15 milestones of the Monza Autodrome, which turned 100: the epic Formula 1 races, the tragedies and the secret of its conservation

The end of the competition. It was spectacular with five cars in the middle of 0.61 seconds (www.monzanet.it)

It is one of the world’s motoring cathedrals and has just celebrated its centenary on September 3. The Monza National Autodrome It is a stage full of stories and is known as the “Temple of Speed” for its three straights and fast curves. Adapted to safety standards, it is still very much in force and this weekend it will once again host the Formula 1 Italian Grand Prix.

Motor sport is synonymous with speed and Monza is still one of the most challenging settings on the planet and retains its charm and mystique from other times. The engines may be off, but the feeling of adrenaline is always there. The framework of tension is unique and the faces of the pilots change in this place whose original circuit joined a mixed layout with an oval and that seen from above looks like a scalextric track.

With a capacity of 118,865 viewers, every year there is a party at the epilogue of the European summer. It is the temple of Ferrari and the typhoid rave about an event that starts the week before and once the race is over, the doors are usually opened for the typical invasion of the public with an endless human tide on the main straight.

Located in the mecca of the Italian automotive industry, it is an earthly paradise for motorsport lovers and the Máxima race there is one of the three most emblematic races on the calendar along with Monaco and Silverstone, the former World War II air base. World Championship that hosted the first race in the category on May 13, 1950.

This is a review of the history of Monza, with 15 episodes that marked its first 100 years.

Monza Autodrome
Monza in its early years. On the right side one of the curves of the oval can be seen (www.monzanet.it)

1. His birth. In January 1922 the Milan Automobile Club decided to build it due to its 25th anniversary. The project was entrusted to the architect Alfredo Rosselli. In the preliminary phase, a speed track and a ring road (the oval) were envisaged side by side, with a total length of 14 kilometers and an estimated cost of 6 million lira. It was in a time of proliferation of motorsport and the automotive industry, and the circuit was also designed so that factories could test their brand new machines.

The works began on May 15 with the commitment that they would be finished on August 15: they used 3,500 workers, 200 wagons, 30 trucks and a railway 5 kilometers with 2 locomotives and 80 wagons. The racetrack was built in the record time of one hundred and ten days.

The circuit included a 5.5 km race track and a 4.5 km high-speed loop, with two elevated corners allowing a theoretical top speed of 180/190 km/h; the elevated variants were connected by two straights 1,070 meters long each.

His first race was on September 3, 1922 on a rainy day, in a small car competition won by Pietro Bordino with a Fiat 501.

2. Pre War Vertigo. In 1929, Achilles Varzi in an Alfa Romeo and Alfieri Maserati, with a car built by him, reached 200 kilometers per hour for the first time in their fastest lap. It was a time of pure romanticism of motorsport with duel -among others- of Tazio Nuvolariwith Alfa Romeo, against the German as Rudolf Caracciolawith Mercedes.

3. Fangio brushed death. After a race in Dundrod, Northern Ireland, on June 8, 1952, Juan Manuel Fangio he left for Monza to compete the next day. They promised to take him on a private plane, but they stood him up and he had to board a commercial flight to London and then another to Paris. A friend offered to drive him to Lyon, and there he lent him the car to drive the 300 miles through the Alps. Fangio arrived an hour before the start.

“You look very tired”, he warned him already at the racetrack, Alberto Ascari, his strongest rivalbut also a great friend.

“It’s nothing,” replied Chueco.

Fangio ran the same, but on the second lap he misjudged a curve and woke up in hospital with several broken cervical vertebrae. “At that time it was very easy to go from life to death without realizing it,” reflected the Balcarceño, who did not run for the rest of the year and his recovery took four months.

Fangio after the accident he had in Monza in 1952 (Facebook Museo Fangio).
Fangio after the accident he had in Monza in 1952 (Facebook Museo Fangio).

4. The oval. It is the banked Indianapolis-type circuit of 4,250 meters that if it joined the mixed circuit (5,793 meters), as in the origins of Monza, it would reach 10,043 meters. It was used for the last time in the 1,000 Kilometers of 1969, a date valid for the Sport Prototype World Championship (today the Endurance World Championship).

