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The Enduring Magic of Monza: Stewart and Coulthard Discuss F1's Temple of Speed

We spoke to F1 legends Jackie Stewart and David Coulthard about what makes Italy's Monza circuit such an integral part of the sport.

by Jim Weeks
Sep 12 2016, 2:32pm

Photograph by Getty Images

It is a bright morning in early September and Parco di Monza is silent. Sunlight falls through the trees – the tall, hundred-year-old oaks that tower above – and the air is pleasantly warm, not yet the stifling mid-day temperatures Italy sweats through at this time of year. Old stone buildings are dotted here and there, blending comfortably into the background, but for the most part this place is defined by nature; it is a place of peace.

Suddenly, the serenity is shattered by the explosive sound of an engine, the screech of fresh slick tyres on tarmac, and the roar of a crowd rising to greet one of their racing heroes. This is Monza at grand prix time; the year could be 1926, 1966 or 2016. The sound of the engines may differ, and the men who drive them are undeniably a great deal safer these days, but the home of Italian motorsport remains unchanged.

Over the course of a century, this place has become holy ground for racing. Earlier this month the circuit staged the Italian Grand Prix for the 82nd time; since the Formula One World Championship was established in 1950, all but one of the 67 Italian Grands Prix have been staged there.

Stirling Moss on the old Monza banking in 1956 // PA Images

Though he can't trace his history back quite that far, Jackie Stewart has earned a similarly significant spot in racing history. During an illustrious career behind the wheel the Scot became a three-time world champion and two-time winner at Monza. He was also a committed safety pioneer whose work continues to be felt in F1 today. Stewart secured a world title at Monza, but he also lived through the death of friend and rival Jochen Rindt at the circuit in 1970. As such, he is uniquely placed to discuss the venue's history and significance.

"There's so much passion out there," Stewart says of the circuit, standing in the Paddock Club building that overlooks the ultra-fast start-finish straight. "I couldn't believe the reception I got [winning] as a British driver in a British car. And then, when I won it again with [French manufacturer] Matra – what a job it was to get out of that crowd! They were so passionate – and very well mannered, too.

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"The passion of the Italians, coming on to the circuit after the race, is like no other in the world. Monza's full of passion; Monza's got history. Some of the greatest drivers in the world have won here."

His fellow countryman David Coulthard is among them. Along with Stewart, he's speaking in his role as an ambassador for Heineken, who sponsored this year's Italian Grand Prix as well as the race in Canada and the upcoming event in Mexico. Coulthard talks about the circuit with a similar sense of reverence to Stewart.

"You know when someone walks into a room and you can feel their presence? Monza represents that aura, that mystique," explains the former McLaren driver, who took victory at the circuit in 1997. "People have won championships on this racetrack; people have died on this racetrack; there have been great battles fought on this racetrack. So it's universally respected. It's been adapted to modern grand prix racing, but that doesn't take away the mystique.

Coulthard won at Monza in 1997, driving for the McLaren-Mercedes team // PA Images

"The thing I've always loved about coming here – and I've been coming here since before I was in F1 – is that you have new-borns and great-grandparents [attending]. And that really encapsulates what the passion of the fans is."

The first Italian Grand Prix to be staged at Monza got underway on 3 September 1922. It took the Italian driver Pietro Bordino five hours and 43 minutes to claim victory in his Fiat 804; this year, on 4 September, it took Nico Rosberg a mere one hour and 17 minutes to win aboard his Mercedes.

Of course, they're not racing on the exact same piece of tarmac. The original full circuit was a high-banked track that modern grand prix cars would reach unfathomably dangerous speeds on. As Coulthard puts it: "Look at the original banking – at that time, motorsport was not only about the competition of winning, there was that obsession with speed, the pursuit of how fast the cars could go."

Sometimes they have stepped over the edge: in 1961, world title contender Wolfgang von Trips crashed into the crowd, killing 15 spectators. Many more lives have ended at Monza, both in F1 races and other events.

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Despite the old track having been abandoned, it still exists right next to the comparatively new road circuit, which has been used for all grands prix since 1962. In fact, if you scamper up a grass bank and through some bushes, you can find your way on to the old circuit. The banking is remarkably steep; indeed, it's nearly impossible to walk up, such is the angle. Over time, weeds have grown through cracks in the ancient paving, adding to the send that this is an old coliseum, once the scene of great battles but now left to ruin.

