Welcome to the spiritual home of Italian motorsport and a venue synonymous with one of the world’s most famous brands – Ferrari. The Autodromo Nazionale Monza currently has the distinction of being Formula 1’s fastest track, with long straights, gentle, quick corners and only a few sharp chicanes here and there.
The track first opened in September 1922, hosting a number of events that saw it build a reputation as a fast and dangerous circuit. It has the honour of being the only venue to appear on every single F1 calendar (except 1980). There is nothing quite like it.
Like many F1 venues, Monza has undergone modifications over the years. The banked oval portion of the circuit is no longer in use, whilst the Variante chicanes and kinks have been added over time. At one stage, turn 3 (Curva Biassono) was turn 1, approached at very high speed – not a comfortable prospect in today’s safety-conscious Formula 1.
Lapping the Circuit
It might appear as though Monza is all about pressing the pedal as hard as you can, but the track requires a certain finesse. With some rapid gear changes, the circuit is also harsh on the car, whilst high-speed corners place a lot of pressure on tyres, so tyre management can be crucial.
Even on the first lap, the cars approach turn 1 at high speed, and it can be a scramble for everyone to squeeze through, with accidents often taking place. The braking zone has to be judged perfectly and getting the right line into Cura Biassono is vital to get any chance of passing into della Roggia.
From there, you’re putting the hammer down for Curve di Lesmo, but it is possible to take this at something approaching flat out. Next you hurtle down Curva del Serraglio and approach another sharp kink, the chicane of Variante Ascari, and you’re then on the back straight, heading for the mighty Parabolica. It’s a deceptive corner, slower to begin with than it might seem, making it possible to misjudge it, and a compromised exit will lead to a compromised line into the main straight.
It goes without saying that Monza has hosted some dramatic races. It has also seen, as many F1 tracks have, its unfortunate share of tragedy. Two-time champion Alberto Ascari was killed here in a private test in 1955, Jochen Rindt died during practice for the 1970 race, and Ronnie Peterson died from complications following a crash at the start of the 1978 Grand Prix. Others have died here, in different series, highlighting the risks associated with high speed racing, and in 2000 a marshall, Paolo Gislimberti, was killed at the F1 race when he was struck by debris following a huge multi-car crash.
Some of the most intense, nerve-racking duels have been fought at Monza. Some of the most emotional victories in Formula 1 have been won here. Let’s look at the most memorable races.
This was the first Italian Grand Prix to be held since the death earlier that year of Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari. The tifosi had seen the Ferrari cars of Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto qualify 3rd and 4th, behind the dominant McLarens of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Prost had engine issues at the start, which saw him pass Senna but then drop back behind his teammate, whilst Berger and Alboreto would run behind them. Ultimately Prost’s engine issue would get worse, and he would retire midway through the race, whilst Senna would have a collision with a backmarker that ended his race with only two laps remaining. This allowed Berger to lead Alboreto home to score a highly-charged one-two finish on home turf.
As mentioned earlier, this was a race marred by tragic events, owing to the death of marshall Paolo Gislimberti. Michael Schumacher would take an important victory in his fight with Mika Hakkinen for the title, and in doing so would equal Ayrton Senna’s record of 41 career wins. Schumacher broke down in tears as he was told what he’d achieved, at the end of a long, draining race.
In rain-soaked conditions, a young German by the name of Sebastian Vettel, driving for the unfancied Toro Rosso team, not only qualified on pole but proceeded to dominate the race. It was a mark of things to come, only Vettel had won in what was considered to be the Red Bull ‘B’ team, and he did so displaying remarkable composure in difficult conditions.
It was also the first (and as of 2020 only) time an Italian team other than Ferrari has won here.
To Ferrari fans, seeing one of their cars take a home win is an unbelievably magical feeling. It has not proven to be a common occurrence in recent years, owing to the power of the Mercedes, so when Charles Leclerc took a victory under pressure in 2019, it was a huge relief and outpouring of joy for the local fans. Leclerc had qualified on pole, albeit narrowly from the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, and he was only marginally faster than teammate Vettel. It was a very close affair, and for someone as relatively inexperienced as Leclerc, it would have been easy to make a mistake with a six-time world champion bearing down upon him.
Not only did Leclerc hold his nerve, keeping the lead into the first corner, but keeping ahead as the race developed. He and the team took a chance, putting him on the hard compound tyre (a stronger but slower tyre) at the pit stops, whereas Hamilton took on the medium compound, a quicker tyre. Hamilton would challenge Leclerc for several laps, but even with DRS could not yield a decisive error from the young Leclerc. When Hamilton locked up and Bottas got through, the Finn would also attack Leclerc, but could not find a way past. It was only Leclerc’s second ever F1 win, and what a place for a Ferrari driver to achieve it.
There are many, many more examples of epic races at Monza, from Formula 1 alone. The track is steeped in history and oozes with a legacy of superfast, intense racing. It is about as pure a circuit as a driver can hope for.