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1961 Italian Grand Prix: Ecstasy and Tragedy at Monza

The 1961 Italian Grand Prix was supposed to be a celebration. The Tifosi were out in force to welcome home their darling fleet of 156 Ferraris that had affectionately developed the ‘Sharknose’ moniker and dominated much of the season. It was Ferrari’s day. They were almost guaranteed to have a World Driver’s Champion, with the title set to be decided in the penultimate round at Monza.

An Epic Conclusion

Wolfgang von Trips and Phil Hill entered the race just four points apart, with the latter doing the chasing. Both were vying for their maiden world championship trophy, and both had delivered some awe-inspiring drives throughout the season. Hill had finished every race thus far, winning the Belgian Grand Prix, while ‘The Count’ had accumulated four podium finishes in six races, including victories at Zandvoort and Aintree. Ron Walker Racing’s Stirling Moss had an outside chance at winning the title in his privateer Lotus, but two non-finishes in France and Britain had virtually discarded him from the title-race. The formality was that the Scuderia pair would be racing each other for the overall spoils.

Several notable drivers struggled in qualifying, including Hill who ordered his team to perform an overnight replacement of his Ferrari’s 120 degree engine. Jack Brabham and Moss also endured engine trouble, which allowed von Trips to claim his first pole position of the year. Mexican youngster Ricardo Rodriguez started on the outside of the front row; a remarkable feat considering his engine was less powerful than the other the Ferrari cars.

The parkland around the Autodromo Nazionale Monza was engulfed by the fervent atmosphere that only the Italian fans could create. Even in the early ‘60s Monza was considered to be the highlight of the Formula 1 calendar, such was its challenge to the driver. Several segments where competitors would hold the throttle to the floor for around 30 seconds at a time helped to envelop the race in endeavour. It was all about raw speed, and whoever dared to push the barriers of their machinery the farthest.

The Ferraris were specifically geared to generate the highest possible straight-line speed. As such, they were expected to struggle when accelerating away at the start, although once they had reached the oval section of the famous 6 mile course they would be in a league of their own. At least, that was the plan.

A Fated Race Day

Il Tricolore fell and the roar of over 30 finely tuned 1.5 litre Formula 1 cars permeated the cool afternoon air. As predicted, the five works Ferraris were slow off the line, allowing Graham Hill’s BRM, Jim Clark’s Lotus and Jo Bonnier’s ageing Porsche to get within range on the approach to Curva Grande. Von Trips characteristically had a poor start; he often took several laps to acclimatise to the pace.

However, the Sharknoses soon came into their own and Hill took the lead on the first lap, pursued closely by Richie Ginther and Rodriguez. Clark and Graham Hill followed, with von Trips trying to return to head of the field.

On lap two, von Trips had worked his way past Brabham coming out of the first Lesmo and managed to overtake Clark coming out of the next corner. Brabham bit back and scythed past the pair on the approach to Vialone, the site of Alberto Ascari’s fatal crash six years prior. The cars streamed onto the Rettifilo Centro, the straight that leads to the fabled Parabolica. Von Trips was chasing Brabham and Rodriguez, who was in third. Clark was drafting behind von Trips’ Ferrari.

The account of the second lap melee differs from source to source, but the end result was the same.

Von Trips was tagged by Clark on the run up to the Parabolica, sending both cars careering left into the bank that hundreds of spectators were packed behind. The Ferrari was launched into the air, hacking down the helpless by-standers. The championship contender who grew up idolising his pre-war hero Bernd Rosemeyer and spent his childhood watching the Silver Arrows storm to victory at the Nordschleife was flung from his car across the track; his body coming to a rest, lifeless.

At the front of the field, Hill ploughed on with Ginther in hot pursuit. They were oblivious to the commotion, although they could see the debris as they approached the Parabolica on each lap. If Hill had been told, he would have stopped his car. Hill and von Trips had become friends over the course of the season, although both accepted that a close relationship in such a dangerous environment was dangerous in itself (they were fully aware of the tragic end to the ‘mon amie mates’, Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins). Hill was a reserved character who drove hard but was more than conscious of the risk he was undertaking. Von Trips led a more lavish life, but was also afraid of death. All drivers were, but it was part and parcel of the sport in that era.

Hill’s Forgotten Win

Hill went on to produce one of the drives of his life, winning the race and the championship, the first time an American had done so. But his victory was short lived. After receiving his trophy and champagne the new champion was addressed by Ferrari’s Carlo Chiti. The defining moment of his life had been shrouded by tragedy and a sense of guilt. He remained stoic upon the realisation of von Trips’ death, but would never be the same.

The 1961 Italian Grand Prix marked one of Formula 1’s most heart-wrenching weekends. While sources contest that the fatality rate was either fourteen or fifteen, it remains as one of the worst crashes the sport has ever seen. While we are thankful of the safety measures that currently protect our current crop of drivers, there is always a stark reminder that the glamorous world of Formula 1 has a dark and tragic past.

The 1961 race at Monza claimed the life of one of the sport’s finest stars, and still stands as one of the darkest days in Formula 1 history.

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