Every season I try to attend a Grand Prix, and this year it was my good fortune to attend Monza for the 65th World Championship Italian Grand Prix. The race has been held at Monza every year since the World Championship began, except in 1980, and thus Monza has a claim to being the most historic track of all. Scandalously, however, it is now under threat.
Bernie Ecclestone has suggested that the 2016 event may be the last running of the race at the historic venue outside Milan, as race organisers are refusing to stump up the 25 million Euro fee that the sport’s money-hungry commercial rights-holders demand. More on this anon, but from my experience alone, this would be a sporting tragedy.
All of the photos in this section are my own, so apologies if the quality isn’t up to the usual standard!
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)
3. Felipe Massa (Williams)
4. Valtteri Bottas (Williams)
5. Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari)
6. Sergio Perez (Force India)
7. Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) +1 lap
8. Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) +1 lap
9. Marcus Ericsson (Sauber) +1 lap
10. Danlil Kvyat (Red Bull) +1 lap
11. Carlos Sainz (Toro Rosso) +1 lap
12. Max Verstappen (Toro Rosso) +1 lap
13. Felipe Nasr (Sauber) +1 lap
14. Jenson Button (McLaren) +1 lap
15. Will Stevens (Manor) – +2 Laps
16. Roberto Merhi (Manor) -+2 Laps
NC Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) – DNF: Engine
NC Fernando Alonso (McLaren) – DNF: Electrics
NC Romain Grosjean (Lotus) – DNF: Collision
NC Pastor Maldonado (Lotus) – DNF: Collision
TOP TALKING POINT
The Penultimate Race At Monza?
History hangs heavy at Monza. Here, in the Royal Villa of Monza Park, about 30 minutes by train from Milan, lies a racetrack that has been used continuously since 1922, a cathedral of speed, the track where all of the fastest Grand Prix of all time have been held, a place where every driver to have ever made a mark on the sport has duelled it out. Nuvolari, Varzi, Fangio, Ascari, Clark, Rindt, Stewart, Lauda, Prost, Senna, Mansell…..all have raced at Monza. The ghosts of F1’s past hang over the circuit like the autumnal morning mist over the trees that line the sides of the racetrack.
Here, still, is the fearsome banking, track at an 80 degree slope that was used in races from 1954 to 1961, including 4 world championship events, in an attempt to make the circuit faster still. Drivers, wearing cloth caps – not helmets – would hit 170mph in cars that had no seatbelts, no crash protection. Equally, there was nothing at the top of the banking bar a flimsy, waist height barrier, to protect an errant racer from the trees, and a fearsome drop, behind. Spectators at today’s races can attempt to walk on – and scale – the banking, the sheer steepness of the gradient usually proving too much for most. All that see it nonetheless are struck with awe for the men who would race their rapid yet primitive machines on such a terrifying piste.
Here is a temple to one team, and one team only: Ferrari. Every year, the grandstands are a sea of red, and black prancing horses abound on banners and clothing. The ‘tifosi’ will roar every time one of their heroes, one of the two Ferrari drivers, come past, a roar audible even above the scream of the engines when one of their beloved machines takes the lead. The nationality of the driver doesn’t matter, what matters is that he is driving a Ferrari. The blood red cars symbolise Italy to a point where Italian drivers in anything other than a Ferrari are ignored. Only the red of the cars from Maranello truly symbolises Italian passion, the love of the beautiful, or the sheer, unadulterated emotion of speed.
Here we have seen some of the most incredible races of all time. The 1971 race, when 4 cars crossed the line within 0.18seconds of each other – 4 drivers, none of whom had ever won a Grand Prix – jockeying for position at the final corner, desperately trying to slipstream the other, finally crossing the line in a blur of flat-out machinery. The Brit Peter Gethin won, by the blink of an eye from Peterson, Cevert and Hailwood. Even the 5th place finisher, Howden Ganley, was only 0.61 seconds behind. We’ve seen the emotional 1988 event, in a season where Prost and Senna won every single race in their utterly dominant McLarens. Every single race apart from the one at Monza, that is. At the first Italian Grand Prix since the death of the legendary Enzo Ferrari, founder of the eponymous team, the commendatore was clearly influencing events from above, for first Prost’s engine let go, and then Senna was taken out just 2 laps from the end by a backmarker, leaving the scarlet machines to come home in a triumphant 1-2. That year, as every year, the tifosi poured onto the circuit post-race, standing in their masses beneath the podium, cheering themselves hoarse, deafening all around with airhorns, as their heroes sprayed them with champagne from above, the spray rainbow-like in the Lombardy sun.
