Bob McMurray: Monza + Tifosi = Passion
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For the first time in this 2017 Formula 1 season it looks as if the race for the drivers’ title is as close on track as the narrow points gap suggests.
The Belgian Grand Prix was won by Lewis Hamilton but the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel could so easily have come out on top.
It was the staggering speed and commitment of Hamilton to gain pole position that was the key, and then the guile and driving skill that he used after a safety car restart, that sealed the deal.
Two teams, two cars and two drivers, almost equally matched on one of the most demanding race tracks in the world with Hamilton after the race conceding that Ferrari had the quicker car.
The definition of the word “iconic”, according to Websters dictionary is “widely known and acknowledged especially for distinctive excellence”.
There is a small handful of tracks on which Formula 1 competes in this modern era that can truly be called iconic.
Monaco, Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps, Autodromo Nazionale Monza and Suzuka are the more traditional ones that fit the description perfectly even though “health and safety” demands have modified the original layouts.
At Silverstone the Mercedes team dominated, almost crushed, Ferrari and seemingly cruised to victory.
The high speed, sweeping corners and open track played to the strengths of Lewis Hamilton and Valterri Bottas and the characteristics of the Mercedes power unit.
Ferrari was simply outclassed on a track that rewards power but the team had the upper hand on those slower tracks in the first part of the season that did not demand power.
Last weekend at Spa all the indications and expectations were that Mercedes would, once again, dominate proceedings at a track where the team had reigned supreme for the two previous years.
Not the case as it turned out.
Ferrari had been doing some serious work over the month’s break.
Hamilton and Vettel, both occasionally petulant and enigmatic but the very best drivers among the best open-wheel racers in the world, had a race-long battle that commanded every single drop of driving brilliance and talent that they both possess.
One incident over the weekend drove me to think of another season, long ago, that has similar hallmarks to F1 2017.
At one point over the Spa weekend, 18-year-old Mick Schumacher, son of Michael, drove his father’s 1994 Benetton B194 in an emotional demonstration.
It was at the Italian Grand Prix in 1991 that Michael made his debut in a Benetton car after appearing on the grid for the first time, for the eponymous Jordan team, at the Belgian race the weekend before.
Mick Schumacher, 18, son of Michael, driving his father’s 1994 Benetton B194. Photo / AP
The 1988, 89 and 90 seasons had been dominated by the McLaren team and the 1991 season started in similar fashion with the charismatic Brazilian Ayrton Senna reigning supreme, winning the first four Grands Prix in his McLaren-Honda MP4/6.
After retirements in the first three races of the year, Nigel Mansell, the dour Englishman from the Black Country area of Worcestershire, with a personality described by many as “grating”, had begun to get his Williams FW14 car competitive and won three races.
Senna answered by winning two more, including the Spa event, before the circus descended on the madness that is Monza.
The Ferrari “Tifosi” still regarded Mansell as something of a hero and had nicknamed him Il Leone (The Lion) after his previous two seasons driving for Ferrari.
So the scene was set with Senna taking pole position ahead of Mansell, who followed the McLaren driver for a while before dropping back to third.
Before too long Mansell came again and battle was commenced with the Williams getting past and Senna then pitting for new tyres, eventually having to settle for second place.
As a portent of the future, Schumacher finished fifth.
If nothing else the Monza race proved that the Williams/Mansell combination could now match the McLaren Honda for pure pace on a track that demanded power from the engine and a high degree of bravery and skill from the driver, something Mansell, like Senna, never lacked.
Nigel Mansell finished first in 1992 in the San Marino Grand Prix. Photo / AP
The rest of the season was a battle between the two teams with Senna – McLaren – Honda coming out on top.
Mansell went on to have his finest season, winning the championship in 1992 and became the darling of the British fans driving his famous Williams “Red Five” car.
The Autodromo exudes history from its very pores, with ghosts of the past mingling and drifting happily among heroes of the present.
Of the iconic tracks mentioned above, Monza stands alone in atmosphere, which is felt as soon as you drive through the ancient park entrance gates at the end of the tiny local village streets.
If English is the language of motor racing then “Milanese” is the song of it’s heart, and Monza the adrenaline that keeps that heart beating.
It is the scene of the closest finish in Formula 1 history with Peter Gethin winning the race (his only Formula 1 win) in 1971 by just 0.01 of one second with five cars almost abreast at the line.
Kiwi driver Howden Ganley was fifth, just 0.6 seconds behind Gethin.
The introduction of those blots on the landscape, chicanes, for the next season made sure that a similar finish would never again occur.Monza, at almost 6km long, remains a circuit where absolute power, extremely low downforce, skill in knowing how to slipstream the car in front and how to break the draft to the car behind but, above all, bravery and talent from the cockpit, pays dividends.
Practically the opposite to the hills and dales and multiple turns of Spa with a flat layout and almost oval-style track, Monza is still a huge test of team, man and machine.
With Ferrari bringing new power units and the Tifosi invoking their own special mental powers to help the team along, perhaps Monza 2017 will push the pendulum of the season back in Ferrari’s favour.
As I said at the beginning: “Game On”.