In a small town half an hour from Milan in northern Italy is a place of pilgrimage for the faithful. With the imposing ridge-line of the Alps to the north, the parkland of the Villa Reale royal palace contains one of the most famous tracks in the world: Monza. As with the Nürburgring there is an aura about Monza. A real sense of danger and history, but also an honesty; a place that deserves respect on every level. Its almost non-existent safety measures and huge speeds through the tree-lined route led to a British writer in the 1930s commenting that “Any driver who enters a race at Monza should be a man of great experience, otherwise the way to disaster is easy”.
What we see now, though still magnificent in its own right and following the basic lines of the original, is the result of the post-Second World War rebuild of Monza. The track was originally constructed back in 1922, a glory period for the building of speed bowls and permanent circuits around the world. The Autodrome de Montlhéry near Paris is its contemporary; Brooklands and Indianapolis were built over a decade earlier. The original proposal for Monza comprised two long intersecting lozenges, making up a track 14km in length. Work had even started, but quickly halted after environmental concerns were raised – a typical story even back then.
A modified course was proposed and accepted, which is effectively the layout that is still to be seen today. The high-speed outer ring, La Pista D’Alta Velocita consisted of twin 2.5-metre-high banked curves with a radius of 350 yards, connected by two 1,100-yard straights. The concrete banking and macadam straights were tar-covered, and targeted at the fastest machines of the day: top speeds were expected to be around 120mph.
The road course was 6km long: really four straights linked with challenging, high-speed curves cut through the parkland. Both circuits could be used together to form one enormous, 10km configuration, with the pit-straight shared with the longer road course by means of a crossover on the Rettifilo Tribune. This picture shows the original Rettifilo Centrale, to the outside of its current position.
With a huge workforce dedicated to the task, construction took just 110 days and the track opened for racing on a wet September day in 1922. In the background here you can see the low-banking around the outside of the original inner constant-radius Parabolica corner. But within three years the track was technologically obsolete. Cars and bikes were easily surpassing the bankings’ speed rating, and a horrific accident in 1928 killed a driver and 27 spectators and injured as many again after a collision on the Rettifilo Tribune. A further three GP drivers lost their lives on the South Banking in one event alone in 1933 – ‘Black Sunday’. Something had to be done to improve the safety of both participants and fans.
In 1934 a chopped-down layout was used, with a link built between the Centrale and Levante straights. This ‘Florio’ layout used just the South banking, the Florio cut-through, the main straight and Parabolica. Cars negotiated a hairpin on Rettifilo Tribune before going back up the track in the opposite direction, and chicanes were added on both the exit of the banking and the middle of the old Parabolica – originally a constant radius turn, located inside the current corner. For subsequent years this variant was extended out with the use of the full road course sections, but again with chicanes inserted to slow cars down. Interestingly, these locations evolved into the three current chicanes.
On the eve of the Second World War, the track underwent a major renovation: the main straights were extended out past Parabolica and the South banking to create the Vedano configuration. This phase also saw the Rettifilo Centrale moved in to its current location. The short interior Pirelli track was also created with the addition of the Curva Nord Est section (seen here). Races were run as late as 1940 before the reality of war hit – come 1945 the track had badly deteriorated and was also badly damaged by other tracks – those of Allied tanks holding a parade on the circuit, which caused major damage in a similar situation to events at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium.
Come 1948, a project was undertaken to restore the circuit to racing condition and in just two months the park again echoed to the sound of howling engines – and unfortunately more accidents. In the early ’50s Juan Manuel Fangio was involved in a serious accident at the Lesmos, and Alberto Ascari was killed at Vialone while testing a Ferrari sportscar. But the next major stage in Monza’s evolution came in 1955, when the banking was completely rebuilt and the opening-radius Parabolica we see today added. With cars’ speeds now edging towards 200mph, modern engineering techniques were used to create twin ‘Sopraelevata’ banking sections with a radius of 320 degrees and a progressive gradient – angling to an almost sheer 80 percent around the top. The location of the South banking was brought slightly further in towards Parabolica.
By the mid-1950s lap speeds were averaging 175mph and speeds were only going up and the puny guard rails around the track were hardly sufficient to stop an out-of-control car. In 1961 Ferrari GP driver Wolfgang Von Trips and 15 spectators were killed when he crashed approaching Parabolica – from 1966 chicanes on both sections of banking were often used for races, meaning that the excitement was reduced as much as the danger. This wobbly footage from 1967 (mute the sound for the benefit of your ears) still amply shows the strange sight of some cars peeling off to the North banking while others continue round the GP course.