Part of the old track lies in the shadow of what is now Monza's most famous corner: Parabolica. As the final turn before the long start-finish straight – where old track meets new – it is a crucial seven seconds of high-speed cornering. Though their careers were separated by a quarter-century, both Stewart and Coulthard see it as Monza's signature curve.

"You're going down at high speed and seeing your corner," says Stewart. "And it's a high-speed corner. Slow corners are easy – anybody can drive slow corners. But to go into the Parabolica and not scrub off speed, and be able to accelerate without slowing the car down – that is finesse. That's why I think it is special."

Parabolica photographed in 1996. The gravel has gone but the corner remains the same // PA Images

"For me, Parabolica is something that still links us with the past," says Coulthard. "They've taken away the gravel run-off and put down tarmac, but it's the same profile. It's the corner that Sir Jackie, Ayrton [Senna] and Michael [Schumacher] drove – we've all gone through that exact same corner.

"Every single lap you get reminded of the history. And you cannot live that with a modern facility. There are many great modern tracks and the goal is the same – you want to be the fastest and you want to win. But to stand on an Italian Grand Prix podium – win, second or third – is to be living modern history."

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Coulthard was fortunate to compete in an era of Formula One that was comparatively safe, certainly compared with Stewart's day. Rindt's death at Monza in 1970 was just one of many that the elder Scot experienced – as he puts it, he and wife Helen "counted 57 people who died who we knew as friends, who'd stayed with us, or who we'd holidayed with." How then did he reconcile himself with competing at tracks like Monza, where the speeds made terrible accidents almost inevitable?

"I was doing it with the best drivers in the world," he quickly shoots back. "I was doing it with Jochen Rindt; I was doing it with Bruce McLaren; for a while I was doing it with Graham Hill and Jim Clark. I was driving amongst the best. And in those days, you couldn't take some of the liberties that occur today because it was so dangerous.

"It's a different culture today," Stewart continues. "Everyone tries to tell me 'those were great days, Jackie, those were real days.' That's not true: today is better than yesterday, for sure."

Stewart in 1969, the year he won the second of his three world titles // PA Images

While the location has remained the same, and the track generally undergone changes necessitated by safety standards, the facilities at Monza have witnessed a revolution since Stewart's day.

"It was most primitive [back then], [but] we thought we were big time! Now, you see these three-storey motorhomes. The drivers have a shower room, a massage room and a restroom. The sponsors are looked after in a fantastic way, the spectators are better informed about the race with the screens around the circuit. It's changed beyond anybody's dreams."

On the eve of this year's race, it was confirmed that a deal had been struck to keep Formula One at Monza for at least another three years. Both men feel that the sport remaining at the track for the long-term is crucial.

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"I think we have to have an Italian Grand Prix," says Stewart. "We've got new circuits and lots of good places with wonderful facilities. But the bottom line is, most of them are still [learning about] motorsport. You come to Monza, and it's so well established. There are people of my age [77] coming up to me and [children] wanting to see it, too."

Coulthard agrees: "I've got no skin in this particular game, in that I don't have a financial reason to want to be at Monza over any other modern racetrack," he explains. "But anything you do well you have to do with a certain amount of passion and, if you're passionate about motorsport – as a fan, a driver, an engineer, a journalist – what gets your energy up to the level necessary to perform is fear and respect. Fear focuses the mind. It's the adrenaline that gets your heart racing and gets your body working at the peak of its performance. When you come to the big circuits, like Monza, it adds another 10 per cent."

It is this sense of reverence – the feeling that Monza is special, a place of such considerable history – that makes it a truly integral part of the sport. In an era of rapid change, Formula One needs to hold on to its traditional venues. When countries with no motorsport heritage pay vast sums to stage a grand prix, they are buying into a sense of history and a connection with the past. Nowhere better exemplifies this than Monza, where the passion of the fans meets beautiful surroundings and a grand old circuit. Without it, Formula One would be a much poorer sport.

@Jim_Weeks

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