The oval was no longer used due to its dangerousness and because of its slopes, images of cars crashing into the guardrail or flying -literally- into the void were repeated. Those who ran there defied the laws of gravity. In the film Grand Prix (1966) It recreates what the races were like on that circuit and the shocking image of seeing a car tilted on the oval passing over the mixed circuit.

In 2020 the World Rally Championship ran for the first time in the vicinity of Monza and used part of the oval. The drivers were able to experience (somehow) what it was like to race on that circuit. The experience was repeated at the end of the 2021 season.

5. Race of the Two Worlds. In 1957 and 1958 the Monza 500 Miles were held, uniting F1 and IndyCar drivers and teams as it was raced on the oval. Bringing together the two best monoposto categories on the planet and the two strongest motorsport markets, Europe and the United States, the event was also known as “The Race of the Two Worlds”.

Most of the participants were North Americans and they kept the triumphs, also taking advantage of their experience in the ovals. Jimmy Bryan expired in 1957 and Jim Ratman in 1958. Fangio participated in this second edition with an American car, a Kuzma with an Offenhauser engine, but faults in the impeller prevented the Quintuple from competing.

Monza Autodrome
Start of the 1,000 Kilometers of Sport Prototypes, the last international category to use the oval, in 1969 (www.monzanet.it)

6. Tragedies. Due to its dangerousness Monza had several tragic accidents and there were three that are well remembered. On September 10, 1961, Wolfgang von Trips He was on his way to being the first German F1 champion, but he was killed with his Ferrari and his crash claimed the lives of 14 spectators in what was the worst tragedy in the history of the Máxima.

On September 5, 1970, on the fifth lap of practice, the Lotus 72 of jochen rindt it suffered a broken front suspension (it was suspected in the pits why this element was lighter than the rest). He began to zigzag his way around the Parabolic curve. Until, without control, he turned violently to his left and hit the guardrail at 200 km / h. The friction broke the bodywork. The Austrian is F1’s only post-mortem champion.

On September 10, 1978, meters from the start, Ronnie Peterson (Lotus) got the worst of it in a crash involving 11 cars out of 24. James Hunt (McLaren) tried to avoid a touch of Riccardo Patrese (Arrows) and hit Ronnie’s car. His Lotus crashed into other cars and then hit the guardrail and caught fire. Hunt managed to pull Peterson out, leaving him conscious but with both of his legs broken. The ambulance arrived late and he was transferred to the Maggiore Hospital in Milan. He died the next day from an embolism caused by toxic gases caused by the fuel.

7. Stewart Panic. On September 7, 1969 Jackie Stewart he won in his Matra and clinched the first of his three F1 titles. Although that day the Scotsman had a bad time together with his wife, Helen, due to the wave of fans who wanted to greet him, take an autograph or a souvenir.

They first took refuge in the office of the Automobile Club of Italy and hid in the bathroom, but people broke the door and entered. The couple escaped through the window and got into a truck with tires and the mechanics defended them with wrenches, although the horde of typhoid was stronger and the truck almost overturned. A friend of Jackie’s helped them escape with a sports car and took them to Villa del Este, near Rome. That Sunday Jackie was unable to celebrate his championship on the podium and went from glory to chaos.

8. For heart attack. On September 5, 1971, he ran best race in F1 history with 26 changes in the lead, 8 leaders and the closest definition with 5 cars that crossed the finish line separated by 0.61 seconds. Only in 8 laps was the order of the previous one repeated. The crowd was intoxicated with motor racing in the competition that was won by the Englishman Peter Gethin (BRM), who started eleventh and until that day had only added one point in F1 with sixth place in Canada 1970.

9. Epic return of Lauda. On August 1, 1976 Niki Lauda suffered a terrible in Nürburgring, in which his Ferrari caught fire. He was 55 seconds at 800 degrees and in the hospital they gave him extreme unction. But the Austrian’s willpower was stronger and 42 days later he returned to racing and finished fourth in Monza, where he was applauded. That year he had the remembered duel with James Hunt, who was champion.