But here too, there has been darkness. The ghosts at the track also speak of death, of lives lost, of tragedy in the pursuit of speed, of sheer passion for racing. Monza is the only track to have claimed the lives of two world champions: Alberto Ascari in 1955, at the curves now named for him, and Jochen Rindt in 1970. Tragically, Rindt never knew that he would be champion that year, the sport’s first – and thankfully, to date, only – posthumous world champion. In 1978 Ronnie Peterson, the unlucky runner-up in 1971’s near dead-heat, was killed from complications following a messy startline accident. Ten years previosuly, in 1961, the biggest tragedy of all. The race was the season’s penultimate, and could possibly decide the world championship. In first and second places going into the race, respectively, were Count Wolfgang ‘Taffy’ Von Trips and the American Phil Hill, both Ferrari drivers. The crowd, firmly behind the Italian marque as ever, was large and expectant. Von Trips, an aristocrat born to a noble Rhineland family, required just a third place to become the first German World Champion, and the first Ferrari champion since Mike Hawthorn in 1958. Those that were there that weekend said that Von Trips seemed ill at ease, unusually fidgety and highly-strung, struggling to come to terms with the sheer pressure of the occasion. Whatever the truth of that, on lap 2, Von Trips beautiful ‘sharknose’ Ferrari tripped over the Lotus of Jim Clark just shy of the final Parabolica bend, and was launched into the barriers, and – worse still – into a spectator area. A blur of metal, debris, screaming, at the end of which 16 people lay dead, including Von Trips himself, his body thrown from the car and lying limply and uselessly like a ragdoll at the side of the track. It was by far the worst accident Formula One has ever seen, but the race was not stopped. That simply wasn’t the done thing back then, and while rescue workers tended to the injured, dying and dead, Phil Hill took a hollow victory, and instead the USA had its first champion driver, in the worst circumstances possible.
So, Monza, like nowhere else reflects the history of the sport itself: danger, passion, tragedy, fanaticism, and the quest by brave and talented drivers to go ever faster year on year. Which makes it all the more ludicrous that as of next year, it is looking likely to be summarily dropped from the calendar. Dropped as if it meant nothing at all, as if it were ‘just another race’.
In recent years, Formula One has moved out of its European heartlands, and has increasingly held races in new, purpose-built venues worldwide, at the behest of governments that are willing to pay the high fees to hold a race, usually to boost national pride and tourism. Thus, where we might once have had races at Magny-Cours in France, at Estoril in Portugal, at Holland’s Zandvoort or Germanys’ amphitheatre-like Hockenheim, we have races in China, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, and Azerbaijan. Never mind that these four countries have produced precisely no F1 drivers in 65 years between them, nor that there is not a local fanbase of any size in any of them. Money talks. To some degree, it is of course right that the sport spreads its wings and branches out into emerging markets. But it doesn’t always work. The Korean Grand Prix, held for just four years from 2010 to 2013 is a case in point. Built at a cost of $264million dollars, and with plans for the circuit to be the centrepiece of a complex of houses, exhibition facilities, shops, restaurants and cafes, in reality it was a disaster, and now lies abandoned – one of sport’s biggest ever white elephants. First off, the circuit was built on marshland, and the track surface had to be relaid due to issues with the soil. Drivers still complained about the quality of the tarmac, nonetheless. Worse, the maxim ‘build it and they will come’ didn’t apply to a country where there was no F1 tradition: Korea has never even come close to having a native F1 driver, and the support base was slim, and concentrated in the big cities. So, add to this the circuit’s location in the “middle of nowhere”, a corresponding near-total lack of local accommodation options, and can it be any surprise that attendances each year were poor? The circuit, now unused, gathering dust and untended, is today a giant Ozymandian temple to hubris and failed ambition, and those houses, shops and exhibition facilities are no more likely to appear than the sport is to return.
