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Flashback: Italy '71 - too close to call 03 Sep 2013

Peter Gethin (BRM P160) pips Ronnie Peterson (March 711), Francois Cevert (Tyrrell 002), Mike Hailwood (Surtees TS9) and Howden Ganley (BRM P160) across the line at the finish of the 1971 Italian Grand Prix, Monza The start and Clay Regazzoni (Ferrari 312B2) gets the jump on the pack, 1971 Italian Grand Prix, Monza Clay Regazzoni (Ferrari 312B2) leads Jo Siffert (BRM P160), Ronnie Peterson (March 711 Ford), Jackie Stewart (Tyrrell 003 Ford) and Jacky Ickx (Ferrari 312B) into Parabolica, 1971 Italian Grand Prix, Monza Clay Regazzoni leads team mate Jacky Ickx (both Ferrari 312Bs), Chris Amon (Matra Simca MS120B), Howden Ganley and Jo Siffert (both BRM P160s) and Francois Cevert (Tyrrell 003 Ford) at the start, 1971 Italian Grand Prix, Monza Ronnie Peterson (March 711-Ford) gets sideways ahead of Chris Amon (Matra-Simca MS120B). 1971 Italian Grand Prix, Monza Jacky Ickx (BEL) Ferrari 312B2 retired on lap 17 with an engine failure. Italian Grand Prix, Monza, 5 September 1971. World © Phipps/Sutton Chris Amon (Matra-Simca MS120B) leads Francois Cevert (Tyrrell 002 Ford), Mike Hailwood (Surtees TS9 Ford) and the lead group, 1971 Italian Grand Prix, Monza Peter Gethin (BRM P160), 1st position, 1971 Italian Grand Prix, Monza Francois Cevert (Tyrrell 002) leads the field as they enter the Parabolica. Italian Grand Prix, Monza, 5 September 1971 Chris Amon (Matra-Simca MS120B) leads Peter Gethin (BRM P160). They finished in 6th and 1st positions respectively, 1971 Italian Grand Prix, Monza Peter Gethin (BRM P160) leads Ronnie Peterson (March 711), Mike Hailwood (Surtees TS9)Francois Cevert (Tyrrell 002) and Howden Ganley (BRM P160). 1971 Italian Grand Prix,
Monza Mike Hailwood (Surtees TS9) leads the slipstreaming lead pack late in the 1971 Italian Grand Prix at Monza Peter Gethin celebrates victory in the 1971 Italian Grand Prix at Monza with  Louis Stanley, BRM Team Owner Peter Gethin (BRM P160), 1st position, on the podium with the winners' trophy, 1971 Italian Grand Prix, Monza

There have been many exceptionally close finishes in the history of Formula One racing, but few can match the drama of the astonishing Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1971, when the first five cars home crossed the line within 0.61 seconds of each other. On the eve of the Formula 1 Gran Premio d’Italia 2013 we remember the slipstreaming classic which produced the one and only Grand Prix victory for British racer Peter Gethin…

It’s not for nothing that Monza is known as the ‘cathedral of speed’. Since it opened in 1922 Monza has been characterised by long straights that cut through parkland forest, but whilst today the flat-out blasts are broken up by several low-speed chicanes, for the majority of races before 1972 there were only seven sweeping bends for the drivers to contend with.

It was not a track for the faint hearted. All of those entering the 1971 Italian Grand Prix, round 9 of 11 in that year’s championship, knew that to win they would need not only an efficient low-drag set-up and an engine with plenty of horsepower, but also the iron will and deft skill necessary to slipstream effectively.

Slipstreaming - the technique in which a driver tucks in closely behind the car in front and then uses the reduction in drag to try and slingshot past their opponent - was the defining characteristic of racing at Monza on the pre-chicane layout.

But it wasn’t just during the race that slipstreaming was a valued tactic. According to contemporary accounts, throughout practice it was commonplace to see cars cruising down Monza’s back straight, their drivers looking eagerly in their wing mirrors waiting for another driver to pass and provide a tow. This led to some frantic nose-to-tail action and some exceedingly quick lap times, such as that achieved by Chris Amon. The New Zealander played the slipstreaming game perfectly to draft his Matra-Simca to an extraordinary lap of 1m 22.40s (an average of nearly 156mph) and pole position.

To the home crowd’s delight, lining up alongside Amon on the grid was Jacky Ickx in the Ferrari 312B/1. The Scuderia had been out of sorts all season, but a mid-practice switch from Firestone to Goodyear rubber provided Ickx with the extra impetus he needed.

Amazingly, the cars occupying positions three to 12 on the grid all set times that improved on the previous year’s qualifying best. They were, in order, Jo Siffert’s and Howden Ganley’s BRMs, Francois Cevert’s Tyrrell, Ronnie Peterson’s March, Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell, Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari, Tim Schenken’s Brabham, Henri Pescarolo’s March, Peter Gethin’s and Helmut Marko’s respective BRMs and Jackie Oliver’s McLaren. It was a relatively inexperienced top order, of which only four drivers - Ickx, Siffert, Stewart and Regazzoni - had ever won a Grand Prix. The rest merely ached to do so.