10. Lole Feat. in 1981 Carlos Alberto Reutemann fought for the title until the last date. At Monza in his Williams he qualified second with an aspirated engine on one of the fastest road courses, where turbo boosters were favourites. He got between the two Renaults. Before the start, Lole had a combination of tires (three soft and one hard) that had put him ahead in Sunday’s test. He was a candidate. But the drizzle at the time of the start complicated his plans and with a wet track at the start of the race he fell back to eighth place. However, he came back to finish third and was one of the five who finished with total laps in a very tough race where there were 14 abandonments. The maximum rival of the santafesino, Nelson Picket (Brabham), broke his engine and Carlos’ illusion was intact. He was cheered by the Italians.

11. Miracle of Enzo Ferrari. In 1988 the McLaren-Honda MP4/4 smashed with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. That car was the most successful in F1 history in terms of races run and wins: 15 wins over 16 dates. In the only one they did not win was in Italy. There the French deserted due to engine failure (something unthinkable) and the Brazilian due to a touch (another strange event). The Scuderia scored a 1-2 with the Austrian Gerhard Berger and the Italian Michele Alboreto. It was on September 11, 28 days after the death of Enzo Ferrari. It was the first race without him. A miracle of yours or of the Pope who had blessed the cars…? Believe or burst.

12. Ferrari in mourning. On September 16, 2001, five days after the attacks on the Twin Towers, in memory of the victims, the Ferraris did not wear advertising and had their nose painted black. With one of those F2001s, Michael Schumacher was fourth in the race won by Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams) who achieved the first victory of a Colombian in F1. The podium was completed by Rubens Barrichello (with the other Ferrari) and Ralf Schumacher, the Kaiser’s brother, with another Williams.

Monza Autodrome
Michele Alboreto and Gerhard Berger with the Ferraris at the 1988 GP, the day of the “Commendatore” miracle (www.monzanet.it)

13. Vettel’s first triumph. On September 13, 2008 Sebastian Vettel became the youngest driver to achieve a pole position -up to that time- at the age of 21 years, 2 months and 10 days, beating Fernando Alonso (21 years, 7 months and 21 days). The German took advantage of the rainy session and with his Toro Rosso he set the best record. The next day he surprised the world again with his victory and was also the earliest winner in history, a record that was later surpassed by Max Verstappen in Spain 2016, which he celebrated at the age of 18.

14. They broke the clocks. In 2018 Kimi Räikkönen (Ferrari) took pole positions and broke the record set by Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams) in 2004, with a time of 1m19s119. The Scandinavian was 406/1000 faster than the Colombian, who 14 years earlier achieved it with a V10 combustion engine with more than 900 horsepower, a power similar to that produced by the current V6 hybrids (combustion and electric). Räikkönen, in that turn, comfortably exceeded 300 km/h on the straights and reached the fastest average lap time in the history of the Máxima with 263.587 km/h. However, that mark was smashed by Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) who in 2020 reached an average speed of 264.363 km/h.

The clash between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in 2021 (REUTERS / Jennifer Lorenzini)
The clash between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in 2021 (REUTERS / Jennifer Lorenzini) (JENNIFER LORENZINI /)

15. Touch Verstappen-Hamilton. On September 12, 2021, Max Verstappen (Red Bull) and Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), who were fighting for the championship, disputed a position and reached the first chicane together. Neither gave in and their cars touched. The Dutchman’s car was mounted on the Englishman’s, whose integrity was saved by halo. The image was shocking and one of the hottest moments of the year.

The Monza National Autodrome is managed by the company Societa Incremento Automobilismo e Sport (SIAS) and its main shareholders are the Automobile Club of Italy (90%) and the Automobile Club of Milan (10%). Its managers managed in these 100 years to maintain the essence of the stage beyond the changes for security, such as its three chicanes. The key was taking care of iconic sectors such as the mythical oval, the electronic sign with the positions or the old tower on the side of the stands that is a postcard of the main straight. In addition, a gesture that does not demand a cent and is to allow the public to enter at the end of each race. This tradition is respected every year and points to popular passion. That is the key to the cultural conservation of the “Temple of Speed”.

Charles Leclerc celebrates on the podium after his triumph in 2019. Below the crowd that covers the track every year after the race (Credit: Formula 1 Press)
Charles Leclerc celebrates on the podium after his triumph in 2019. Below the crowd that covers the track every year after the race (Credit: Formula 1 Press)


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