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Track Back - Autodromo Nazionale di Monza - A closer look at the legendary Italian circuit

Published by Adam Burn

Several words come to my mind when I think of Monza - speed, history, death, passion.

Right from its creation in 1922, Monza has always been a fast track.

Built in the woodland setting of the Royal Villa of Monza park, the blasts through the trees only served to heighten the feeling of speed generated by the original 5.5 kilometre layout.

If you see a map of the original circuit, it does look quite familiar. Curva Grande was there, so were the two Lesmo bends and the legendary Parabolica.

But what you'll also see is an oval...

Had you seen this circuit in America it wouldn't have looked out of place, but the fact is that this circuit is not far to the north of Italy's fashion capital, Milan.

Today the circuit is slightly longer at 5.7 kilometres with three extra chicanes - the Turn 1 Rettifilio, the Della Roggia and the Ascari. However, outright speed is still what wins and loses you races there.

Of course, outright speed comes down to two main factors - power and aerodynamic drag. Going into the Rettifilio chicane last season, F1 cars were screaming along at 340km/h.

Even though they suffered from issues of braking stability compared to the Ferrari's, Jenson Button's McLaren was still a match for them at Monza thanks to the Mercedes power plant at his disposal - widely regarded as the most powerful in F1. Conversely, the Red Bulls suffered because of their lack of power by comparison. The dominating car of 2010 was neutralised by its Renault engine deficiency, something that on any other circuit it could overcome with aero grip, but not on Monza's flat out straights.

Then you look at aero drag for the other half of the secret to success at Monza. McLaren and Ferrari also had very good F-duct systems compared to the Red Bull. Sebastian Vettel admitted "We do not have the pace here, we don't have the speed on the straights… the weapons we fight with are fairly limited." It's no coincidence that they also struggled in Montreal, another circuit where chicanes and straights abound.

A circuit still being raced on at the highest level almost 90 years after it was built does have some impressive history behind it. Unfortunately, much of that history has been dominated by death.

In 1928, Italy's biggest ever motorsport tragedy occurred. Emilio Materassi tried to overtake a rival on the main straight at over 200 km/h. His car swerved to the left, jumped over a large protection ditch, then a fence and crashed into the grandstand.

Materassi was killed instantly along with at least 20 spectators, although accounts vary as to the final death toll. Some suggest it was as high as 28. The accident's body count has only ever been surpassed in motorsport history by the 1955 Le Mans disaster when 84 people were killed.

The lengthy list of those who've died at Monza includes F1 drivers Alberto Ascari, Count Wolfgang von Trips, Jochen Rindt and Ronnie Peterson. Paolo Gislimberti, a marshal, was killed during the 2000 race by flying debris.

It's fair to say Monza has seen more than its fair share of death.

However it's also provided some thrilling races over the years - 1971 being the most famous of all. Often referred to as "the fastest F1 race ever" (at 242.6km/h average speed, it did hold the record until 2003), it also provided what will probably never be topped as the closest race in history.

The circuit, which at the time had no chicanes, provided a non-stop slipstreaming battle for 55 laps. In the end, it was Peter Gethin winning by a margin of 0.01 seconds from Ronnie Peterson after starting the final lap in 4th place. A staggeringly small 0.61 seconds covered the top 5.

It wouldn't be Monza if I didn't talk about passion, for it is one of the spiritual homes of motorsport anywhere in the world. And at Monza, passion is always in evidence thanks to the huge numbers and sea of red provided by the Ferrari supporting Tifosi. Their fervour is not only much admired, but much envied by the other teams - however as we all know well, Ferrari does have a special place in F1 for being there since 1950.

I'm sure if I got to walk around Monza, I would feel the ghosts of motorsport's past - all the champions that have won there, those that have lost their lives there.

In the light of the current debate about the Rome street race, it's hard to imagine anything would ever knock Monza off its perch as the undoubted home of Italian motorsport.