F1 Grand Prix used a road course uncluttered by chicanes – until 1972 the cars blasted round in slip-streaming packs, only slowing for the four main corners. Just eight gear changes were required per lap around this configuration. But chicanes inexorably sneaked their way into the GP layout: the saw-tooth left-right-left-right Variante Rettifilo, hard left-right of Roggia and triple-apexes of the newly renamed Ascari had appeared by 1976 to create a layout that would stay roughly the same from then on.
Monza is about the passion and emotion of the fans. In the 1970s chaos reigned on the spectator banks. Perimeter fences were quickly scaled. Fans hung from trees, lampposts – anything in fact to see their heroes. Even advertising hoardings had panels kicked out to create vertical mosaics of peeking faces among the defaced posters. Eni might have replaced the old Agip logos, but even on a wet day tramping round the track you could still feel the excitement that Monza creates.
In 1995 further changes were made in the name of safety: looking at old pictures and videos from the ’70s you see just how little run-off there was. The entrance to Curva Grande was tightened and the Lesmos moved inwards to create more space around the outside of the track. In 2000 the first chicane was changed to the current hard-right, double-apex layout; all the kerbs are painted in patriotic red, white and green.
Monza displays its rough edges as a badge of honour. You know you’re at a place which has a heart, a place from which racing came of age as opposed to one constructed to cash in on the riches of Formula 1.
You come across evidence of the track’s history everywhere. Behind a grandstand…
On a barrier by the pit-lane exit…
Hidden beneath newer constructions, like under the newer skin of the bridge over Curva Grande…
On re-used pieces of Armco at the exit of Ascari…
On Campari logos peeking out from underneath the red stripes painted by the starting grid on the double-width Rettifilo Tribune.
Just as piles of modern infrastructure sit around the track, ready to be installed on Grand Prix weekends, so the things that have been replaced can be found – like these old kerbstones from Curva Grande. If only there wasn’t a weight limit on airline hold luggage to the UK…
There are several eras of tribunes around the track, from the most modern (Parabolica), through constructions from the ’70s and ’80s to these, likely original, cast concrete bleachers.
There’s another spiritual link between Monza and the Nürburgring in the form of this bronze cast of Fangio and his Mercedes W196R. One of five, I’ve already seen the second example just outside the main tunnel entrance to the ‘Ring; the others can be found at Monaco, at the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart and at the Mercedes-Benz headquarters in Buenos Aires.
The Monza banking has been threatened with demolition many times over the last couple of decades. Just as the legendary Rouen Les Essarts has been excoriated from northern France, so those with no sense of history or poignancy would like to see the banking removed – or the whole of the Monza track if possible. Thankfully the latest threats to the track have been seen off, and even now the odd lucky racer is able to drive round the banking – though carefully controlled and only at low speeds. The footage that gives you the best view of just what it must have been like is John Frankenheimer’s famous Grand Prix film from 1966 – this clip gives you a low-quality taster, but there’s no comparison to watching the proper film in high definition.
My first contact with the famous walls of concrete came almost as soon as I made my way to the Variante Rettifilo to catch the practice sessions for the Blancpain Endurance Series. As you follow the line of the straight, you have to walk down the banking itself to follow the photographer’s route to the chicane. This is a place where history isn’t hidden away like at some tracks: it can’t be because of its location! On the right is the main grandstand: during races the fans are literally overlooking the banking to see the cars on the main GP track. The grandstand also sits on the location of the 1960s chicane created to slow cars entering the banking.
The most impressive thing is the sinuous nature of the entrance to the North banking: it doesn’t rise up, but instead twists like a DNA helix. The inner apex drops down as the outer shoulder rises and swoops above it.
Wooden posts hold the guardrail in place. Rusting and warped, you can’t help but want to touch it and feel its texture. What caused this particular piece to be forced back? A gently decaying reminder of a more violent bygone era.
And then it just goes on and on… The banking arcs away into the distance; unfortunately fencing prevents you from following it the whole way round.
Along with the opening twist of the North banking, I think this is another stunning view of the track. As you walk down the Pirelli circuit extension the banking looms in the distance, a vertical concrete slash through the trees.
On the reverse side you can see the bunker-like, steel-reinforced concrete underpinnings. Even architecturally it’s an incredible site.
Navigating around the interior of the track between shooting locations, you are literally having a nice walk in the park. The track seems completely incongruous with its forest surrounding, but that’s also intrinsically part of its spirit. The Brands Hatch Grand Prix loop has a similar feel to it: the still of nature versus the shock of automotive power.