Korea isn’t the only failure either – the Indian Grand Prix was beset by infrastructure issues and government interference, and lasted just 3 years. The Turkish Grand Prix, again, poorly attended, despite being by all accounts a great track to drive, was last run in 2011 and the circuit is now being used as a giant car sales venue, all pretence of running further races there having been abandoned.
On top of this, the sport has haemorrhaged TV viewers over the last 10 years, largely as a result of most countries moving to a pay-per-view model, and away from free-to-air models, with their much higher potential audiences. Again, money talks. Surely anyone with the slightest bit of sense, with the slightest degree of interest in securing a sustainable future for the sport would see the sense in not just opening it up to new markets – with the risks that that entails, as witnessed in Korea, India and Turkey – but in shoring up the existing fanbase; making sure that today’s 30-something and 40-something fans are going to get their children into the sport; ensuring that potential new fans in F1’s traditional heartlands are engaged and recruited into becoming the fans of tomorrow. In a world of information overload, where there are ever-multiplying entertainments competing for our time and money, this isn’t just good business sense, it’s business basics.
Some 93,000 fans attended Monza this year, and it was noticeable that many Italian Ferrari fans had their children with them, similarly bedecked in red and yellow – many of those children will be experiencing F1 for the first time. Hopefully, for many, it will be the start of a lifelong love affair with the sport. But rip Monza from the calendar simply because they refuse to pay Ecclestone’s astronomical fees for holding a race (no European government in its right mind will subsidise F1 in uncertain economic times, leaving race promoters to find the cash themselves, a hard sell amidst shrinking audiences), and you lose all that. You lose the families who take each successive generation to join the tifosi, you lose the young potential Ferrari fan who is enthralled by seeing the cars close up, by grabbing the autograph of his hero, or by seeing the sheer speed of the machines from a racetrack vantage point that television simply cannot convey.
You lose seriously passionate fans, who, even after this year’s relatively dull race, pour onto the circuit at the race’s conclusion to cheer the drivers who made the podium. Monza’s podium is the only that overhangs the track, simply because there is nowhere else where the fans are so keen to get close to their heroes, to share their successes or failures. After each race, the see of red is something to behold, and when Ferrari wins, the atmosphere is comparable with any sporting occasion, anywhere. Fernando Alonso, winning for Ferrari in 2010, was moved to tears by the experience. Why would you lose all that only to replace it with a soulless autodrome in Bahrain or similar?
There is also the small matter alluded to at the start of this piece – that of the sport’s history. The fact that F1 is motorsport’s pinnacle did not magically appear. It did not arise because of the money now spent on it. It arose through building a dedicated fanbase over 65 years of triumph, tragedy and thrilling motor racing, and to discount or ignore that heritage is a slap in the face to those that have loved this sport over the decades. Lewis Hamilton, unquestionably today’s biggest star, summarised it well when he said “This [the race at Monza] has to stay here for moral reasons. You’ve got all those fans out there who come every single year. Another grand prix would not have that same impact. It’s all very well going to new tracks, but you can’t say ‘Fangio raced here’, or ‘Senna raced here’.”
This blog was not named by chance. The Parabolica is the final, daunting corner at Monza. I remember, as a child, watching the sport, with Murray Walker and the late James Hunt commentating for the BBC, and being enthralled by the Senna/Prost/Piquet/Mansell era. Races at Monza were always a big part of that, and just the names of corners on the track – Ascari, Curva Grande, Roggia, Parabolica – are instantly evocative of great races gone past. I can picture in my mind’s eye the great drivers of the 80s tackling the very same corners that I was lucky enough to see in person this year. For those who are even older than I am, they will be able to recall Clark, Stewart, Graham Hill, Rindt and Fittipaldi doing the same. Monza is one of the few tracks left that connects all eras in Formula One, a visceral, tangible connection with the legends of yesteryear. A sport that loses its past loses its soul. We have to keep Monza, we have to. By taking it away, you instantly wipe out 65 years of history, and 65 years of passionate support from some of the most dedicated, enthusiastic fans in the world. And don’t think that it would be easy to bring it back – without the revenue from big events, racetracks are abandoned; without the big events, local facilities and accommodation dwindles; without the big events, whole generations are brought up with no interest in the sport their parents loved.
