Formula 1 history was made recently in Belgium, with the shortest-ever Formula 1 Grand Prix. But what was the smallest winning margin? For that, you have to look to Monza half a century ago: and also understand why that was the case there.
Among the pantheon of great Formula 1 drivers, Peter Gethin doesn’t particularly stand out. He was a quiet an unassuming Englishman, who drove mainly for British teams such as McLaren and BRM.
But what will live on his record, when he won the 1971 Italian Grand Prix at Monza at an average speed of 242.615kph. That’s not just an average of one lap: instead it’s the average speed over the entire 55-lap race. This record stood for more than 30 years, making it the fastest grand prix of the entire last century.
The incredible 1971 Italian Grand Prix was also the closest race in F1 history. Gethin’s BRM went from fourth to first on the final lap to win by just 0.01 seconds, with the top five – which also comprised Ronnie Peterson (March), Francois Cevert (Tyrrell), Mike Hailwood (Surtees) and Howden Ganley (BRM) – covered by just 0.61 seconds.
It was all to do with the more or less lost art of slipstreaming, although some modern drivers still try this now. Back then, the drivers used to tuck up extremely close to each other on the straights, to benefit from the hole in the air produced by the car in front. Approaching the corners, they would then duck out of the slipstream in the hope of finding an overtaking opportunity. On tracks with long straights, such as Monza (which at the time was essentially just a series of straights connected by corners) the cars would inevitably end up very close together.
It took until the dawn of the current century for Gethin’s record to fall. Michael Schumacher won the 2003 Monza race for Ferrari at an average of 247.585kph – but that was still only 5kph per lap faster than Gethin, 32 years earlier. That record still stands today. In 2018, Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest-ever pole position in Formula 1 history, again for Ferrari: at 263.587kph. Another record that’s yet to be beaten, making it easy to see why Monza is still known as ‘The Temple of Speed’ – even after various chicanes were put in over the years in an attempt to calm down the ferociously high averages.
This year probably forms the last realistic chance for these illustrious records to be broken in the near future, as next year’s new regulations are in theory meant to slow all the cars down a bit – although teams have an uncanny ability to get round that. With the reduced downforce of this year’s cars, they might be even faster down Monza’s straights. Drag is the enemy of top speed, which is why all the teams have a special low downforce set-up to cope with the unique demands of Monza.
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The effect of those monumental top speeds on the tyres shouldn’t be underestimated, with the cars regularly maxing out at around 360kph at Monza.
At speeds in excess of 350kph, a Formula 1 wheel rotates around 2800 times per minute, or nearly 50 times per second.
The top part of the tyre that isn’t in contact with the ground is subject to massive centrifugal force – but its shape doesn’t change by more than 1%. This is an incredible achievement, which all comes down to the low weight of the tyre and exceptional rigidity of the materials developed by Pirelli for Formula 1.
At 360kph, a car is covering 100 metres every second. Yet at Monza, they brake from that speed down to 70kph (shedding 290kph) in just 40 metres. The more you look into the statistics of Monza, the more they astonish you. And that’s why Monza will always be known as the ‘Temple of Speed.’
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