Monday 20 November 2017

Motorsport: Hamilton's Monza smash evokes memories of Rindt

Monza remains a dangerous circuit but it's not as lethal as it once was, says David Kennedy

M onza is steeped in history, much of it is hidden in its hinterland, like the disused banking that defies gravity when you see it in the flesh, now overgrown, as if concealing ghosts of yesteryear.

Many have succumbed to the circuit's voracious appetite for victims. Like Emilio Materassi who crashed in 1928, killing 27 spectators Or Wolfgang Von Tripps, who in 1961 crashed, killing 13 spectators. Other fatalities included Alberto Ascari (1955), Jochen Rindt (1970) and Ronnie Peterson (1978).

To appreciate the level of safety of F1 today, a glance back in time puts a lot in perspective. So let's go back 40 years. On Saturday, September 5, 1970, Jochen Rindt was killed in practice at Monza in a Lotus 72. He was 28. Rindt was my racing hero.

Rindt had an inauspicious start in life. Born in Germany, he was orphaned as a toddler when his parents were killed in a bombing raid in Hamburg and he went to live with his grandparents in Austria. Inheriting a fortune from the family's spice company when he was 18, he was able to indulge his passion for speed and risk, a daredevilishness that was possibly born from the ashes of his early loss. A visit to Goodwood sparked the flame of a career in motorsport which would burn vividly but extinguish prematurely.

Rindt epitomised the era of the swinging '60s with his dishevelled look. The cigarette-puffing, some say arrogant, Austrian was always to be found in the company of beautiful women. But he was also a racing driver, who despite his fortune, was one of the finest the sport has ever seen. He made racing in a straight line look exciting. His style was raw, edgy, beyond the limit, seat-of-the-pants bravado.

Rindt had, prior to Monza, won four consecutive races in the Lotus 72C. In May that year in Monaco, in the aging Cosworth-powered Lotus 49V, in an absolutely thrilling race, after pressuring the leader Jack Brabham into the barrier on the last corner of the last lap, Rindt won. It was a classic and I watched it enthralled.

In the same year, on that fateful day in Monza, Team Lotus boss Colin Chapman, desperate to beat the faster Ferraris, decided to run the cars without wings. However, Rindt's team-mate John Miles refused, having found it unstable in Friday testing.

And so it was, on the final lap of Saturday practice, at the fastest corner on the track -- the Parabolica -- one of the greatest of all time was killed.

Although Rindt's death was blamed on an unsecured armco barrier, a combination of events wove the tapestry of a life cut short in its prime. Rindt had asked Chapman to bring the Monaco-winning Lotus 49C to Monza, which he didn't. The failure of a faultily-engineered brakeshaft caused the crash. But Rindt's own defiance in not wearing the full six-point harness caused him to submarine on impact and the waist seat-belt severed his jugular.

Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren and Piers Courage were all killed over a two-year period. It was all getting unacceptably dangerous and now Rindt had a wife and baby to think of. He had promised Nina, a Finnish fashion model, that he would retire after winning the championship. That day never came and Jochen Rindt remains the only driver to have won the World Championship posthumously. Clay Regazzoni won the race the next day for Ferrari.

It was an era of fantastic racing but all-too-regular fatalities. Jackie Stewart began a campaign for safety which changed the sport forever. Fewer drivers lost their lives and Stewart's mantle was carried on, ironically, by his arch-enemy Max Mosley. But many threads from the Rindt era still linger in F1 today. Bernie Ecclestone, Rindt's business manager, was one of the first at the crash scene. Mosley, who owned the March Formula One team, had been trying to sign Rindt. Herbie Blash, his mechanic at Lotus, is now one of the FIA's chief scrutineers and is regularly on our screens when the cars come into parc ferme. Rindt's childhood friend was Dr Helmut Marko, who is advisor to fellow Austrian Red Bull team owner, Dietrich Mateschitz. (Marko recently came in for criticism when he openly backed Sebastian Vettel over Mark Webber.) Cosworth and Lotus are of course very much part of F1 today.

It's a different Monza to that of 40 years ago, made more benign by chicanes and safety measures.

Last weekend, Lewis Hamilton was probably unaware of all the parallels with 40 years ago: that he too went to Monza leading the championship; that he reduced his wing to find more speed. Hamilton's crash last Sunday, where he broke a front right suspension, thankfully bruised no more than his championship aspirations. But history repeated itself when Ferrari won the race, this time with Fernando Alonso at the wheel.

To win for Ferrari in Monza doesn't get much better, unless you happen to be Italian. It's as though every Ferrari win banishes ten ghosts from the past.

The result put Alonso and Jenson Button back in championship contention. You can almost hear Kildare-born Richard Creegan rubbing his hands at the prospect of a finale at his Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The dénouement of the GP3 championship, which also took place at Monza over the Saturday and Sunday, saw Team Status's Robert Wickens win his third race of the four team victories. It was enough to secure runner-up in both the driver and team championships. Ferrari is in talks with Wickens with a view to him joining their academy, so a bright future awaits the Canadian.

And so we move from one of the most historic races on the calendar to one of the newest -- the Singapore GP at the Marina Bay street circuit next weekend, where thankfully no ghosts reside. Last year, it was Pole-sitter Hamilton who won, with Timo Glock (Toyota) joining Alonso (Renault) on the podium. Vettel (Red Bull), Button and Rubens Barrichello in the Brawn completed the top six.

It's a night race with European start times for those in the West. Tickets are virtually sold out and all hospitality packages are fully booked. This is an Asia that is hungry to be part of the F1 action and money is no object. Clearly the tiger has done a bunk to a new continent. It has gone back to its spiritual home.

David Kennedy is Setanta's Formula 1 analyst

Sunday Independent

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