Although Hamilton’s quote was clearly from the heart, the best summary of the situation belonged to 4-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel, who said: “if we take this race away from the calendar for any shitty money reasons, you are basically ripping our hearts out.”
Amen to that.
Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
The best a driver can do at any given race is achieve the ‘Grand Chelem’. For those that don’t know, this is the feat of being fastest in every session of practice, taking pole position, posting the fastest lap, and winning the race. This race was Lewis’s 2nd such Grand Chelem. He was simply untouchable, and a late worry about illegal tyre pressures (not included as a ‘talking point’ as it is, frankly, such a dull non-topic) which saw the team give him a hurry-up lest he get a time penalty, showed just how much he had left in the tank. And this, essentially, is why he doesn’t get awarded 100% – he wasn’t seriously challenged, so didn’t have to race to his full potential. But with Rosberg’s retirement, this was another huge step toward what seems to be an inevitable third title.
Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
Finished: DNF – engine failure
An absolute disaster. Rosberg was hamstrung from Saturday onwards by having to revert to the old-spec engine due to a cooling leak on the new unit. As a result, with Hamilton using the upgraded version, he was unable to get anywhere near his team-mate in qualifying on the one circuit in the calendar that relies on engine power more than any other. The race then didn’t get any better. Raikkonen’s awful start meant that Rosberg, directly behind, had to take avoiding action and this dropped him back to 5th. By the time he had recovered to third, and was hunting down Vettel, his engine – that had already done five races – blew up, and with it, his 2015 title hopes also went up in smoke. A 53 point deficit to Hamilton now looks unassailable.
Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)
Outqualified for just the third time this season by Raikkonen, albeit by a less than a tenth of a second, third on the grid was nonetheless a clear sign of the improvement in the Ferrari engine. His team-mate’s catastrophic getaway propelled him into second, and indeed he briefly challenged Hamilton at the first corner, but ultimately the car just didn’t have the pace to beat the Mercedes. Despite this, Vettel posted some very fast times to take a clear, and deserved second, and would almost certainly have fended off Rosberg as well had the latter’s engine not blown before the Mercedes driver could seriously challenge. After receiving rapturous applause from the Ferrari-mad tifosi on the podium, he declared this “the best second place of my career”, and the thousands of Ferrari fans at the circuit were doubtless put in mind of another German in a scarlet car who put in great performances like this one not so very long ago….
Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari)
Oh Kimi. Just when it looked like you had turned a corner, and celebrated getting a (largely undeserved) contract extension at Ferrari with your best qualifying of the season, you make an absolute hash of the start. Although certain there was a mechanical fault at work, the team later denied this – basically it seems the Finn had messed up the new start procedures. The tifosi were then denied the chance to see if their lead car in qualifying could get ahead of Hamilton at the start, and the hapless Raikkonen – lucky that the rest of the grid managed to jink past his near-static Ferrai during his painfully slow getaway – was near last by the first corner. That he fought back to fifth is a result of sorts, but really it could – should – have been so much better.
Felipe Massa (Williams)
Monza, the ‘cathedral of speed’ was always going to suit a Williams that performs best at high-speed tracks, and Massa duly obliged, cheekily using a tow from his team-mate to just outqualify him. A good, clean race then followed, Massa fending off Bottas on older tyres at the line, prompting a jokey post-race “I’m too old for this” from the veteran Brazilian. He then made a spirited defence of Monza in his post-race comments, further endearing him to an Italian crowd who had cheered him – as an ex-Ferrari driver – to the rafters on the podium.
Valtteri Bottas (Williams)
Although 4th place is by no means a bad result, you can’t help the general feeling that Bottas’s stock isn’t as high as it once was. Touted since last year as a potential Raikkonen replacement at Ferrari, he simply isn’t beating Massa (known to be very good, but not great) often enough this season to be viewed as a potential superstar by the very top teams. Here he was just behind Massa in both qualifying and in a desperately close battle for the line at race-end, but none the less he was behind. Needs to up his game to avoid his career drifting into midfield obscurity.
