The months of August and September invariably host the most thrilling races of the Grand Prix season and offer relief for fans of the old-school in the form of the highly anticipated Belgian and Italian Grand Prix; if there are two races that get the adrenalin pumping equally as vigorously for fans as they do drivers, it’s these two.
The venues have changed somewhat since their inaugural appearances on the Grand Prix calendar but both still posses qualities that many circuits have lost or never had in the first place. While the likes of Hockenheim and the Nurburgring have been trimmed and re-styled to unrecognisable lengths, Spa-Francorchamps and Monza still mirror their former, spectacular selves.
Spa may not be the 15 kilometres it once was but it remains the longest circuit currently on the F1 calendar and while the enormous concrete banking of Monza is no longer in use, the Italian cathedral of speed offers F1 cars the chance to reach higher speeds than at any other venue in use. As a result, both places produce great races and year-on-year the Belgian and Italian Grand Prix are the highlights of the racing season.
Given the demanding nature of both places, Spa and Monza have showcased their fair share of hefty incidents and accidents as well as breath-taking close-calls and manoeuvres. The 1998 Belgian Grand Prix for example saw two of the more memorable moments in Grand Prix racing history: the race ran its entirety in appallingly wet conditions and on exiting the very first corner David Coulthard lost control of his McLaren and collided heavily with a wall lining the inside of the circuit. The rebounding McLaren caused chaos the likes of which hadn’t been seen before or since during a Grand Prix. In total, thirteen drivers were wiped out in the ensuing mayhem – a more calamitous start than even Romain Gosjean’s 2012 effort. The race was halted for more than an hour before resuming without four of the drivers involved.
After pole-sitter Mika Hakkinen crashed out at the restart Damon Hill led before Michael Schumacher took over on lap eight. On lap 24 Schumacher closed in on Coulthard to put the Scot a lap down and Coulthard, having been told to allow Schumacher to pass, slowed on the racing line. Unsighted due to the horrendous spray from the back of Coulthard’s car, Schumacher collided with the McLaren, ripping his Ferrari’s front right wheel off. Coulthard and Schumacher returned to the pits whereupon the German – equipped with a face like thunder – stormed into the McLaren garage to have it out with Coulthard. Ferrari mechanics played the part of Boxing referee and separated the two while Damon Hill scored his last and the Jordan team’s first, win.
Two years later Schumacher would once again be on the losing side of a breath-taking Belgian GP moment, this time when Mika Hakkinen overtook him for the lead with four laps to go while both drivers lapped the BAR of Ricardo Zonta. The lap previous Schumacher had swiped across the nose of Hakkinen’s McLaren in a last-ditched attempt at preserving his lead; the pair touched at 190mph, damaging slightly Hakkinen’s front wing end-plate.
The next lap the pair would come across Zonta’s car in the middle of the track and while Schumacher lapped the Brazilian by going to the left, an incensed Hakkinen ducked out of Schumacher’s slipstream to pass Zonta on the right. Zonta – his eyes presumably shut – stayed firmly in the centre of the track as the Ferrari and Mclaren shot past on both sides at 200mph – Hakkinen with the advantage and a lead that would last until the end of the race.
Monza meanwhile has the distinction of hosting the closest finish in Grand Prix history: in 1971 Peter Gethin claimed his only Grand Prix victory at Monza, just 0.01 seconds ahead of Ronnie Peterson. Fifth place Howden Ganley was merely a further 0.6 seconds adrift with Francois Cevert and Mike Hailwood crammed in between.
With achievable speeds at Monza being over 200mph the Italian venue has inevitably hosted some catastrophic race ending – and sadly life-ending – incidents. The likes of Alberto Ascari in 1955, Wolfgang Von Trips in 1961 and Jochen Rindt in 1970 lost their lives at Monza but more recently, in 2000, fire marshal Paolo Ghislimberti lost his life after being struck by the errant wheel of Heinz-Harold Frentzen’s Jordan. Frentzen and his team-mate Jarno Trulli had made heavy contact with each other entering the first lap’s second chicane. The two Jordans collided with Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard in front of them while behind, Pedro de la Rosa’s Arrows launched over the rear of Johnny Herbert’s Jaguar. The carnage was extraordinary and the death of Paolo Ghislimberti was a truly dark moment for F1.
A thankfully more comical moment with no injuries inflicted to anyone was that of the remarkable way Christian Fittipaldi finished the Italian Grand Prix in 1993. The Brazilian neared the finish line in the slipstream of his Minardi team-mate Pierluigi Martini when the two touched. Fittipaldi’s Minardi executed a near-perfect back-flip before landing on its wheels and skidding across the line.
We are unlikely to see such a close finish at Monza like that of 1971 and it’s a slim possibility that thirteen cars wont complete lap one at Spa à la 1998 but believe me, the Belgian and Italian Grand Prix will be unmissable in 2013…and 2014 for that matter, 2015 too, and 2016, 17, 18…