The 1971 Italian Grand Prix: An Epic Photo Finish

Monza is a track unlike any other. It is steeped in the history of Formula 1, indeed the history of motor sport in general. Its hallowed walls are not only the home track of Ferrari, but the oldest circuit on the Formula 1 calendar with the first race having been run there in the pre-WW2 era in 1922. It was here within these walls, on September 5, 1971 that one of the greatest wins and closest races was written into the history books.

The day dawned hot and dry with the late summer sun blazing down on the track. 1971 was to be the last year the circuit would be run without chicanes, as tire chicanes were added the next year. It was a fast, vast track stretching 5.750 km with straights that allowed drivers to go flat out through the Curva Grande to the two Lesmos. It was here that the speed was checked momentarily and the field would bunch up before the track opened up and drivers would again go flat out.

The championship had already been settled earlier, with Jackie Stewart taking his second title. This meant that drivers could just go out and race without the strategy involved with a fight for the championship. It had been a year since Jochen Rindt had been killed at the famous venue and the ramifications could still be felt. Lotus was there only in an unofficial capacity due to legal issues that had resulted from the wreck. Lotus, however, was not the only one with their top drivers absent from the field. McLaren driver Denny Hulme was at a CanAm race with other drivers filling the McLaren seats.

Chris Amon in a Matra, was on the pole with Jackie Ickx beside him in a Ferrari. Behind them were the BRMs of Jo Siffert and Howden Ganley. The V8 of Francois Cevert was fifth with Ronnie Peterson beside him. Jackie Stewart sat in the row behind them alongside Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari.

The start of the race saw Regazzoni’s Ferrari leap to the front of the pack with the others close behind and speeding around the autodromo. The lead swapped hands countless times, with each pass of the track revealing a new leader and blinding speeds. Stewart and Ickx both retired on lap 16, Regazzoni departed on lap 18, with Siffert and Gainley falling back due to engine overheating. Amon joined the group fighting for the lead adding to the frenzy of lead changes. Amon, however, would lose the visor on his helmet after trying to get the tear away strip off. He continued driving but fell out of the battle for the lead. Five cars were left, swapping the lead amongst themselves, for the remainder of the race. When the chequered flag was thrown it was former McLaren driver Peter Gethin that charged across the line first by the slim margin of .01 secs. The first five cars were, in fact, separated by a mere .61 secs. It was the closest finish in Formula One history and yielded the fastest race in history, until Michael Schumacher’s 2003 Italian GP in which he ran 153.84, with an average speed of 150.75mph. Gethin’s only Grand Prix win was a fantastic one worthy of the epic track it had been won on.

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