeed saying something.
And yet. There has always been an indescribable magic about the banking. It made Monza the fastest F1 circuit in the world, leapfrogging both Reims and Spa in terms of lap-times, offering the drivers of the day a challenge only those few who has driven at Montlhery or Brooklands before the war could appreciate.
Today it seems impossibly long ago. The last Grand Prix to use it was the tragic 1961 race and though the reports in the international press suggesting it was responsible for the death of Von Trips and 14 spectators could scarcely have been less accurate, the tide had turned against the banking. Sportscars used it on and off during the remainder of the 1960s but, save for a few record attempts in the early ’70s, there’s been no competition on the banking for 30 years.
Yet, incredibly every inch of it survives.
It’s a long slog to Monza from Calais. Before the fire, you’d have headed for the South of France, speared left at Macon, skimmed the side of Geneva before crossing the border at Cormayeur, at the exit of the now scorched Mont Blanc tunnel. A quick sprint down the autostrada to Aosta and onto Milan would bring you to the Villa Reale park which houses the circuit in a comfortable day’s drive. Now the route takes you past Reims, to Metz and Strasbourg where you cross the Rhine into Germany, heading south for Switzerland and the San Gotthard tunnel. You enter Italy on the northern shores of Lake Como and continue south to Milan, around its hateful tangenziale and onto Monza.
Now it’s probably a ten hour drive even if you stop as rarely and swiftly as possible and you’re in a car as capable and comfortable as our BMW 328Ci coupe. We cruised at an indicated 100mph in France, flogged down the autobahnen as fast as it would go (a genuine, impressive 150mph) and crawled through Switzerland at 80mph, terrified of its traffic police whose intolerance and lack of humour is legend among itinerant motoring journalists.
It was, however, all worth it. Within minutes of arriving, we were in the company of Signor Daniele Galbiati, Monza’s track director. Galbiati is clearly something of a hero here as even the surly security guards have his name monogrammed on their shirts. He was born within the park and has lived all his life here; compared to Galbiati, those who have won Grands Prix here hardly know the place at all. For every one of the old photographs we show him, however obscure or obscured, he can tell us, to the foot, where it was taken.
There is, however, a problem. “I can take you anywhere, show you everything and you can drive fast for as long as you like, but you cannot drive round the banking. Sorry.” Daniele’s words hit between the eyes. “But, Signor, we have driven from London for this. When we spoke on the telephone you said driving on the banking would be alright. This is the fax I sent in confirmation.”
The excuse, it has to be said, is good. A small hurricane had hit Monza the week before and while they had cleared the downed trees from the Grand Prix circuit, work needed to modify the main track after Schumacher’s crash at Silverstone meant they had not yet found the time to clear the debris from the banking.
Moreover, Galbiati is being pessimistic. When he says we cannot drive around the banking, he does not mean we cannot drive on it. The South Curve is littered with fallen trees but the North Curve is sufficiently clear right around to the iron railings that prevent souvenir hunters removing yet more of the crumbling track.
But first you walk around it. In the first few hundred yards its almost too much to take in, this abandoned shrine to racing’s greatest, hidden from view within one of the most modem race tracks on earth. The banking acts as an acoustic barrier and, as you walk along its base, all is quiet. You notice first the yellow line, put there to denote where the slower cars should place themselves when Fangio was coming past, high up by the armco at the top. That barrier remains and while it is being partly reclaimed by the forest, you can still see where it has been clouted by drivers who made a mistake or, more likely, drove cars that simply broke.
The surface is phenomenally rough and the fissures in the concrete make you shudder to think of the flimsy machines that shot along its length. And it is very steep, 38 degrees to be precise. I, however, could not help running, stumbling and crawling to the very top; I’d found one of the old marshal’s posts there and was desperate to see the view. Sadly, while the ladder the marshal would have teetered up to assume his position remained, it was in the raised position and had long since become welded by rust to its mountings. Descending again was less easy and if I simply say it took ten minutes and was so undignified I rendered an entire group of local schoolchildren incapable with laughter, you’ll perhaps permit me to spare you the details. Suffice to say, there was a brief moment when I thought the prize for the least heroic injuries ever suffered on the banking would be mine.
The next time I went up above the yellow line, I made sure I was in the BMW I discovered that the difficulty in driving around the banking as fast as possible is second only to driving around it as slowly as possible. At 40mph, it’s a nightmare, as the track banks right you have to steer hard left to stand a chance of maintaining altitude; it is a most unnatural way to drive. At 60mph it’s rather better and at 80mph, the angle of the curve and that of the banking cancel each other out and, were it not for the hideous bumps, you could take your hands off the wheel.
It’s best, however, above 100mph and above the yellow line, a speed and a place where the BMW starts to feel settled on its suspension and its driver aware of the forces going through its chassis. So good is the springing that the bumps and splits in the surface are soaked away as you hurtle round the curve. Only the need to descend and stop before the metal railings prevented me from going faster. Besides, how it would have felt above 160mph in a Maserati 250F is perhaps best left to the imagination.
Off the banking, the track today is a world away from all this. But while it smooth, fast and every inch the thoroughly modem Grand Prix facility, it’s hard to spend much time there without thinking of Rindt and Von Trips who both died, the latter along with 14 spectators, at the entrance to the Parabolica. Nor do the memories of Peterson and Campari stay far away as you make your way through some of the most famous corners in history: Lesmos, Curva Grande and Ascari, named after perhaps the quickest driver of his day whose life was also claimed here. Many less famous fell here, most tragically Emilio Materassi who crashed in 1928, killing himself and no less than 28 innocent bystanders.
But that is now all in the past and now the only horror of this place today is the threat that the banking is going to be pulled down. No-one seems quite sure why it’s necessary though even Galbiati admits the money needed to restore it simply does not exist. To be honest, so decayed is the structure, it would need to be rebuilt. But that’s no justification for destroying it, nor is the fact that certain people would make money from its demolition. It may not have been wildly popular in its day but nor, you will find, were places like the Nurburgring or the old Spa. By and large, people tended not to want to drive on circuits that could kill them.
This does not matter any more. The banking is part of our motor racing heritage and to destroy it would be an appalling act of vandalism. You can scarcely round a corner in Italy without stumbling across a monument preserved for the country and yet they seek to destroy the very fabric of the home of Italian motor-racing.
In February 1922 Vincenzo Lancia and Felice Nazzaro laid Monza’s foundations only for the entire project to be almost scuppered by complaints of the threat to “artistic and monumental value and landscape conservation.” It delayed the start of work until May. Monza was then completed by 3500 workers in 110 days flat. Since then it has held more Grands Prix than any other venue, hosted the fastest and closest Grand Prix of all time and seen champions win from Antonio Ascari to Michael Schumacher. Nowhere else has better claim to being the single most important motor-racing venue of all. It simply must be preserved. All of it.
If you want to help save the banking, you can sign the official petition, started by British enthusiast, Chris Balfe. It can be found on the Internet at: wkweb5.cableinet.co.uk/ferrari/monza_camp.html