Magical Monza is one of the most atmospheric venues on the Formula 1 calendar. Head out into the park and as the scream of race engines at full throttle echoes around the trees, you feel touched by the very essence of motor racing.
Aside from the addition of chicanes, the layout of the road course has changed little since the F1 World Championship began in 1950. Our founder Bruce McLaren finished on the podium here driving a Cooper-Climax in 1961, the last of four occasions on which the Italian Grand Prix was held on a combined 10km lap that took in both the road course and the banked concrete oval. Bruce was third behind Phil Hill, who earned enough points to take the drivers’ title, and Dan Gurney.
Fifty years ago F1 cars were powered by 1.5-litre, naturally aspirated engines, and yet they were still lapping at an average speed of nearly 220km/h! Then as now, drivers were at full throttle for a lot of the lap, and many of them were forced out by mechanical attrition.
In 1967, our second year as an F1 constructor, Bruce qualified the BRM V12-engined M5A third on the grid and ran with the leaders right up until lap 46, when the engine cried enough. A year later we were back, now as a two-car team, and with a win under our belts courtesy of Bruce’s victory at Spa-Francorchamps.
The Ford-engined M7A was encouragingly competitive in practice, and Bruce was beaten to pole position by 1967 winner John Surtees by just 0.04sec. Bruce’s team-mate Denny Hulme lined up in seventh place, the middle spot of the third row in the 3-2-3-2 grid.
A young American by the name of Mario Andretti made his first appearance at an F1 World Championship event that weekend, driving a Lotus. But although his qualifying time was good for 10th on the grid, Andretti and his compatriot Bobby Unser were then banned from starting the race because they were planning to fly back to the USA on the Saturday to contest the Hoosier 100 at Indianapolis. The man who would go on to become a motor racing legend did not make his F1 debut until the following grand prix.
Surtees converted pole position into the lead away from the start, but as the cars rounded the Parabolica at the end of the first lap, it was the papaya orange McLaren M7A which headed the field.
A classic slipstreaming battle ensued as Surtees, World Champion in 1964, used every technique in his arsenal to find a way past. On the seventh lap he moved ahead, only for Bruce to snatch back the place almost immediately. Behind them Chris Amon, Jackie Stewart, Jo Siffert and Denny gave chase.
Amon crashed out, and Surtees went off trying to avoid him, but there was no respite for Bruce with three other drivers still in hot pursuit. On lap 35 the pace took its toll on Bruce’s engine and he had to pull into the pits, low on oil. The leading trio continued to dice with one another until mechanical trouble intervened again, first as Stewart’s engine blew and then Siffert’s rear suspension collapsed. For the last 10 laps Denny was out on his own and able to set his own pace, eventually claiming our second ever F1 victory by a minute and a half from Johnny Servoz-Gavin. Only six cars finished the race.
The 1969 Italian Grand Prix was also a thriller, but this time the battle for the lead raged until the chequered flag. Denny qualified second and was part of an eight-car dice for the lead with Bruce in the early laps, but then his brakes lost performance and he dropped back, eventually finishing two laps down and the last of the classified finishers - one of just seven!
Mechanical attrition gradually pruned the field until the battle for the lead came down to four drivers with five laps to run: Stewart, Jochen Rindt, Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Bruce. Out of the final corner they were still tightly bunched, and although Bruce would be classified fourth he crossed the line just 0.19s after Stewart, the winner. Stewart later attributed his success to fitting a ‘longer’ fourth gear, enabling him to make the final lunge to the tape without losing momentum through changing up to fifth.
The installation of chicanes in 1972 altered the shape of the racing at Monza, placing a new emphasis on braking performance. Although our V12-engined rivals were quick in qualifying, the reliability of our M19Cs helped Denny Hulme and Peter Revson to third and fourth.
