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Delanceyplace: Grand Prix Without Seat Belts

The early days of Formula One racing, before roll bars and seat belts, drivers had in the estimate of some only a 33 percent chance of surviving. In fact, between 1957 and 1961 twenty Grand Prix drivers died and many more suffered terrible injuries. In 1961, Ferrari drivers Phil Hill and Baron Von Trips battled for the Formula 1 Championship, which culminated in the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, Italy on a racetrack so perilous that the British team had boycotted it a year earlier, writes Michael Cannell.

They began arriving a day in advance. The loyal Ferrari following - the tifosi - rolled up in caravans of Fiats and battered motorbikes to camp among the chestnut groves that spread more than six hundred acres around the boomerang shaped racetrack in Monza, Italy. By the glow of evening campfires they raised cups of grappa to the great drivers, the piloti who once thundered around the terrible banked turns of the Autodromo Nazionale looming at the edge of the woods like a concrete cathedral.

Most of those piloti were gone now. Between 1957 and 1961 twenty Grand Prix drivers died. Many more suffered terrible injuries. By some estimates, drivers had a 33 percent chance of surviving. In the days before seat belts and roll bars, they were crushed, burned, and beheaded with unnerving regularity. One driver retired after winning the championship only to die three months later in an ordinary car accident near his home.

The survivors raced on, in spite of the ominously long death roll. Inside the autodromo half a dozen teams and thirty-two drivers warmed up for the 267-mile Italian Grand Prix, the climactic race of the 1961 season, with the spotlight focused squarely on Ferrari teammates Phil Hill and Count Wolfgang von Trips.. ...

The location only heightened the suspense. The Italians called Monza the Death Circuit, in part because the banked turns catapulted errant cars like cannonballs. The sloped surface was coarse and pockmarked, and it exerted a centrifugal pull the fragile Formula I cars were not designed to handle. ... More dangerous still, the long straights allowed drivers to touch 180 mph, and to slipstream inches apart. A series of tight curves, known as chicanes, had been installed to slow the cars, but it was still a track to be driven flat out. As much as any racetrack in the world, it conjured racing's heroics and horrors. To the north, it curved into a silent forest that was haunted by its many victims (or so went the legend).

Title: The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit
Author: Michael Cannell
Publisher: Hatchette Book Group
Date: 2011 by Michael Cannell
Pages : xi-xv

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