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Monza 1961 - triumph and tragedy for Ferrari 07 Sep 2007

Race winner Phil Hill (USA) Ferrari 156 leads the field en route to becoming the first American World Champion Ð albeit in tragic circumstances. Italian Grand Prix, Monza, 10 September 1961. World © Phipps/Sutton Wolfgang von Trips (GER) Ferrari 156 was involved in a horrific crash on the approach to the Parabolica that tragically killed him and fourteen spectators. Italian Grand Prix, Monza, 10 September 1961. World © Phipps/Sutton Phil Hill(USA) Ferrari 156, takes the flag to win the race Italian Grand Prix, Monza, 10th September 1961. World © Phipps/Sutton (L to R) Chris Amon (NZL) Ferrari 312; Mauro Forghieri - chief engineer at Ferarri; Ferrari founder and owner Enzo Ferrari (ITA). Italian Grand Prix, Monza 10 September 1967. World © Phipps/Sutton  
Wolfgang von Trips (GER) Italian Grand Prix, Monza, 10th September 1961

Formula One teams are well aware of the cyclical nature of their sport. Within the space of a season, a weekend, or even a race, their fortunes can swing between high and low with startling speed.

During more than half a century of racing, Ferrari have certainly experienced their fair share of ups and downs, not least during the 1961 Italian Grand Prix. That season the Monza race saw the Scuderia win their first drivers’ title in four years, but also lose one of their most promising stars. We take a look back at that bittersweet weekend…

It had all looked so promising. Ferrari had coped well with the regulation change to 1.5-litre engines and their V6 ‘sharknose’ 156 had been the car to beat all season. Of the six races prior to Monza, a Ferrari driver had won four. 1961 was clearly Ferrari’s year and the championship was set to be decided in their favour - and on their home soil.

America’s brightest Formula One hope Phil Hill had won the Italian round for Ferrari in 1960, and in 1961 Hill had already clinched victory in Belgium. However, it was team mate, Count Wolfgang von Trips, who had the championship in his grasp. Von Trips had won the Dutch and British races (Giancarlo Baghetti, driving his private Ferrari had been victorious in France) and, with a further two second-place finishes, was leading the title chase by eight points.

The charismatic Count, who would remain Germany’s most successful driver until the arrival of a certain Michael Schumacher, was odds-on favourite to take victory - and the championship - at Monza. Staking his claim early on, von Trips scored pole position during qualifying, leading fellow Ferrari pilots Ricardo Rodriguez, Richie Ginther and Hill in the times.

Fortune looked to be favouring the German driver, but everything was to change on race day. As the Grand Prix got underway, it was Hill and Ginther who enjoyed the best starts, fighting their way to the front into Turn One, followed by Rodriguez, a quick Jim Clark in the Lotus and then von Trips in fifth.

There was still hope for the German aristocrat; a lot could happen over the next 43 laps. But within minutes everything had changed. As Clark and von Trips approached the Parabolica on that fateful first lap, the two cars made contact. The catastrophic collision saw the Ferrari vault into the air, hit a spectator fence and flip into a roll. Thrown from his car, the championship leader was dead. Germany had lost its hero.

As the dust settled, Clark clambered uninjured from his Lotus, but it later became clear that 14 spectators had also lost their lives during the accident. As the race continued Ferrari’s pace was dominant, but with Rodriguez, Baghetti and Ginther all succumbing to mechanical troubles during the early stages, at half distance Hill’s was the sole remaining Ferrari, the American unaware of von Trip’s demise.

His lead, however, was insurmountable and he clinched the win ahead of Porsche driver Dan Gurney to give him the title by a single point from von Trips. The new world champion’s celebrations, however, did not last long. Informed of his team mate’s death upon his arrival back in the pits, Hill was devastated, his title forever tarnished.

The entire Ferrari team immediately pulled out of the impending United States Grand Prix out of respect for their dead driver. Instead of racing, Hill would act as a pallbearer at von Trips’ funeral. Although he would continue to race in Formula One for a further four years, the American’s career would never fully recover.