It was inevitable that the Monza paddock should be a tense place over the weekend of the 2001 Italian Grand Prix. Everyone arrived there on the Thursday, reeling still from the atrocities of September 11 a couple of days earlier, and many, including the Schumachers, were of the opinion that the race should be called off.
Nerves were jangled throughout practice, and by Sunday morning they seemed to have got the better of common sense, for Michael tried to persuade his fellows to join him in an agreement not to ‘race’ on the opening lap until after the second chicane.
It was true enough that, on the first lap of the 2000 race, there had been an appalling accident at the second chicane, resulting in the death of a fire marshal, but surely race morning, 12 months on, was not the time to begin airing concerns about the circuit. Schumacher’s idea sounded like a recipe for an accident, for it amounted to asking the drivers temporarily to suspend their instincts. In the end, for lack of unanimity — Jacques Villeneuve was the lone dissenter — Michael’s plan failed, and thus we had a ‘normal’ race.
Bernie Ecclestone’s opinion on the subject struck a chord with me: “The chicanes shouldn’t be there in the first place. If they took them away, we wouldn’t have this problem every time we come here.”
Time was, of course, when there weren’t any chicanes at Monza. Prior to 1972, the track was a slipstreamer of a circuit, and uncompromisingly fast. “You had the Curva Grande and the Lesmos, which were testing corners,” said Stewart, “but for most of the lap you were flat out.” Still, back then the feeling was that, like Monaco, it had a place in the calendar as a maverick event. Even 30 years ago, though, before safety became an overriding issue, it was considered perilous.
As last year, as this, when the drivers arrived at Monza in September 1971 there was nothing save a GP victory at stake. At the Österreichring three weeks earlier, Jackie Stewart had clinched his second world championship. Such was his domination with the Tyrrell — five wins from eight races — that, with Monza, Mosport and Watkins Glen still to be run, he was beyond reach.
That season was my first as a racing journalist, and in the course of it I had got to know most of the drivers, in particular Chris Amon. Although I’ve never been a natural supporter of the underdog, without doubt Amon had this quality about him. He had natural ability to throw away, and time and again led grands prix comfortably, only for something to go wrong.
In 1971, Chris was with Matra, whose chassis was perhaps the best in the business, but which was pushed along by a shrieking V12 engine far less powerful than it sounded. Indeed, so pathetic had it been at the Nürburgring that the team chose to pass up the Austrian GP and concentrate on resolving the problem, which involved the oil system.
“And it worked, too,” said Amon. “Everyone thought we had a new engine, but they’d simply solved the oil churning problem. When they put my ‘Ring engine on the dyno, they found it was giving only 395bhp, but the one they gave me for Monza had 460, on a par with the Cosworth, if not Ferrari and the best BRM engines.”
Having recently hit a period of untypical reliability, BRM looked in good shape. After the death of team leader Pedro Rodriguez in a minor sportscar race in July, Jo Siffert had stepped nobly up to the plate, and won at the Österreichring, another very fast track. Monza was expected to favour the V12s, with the Cosworth V8 runners for once up against it.
There were fewer spectators than usual for the practice days, perhaps because the world championship was already settled; for the sake of the race-day crowd, clearly the organisers hoped for a Ferrari driver on the pole.
In those days timekeeping was a haphazard business. There were no TV screens showing instant order changes, no automatic timing system — and at Monza there were six hours of practice counting for grid positions. Late on Saturday afternoon, Ickx — and Ferrari — were shown as fastest, and the Italian journalists duly went to work on suitably enthusiastic copy. Only after the papers had gone to press did someone discover a time faster than Ickx’s. Half a second faster, in fact.
“All through practice, when I was running on my own, I was lapping nearly a second quicker than anyone else,” said Amon, “and I got pole quite easily. As well as that, Ickx’s time was cooked, I think.”
When the tifosi arrived on Sunday morning, they learned that a blue car, rather than a red, would be starting from pole position, but they were much soothed when Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari — starting from row four — made the best start. Consummately the best, in fact. By the time the rest got on their way, Clay was in second gear, but in those less ‘official’ times to penalise a Ferrari at Monza — particularly one driven by the previous year’s winner — would have been unthinkable. At the end of the first lap Regazzoni swept by with a sizeable lead, to rapture from the stands.
In the early laps, though, most of the leading was done by Peterson’s March 711, Ronnie hounded by the Tyrrells of Stewart and François Cevert, Siffert’s BRM, Regazzoni and Ickx. At Monza, however, the attrition rate was always high, and by lap 18 Stewart was gone, together with both Ferraris. But if the locals felt despair, the lead battle was so mesmeric that, rather than head for the car parks, they stayed put.
Siffert was the next in trouble, his BRM jammed in fourth gear, but now others were coming through, including Mike Hailwood, making his return with the Surtees team after a six-year lay-off. On lap 25, Hailwood — who had qualified 17th! — came by in the lead. “I didn’t know what this slipstreaming lark was all about,” he grinned. “I’d never done it before…”
Into the late laps, the front runners shook themselves down, preparing for the final sprint to the flag. It was all a matter of being in the right place at Parabolica, the final corner, of slipstreaming by the rest just before the line. The last thing a thinking driver wanted to do was lead into Parabolica on the last lap. As it was, Cevert and Peterson arrived virtually side by side, both leaving their braking too late, both sliding a little wide, at which point Peter Gethin’s BRM, fourth at the start of the last lap, dived past by the pair of them, and held the lead all the way to the flag.
“The rev limit was 10,500,” Peter laughed afterwards, “but I took it to 11,500 before snatching top, figuring that the bugger would probably blow apart — but if it didn’t, I’d win!”
Over the line, Gethin was a couple of feet ahead of Peterson, with Cevert third and Hailwood fourth. Howden Ganley, fifth for BRM, was six-tenths behind Gethin.
Half a minute later Amon trailed in, sixth: “I got a pretty poor start, and the temperatures started to go up, so I sat back and waited until I’d got rid of a bit of fuel. Once I’d done that, I had no trouble in getting to the front
“I led for several laps without any problem, until nine laps from the end, when I lost my visor. In previous races I’d been losing tear-offs, so this time I’d taped it more firmly — too firmly, because when I pulled it off, the whole bloody visor went! Actually, it would not have made a lot of difference, because I started to get fuel starvation, too. It was a bit disappointing.”
At Indianapolis and other US races there is a preoccupation with statistics: number of leaders, lead changes, laps led, and so on. This has never caught on in Europe, perhaps for the sound reason that lead changes are not something to be taken for granted in F1.
At Monza that day, there were 25 lead changes, among eight drivers, but maybe the most numbing fact of all is that on only eight of the 55 laps was the order as it had been the previous time around. And although Gethin never won another championship race, his name will probably be in the record books for all time, as the winner of the fastest grand prix ever run: 150.754mph.
After 1971, there were changes at Monza. When the teams went back a year later, chicane blight had ravaged the place and fundamentally changed its character, breaking up the pack, cutting the lap speed by 20mph. The Lotus of Emerson Fittipaldi won comfortably from Hailwood’s Surtees.
“A better result than last year,” Mike observed, “but no fun at all. They’ve ruined the track with these poxy chicanes!” Mr Ecclestone would not take issue.