Along with the lush grass and flowers, by Curva Del Serraglio is a small, chapel-like building, proudly displaying the Milanese House Of Visconti symbol of a child-devouring snake – part of the Alfa Romeo badge of course. But it’s actually what remains of a zoo, created in the build-up to WW2 when animals were evacuated from Milan’s central zoo. Chickens, goats and various other small animals still strut around, looking more surprised at the sight of people than by the cars that are screaming by — though they’re probably quite used to that by now.
Curva Grande, whose constant arc is so much bigger and longer in real life, takes an age to walk round. On TV or in a game, it seems to be over in a flash. The imposing, vertical wall that hems in the gravel trap is pock-marked with the signs of its age.
Later in the weekend Rod and I made our way to the South banking, via the Rettifilo Levante – the long top straight of the high-speed oval. The exit of the North banking is just visible in the background.
The tar top-cover is long-gone, leaving just the rough concrete sections used to form the base of the banking.
As the straight begins its corkscrew into the South banking there’s evidence of the old chicane created in the 1960s. Just an open rectangle of concrete, the chicane was marked out in period with cones. Now, in one of the few pieces of deliberate (I don’t want to be too harsh, so I won’t say vandalism) alteration is this circular skid-pan, created as part of a driver training course that is held at the track.
The straights are phenomenally long. You would have a long time to think about the upcoming banking, though racing in period you would likely be too wrapped up in tight slipstreaming battles to acknowledge the scenery.
The lightest of turns of the wheel and you’d be into the meat of the banking, foot flat to the floor, with the banking turning you and the car to impossible, near-vertical angles. It must have been exhilarating and frightening in equal measures. Truly you would want to be “a man of great experience”. The banking at the south end is more dug into the landscape compared to the structural North curve. The inside of the corner is a steep bank of earth, showing the original natural ground level.
At the ultimate apex the track is bisected by the straight of the 1938 Vedano track extension, which passes underneath using another swooping tunnel. Another interesting point of note for the detail fanatics: in the film Grand Prix you see cars sweeping round the banking but also disappearing up this straight – which is actually part of the Vedano circuit and wouldn’t have been in use in 1966…
This is a real feature of the track: although the topology is quite flat in general, there is artificial gradient created by all the crossover points because of the tunnels and underpasses (the latter particularly obvious on the approach to Ascari). The shorter track variants must have had a proto-arcade game feel to them – creating a kind of reverse of the overpasses artificially used at the far more recent Slovakiaring.
Each of the sections of banking features two marshal’s posts, located a third of the way around each curve to give them line of site of each other and their respective straights. It’s in stark contrast to the army of marshals and safety workers used nowadays – on the modern GP track there are marshals every 100 yards or so.
These concrete posts originally supported small wooden structures overhanging the cars racing below them.
The concrete might be cracked and decaying, but it has lost none none of its ability to impress.
Due to it being a live racing weekend, a locked gate prevented us following the South banking round to its join with Parabolica, just at the point of the exit of another chicane (visible right) inserted to slow cars down – this one on the banking itself.
Threading our way through the trees we arrived at Parabolica. Compared to modern F1 tracks the track is exceptionally narrow; except for the grandstand straight the track is never more than a couple of car widths across.
Parabolica is now a sea of gravel – though at the speeds that cars approach the late apex it’s still not enough to stop cars skimming across it and into the waiting five-deep tyre barriers.
On wet weekends like this, the open grandstands remain empty except for the most hardy of fans.
You know where you are at Monza. The name of each grandstand creates a connection to the corner you’re watching. This isn’t a rickety tribune at turn seven of some nondescript circuit hosting a race for cash. This is Ascari.
This is Monza.
I've always been aware of the history of the Monza circuit but never knew how much of the old track has survived. Cracking article guys!
This was AMAZING, love the videos. It looks like the pits were a pretty dangerous place to be in the 50's lol.
My buddy an I were at Monza on 09/11/12. Awesome track and great history!! Great article, you caught the essence of the track dead on!!
DEFINITELY the best read here on Speedhunters to date! I've been waiting for this thread ever since the teaser desktop but it was was well worth the wait. You guys should definitely do more of these track histories. I learned so much about Monza that I never knew before! Speedhunting at its best!
P.S. Parcel packaging for the kerbstone shouldn't be too expensive, haha (I know I would do it).
Fascinating track! Awesome feature.You gotta make a Temple of Speed feature about Montlhéry! Pleeeeeease.
Is always nice too see how were the old racetracks and what they became...very nice pics!!!
I think somewhere arround Barcelona there's a similar oval, in the same conditions as the old Monza...
Beautiful. Had to wipe a tear of nostalgia away from my eye and I've never even visited the place. Thank you so much for sharing,
If the oval part of Monza is revived and revamped with safety standards, I think we will see stock cars and IndyCars circling today and beyond.
But I guess it will be a dream... Long live, Monza!