Its corners may not have the absolute peaks of Silverstone or Spa or Suzuka (although the second Lesmo has given drivers a few things to think about over the years) but its straights with maximum speeds of more than 370 kilometres per hour – a few years ago – and subsequent braking areas where the cars slow down to around 70kph from warp speed for the chicanes (especially after the pit straight) mean that cars are always on the limit and then some.
Engines, chassis, suspension, and tyres struggle not to be squashed by the massive vertical aerodynamic loads from start to finish of the lap. But in the end, it’s maximum speed that counts. That comes both from the engine itself and from each car’s individual ability to cut through the air with nearly no downforce, at speeds similar to a jet taking off, which make the single-seaters want to part company with the ground. It’s a comparatively rare set of circumstances: most drivers describe it almost as surfing, which makes it not exactly easy to hold the ideal line on the straights.
Speed has always been of the essence, no matter who wins. In 1971 – one of the last years when the track was devoid of chicanes – Peter Gethin won at an average speed of 241kph. That’s not the average speed of his fastest lap by the way. That was his fastest average speed over the course of the entire race. And, five years later – at the end of a race that will be remembered above all for a heavily bleeding Niki Lauda’s astonishing fourth place, on his return from the fiery Nürburgring accident only six weeks earlier that nearly killed him – March claimed the last Formula 1 win of its illustrious career. At the wheel was Ronnie Petersen: a driver often to be found sideways at 240kph, rally style. He was not particularly bothered back then about the fact that his hastily thrown together car used tiny Formula 2 brakes. After all, who needs to brake at Monza?
But, following this lengthy preamble, now we get to the main point: Monza is red. Because as we said before, Monza does not answer to anyone. It celebrates whoever has the necessary speed to flirt with the laws of physics throughout the race and win. But when that person is at the wheel of Ferrari, its driver leaves ‘la pista magica’ almost as a God. There are so many examples. Niki Lauda again, one year before his dramatic return that we mentioned previously, left Monza as world champion. Ferrari had not been champion since 1963, so Niki automatically became a hero. In 1982, Mario Andretti took the wheel of the Ferrari to fill some big empty shoes at the team that year. Gilles Villeneuve had died in Belgium in May: in August, Didier Peroni was terribly injured at Hockenheim in the rain, then reserve driver Patrick Tambay hurt his shoulder. And so Ferrari called Andretti to plug the gap. Mario was an Italian from the days when Istria was still part of Italy; then he became a naturalised American and champion both in Indy Car and Formula 1 (in 1978), with Lotus. After that, he hardly competed in any grands prix. But still, the call came from Enzo Ferrari. Andretti landed in Malpensa on Wednesday and drove straight to Maranello. He was immediately fitted for his seat and then had a lunch appointment at the fabled Cavallino restaurant in front of the old factory entrance. Tortellini, a taste of roast beef, red wine and dessert. In the afternoon, it was time for him to take to the track at Fiorano for his first taste of the 800 horsepower turbocharged monster. Andretti emerged after 90 or so tours with the lap record. From there he went from Maranello to Monza by motorbike with his wife, stopping over for a night in the Apennines en route, as if he were on holiday. Then the serious stuff. At the track it was the usual routine: practice, debriefs with the engineers, interviews…and on Saturday, pole position. In Sunday’s race, only a technical problem stopped him from winning. And so Mario’s myth grew: leaving the track on Sunday was almost as difficult as setting pole position, thanks to the sheer number of people who wanted a piece of him.
And then the Schumacher years. They may feel like a long time ago now, but they were unforgettable. The German’s first year at Ferrari was also his first Monza victory, in 1996. Four more wins followed: the last ones during the magic five years in which Schumacher picked up at five consecutive titles. For that reason, Schumacher is still a name that is pronounced in tones of hushed awe at Monza. And that’s why Pirelli decided that the most appropriate person to give out the Pirelli Pole Position Award on Saturday to the driver setting pole was none other than Mick Schumacher. Mick, the son of the unforgettable Schumi.