The hidden history of the Monza banking 30 Aug 2005
Few racetracks in the world can boast as much historical association as Monza. Built in deep woodland the circuit is a strange, evocative place - and the contrast between its absolute tranquillity throughout most of the year and the wild excitement of the Italian Grand Prix weekend is total.
Yet, for all that it has become a modern Formula One circuit, rebuilt over the years with gravel traps and debris netting to the FIA's stringent safety standards, if you know where to look it's still possible to find plenty of the old Monza.
Most famous, and most spectacular, is the heavily banked section of the track that now gently decays in the woods - but which was once (however improbable it seems when you stand at the bottom and look up) used for Grand Prix racing - and even an American-style oval race. Monza was one of the first purpose-built racetracks in the world, designed as a palace of speed and as a perfect showcase for the performance of the Italian motor industry, with construction work begun as early as 1922 - making it older than any other track, bar Indianapolis, still used for Formula One racing.
Two separate tracks were constructed at Monza, the road circuit, the distinctive four-sided shape that has survived in essence to become the modern track, and also a high-speed banked speed circuit, a 4.25 km long oval. Like other early racetracks, banking was incorporated as a way of helping the relatively primitive cars of the day to corner faster, although the original low banking at Monza was far less impressive than the later high banking that survives today.
The circuit survived the war (being briefly used as a tank test-track by allied forces) with the Italian Grand Prix returning in 1948. However, the track was in a poor condition and ambitious plans were quickly formed to completely revamp it - in 1954 construction began of what is basically the modern road circuit and also a dramatic new oval, now featuring the famous high banking. This allowed Monza's most fearsome layout to be constructed, a combined lap of both the road and speed courses, giving a 10km long lap - the course being first used for the 1955 Italian Grand Prix in which Juan Manuel Fangio took a brilliant victory.
It wasn't just Formula One cars that raced on the oval - it was also the scene for one of the stranger races of the period, the Race of Two Worlds, with American-spec Indycars brought over to race in what turned out to be a one-off event, held over three rounds and won by the American Jim Rathman. By the early 1960s safety concerns were becoming an increasing issue as speeds continued to rise, and Formula One stopped using the banking - although it did feature in the famous 1966 film Grand Prix, starring James Garner. Other racing series continued to use it until the end of the 1960s, but since then on it has slowly decayed and mouldered.
The banking narrowly escaped planned demolition in the late 1990s - and its longer term future is by no means assured. So if you get a chance then go and have a look at this spectacular monument to the excitement and danger that was the old Monza circuit.