Monza is a true cathedral to speed, unmatched around the world for its sense of history and passion, fuelled in part by its long history and also the fanaticism of the Italian fans, the tifosi. With the steadily decaying remnants of the high speed banked circuit providing a backdrop through the parkland trees, the atmosphere here is like no other; a mix of speed, melodrama and more than a hint of melancholy.
Today, Monza retains its popularity and is a staple fixture on many racing series' calendars, Formula One included. It is also a regularly used testing venue, while the parkland remains open to the public – you can even find an outdoor municipal swimming pool in the grounds alongside the main straight...
Monza's history began shortly after the First World War, when the Italian motor industry was undergoing its first great ascendancy. Authorities began looking for land to create a circuit to test their cars and demonstrate to the rest of the world their superiority through sporting success. Gallarte and La Cagnola near Milan were initially suggestions and rejected before some far-sighted visionary proposed the royal park at Monza to the Automobile Club of Milan. This was deemed suitable and preparations were began in earnest soon after.
A company was formed to develop the project, the SIAS (Società Incremento Autodromo e Sport), under the presidency of Silvio Crespi. Agreements were made with the administrators of the park and plans drawn up for a high speed track and road circuit. Engineer Piero Puricelli, who would go on to develop many of the pioneering autostrada routes across Lombardy, was entrusted with heading up the design and construction phases. Total costs were expected to be in the region of $16 million lire.
Vincenzo Lancia and Felice Nazzaro duly turned the first sod on February 26, 1922 at an elaborate ceremony. Construction would only get under way for a matter of days, however, before conservationists – alarmed at the number of trees due to be felled to make way for the new circuit – forced a halt to proceedings.
There followed several months of negotiations with Rome by the motoring authorities but, eventually, permission was sought to resume, albeit on a much modified course using as many of the existing park roads and pathways as possible, to allay the fears over excessive tree felling.
Much time had been lost and, with the SIAS having earlier proclaimed the circuit would be ready to host that year's Italian Grand Prix, there was no time to lose. Up to 3,500 workman were brought in to complete construction at a feverish pace, with 300 wagons, 200 trucks and even a three-mile temporary railway laid out among the trees.
Remarkably, in just 110 days, the entire complex was completed. The combined road and high speed oval course, grandstands, service roads and other spectator facilities were all ready as promised for the Grand Prix. On August 20, three Fiats, driven in turn by Nazzaro, Bordino, Salamano, Giaccone and Lampiano turned the first laps around the 6.21 miles circuit, a few days ahead of an elaborate opening ceremony which saw 200 cars driven by members of the Milan Automobile Club head out around the course.
From triumph to tragedy
Those early days were perhaps among the happiest in the circuit's history; here was Italy leading the world with both its cars and its facilities. The sense of celebration was to be cruelly shattered just a few years later during the 1928 Grand Prix. For reasons that have never been entirely clear, the Talbot of Materassi suddenly swerved to the left while overtaking another car on the grandstand straight, ploughing through the barriers and into the crowd. Materassi was killed instantly, along with 28 spectators.
Changes were inevitable. Spectator safety was improved and by 1930, a new configuration was created with the installation of a link road between the central straight of the road course and the eastern straight of the speed course, cutting out the north curve altogether. Known as the Florio course, this was used in a variety of formations in preference to the full course but, even then, tragedy was not far away. In the 1931 Grand Prix, Philippe Etancelin left the road at the Lesmo corners, careering into another group of spectators; three died, including Etancelin, and another 14 were injured.
The came 'Black Sunday' on October 10, 1933. On the south curve of the speed circuit, Giuseppe Campari's P3 Alfa Romeo and Baconin Borzacchini's 8CM Maserati slid off on oil laid down the previous lap by a competitor; both were killed instantly. Then, later the same day, Count Stanisław Czaykowski's Bugatti overturned on the south curve and caught fire; the Polish driver died in the ensuing blaze.
These events led to the virtual abandonment of the combined and speed courses in the following years, further variations of the Florio or the road course being preferred. After one last Italian Grand Prix on the original road course in early 1938, the Monza authorities set about more radical alterations.
War stops play
Under plans drawn up by engineer Aldo di Rionzo, the banked oval course was demolished altogether and a new Grand Prix road course devised. This saw the installation of a new Vialone curve and extended back straight which lead into two sharp right handers to complete the lap and lead back to the start finish straight. Changes were also made to the two Lesmo curves and a new section of test track, bypassing the Curva Grande, was installed at the behest of Pirelli.
Spectator facilities were also greatly improved, with a new grandstand seating 2,000; a restaurant on the ground floor; timing and scoring tower; and 30 purpose-built pit stalls among the improvements. Sadly, the outbreak of World War Two meant these new improvements were never tried in anger. All racing activities ceased at Monza and the autodrome buildings were used for various purposes, including safe storage of the public Automobile Registry archives and even as pens for the animals removed from the Milan zoo!
In April, 1945, the grandstand straight was host to a parade of Allied armoured vehicles, which broke up the track surface. A little later, large areas were used for storage of military vehicles and war surplus, mainly in the southern part of the circuit. Besides the track, the pits buildings and stands also suffered and by war's end little remained that was usable.