Monza remained a car-breaker, but although we continued to get our cars to the finish here throughout the 1970s, somehow we fell short of the top step of the podium. Revson was third in 1973, and Emerson Fittipaldi finished second (pipped by 0.8sec) on his way to the world title in 1974, then again in 1975. James Hunt put his M26 on pole in 1977 but spun out.
Niki Lauda brought our succession of near misses to an end in 1984, but it was far from an easy victory. As usual, the Brabham-BMWs used extra turbo boost to good effect in qualifying, while the characteristics of our TAG V6 did not suit higher boost settings so Alain Prost and Niki lined up second and fourth in their MP4-2s. Both cars had issues with water leaks and fluctuating boost during Sunday’s warm-up session, and Niki had suffered a slipped disc after clipping a kerb too sharply in practice. Time was running out to find a solution. Niki took his usual car, with a fresh engine, while Alain swapped to the spare chassis.
All seemed well at the start as Alain set off in pursuit of Nelson Piquet, challenging for the lead. But as they crossed the line at the end of lap three Alain’s engine let go in a cloud of steam, with no warning. That left Niki, in constant pain from his injured back, to lead the McLaren challenge. Piquet hit a kerb too hard and damaged a radiator, ceding the lead to the Renault of Patrick Tambay, and on lap 40 of 51 Niki passed Piquet’s team-mate Teo Fabi for second. Up front, Tambay was in trouble as his throttle linkage began to seize up.
Once again Monza was living up to its reputation as a breaker of cars. Niki passed Tambay and then Fabi’s car lost its oil, enabling Niki to ease off over the final laps. Even so, he had a comfortable lead, having lapped everyone up to second-placed Michele Alboreto.
Alain made up for his disappointment a year later, winning the Italian Grand Prix from fifth on the grid. He shadowed the Williams of Keke Rosberg throughout, and when Rosberg’s engine failed with 17 laps left to run Alain moved into a comfortable lead.
Ayrton Senna set four consecutive pole positions here with us between 1988 and 1991, but this streak got off to an unfortunate start when he was taken out of the lead of the 1988 race while lapping a backmarker. In 1989 he went out with engine failure, though Alain went on to win for McLaren, so it wasn’t until 1990 that Ayrton was able to convert pole position into a race win. Even then it was a hard-fought race between him and Alain, now driving for Ferrari.
In 1991 Ayrton set the fastest lap but ultimately finished second to the resurgent Williams of Nigel Mansell, his main rival for the drivers’ title. The following year Ayrton lost out to Mansell in the battle for pole but he was well placed to pounce when both the Williams cars suffered hydraulics failures.
David Coulthard’s quick reflexes made for a spectacular moment as he corrected a huge slide in the Ascari chicane during the 1997 race. Jean Alesi led for Benetton, while David followed but could not quite find enough top speed to get past. When they both pitted on lap 32, our fast-working pit crew sent David on his way sooner – an advantage that meant he took the chequered flag first.
We achieved a triple in 2005 – pole position, win and fastest lap – as Juan Pablo Montoya led from the front and Kimi Raikkonen charged through the field after having to take a new engine after qualifying, incurring a grid penalty. There was no touching Juan Pablo, right up until the closing laps when tyre wear forced him to slow down (in 2005 tyre changes were forbidden except on safety grounds).
Kimi started 11th on the grid after his 10-place penalty, and with a very heavy fuel load he took the opening laps steadily until the cars ahead began to pit. Then he put the hammer down, setting the fastest lap. Our strategists had calculated that Kimi could finish second, but we were robbed – a rear tyre started to delaminate and Kimi had to pit, dropping him to 12th. On fresh tyres he got stuck in again and rose to fourth.
Kimi put his MP4-21 on pole in 2006 but was edged into second place in the race by Michael Schumacher, who was battling for the world title with Fernando Alonso. In 2007 it was Fernando, wearing the number one on the nose of a McLaren-Mercedes MP4-22, who sat on pole at Monza.
Fernando’s dominant performance – winning from the front and setting the fastest lap in the process – made for a very sweet victory.