Race day brought intensely hot weather and bulging grandstands. The morning warm-up session passed without major incident, though pole-sitter Amon preferred to watch his rivals from the sidelines rather than join in. The next the crowd would see of the pale blue Matra was when it led the snaking field around the circuit and on to the starting grid.

As the flag dropped to start the race, Amon and Ickx bogged down and Regazzoni bolted from eighth into an improbable lead. The tifosi nearly raised the roof from the grandstand as the Swiss driver led his scarlet car across the line to complete the first lap, closely pursued by countryman Siffert. Amon and Ickx had been swamped by the field and languished in sixth and eighth respectively, behind Stewart, Ganley and Peterson.

There may have been a long way to go, but the battle for the lead raged furiously at the front and the third lap ended with Regazzoni, Siffert and Peterson crossing the line in unison, only inches apart. At such speeds - around 185mph on the straights - touching wheels would have had devastating consequences, but such was the driving skill on display that the leading pack was able to shuffle positions cleanly.

The slipstreaming and position swapping continued in earnest over the first ten laps, although some of the frontrunners were beginning to suffer problems, many associated with the heat. Amon had a blistered front-left tyre and Siffert’s and Ganley’s cars were both running much hotter than desired when in traffic.

The frenetic action at the front could be partially explained by the rather unique prize money system in place at the event. Drivers were awarded Lira according to their position on laps 13, 26, 39 and 55 (the finish) and it was Peterson who bagged the first cash prize as he led a leading pack consisting of Cevert, Regazzoni, Stewart, Ickx, Siffert, Ganley, former motorbike world champion Mike Hailwood (in the Surtees), Amon and Gethin.

Positions continued to swap back and forth until the 16th lap when one of the leading contenders dropped out of contention with a blown engine - runaway championship leader Stewart. Soon after, Ickx’s engine suffered the same fate, much to the locals’ chagrin, and their misery was compounded two laps later when Regazzoni’s motor also expired.

As cars dropped out in front of him, Hailwood continued to climb the order until on lap 25 he caught and passed Cevert and Peterson for the lead. Three laps later and there was another change of lead as Siffert, having overcome his earlier problems, swept to the front. Likewise, Amon had recovered from earlier tyre woes and his brutish Simca V12 had helped him join up with the gaggle of leading cars as they crossed the line at the end of the 30th lap.

Unfortunately for Siffert, his revival was short lived, as his BRM soon got itself jammed in fourth gear. The Swiss driver pluckily carried on, but the lead group was soon out of sight. Peterson, Cevert and Hailwood continued to squabble for P1, with Amon joining and then passing them on lap 37. Ganley gamely kept in touch in fifth, whilst Gethin was a comfortable sixth.

With ten laps to go, Amon held what was probably the most commanding lead of the race - his Matra not so fast that the rest couldn’t keep up, but too quick for anyone to pass. Then, with victory in sight, he suffered an unusual catastrophe that would rob him of an overdue maiden win. Trying to remove a single tear-off layer from his visor, he accidentally pulled his entire visor off, opening his face up to untold buffeting. Understandably he dropped back as Peterson, Cevert, Hailwood, Ganley and Gethin - themselves all looking for a first win - roared on.

Five laps to go and it was anyone’s race. Hailwood led the five-car pack across the line on lap 51, but on lap 52 Gethin moved his BRM to the front for the first time. He was still ahead on lap 53 but by the end of 54 had been shuffled back to fourth by the slipstreaming gang as Peterson led once more.

With one lap to go only Ganley looked out of the chase for victory, although he was more than close enough to benefit should the front four trip over each other.

Down the back straight and towards the final corner, the Parabolica, and the order had changed again - Cevert now led Peterson, but the Swede threw his March up the inside of the Frenchman’s Tyrrell as they turned into the long right hander. He succeeded in grabbing the lead, but ran too wide. Taking advantage, Gethin got on the power and passed both cars to exit the final corner marginally in the lead.

All five cars raced to the line, the crowd held its breath, the flag dropped. The result? Peter Gethin, 1 hour 18 minutes 12.60 seconds; Ronnie Peterson, 1 hour 18 minutes 12.61 seconds; Francois Cevert, 1 hour 18 minutes 12.69 seconds; Mike Hailwood, 1 hour 18 minutes 12.78 seconds; Howden Ganley, 1 hour 18 minutes 13.21 seconds.

Not only was it the closest finish ever seen - and perhaps the closest finish F1 racing will ever see - but it was also the fastest race the sport had ever seen, run at an astonishing average speed of 150.788mph.

With race organisers installing tyre chicanes to slow the cars ahead of the 1972 race, the 1971 Italian Grand Prix would prove to be the last hurrah for Monza’s old slipstream-friendly layout - but what a hurrah it was.

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