Monza Historic

For many Italians, motor racing is a religion and their temple of speed is the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza. Located just north of Milan and completed in the fall of 1922, 'Monza' was only the third purpose-built race track in the world. Like Brooklands and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that were constructed before it, the Italian track featured banked corners. What really set it apart was that in addition to a full oval, the track also consisted of a proper road circuit.

The first event hosted at Monza was the Italian Grand Prix, and the track has been on the Formula 1 calendar every year with the exception of 1980. Over the years there have been also a wide variety of other major events on the track. Among the most notable of these was the Monza 1000 km, which was part of the World Sports Car Championship for many years. While many modifications have been made to the track, its spirit has been retained, making it a perfect for a historic race meeting like the suitable named Monza Historic staged for the fourth time in September of 2020.

The track is located in the 'Royal Villa' park on the outskirts of the city of Monza. "You drive into a public park and there it is hidden away. Amazing that it still exists in a city, only the Italians could allow that." British historic racer James Cottingham explains. He continues: "Throughout the park you find wonderful old buildings and signs of its past." In its original configuration, Monza had a unique layout, which saw the cars run parallel down the main straight. The cars running on the right side of the track entered the banked section. After completing the four corners of the oval, the cars arrived on the main straight once more, but now on the left hand side. What then lay ahead were four long straights connected by several high speed corners. The nick-name Temple of Speed was certainly a very apt description for the 10 km track.

Over the years, the track was modified several times, predominantly to make it safer. The oval section was abandoned on several occasions and for a final time at the end of the 1961 season. The remaining corners of the road circuit were also modified and three chicanes were added but the track remains the fastest on the Formula 1 calendar. At the 2020 Italian Grand Prix, Lewis

Hamilton set a pole position lap with a mind-boggling average speed of just over 264 km/h. Despite the changes, Cottingham feels the nick name still applies: "Called the temple of speed you can easily understand why, almost as if mythological gods come there at lunch time to practise! I can not imagine what it was like to do one lap on the banking and then the next on the circuit! What a shame we can not experience that. Today the circuit still works well despite the chicanes, and the real soul of the circuit is not lost as a result of these. It is a high speed thrill for sure, every lap!"

Although no longer in service for nearly 60 years, the original oval sections of the track are still in place. The condition of the concrete structures has declined over the years but this patina adds to the appeal of the track. Much the same can be said for the tree-lined section of the track that is still in use. Most of the run-off areas are still gravel or grass, which means there is little room for errors, especially compared to the tracks built or substantially modified during the last 25 years. When I visited the track for the first time some 15 years ago, what stood out first was the derelict condition of some of the buildings. It was not until I walked through the woods in the vast infield section that I appreciated Monza as fully as is possible on the trackside. There was not a car in sight but the sound of racing engines reverberating through the trees truly was something magical. Of course, a whole other dimension is added to the Monza experience when racing down the main straight at speeds of well over 300 km/h.

Even though Monza is located in what was the epicentre of the first COVID-19 outbreak in Europe, the track was one of the first to return to action on the continent. The first international event was the Monza 12H sports car race held in during the second weekend of July. Then, in early September, the 2020 Italian Grand Prix was held. Historic racing returned a fortnight later with the Monza Historic, organised by French specialists Peter Auto. Sadly, the current health situation did force the track officials to keep the doors to the temple of speed closed for its devotees.

On the curtailed Peter Auto calendar, the Monza Historic was the second of three rounds. That means that the familiar eight grids were represented with many of the same cars and drivers. Fortunately, and perhaps also surprisingly, there are always cars and drivers new to the series that make their appearance. Among the most notable at Monza was the very first Porsche 956 customer car that was driven to third overall at Le Mans by Philippe Alliott and father and son Mario and Michael Andretti. The same Group C field also featured the last Porsche 962 driven by American racer Bob Akin, still wearing his well known Coca-Cola livery. While some competitors get enjoyment out of simply driving their cars at speed, others come to compete. Cottingham certainly falls in the latter category and entered two cars that were certainly capable of winning; a Shelby Cobra from the early 1960s in the Sixties' Endurance race and a 2001 Dallara Judd Le Mans Prototype in the Endurance Racing Legends race.

He experienced few problems switching between the two: "The cars are so different it makes it easy as both are a completely different discipline with a completely different strategy. Which one do I prefer a lap in? that is hard to say as each is more rewarding in different areas."

Sharing the Cobra with his DK Engineering colleague Harvey Stanley, Cottingham started the twohour Sixties' Endurance race third on the grid. In the opening laps, he managed to grab the lead from the pole-sitting Bizzarrini that was started by owner David Hart. Sadly, mechanical issues saw Cottingham retire from the race before the half-hour mark. A true race of attrition, the event saw more top runners drop out.

Eventually, it was Olivier Hart that crossed the line first in the Cobra he had taken over from Urs Beck. The young Dutchman had lapped the entire field but was sadly penalised due to paperwork issues. This promoted the French pairing of Michel Lecourt and Raymond Narac to the top step with their Shelby Cobra Daytona tribute. Lecourt and Narac were also the chief rivals for Cottingham in the Endurance Racing Legends field, this time with Lecourt's glorious Ferrari 333 SP. Having averaged just over 203 km/h, Cottingham placed his V10-engined machine on pole for both 30-minute races. The first was run on a very slippery, drying track, which saw Narac briefly move into the lead with the Ferrari. Cottingham quickly bounced back in the Dallara and he would grab the win in both races. Second in both races was for German Dominik Roschmann in his very rare Prodrive-built Ferrari 550 GTS Maranello.

Racing nose-to-tail for many laps and even side-by-side at several occasions, Nicky Pastorelli in a Lola T70 and Claudio Roddaro in a Porsche 917 put on a superb show in the Classic Endurance Racing 1 race. Eventually, the former Champcar driver took the victory in the Lola that had been started by owner David Hart. The 2.0L Cup for early Porsche 911s was also surprisingly interesting with the leading cars rarely more than a few car lengths apart throughout the 90- minute race. Eventually, just 14 seconds separated winners Richard Cook and Harvey Stanley and Philippe de Craene in second place. Despite the uncertain times, the Monza Historic attracted an impressive 190 historic racing cars spread over eight different grids. Feeling right at home that put on a great show, which we hope can be enjoyed by the Tifosi once more in 2021.

Words by Wouter Melissen, Images courtesy of Nat Twiss & Wouter

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