#F1 History – The original Autodromo Nazionale di Monza

Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor: Cassius42

Monza Banked Circuit

The Autodromo Nazionale Monza is one of the staples of the Formula One season – as it hosts the Italian Grand Prix – but there is one part of the track which is not so well known. There is the edifice that is the Banked Circuit. It is no longer used but cannot be ignored as it forms a back drop to the events of the weekend and is sure to get a mention from the TV presenters.

The Autodromo was built in 1922 in the Royal Park on the outskirts of Milan and even at the start there was trouble with conservationists who delayed its building. They have objected a number of times over the years whenever trees have needed felling to accommodate changes. It was the third purpose built race track in the world after Brooklands and Indianapolis and was a 10km (6.2 mile) combined road and oval track.

The road circuit is essentially the same as the current course minus the chicanes and covers 3.42 miles (5.5km). The 2.8 mile (4.5km) oval had banked corners to help the cars of that era with their primitive suspension to corner at high speed. The two layouts could be used separately but it was more usual, at least initially, to loop from one track to the other with a wide roadway by the pits where the cars ran parallel to each other separated only by cones.

Monza1The first race on the new track was the 1922 Italian GP, making it the longest running event on the F1 calendar. Monza then hosted the GP for the next seven years with the stars of the time winning in the foremost racing cars: 1924 – Antonio Ascari, Alfa Romeo; 1927 – Robert Benoist, Delage; 1928 – Louis Chiron, Bugatti.
The 1928 race featured the worst accident in grand Prix history when Emilio Materassi crashed his Talbot opposite the pits, killing himself and 22 or 27 spectators (depending on sources). Racing at Monza stopped as a result for three years and remained racing’s worst accident until the Le Mans disaster in 1955.

When racing restarted in 1931 the Grand Prix was more of an endurance race with two drivers per car completing the longest distance in 10 hours. The earlier races were no less gruelling as they were initially run over 80 laps and took 5 hours to complete, although they were subsequently shortened to 60 laps, that still took over three and a half hours.

UntitledTazio Nuvolari won the 1931 GP sharing with Giuseppe Campari in an Alfa Romeo and showed his class by winning again in 1932 on his own after a 5 hour race. The following year was another fraught race with three top drivers killed. Baconin Borzacchini’s Maserati spun on a patch of oil on the banking and the Maserati flipped pinning him underneath his car. Giuseppe Campari swerved to avoid him, and went up and off the banking and crashed into trees next to the track. Campari was killed instantly, and Borzacchini died later that day in hospital. In a separate incident Count Stanislas Czaykowski’s Bugatti’s engine blew up on the south banking and his car caught fire blinding him so that he flew off the banking- at the same spot where Campari and Borzacchini had crashed. The Polish Count was burned to death.

Safety was virtually non-existent at the time but it was felt that something had to done and the banked circuit was taken out of use and Monza was shortened to the Florio circuit. This used most of the road course with added chicanes and only used a part of the banked circuit, the Sud Alta Velocita. That spelt the end of the banked track which was demolished in 1938.

It was only researching this article that I discovered that the banked circuit had been taken down with only the road course used after the war until a new track was built in 1954 following the outline of the original oval. It differed from the original by having a curved banking rather than the flat corners of the first. At the same time the Parabolica replaced a double right-hand complex of corners.

The full circuit was completed in time for the 1955 Italian Grand Prix and would subsequently be used in 1956, 1960 and 1961. In those years the Banked circuit did not live up to its notorious past, although the 1961 Grand Prix is remembered for the accident that cost the life of Wolfgang von Trips and 15 spectators – that accident occurred on the run up to Parabolica. Even so that was the last year the full track was used for the Grand Prix, which was then only used for the Monza 1000km race until 1969.

monza3The first race using the new banking was a continuation of the Mercedes domination (where have we heard that before). In the aftermath of the disaster at the 24 Hours of Le Mans when Pierre Levegh and over 80 spectators were killed, the French, German, Spanish and Swiss Grands Prix were cancelled. That left the Italian GP as the final outing of the all conquering Mercedes W196 and by winning; Juan Manuel Fangio clinched his second successive world championship.

The 1956 Italian GP is remembered for a piece of altruism probably not equaled since. Peter Collins arrived at the pits to find Fangio standing there having retiredwith a broken steering arm. Luigi Musso, also driving for Ferrari, had already refused to hand his car over to Fangio to ensure the Argentine’s third consecutive title. Without a second thought Collins offered his car to Fangio to complete the race and in so doing gave up his chance to become champion so that the acknowledged master could win his fourth title.

