Wednesday, Sep 5 12:21pm
AUTHOR: Richard Gee

Column: Cool cats always rule at Monza

There's nothing like Monza to get the blood flowing.


That first lap of the Italian Grand Prix is invariably one where we collectively hold our breath and grip the arms of the chair in anticipation as the Formula 1 cars blast off the line and surge towards the first corner. Hard braking, tip toe through Rettifilo, the first chicane, with contact and rubbing inevitable. The jockeying for position as they surge two or three abreast through the Curve Grande before heavy braking for the second, della Roggia. Back on it, they rush off again scrabbling for grip and the ideal line through the two Lesmo. Then on through the tunnel of trees, sparks flying as they bottom out going under the old banked circuit and then fire into the final chicane, Ascari, before getting on the throttle as early as they dare on the exit. The blast down to the Parabolica and its unique opening radius before surging onto the home straight ad onto another lap. They call it the Theatre of Speed. And for good reason.


There's just something about the impression of speed at the place. Autumnal leaves get blasted away by the cars and you can hear the crowd roar even on the TV. It is all very intimate, very atmospheric and far removed from the new-world race tracks that are hugely expansive, but lack tradition and any real atmosphere. Heaven knows what it's like to be a fan there. Utterly brilliant I suspect, because tens of thousands of them turn out every year to cheer on the home team. Not Italian drivers by the way, but the home team and whoever is in the cars. They are the Tifosi.


It had looked very much like Ferrari would add a welcome chapter to the circuit's history all weekend until the Grand Prix itself. Their speed in both short and longer runs had been right out there. But, it wasn't to be and a fired up Lewis Hamilton pounced late in the race to snatch his 68th Grand Prix victory from Kimi Räikkönen after Sebastian Vettel had been ruled out of a win when he and Hamilton touched at della Roggia. The Ferrari spun and re-joined at the back.


Afterwards Mercedes made a point to any journalist who would care to listen that they could not understand how they had been able to match Ferrari's race pace having been so far off it in practice sessions over the weekend. Stirring? Well, perhaps. During his televised pre-Grand Prix grid walk as he strolled past Team Red, former racer and Sky commentator Martin Brundle mentioned that the FIA had asked Ferrari to change the oil and fuel on both cars before the start of the race. He didn’t speculate why, of course, but I reckon that one's going to run and run... Whatever, the matched race pace made for a thriller and with this being the Theatre of Speed it was more emotional than usual watching the 'Iceman' Kimi Räikkönen in his Ferrari embroiled in an almost race-long duel with Hamilton for honours at this most sacred of Grands Prix for the home team. And I probably wasn't the only one cheering Räikkönen on from a sofa either. I bet most of Italy was too.


Don’t get me wrong, Vettel's a fantastic racer and a proven champion, but I'm a Kimi fan. I can't quite put my finger on exactly why. Maybe it's just because he's been around a bit longer. Maybe it's his one-liners and complete lack of interest in anything at Grands Prix outside of the cockpit. Maybe he even reminds me more of the drivers I considered heroes when I was a kid. And while the win eluded him, Kimi was at his best at Monza. Hustling the car, ringing its neck through the slower stuff on dying tyres and using every trick in the book to fend off Hamilton as he drew closer after the pit stops. The Tifosi were on their feet as he went by every lap. It was great stuff.


His pole position lap was a memorable and historic moment for Formula 1 too. Up until those final seconds of qualifying, Juan Pablo Montoya (another I loved to watch) had been the holder of the outright fastest ever lap in F1. As Monza and the Tifosi held their breath, Kimi bagged two green sector times and a purple, having been given a tow down the straight by Vettel. Raikkonen's stunning lap of 1:19.119 seconds, at an average speed of 263.587km/h, smashed the track record of 1:19.525 set by Montoya for Williams in 2004. The Tifosi erupted. Ferrari on pole and also locking out the front row of the grid.


“I couldn't think of a better place to be on pole,” an unusually animated Räikkönen declared afterwards. It reminded me not so much of Montoya's breathtaking lap but of another great moment of Ferrari qualifying glory way back in 1982. And another cool cat like Kimi.