Sergio Perez (Force India)
Another solid race from the Mexican. Like Williams, Force India reaped the benefit of having the Mercedes engine in their cars to qualify both drivers comfortably within the top 10. Perez likes Monza, having finished a stunning second here in the 2012 Sauber, and as at Spa, he beat Hulkenberg by a sizeable 0.7 seconds in Q3, and by over 20 seconds to the flag. Given his team-mate’s reputation from some as a ‘champion in waiting’, Perez will be delighted to have outperformed him once again.
Nico Hulkenberg (Force India)
Struggled with set-up and with blistering tyres all weekend, and ran out of fuel in qualifying, placing him behind Perez again. His start wasn’t the greatest, as he hit Nasr, and this may have contributed to his feeling that there was ‘something wrong with the car’ during the race. Whether this was genuine, or Hulkenberg simply being nonplussed by being outraced by his team-mate is difficult to know, as the team later found no fault with his Force India. Whereas Perez found a set up that meant he could manage his tyres well in the race, Nico had no such luck and struggled to the flag, having even contemplated switching to a two-stop at one point. Onwards and upwards.
Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull)
Qualified: 15th – started due to 19th grid penalty
Last season the popular Australian made a massive mark in F1, not only winning 3 races, but dominating his 4-time world champion team-mate Sebastian Vettel at a team that Vettel had made his own. Red Bull’s struggles this season, and their very public falling out with Renault, whose underpowered engine they blame for their plight, have been well documented, and the net result is that Ricciardo is no longer at the sharp end of the grid. However, there is a school of thought that he is now driving even better than last year. Obviously, finishing eighth will go somewhat under the radar compared to fighting for a podium, but given that he started on the back row, coming through to that position at the flag in a car that is underpowered represents a stunning result. Doubly so given that he had car failures on Friday and Saturday and so lost valuable track time. Very much a possible future champion.
Danlil Kvyat (Red Bull)
Qualified: 14th – started 18th due to grid penalty
On the one hand, will be pleased to have outqualified Ricciardo, on the other hand will be disappointed to have been beaten by Sainz in the same session, and disappointed to once again be outraced by the Australian, although tenth place from the back of the grid is a tolerably decent result. Still not showing me why he was promoted.
Marcus Ericsson (Sauber)
Qualified: 10th – started 12th due to grid penalty
An excellent qualifying result, that saw Ericsson safely into Q3 was somewhat negated by a silly block of Hulkenberg during qualifying, that gave him a grid penalty. One and a half seasons in, and at a track with long straights, there is no real excuse for mistakes like not looking in your mirrors when going slowly. The Swede had a solid race, and again would have scored more highly had he not lost 8th place at the last corner, being outfumbled by Ricciardo after making a mistake at the Parabolica, the last corner. Showing better form, but needs better consistency.
Felipe Nasr (Sauber)
Qualified: 12th – started 11th
A second successive disappointing race for the Brazilian. Outqualified again by Ericsson, he was involved in a collision at the first corner, when tagged by Hulkenberg. After sustaining a puncture, his race was effectively over, and 13th was the best he could do. Not carving out a great reputation, after a decent start to his F1 career.
Carlos Sainz Jr (Toro Rosso)
Qualified: 13th – started 17th due to grid penalty
Like the senior Red Bull team, Toro Rosso recognised the futility of trying to compete at the sharp end at Monza, and effectively wrote the race off, by changing the engine and various other components on the car, such that Sainz got a 35-grid place penalty, and Verstappen a 30-place one. Sainz won the qualifying battle, such as it was, between himself and his two Red Bull colleagues (Verstappen not being able to set a time) and getting one over on the top team will have pleased him, and no doubt did not go unnoticed by Red Bull’s bigwigs. It was much harder to get noticed in the race, however, as his car just didn’t have the requisite pace, albeit gaining a place by cutting the first chicane and receiving a penalty in consequence arguably cost him a point. Still learning.