He did so because “I am only 25 years old and have plenty of time to win the championship on my own”. Fangio’ s response was: “I was moved almost to tears by the gesture… Peter was one of the finest and greatest gentlemen I ever met in my racing career.

In 1960 the rear engine revolution had reached its peak and only Ferrari was attempting to buck the trend, but had not won a race so far that season. Seeing an opportunity for an Italian victory in their Grand Prix the organisers decided to use the full circuit, as the Ferraris, although front-engined, were more powerful. However, the British garagisti, as Ferrari termed them, protested and seeing that Jack Brabham had already won the title, they boycotted the race. This left a problem for the organisers who were only able to get a full grid by inviting Formula 2 cars to take part. Needless to say, Ferrari’s completed their white-wash with Phil Hill becoming the first American to win a world championship race at the head of a Ferrari 1-2-3.

monza4The following year the British had gotten over their objections and turned up for what would turn out to be the last Italian GP run on the full road and oval layout. Phil Hill was able to win his second Italian GP in a row and took the World Championship after his teammate and rival Wolfgang von Trips was killed; in this the penultimate race of the season.

The Banked circuit was also used for what was intended to be a series of races pitting the New World (Indianapolis) against the Old World (F1), although only two events would be held. The Race of Two Worlds was colloquially known as Monzanapolis.

The first was held in 1957 and in April that year, in preparation, Firestone ran some tyre tests using a 5.5litre powered Indycar. With the expected high speeds for the event they had to ensure that the rubber they were providing would withstand the assault from the cars and banked circuit. In fact, the track proved faster than Indy when Pat O’Connor averaged 163mph over 226 miles, which was almost 20mph faster than his own pole position lap at Indy.

Even so, the Europeans were concerned with safety on the bumpy banking using unproven tyres and almost boycotted the race. In the end only three Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar D-Types lined up against the 10 Indycars shipped over fresh from running in the Indianapolis 500. Ferrari and Maserati withdrew as their cars were not modified properly for the large Firestone tyres.

Monza 5The Jaguars were no match for the purpose, even though they were fresh from victory at Le Mans the week before. Jimmy Bryan, the USAC Champion in 1956 and 1957) won two of the three heats and by also taking second place in the third heat was awarded the overall victory and the prize of $35,000, an enormous amount of money for a European event.

The following year there was a more representative European turn out as they were determined to stop the Americans from winning such a large prize in their own back yard. Ecurie Ecosse were back with two D-Types and a single seat special built by Lister. Maserati shoe horned a V8 into a chassis based on the design of USAC’s cars to create the 420M and had Stirling Moss to drive it. Ferrari had a couple of specials, most notably an old F1 car with a 4litre sports car V12 engine, which proved the fastest in practice driven by Musso.

Fangio and Maurice Trintignant were to drive borrowed Indycars, although these plans were thwarted when Fangio’s car, after qualifying third, could not start having holed a piston. The three heats were again dominated by the Americans with Moss putting up the strongest fight, finishing fourth and fifth in the first two heats before crashing into the guard rails at the top of the banking after his steering failed. Jim Rathmann, winning all three heats, was declared the overall race winner. The use of methanol fuel proved to be the Achilles’ heel for the Europeans as many of their drivers succumbed to the fumes. The 1958 race was cancelled as Monza had made a loss on the previous races and could not afford another.

The Banked circuit was also used for record breaking in the late 1960s despite the severe bumpy nature of the surface. Ford used the oval layout to break 13 records with their new Corsair, averaging over 100 mph (160 km/h) for 15,000 miles (24,000 km) in the under 1500 cc class.

Monza6It was also immortalised in John Frankenheimer’s film “Grand Prix” made in 1966, starring James Garner, Eva Marie Saint and Yves Montand. It was also notable for the cameo appearances by drivers including Formula One World Champions Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, and Jack Brabham; amongst other drivers of the time.

monza7After many years threatened with demolition in the 1990s, there are plans now being touted to revive the banking by re-surfacing it. The track is in a poor state but is used once a year for the Monza Rally. The restoration will seal the numerous cracks that have been created by the circuit’s derelict state after decades of non use and the work will replace all guttering and guard-rails that surround the lip around the top of the banking.

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5 responses to “#F1 History – The original Autodromo Nazionale di Monza

    • In 1931 it was a 10 hour race – hence two drivers, each for a five hour stint!!

      And in the primitive cars and road conditions (no gurad rails – think of that) these guys really were boys own heros.

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