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The Banks of Monza

September 13, 2009

The banking at Monza reached incredible heights

One of the current themes of not just Formula 1, but motor racing in general, is one of cost-cutting and material conservation.

Mention those two elements in the same sentence as F1 fifteen years ago and you would have been laughed out of every room, but times have changed.
In a greater push to bring costs down, the FIA has introduced a raft of new regulations over the last decade or so, to try to limit amount of waste associated with the sport.
However to assume that this is a recent concept may be something of an error – in fact, the theory of material conservation was originally planted in the early 1950’s, although it is doubtful that economy was the main driving force behind it.

When designers Antonio Beri and Aldo di Renzo set about redesigning and rebuilding the old oval section at Monza, they had a couple of primary motives;

  • in accordance with the thoughts of today, it was considered that rebuilding the oval from the 1920’s would give both brakes and transmissions time to “breathe” following a lap of Monza’s hard braking, hard-shifting circuit, therefore making them last a full race distance with fewer issues; and also
  • it would create a performance track with a very high average speed.

In addition to these points, a very high banking – approximately 38.69 degrees at its highest (the equivalent of a gradient 80%) – would also benefit the steering column and arm section, as the machine would naturally curve around the high banked walls as opposed to the cars having to steer into them.

The map of Monza, with banking.

Beri and di Renzo’s great plan was to have the Autodromo di Monza ready for the 1955 Italian Grand Prix, but they very nearly didn’t make it in time.
Construction began in March of that year as the remaining sections of the old oval from track built in 1922 were demolished and replaced, but severe delays and continuous circuit development problems meant that the track was completed only two weeks prior to the Grand Prix.
Meanwhile difficulties refused to go away. When the new circuit opened, it measured in at 9.8km making the 1955 Italian just under 500 kilometres in length, yet there were still concerns about the bumpiness on the banking’s and quality of surface over many sections.

The first race at the “new” Monza was scheduled to take place less than three months after the great Le Mans disaster that claimed the lives of 84 people – as a result of the Le Mans incident, there were fears that the Grand Prix may be cancelled due to worries about excessive speeds on the banking.
With the tragedy still raw in the minds of many, all the British teams (except for Vanwall) boycotted the race, essentially leaving a field with just Mercedes, Ferrari and Maserati cars. Eventually the Grand Prix was given the go ahead and was taken by the Mercedes of the great Juan-Manual Fangio in a time just shy of 2-and-a-half hours.

The following year, the British teams entered the race following a test to ensure that the cars could survive the high speeds on the outer sections. Sterling Moss took the victory ahead of Fangio in front of a very interested party – American race manager, Duane Carter.
The Autodromo’s chairman, Giuseppe Bacciagaluppi, had often dreamed of a contest whereby the best talent from Europe could take on the might of the US – a proposition made to Carter following the 1956 race.
At the time, the Indianapolis 500 was still part of the Formula 1 World Championship and Bacciagaluppi was determined to bring USAC drivers to Monza to compete in a 500 mile race on the oval section – the first event (called the Monzanapolis 500 or the Race of Two Worlds) took place in June 1957.

Both the regular track and oval woud be used at the same time

Prior to the race, American driver Pat O’Connor conducted a tyre test on the oval and clocked over 225 miles with a top speed of 170mph – the competition had yet to start and the speeds were already 30mph faster than at Indianapolis.
However, apart from a small number of sports car drivers, the first event was shunned by the Formula 1 community and Jimmy Brian won the first Two Worlds Trophy with a combined average speed of 160mph. Unlike the Indianapolis 500, the Monza event was split into three separate 63-lap heats with an hour in between the sprints.

The following year Jim Rathmann took the prize with a minor Formula 1 field present and with Fangio and Maurice Trigtinant in USAC machines while a young rookie called AJ Foyt would replace Trigtinant to make his European début in the second heat.
Nightmares of what might happen should a driver get it wrong or suffer a failure on the steep section were very nearly realised in the final heat as the steering column of Moss’ Maserati failed 20 laps from the end.
Unlike at most circuits where circuits were lined with barriers, tree, hay or ditches, Monza’s steep banking had a small wooden barrier – if a driver broke through it, the only way was down to the forests and track below.
On this occasion, Moss got lucky. He was able to scrub off enough speed before riding the barrier itself; eventually he slowed down enough to safely ride down to the inside lane.

The cover of the 1958 Monzanapolis race

And that was it… Unfortunately the Race of Two Worlds was considered a financial failure, despite being a favourite with drivers and the few fans that did attend.
Grand Prix at Monza over the next couple of seasons took part on the regular circuit and the oval section did not come back into use until the 1960 Italian Grand Prix, but even this reprieve would be short lived.

With Formula 1 machinery becoming faster and faster, it became apparent that at some point soon, they would be too fast and dangerous for the full track.
Sadly, that day would come in September 1961, when an accident involving Ferrari’s Wolfgang von Trips and Lotus’ Jim Clark would claim the lives of fourteen spectators and Von-Trips himself, at the entrance to the oval section – with this carnage so public, the banks of Monza remained closed to the higher echelon’s of motor sport for good.
Although the oval was used for intermittent sports car races from 1961 onwards, it eventually fell into disrepair and the final competitive race on the banks took place in 1969 as more and more events moved to the road circuit for safety reasons.

Since the late-1990’s the banking has escaped demolition on a number of occasion’s and there are petitions and campaigns to get the oval section recognised as a monument of historical significance.
As for now, trees grow around and the concrete is slowly cracking and breaking apart; however there are rumours that it may be saved with the addition of a national park as the centre piece. One can only hope it is true.

1957 Race of Two Worlds

Footage from the 1966 motion picture, Grand Prix

From → Circuit Profiles

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