Max Verstappen (Toro Rosso)
It’s a measure of what we have come to expect from the 17-year old that a race where he doesn’t pass 6 cars, and execute a terrifying overtake around the outside of the fastest corner on the track seems somewhat anti-climactic. But this was a quiet weekend, his only moment of note coming when his engine cover blew off during practice, bringing out a red flag. This earned Verstappen a drive-through penalty during the race – which he started from the pit lane – and meant he was never in serious contention for points.
Jenson Button (McLaren)
Qualified: 16th – started 15th
McLaren-Honda must have been dreading Monza. What better place to expose the weaknesses of your abysmal 2015 package, with its engine that’s at least 14kph slower on the straights than the other cars, than a circuit with lots of straight, fast bits? Jenson did his best – effectively only racing his team-mate, he outqualified Alonso despite missing most of Friday’s running with yet another reliability issue. Cars that are slow are one thing, but slow AND unreliable are another all together. As when he first joined McLaren to pair up with Lewis Hamilton, there were plenty of nay-sayers who believed that Button would be destroyed by his team-mate this year – as when he raced with Hamilton (who he out-scored over their 3 seasons together) he is giving Alonso as good as he gets. After a great start, Jenson dared to run in the Top 10, before reality set in and he fell steadily back to the backmarker zone he has depressingly inhabited for much of the year. After driving back to Monaco on the day after the race, Button tweeted: “Glad to be home.” I’ll bet he was.
Fernando Alonso (McLaren)
Qualified: 17th – started 16th
Finished: DNF – engine
For sitting duck Button, read sitting duck Alonso. Qualifying marginally behind Button will have irked the Spaniard, but perhaps not as much as tootling around the back in his underwhelming car, before his electrics switching the engine off just as he was catching his team-mate for an end-of-race fight. How long will Alonso’s public rhetoric of patience with his underperforming team last? What is this notoriously difficult character saying behind the scenes? If things don’t pick up, and fast, trouble is on its way….
Will Stevens (Manor)
Qualified: 18th – started 13th
With the alltime record number of grid penalties at this race, demoting no fewer than 6 cars to the back of the grid, Stevens would have been forgiven for having a nosebleed as he lined up 13th, much the highest the Manor has been on the starting grid this season. As inevitably as night meets day, it didn’t last, as the rest swiftly passed the Manor (much the slowest car in the field) but Stevens will have been pleased to reassert some degree of superiority over Merhi, both outqualifying his team-mate, and outracing him to the flag.
Roberto Merhi (Manor)
Qualified: 19th – started 14th
It’s unfortunate that, as discussed previously, the only yardstick with which one can compare the relative performance of the Manor drivers is each other, such is the gap between the rest of the field and their car – essentially a rehash of the 2014 ‘contender’. Merhi had been beginning to get the upper hand on Stevens in recent races, so will have been disappointed to be slower than the Englishman at every session, and to have ended up so far behind his team-mate after 10 laps or so. On the plus side – neat, tidy, no mistakes, and he finished, albeit two laps down.
Romain Grosjean (Lotus)
Finished: DNF – accident
After the highs of Spa, a huge low at Monza for Lotus. Grosjean did well to get the car into the Top 10 shootout, and was hoping for good things in the race. Unfortunately, my father (who attended the race with me) was wearing a Lotus shirt, and this swiftly jinxed both machines. We noticed that neither car came past at the end of the first lap, and at first we feared that, due to the ongoing financial problems at the team, they hadn’t been filled with fuel. The truth was more prosaic – Marcus Ericsson whacked the back of Grosjean’s Lotus at the first corner and broke the suspension. I told my dad to wear a different top.
Pastor Maldonado (Lotus)
Qualified: 12th – started 11th
Finished: DNF – accident
Has Pastor crashed today? Yes, but for once it wasn’t his fault. The Curse of my Dad’s Shirt (see above) saw Maldonado similarly caught up in a first corner incident – this time the Hulkenberg/Nasr nudge, and again a recalcitrant Sauber ended a Lotus’s race before the end of the first lap. In truth, Maldonado hadn’t had the best of weekends up to that point: he’d struggled with his Pirelli tyres, and was outqualified by some margin by Grosjean, despite his team-mate, as is now usual, missing all of FP1 to give Jolyon Palmer some mileage. Getting firmly put in his place by his Franco-Swiss team-mate this year.