There is no place quite like Monza.
For over 100 years, this high-speed track set slap bang in the middle of Monza’s royal park has played host to Grand Prix racing, testing mankind and machine to the limit and beyond.
To win at Monza in a blood-red Ferrari with the Tifosi shouting your name and treating you as a demi-god is what dreams are made of.
Greats such as pre and post-war giants Nuvolari, Rosemeyer, Fangio, Moss and Clark to modern-day gladiators such as Prost, Senna, Schumacher, Vettel, and Hamilton have all tasted victory at this great circuit, which has changed relatively little since the inaugural Italian Grand Prix in 1922, albeit teams now use the legendary banking for photoshoots rather than racing.
Combine all these ingredients, and it’s no wonder that Monza has only missed out on a spot on the calendar once, and that was due to growing safety concerns in the wake of Ronnie Peterson’s fatal accident at the start of the 1978 Italian Grand Prix forcing the race to be moved to Imola for 1980 as the track was made safer.
By 1994, Monza had become one of the safest albeit most challenging circuits on the Grand Prix calendar, and with its usual mid-September spot on the calendar pencilled in, coupled with Ferrari having a mini-renaissance after three years of infighting, the 65th edition of the Italian Grand Prix looked set to be a sell-out.
But those plans would be put in jeopardy when events 268km away started a domino effect that shook the foundations of Grand Prix racing to its core and threatened Monza’s place on the calendar.
On one spring weekend at Imola, Formula 1’s eight-year run without fatalities came to a horrific end when Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna perished within 24 hours of each other. With Rubens Barrichello narrowly escaping death after his shunt on Friday, as well as several spectators and mechanics being taken to hospital after being hit by debris, Formula 1 had suddenly become a pariah after so many years of serenity in the eyes of the public, with some sections of the political establishment using the events of Imola to question the necessity of the sport.
Shortly after Senna and Ratzenberger were laid to rest, the FIA swiftly announced a series of new safety regulations, making the cars slower and safer, whilst the drivers re-formed the Grand Prix Drivers Association on the eve of the Monaco Grand Prix weekend with Niki Lauda, Michael Schumacher, Gerhard Berger and Christian Fittipaldi becoming the figureheads of the group.
The circuits were also quick to react to this shake-up, with Barcelona, Spa Francorchamps, and Montreal introducing temporary chicanes to potential danger areas whilst Silverstone reprofiled Copse and introduced the slow right-hand Abbey corner to slow the cars down.
But for Monza, there was a problem. With the circuit now being declared unsafe by the drivers and having the added headache of being in the middle of a royal park home to centuries-old trees and a golf club, the track owners had very little room to work with. The safety changes that were due to be introduced included more run-off at the Curva Grande and the widening as well as tightening of the second lesmo.
However, just as soon as work began, the complaints started with ecologists and the local government caught in a war of words on what to do about the trees, with neither side making much progress as the clock ticked down to the September 11th date.
By the time the championship reconvened at Hockenheim in mid-July for the ninth round of the championship, Monza’s chances of staying on the calendar had begun to look incredibly bleak, with the funeral rights already being read for the circuit as the days ticked by.
Then after local officials refused to chop down 123 trees needed for the safety improvements, the seemingly unthinkable happened. The FIA decided to cancel the race as they could not guarantee that the changes to the second lesmo could be done in time, with the sport’s governing body announcing at the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend that they were already looking at replacement venues to fill the now vacant spot on the calendar.
The announcement from the FIA caused Silvio Berlusconi’s government to spring into action, with the then Secretary of the Council of Ministers Gianni Letta, along with GPDA spokesman Berger, being dispatched to Cannes to negotiate a solution with Max Mosley. As if Letta wasn’t under enough pressure, the president of the Lombardy region Lega Nord’s Paolo Arrigoni said that Berlusconi’s reputation was riding on his attempts to defend the Grand Prix at a time when the Lega Nord-Forza Italia coalition government was coming under intense strain.
A tense 48 hours of negotiations followed, and against all the odds, the race was reinstated after the GPDA, and the FIA found the changes satisfactory. The weekend itself went off without a hitch, sans an opening lap pile-up at the Rettifillo, and Monza kept its place on the calendar from 1995 and beyond. The Rettifillo was next to be changed in 2000, becoming a slow right-hand corner instead of a tricky right-left right sequence of corners with the Curva Grande fully widened after its initial alternation the previous year.
From 1994 onwards, Monza has become of the sport’s showpiece events, and despite plans to move the Italian Grand Prix back to Imola as well as the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the 2020 edition to be held behind closed doors; the race has remained at its spiritual home.
The 2022 Italian Grand Prix weekend will be a special one, as for the first time in three years, a capacity crowd will be allowed into the grounds, and with Ferrari in with a chance of taking victory at what will be a critical point in the championship fight, the 92nd edition of the race promises to be a cracker on and off the track.