Monza 1982 was a comeback of sorts for Mario Andretti. The 1978 world champion was drafted into the team to drive the beautiful but fated 126C2 after Didier Pironi’s dreadful accident at Hockenheim left the team – already beleaguered after losing the iconic Gilles Villeneuve earlier in the season – with yet another driver to find. To make matters worse, Villeneuve's replacement and friend Patrick Tambay was suffering with a back injury and prospects for home Grand Prix glory looked bleak indeed for Ferrari and the Tifosi. What could be done to give them a better chance and – cynically as some suggested at the time – boost ailing ticket sales for the event?


Step in one of the coolest blokes in the history of the sport, an all-American hero with an Italian heritage. The level of anticipation sky-rocketed, much as it did last weekend for fans watching Kimi it seemed to me. Mario, who was effectively out of F1 full time by then, got the call and all of a sudden was back – ‘officially’ to maintain Ferrari's shot at the constructor’s title but more realistically to bring some excitement and passion for the devoted fans and no doubt the team mechanics as well. Although he had no experience of a turbocharged Formula 1 car, he certainly did know the team, he knew the track like the back of his hand and he knew the Tifosi. And of course, they knew him. In the early stages of qualifying he was conservative and indeed the final session was headed by Tambay until Nelson Piquet upset the apple cart and eclipsed his time in the mighty four cylinder turbocharged Brabham. Tambay had used his allocation of super sticky one-lap qualifying tyres by then and would not be able to beat Piquet. As the minutes ticked away the anticipation and excitement of the fans went off the Richter Scale. One man did have a set of qualifiers left. And of course, that was Mario.


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Mario Andretti stirred the tifosi into a frenzy back in 1982


With the boost almost certainly cranked up to the outer limits of sanity, out went Mario with just over five minutes to go. Two flying laps later with the car on the ragged edge and the pole position was his. Throughout his run the whole circuit was drowned out by the roar from the crowd. The coolest of the cool. It was memorable to say the least and Kimi's lap and the reception on his warm down lap did bring back very vivid memories of that moment as it was reported on the BBC television news late that evening 36 years ago.


Räikkönen's race, ultimately much like Andretti's, ended in disappointment for the driver, the team and the fans. I for one was sorry about that. A Kimi win would have been pretty good for Formula 1 right now and pretty good for Kimi too given the increasing chatter in the background that he will, after all, be replaced by the late Sergio Marchionne's protégé Charles Leclerc in the team next year.


I can't help being a Kimi fan, he's been around years and comes from a different era of Formula 1, but I suppose there comes a time when the young drivers should be given a shot. It's much harder these days to get into Formula 1 than it was, say in Mario's time in 1982 when there were lots of teams and lots of opportunities to test and prove your worth. These days there is very limited testing indeed and this has helped the older faces stay around a little longer. Perhaps it is indeed time for Kimi to call it a day. Alonso's gone after all at the end of the year, and Stoffel by the looks of it. That's a shame, but more of a shame is the increasing likelihood of Esteban Ocon's departure. Both incredibly talented racers. Chatting with fellow Formula 1 fans this week, we agreed it probably wouldn't be a bad thing to see a few more long-termers shuffled aside as well, as long as it wasn't for second rate drivers with a bottomless pockets of money. Which sadly seems rather prevalent these days doesn't it? Grosjean and Ericsson sprung to mind as two we could drop from the line up next season. They've had their moments but have failed to deliver consistently over several seasons now. We agreed it would be very cool to see some of the great young talent out there joining Lando Norris (talent AND money!) in Formula 1 as the 'next generation'? Let's not speculate who, but I'd be waving a flag for Nick Cassidy in that discussion, and definitely another for Brendon to have a second full season and a better rub of the green.


Ah… Brendon. Well the least said about his race the better, because there wasn't one for him. As he said in his post-race press release, his front suspension 'folded up' after minor start line rubbing and contact with Ericsson’s Sauber. And that was that. Over and out. Disappointing in the extreme though it did allow my focus to switch to the Kimi vs Lewis battle at the front.


There was one moment of glory for team Kiwi in Monza however. In a wet and soggy FP1, Brendon went out late, found the limits better than anyone and put the car at the top of the timesheets in improving conditions. As others ventured out, not all could match his performance and he ended the session an eye-catching fourth. That would no doubt have put a huge smile on his face, and on the faces of his loyal supporters and management team. I can well imagine PJ and Barry punching the air at the moment in unison with Brendon.


Good on them and let's hope the next weekend in Singapore brings better fortune and a few more moments like that for them. And don't forget to give cool cat Kimi a shout too.