Part four of the Top Ten series sees us in Ferrari heartland at Monza for the 1971 Italian GP. A race of slip stream battles and the closest finish in history.
In today’s modern era of safety it is hard to believe that some tracks were much faster than they were and none came much faster that Monza. 1971 was the final year before chicane’s blighted the landscape of the parkland circuit but it is also a race that is remembered even now.
When the drivers arrived at Monza in 1971 there was issues surrounding the paddock. The year previous Jochen Rindt was killed during practice and thus became F1’s only posthumous World Champion. He was driving for Team Lotus at the time and when the teams arrived there was still legal issues surrounding the crash between Team Lotus and the Italian authorities. It meant that officially Lotus did not take part. However a black and gold Lotus 56 did take part with Emerson Fittipaldi at the wheel. The difference was it was entered under the banner of World Wide Racing and was powered by an American Pratt & Whitney gas turbine engine and had four wheel drive.
Back in 1971 Monza was free of chicane’s, the cars would set of from the start and the first turn would be the curve grande, seeing the drivers at full power right up to the first of the two lesmos, one of only two times the cars would slow in any way. Powering out of the second lesmo corner the cars then power toward Ascari which is a gentle curve before heading down to parabolica which is still as it is now, tight on entry before opening up to allow the drivers to power out the corner for full speed back down the main straight. It meant that the majority of the lap is done a full throttle and although keeping foot flat sounds easy enough the guts to do it lap after lap and the concentration on hitting braking points when a mistake could lead to death was immense.
With Jackie Stewart having wrapped up his second world title at the last round in Austria it was a chance for other drivers to come to the fore and stake a claim at the race victory. Chris Amon in the Matra took the pole position from Jacky Ickx’s in the Ferrari. At the start of the race Clay Regazzoni made a remarkable start from the fourth row to take the lead as the action got intense behind him. The lead passed back and forward between multiple drivers for many laps, Peterson took over, then Stewart then back to Regazzoni. The fight also included Cevert, Siffert, Ickx and Amon as well as Peter Gethin.
On lap 16 Stewart and Ickx’s were out with engineer failures and were joined two laps later by the fast starting Regazzoni. Mike Hailwood joined the group by this point and the battle was continuous around the parkland track while others, including Siffert, dropped back. It was a fast and ferocious race, back and forth. Amon, well known as being one of the best drivers never to win a GP race, was in a good position during this race to break that duck but his chances took a turn when he went to take a pull off from his visor and removed the whole visor, leaving him exposed to the on rushing air as they drove round. It would see the New Zealander finish in sixth come the end.
In all eight drivers led the race with no fewer than 24 led changes during the 55 laps. In the end it would come down to five drivers that had never won a race and a tactical pre race gear ratio choice that would decide the win. Gethin had decided before the race to set up the gears for optimal drive out of Parabolica in the chance he was in a drag race to the line. It played out beautifully for him. The Brit hadn’t even took the lead at any stage till lap 52 of 55. On the final lap coming to Parabolica he was behind Cevert’s Tyrrell and Peterson’s March. Gethin lunged down the inside with his BRM and used the optimal gearing to blast out of the corner towards the line. Peterson slipstreamed behind up to the line and pulled out to pass but couldn’t quite reach as they crossed the line, just 0.01 seconds separating the first two and just 0.61 between the top five as Cevert, Hailwood and Gethin’s team mate Howden Ganley followed them over the line. It was also the fastest race in history till Italy GP in 2003 at an average of 150.75mph.
The win was to be Gethin’s only win and his only points that season. In fact he only scored two other world championship points in his entire career but will always be remember for being the winner of the closest finish in F1 history. It also harks back to a day when drivers could turn up in garage tuned private entries as well and take on the best in the world and win. The following year chicane’s were introduced around Monza and the battles subsided as the safety took off. It wasn’t to be enough for second place Ronnie Peterson however who would lose his life at Monza seven years later after a pile up at the start heading towards the first chicane but the change was a sign of things to come for motor sport in general as cars, drivers and tracks changed with the times, albeit at a slow pace. But 1971 at Monza will always live in F1 history.
(I would like to point out I am aware that the ‘staged dead heat’ between Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher was stated as being 0.011 but at the time of Gethin’s win timing only went to two decimal places so we will never know which was closer. However no race in history since has seen five cars covered by under a second and that is a record that will likely never be broken.)
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