The best Formula 1 race ever? The 1971 Italian Grand Prixby Graham Keilloh on 4th September 2019
Known as the 'Temple of Speed', the Autodromo Nazionale Monza has played host to numerous historic battles, but none closer than the one that played out in 1971.
The closest finish in F1 history? The 1971 Italian Grand Prix was a spectacle Photo: Motorsport Images
For anyone whose heart beats a little faster for motor racing, there is something about Monza. The intensity. The fervent tifosi. The speed. The heritage. The ghosts of racers past. But there was a time when Monza was even more of a monster. Prior to the insertion of its chicanes.
Then it provided the closest Formula 1 got to oval racing (ignoring of course the anomaly that for a time the Indianapolis 500 was part of the itinerary). Its races commonly were bunched slipstreamers; no one knew who would have their nose ahead when the chequered flag fell.
And the Italian Grand Prix in 1971, F1’s final visit to Monza sans chicanes, was quintessential. As with all consummate performers, Monza the monster saved its best for last.
Many cite it as the finest F1 race of all. For more than 30 years afterwards it was the fastest, with a 150.754mph average speed.
It may have had the closest finish too. Only two decimal places were used in its timing, so we cannot say with certainty if its 0.01sec victory margin beats the 0.011sec from Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher’s farcical 2002 US Grand Prix conclusion (not that, in visceral terms, it matters).
Ronnie Peterson, Clay Regazzoni, François Cevert and Jackie Stewart slipstream one another Photo: Motorsport Images
Yet it far outstrips ’02 when the next cars home are considered. In ’71, Monza’s first three were separated by just 0.09sec; the first four still within a blink at 0.18sec. Even the fifth-place finisher was but 0.61sec from victory.
Monza then, a bit like Monaco still is, was a race apart. Tyrrell’s Jackie Stewart dominated the season and had already sealed the title, but this weekend was going to be different. Not least as his Cosworth V8 engine was expected to struggle alongside the V12s.
Particularly, as it transpired, that of Chris Amon’s Matra. His unit’s previous oil churning problems just fixed, Amon took a comfortable pole. Though local officials had ‘mysteriously’ overlooked his time until late on Saturday, meaning most arrived on Sunday’s race morning under the impression that a Ferrari – Jacky Ickx’s – was starting first...
While a Monza officials’ perennial was missing Ferrari misdemeanours, and somehow it passed them by that at the get-go the other Ferrari, Clay Regazzoni’s, vaulted from eighth to first by conspicuously jumping the start.
Still, the race’s pattern quickly formed. Ronnie Peterson’s March did much of the early leading, hounded by both Tyrrells – Stewart accompanied by François Cevert – as well as by much of the V12 brigade: both Ferraris, two BRMs – Jo Siffert and Howden Ganley’s – and Amon. All places constantly chopping and changing.
Before long there was an unlikely interloper among the leaders too: Mike Hailwood’s Surtees. The motorbike legend had started 17th and admitted he’d never done slipstreaming before. Clearly he learned fast.
As was often the way at flat-chat Monza, some cars wilted. Stewart’s engine blew; Siffert got stuck in fourth gear; the Ferraris – to local consternation – retired in quick succession with engine trouble.
Later though first place looked set, even in these circumstances. Amon hung back early on, allowing his fuel load to lighten and with concerning temperatures and a blistering front tyre. Then he moved forward his ease. His victory drought looked set to end.
“At 45 laps, with 10 to go, Amon had showed that the Matra V12 had got the race in the bag in spite of the ‘bubbly’ tyre for though Cevert, Hailwood and Peterson were right with the French car they were not going to get in front of it on speed and power,” Denis Jenkinson noted in his Motor Sport race report.
But no – there was typical Amon fortune. He sought to remove a visor tear-off, and his entire visor came off! Then he got fuel starvation too.
It left for the win Peterson, Cevert, Hailwood and Peter Gethin, another BRM runner, who’d crept in on the leaders. Ganley also was hanging onto them.
And it was a leading bunch with a difference. “Any one of them could win and if they all made a nonsense on the last lap then Ganley could win, and none of them had ever won a grand prix before,” Jenks observed. “It was truly the ‘dice of the debutants’.”
Peter Gethin celebrates his victory at Monza Photo: Motorsport Images
As so often at Monza, it came down to who could time it right out of Parabolica for the final time. Cevert led Peterson entering the turn but both left their braking slightly too late. Gethin nipped by and held on to win by inches, the five passing the line in a blur.
“The rev limit was 10,500,” Gethin laughed, “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!”
It would be his only F1 win. Peterson and Cevert would taste F1 victory later; Hailwood and Ganley would not.
And in a race not short on striking statistics, we can finish with a couple more. “At Monza that day, there were 25 lead changes, among eight drivers,” Nigel Roebuck noted for Motor Sport, “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.”