September 04 2009
It’s already been a tumultuous season for Formula One, with dramatic developments both on and off the track. Britain’s Jenson Button, driving for the new Brawn GP team, won six of the first eight races and by mid-July – with the battle for the World Drivers’ Championship still only at the halfway stage – was a prohibitive 1-2 in places to win his first title. Meanwhile, the sport’s governing body, the FIA, and its controversial president Max Mosley, has been involved in a bitter dispute with the teams’ association, FOTA, over Mosley’s proposals for a £40m budget cap in 2010. At one point eight dissident teams, led by the elegant Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, threatened to set up their own breakaway championship, but it was Mosley who appeared to blink first in June, agreeing to a compromise over cost reductions and announcing that, after 16 years in office, he would not seek re-election this October.
We can look forward to a further instalment of the Top Gear saga when the circus moves to Italy next Sunday for what is the longest-running Grand Prix in the calendar. The Autodromo Nazionale Monza, to give the Italian circuit its proper name, is one of the fastest and most demanding in the world, and regularly tests men and their machines to the limit. But, as you might expect of an event that’s only a 10-minute train ride from the centre of Milan, the Italian Grand Prix is also an occasion swathed in sophistication and style.
There has been racing at Monza since 1922 and the track’s history is entwined with some of the greatest names in motorsport: men such as the Italians Alberto Ascari and Eugenio Castelloti, Britain’s Stirling Moss, the aristocratic German Wolfgang von Trips (who was killed in a crash there in 1961) and the legendary Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio, who drove variously for Lancia-Ferrari, Maserati and Mercedes and won a hat-trick at Monza between 1953 and 1955. Kitted out in goggles, scarves and old-fashioned helmets, and wearing next to no protective clothing, Fangio and his contemporaries may have looked more like Mr Toad in The Wind In The Willows than a modern-day racing driver but they were the sporting idols of their day, and at Monza they were fêted by adoring male and female fans alike.
Crowds of over 150,000 would flock to the track in the 1950s and, in recent years, Monza has again been synonymous with Italian design success thanks to the achievements of the famous Scuderia Ferrari, whose Maranello factory is only 100 miles away. To passionate Italian motorsports lovers, or tifosi, cheering on a Ferrari driver in the Italian Grand Prix is the equivalent of supporting Inter or AC Milan in a Champions League game at the San Siro. They expect – indeed, demand – success and, in their eyes, nobody has done it better than Michael Schumacher, who won at Monza five times for Ferrari and, before a neck injury put paid to it, was hoping to return this year, coming out of retirement to replace the injured Felipe Massa.
Twelve months ago victory went to another precociously talented young German but Sebastian Vettel was driving for the upstart Red Bull team and there wasn’t a single Ferrari driver on the podium. The first half of 2009 has been even worse for the prancing black horse. After the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring on July 12, Brawn GP had accumulated 112 constructors’ points and Red Bull 92.5 compared to just 32 for Ferrari and a paltry 14 and 13 for McLaren and Renault respectively.
Paddock judges are not expecting a vastly different result at Monza next weekend, with another win for Vettel or Button the likeliest outcome. But the big boys don’t like losing for long and it’s a certainty that di Montezemolo will open his wallet and instruct his technicians to throw everything at the design of their 2010 car. If past performance is any guide he may hire a new driver, too. Renault’s Fernando Alonso is a possible recruit but Lewis Hamilton, emerging from an unhappy time at McLaren, may also be tempted and odds of 5-1 with Skybet on the 2008 champion reclaiming the world title next year look worth a long-range interest.