On September 3, 1922, the first motor race took place in the Autodromo Nazionale in Monza. No other racetrack combines speed, passion and tears so closely.
3 September 1922: Italian Pietro Bordino wins the first car race at the new Autodromo in Monza’s Royal Park. The Red Devil of Turin, as his fans reverently called him, sat in a Fiat 501. Prime Minister Luigi Facta was among the guests.
On September 10, 1922, the Italian Grand Prix followed, in front of 200,000 fans (the first took place in Montichiari in 1921). Fiat took off 5,000 factory workers with a special train, which immediately saw a double victory for their brand – with Pietro Bordino ahead of Felice Nazarro with their Fiat 804.
The decision to build a race track was taken by the Milan Motor Club in January 1922, on the occasion of the club’s 25th anniversary. The goals: promoting technical progress, putting Italian car brands in the shop window, finding a home for the Italian Grand Prix.
The track layout was by the architect Alfredo Rosselli, Piero Puricelli’s construction company took care of the execution, all privately financed by investors who believed in the future of Monza.
Rosselli envisioned a 14 kilometer course, but it would have required cutting down too many trees, so it was shortened to about 10 kilometers. Rosselli’s idea to combine a classic track with an oval. Monza became the world’s third permanent racetrack with international flair, after Indianapolis and Brooklands – built by 3,500 workers and with the help of 80 trucks. Work began on 15 May 1922 and was completed by the end of August, in time for the starting race of 3 September.
Almost 100 years later, the loyal Italian sports fans, the legendary Tifosi, are again hoping for a triumph in red – with Charles Leclerc or Carlos Sainz as part of the Italian Grand Prix, in just under a week, on 11 September.
Speed, passion, tears
100 years of Monza means 100 years of speed, passion, tears of joy and upset – breathtaking victories and dark hours. Angelo Sticchi Damiani, President of the Italian Automobile Club: “The Monza track is so much more than just a strip of asphalt. Monza, it’s history, it’s passion, it’s a challenge for many people – as drivers, as designers, as mechanics. Monza touched our lives and advanced the technical progress of the car.”
The celebrations of September 3, 1922 include a time capsule to be placed in the ground and not be retrieved until September 3, 2122.
The commemoration will conclude with a concert by the orchestra of the Giardia di Finanza, the musicians of the Department of Economic Crime will play from 19:00 Admission is free.
Giuseppe Redaelli, president of the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza: “We see this September 3 as a milestone on our way to the future. I wish that in 100 years people will still be standing here to celebrate our Temple of Speed.”
The fastest Grand Prix
Temple of speed indeed: Of the ten fastest Grands Prix in history, nine took place at Monza (and one at Spa-Francorchamps, 1970). Record to this day: The 2003 race with a winning average of 247.585 km/h (Michael Schumacher in the Ferrari). The 2003 Grand Prix also holds the record for the shortest championship run to cover the full distance: the checkered flag fell after 74 minutes and 19.838 seconds.
The Monza circuit is located in the fourth largest park in Europe (688 hectares of land), but the Parco di Monza is the largest walled park in Europe. The park was completed in 1808 after three years and is – for comparison – two and a half times the size of Central Park in New York. There are approximately 110,000 trees in the park, 26 farms, three mills and a deer park (no, really!).
No racetrack has hosted a single national GP more often than Monza: in 2022 the 73rd Italian Grand Prix will be held as part of the Formula 1 World Championship, and all but one of these have been held at Monza. In 1980, the Italian GP was exceptionally held in Imola – because Monza was being renovated.
The 1971 Monza finish is still considered the closest: Peter Gethin in BRM a hundredth of a second ahead of Ronnie Peterson in March! The top five (3rd for François Cevert in the Tyrrell ahead of Mike Hailwood on Surtees and Howden Ganley in another BRM) were all within 61 hundredths of a second. This is also a Formula 1 record.
The Formula 1 World Championship has been decided at Monza twelve times, more than at any other GP racetrack: 1950 (in favor of Giuseppe Farina), 1956 (Juan Manuel Fangio), 1960 (Jack Brabham), 1961 (Phil Hill), 1963 ( Jim Clark), 1966 (Jack Brabham), 1969 (Jackie Stewart), 1972 (Emerson Fittipaldi), 1973 (Jackie Stewart), 1975 (Niki Lauda), 1978 (Mario Andretti), 1979 (Jody Scheckter) – since then but never again not.
The hours of triumph in Monza were always closely linked to hours of tragedy: the American Phil Hill shed bitter tears in 1961 because his title victory was preceded by the fatal accident of Graf Berghe von Trips and fourteen spectators.
Italian-born American Mario Andretti won the title in 1978; his Lotus stablemate Ronnie Peterson died of a fat embolism on Monday night.
52 racers and 35 spectators lost their lives in these 100 years, including the charismatic Alberto Ascari, the most enigmatic of all world champions. His fatal accident on May 26, 1955, a few days after he crashed his racing car into the harbor basin in Monaco, has never been fully explained.
Quite unusually for the superstitious Ascari, he borrowed Eugenio Castellotti’s helmet during the sports car test in Monza and asked for the car. The legend that Ascari tried to evade a man who crossed the track illegally in the Curva Vialone lasts to this day. In Italy there is still talk of the man who confessed to a priest on his deathbed that he was the cause of the fatal accident. Everything hearsay.
Giuseppe Campari lost his life in Monza. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Italian was a star, as feared in single-seaters as in sports cars. Campari was no slouch behind the wheel, feared by his opponents, and laughed scornfully in the face of any danger. “El Negher” was a variant in the Milanese dialect of “il negro”, meaning black, because Campari had a dark complexion and tanned deeply in the sun. In Monza 1933, Campari’s luck ran out – fatal accident after he lost control of his car on an oil patch.
In Monza 1970 the fans mourned the Mainz-born Austrian Jochen Rindt. No one can describe the events better than my colleague Helmut Zwickl – the last day of Jochen Rindt.
The atmosphere in the Royal Park is incomparable, every motorsport lover must have felt this race track at least once in their life. And the Tifosi will do almost anything to smuggle themselves into the Holy of Holies, into the paddock, to maybe be close to a star.
For years, Monza fans have been extremely resourceful when it comes to sneaking into the paddock. Under the motto “Insolence wins”, I have fond memories of the teenager disguised as a pizza deliveryman trying to surprise the law enforcement with the cheeky call “Pizza for Ayrton Senna! Pizza for Ayrton Senna!” The trick almost would have worked – if the law enforcement officers had actually found a fragrant pizza in the box.
The history of the steep walls
In television broadcasts from Monza, you can usually only see it when you switch to the helicopter perspective – the grandiose cliffs of the race track in the royal park.
Little would have been missing for the breathtaking high-speed curves of Monza, «sopraelevate» in Italian, to fall victim to the wrecking ball. A signature campaign was needed to obtain the passages. The result: the high-speed ring (two 320-meter-long curves twisted by up to 80 percent, connected by two 875-meter-long straights) remained – but rotted away.
When security guards were careless at the Monza GP a few years ago, I was able to slip through a checkpoint and get a closer look at the amazing corners. Presumably the venerable concrete pavement didn’t often host a Volvo station wagon.
A ten kilometer track with an oval was the scene of the Italian GP in 1955 and 1956 as well as in 1960 and 1961. In 1957 and 1958 the oval became the stage for an unusual comparison: In the “Race of the Two Worlds”, also called “Monzanapolis” for fun, heroes of the Indy 500 were invited to Monza to compete against the European drivers.
This too makes Monza unique.