At the beginning of 1948 the Milan Automobile Club decided on complete restoration of the autodrome. As with its original construction, the circuit was readied in a very short time frame; in less than two months the facilities were restored and the improvements of 1938 could finally be used for their original intended purpose. Racing was back!
Return and revival
By 1955, ambitions had grown further and plans were put in place to recreate the high-speed banked circuit, albeit with considerably steeper banking (so steep it is virtually impossible to ascend to the top on foot unaided). This roughly followed the course of the 1922 original, save for the south curve which was set closer to the pit straight. The new high-speed loop was built on reinforced concrete pillars, rather than earth banks and cut through the Vedano course, necessitating a new final parabolic curve. Like the 1922 original, it shared its pit facilities with the road course and could be combined to form a 6.21 mile full course.
Other improvements to the facilities were the construction of two large towers with luminous scoreboards set at the sides of the central grandstand and fourteen steel towers (seven along the road circuit and seven along the high speed track) to give the race positions along the track.
The full 6.21 mile circuit was used for the Italian Grand Prix races in 1955, 1956 1960 and 1961. The high-speed track, in addition to numerous record attempts by cars and motorcycles, was used in 1957 and 1958 for the Monza 500 Mile races open to Indianapolis cars, with the Two Worlds Trophy offered as prize by the Monza City Administration. This was the first time US-style single-seaters had been exported abroad and, in true American tradition, saw the cars lap in anticlockwise direction.
1959 saw the SIAS introduce a new short course especially for the popular junior single seater categories. Called the 'Pista Junior', it was created by linking the grandstand straight with the opposing back straight through several curves.
Tragedy once again struck during the 1961 Grand Prix, run for the last time on the full course. During the second lap, the Ferrari of Wolfgang von Tripps and the Lotus of Jim Clark tangled in the braking area for the Parabolica, sending the German's car into the air and rolling across a spectator zone. Von Trips and 10 spectators lost their lives immediately and another five died later in hospital.
The disaster largely spelled the end for the full circuit with its banked course; Grand Prix races thereafter used only ran the road course, although it was used for the Monza 1,000 Kilometres, reserved for the Sports, Prototype and Grand Touring categories, from 1965 to 1969. Starting in 1966 there were two permanent chicanes at the entrance to the banked curves and the course was 100 metres longer but by 1970 the sportscars switched to the road course and the banking fell silent altogether.
Despite numerous safety improvements, the spectre of death was still never far away. The promising Bruno Deserti perished here, as did Tommy Spychiger, Englishman Boley Pittard and, most infamously, Austrian Jochen Rindt, the only man to be posthumously declared Formula One champion.
Speeds grew ever higher as the racing cars grew steadily more sophisticated and, after the 1971 GP proved the shortest and fastest race of all time, Peter Gethin taking his only victory for BRM in the last of the slipstreamers, it was clear changes were necessary if the circuit was to continue.
Enter the chicanes
In 1972, a chicane was introduced on the Grandstand Straight, a slightly clumsy slow-speed flick just before the entrance to the Junior circuit, along with a higher speed chicane bypassing the Vialone curve and named in memory of Alberto Ascari, who had perished at the same spot some 17 years previously. The track increased in length by 109 yards as a result.
Motorcycle Grands Prix continued to use the original road course without chicanes until the 1973 event saw another 'Black Sunday'. During the first lap of the 250cc GP, a collision at the Curva Grande resulted in the deaths of both Jarno Saarinen and Renzo Pasolini. The race meeting was ultimately cancelled, but more tragedy arrived 40 days later in a junior race when three gentleman riders fell and were fatally injured at the same point. From then until 1981, the motorcycle Grand Prix was transferred elsewhere and the only bike racing occurred on the Junior circuit for minor championships.
In 1974 the Ascari chicane was completely revised, opening the entry to the chicane with a more flowing curve and installing a broad run-off area with a sand layer and catch fencing. Perhaps the more classic Monza layout was established in 1976, when a new chicane was installed at the della Roggia curve and a left-right-left-right chicane sequence created at the end of the Grandstand Straight. This layout would continue unchanged until the 1990s, save for the addition of a lengthened pit lane in 1979 and new pit buildings another decade later.
Renewal and reinvestment
The 1994 season forced further changes on many circuits in wake of the death of Ayrton Senna; Monza was no different. The second Lesmo curve was tightened, reducing speed considerably, while the following year further changes were made to increase safety at key spots. Curva Grande was re-aligned, with its new radius some 12 metres further to the inside than previously, greatly enlarging the run-off area on the outside. Della Roggia's chicane was also brought further forward in the lap by some 50 metres, while the two Lesmo Curves were realigned, some 15 metres further inside the circuit perimeter, similarly providing enhanced escape areas. Sadly, these changes also involved the demolition of the Lesmo grandstands, removing a fantastic viewing spot once and for all.
The final changes involved a rebuilding of the first chicane in summer 2000, the new almost triangular hairpin combination providing a new overtaking point, but doing little to alleviate the traditional first lap carnage; if anything the tighter, slower combination of curves might actually have made it worse. Following a disastrous 2009 World Superbike event, where riders were toppled like dominoes, a shallower slip road was built for bike racing, which eased the problems somewhat, although Monza authorities are evaluating further changes to run-off areas in order to satisfy the FIM for future years.