9/11 was a Tuesday, prior to the Italian GP, which was held from September 14 to 16, 2001 at Monza . This article was published in Autosport magazine, in the September 20 issue.
Michael Schumacher was terse in Ferrari’s post-race press release: “I’m glad this weekend is over. The most important thing is that nothing bad happened this afternoon.”
It was clear what he was referring to, of course, as as race time approached, there was a growing sense that something bad was going to happen, all fueled by a sense of near hysteria in some sections of the paddock .
After the terrible attacks of September 11 in the United States, it was inevitable that the Monza weekend would be somber. Racing people may seem like they live in their own bubble, cut off from the world, but such an absolute catastrophe affected them the same way it affected everyone else. Like anyone with an ounce of human sensitivity, they were shocked.
Thus, from the beginning of the event on the Italian circuit there was tension in the air. When Ralf Schumacher turned up there on Thursday afternoon, he said he was unhappy that the Italian Grand Prix would take place, further underlining his conviction that the United States GP at Indianapolis (which was to be two weeks later) had to be discontinued.
An hour later, his brother entered the press room to give a conference. For many years I have seen Michael exultant, moved to tears, relaxed, angry… but at that moment his face was blank. He seemed exhausted and his voice was barely audible. Like his brother, he clearly did not want to be at Monza, and it was whispered later over the weekend that he had asked Ferrari to put test driver Luca Badoer behind the wheel of his car.
The recent events of 9/11 weighed heavily on the minds of the F1 paddock at Monza
Another who wished he were somewhere else was Schumacher’s great rival from previous years, Mika Hakkinen. The underlying mood of the weekend changed what would normally have been big news – Hakkinen’s retirement for 2002, and his replacement at McLaren-Mercedes by Kimi Raikkonen – something that was forgotten within minutes of its announcement, and not it surfaced again until Mika crashed on the leaderboard. There was great relief when he got out of his wrecked car unassisted, by his own feet.
Shortly after qualifying, however, news of Alex Zanardi’s horrific accident at the Lausitzring raced through the paddock, and the effect of that on an already melancholy place was profound. Although Zanardi had been seriously injured in a CART series race, on an oval, which had little to do with a grand prix, his accident served, understandably, to strain nerve endings that were already on the limit.
Some began to compare the atmosphere with that of Imola in 1994, when the disasters seemed endless, when Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna lost their lives. They were concerned about Schumacher’s atypical behavior and suggested that it might be wise for him not to drive.
Michael may have some unappealing character traits when he’s behind the wheel, but he’s a decent man, and no one doubted the depth of his compassion for the victims of America’s atrocities, and later for Alex Zanardi. If he had decided not to contest the race, I, for my part, would not have criticized him, or any other driver who felt the same way.
Instead of not racing, however, Schumacher tried to persuade his teammates to join him in a pact not to “race” on the first lap until after the second chicane. And there I did not agree with him at all.
It is true that, on the first lap of the 2000 Italian GP, there was a gruesome multi-car accident at the second chicane, resulting in the death of a firefighter. Of course, the drivers wanted to avoid any possible repetition of such a thing, but surely the morning of the race, 12 months later, was not the time to start airing concerns about the circuit on which it was to be raced.
Just as I laughed the first time I heard about the FIA’s proposal to install brake lights on F1 cars, my reaction was the same when word of the “no overtaking” proposal came out during the first half minute of the race. Nerves overcame common sense.
First of all, how was it going to be achieved? When the drivers arrived very close to those two chicanes, who was going to decide the order in which they had to go through them? Do I let him pass? Will he let me through? All of this seemed like a recipe for an accident, as it amounted to asking the drivers to put their instincts on hold during a few corners.
It was also demeaning, frankly, to Formula 1 , and that was offensive to Jacques Villeneuve, the sole dissenter.
“We are racing drivers,” he told British television ITV . “We are all very happy to sign contracts at the beginning of the season, and to win millions of dollars. All year we have known that there would be a race at Monza and nobody complained, until Sunday morning, when the discussion began. What you have to think about is that there are people in the stands who have spent their money saved for six months to come see a race…”.
Those responsible for the FIA decided that there would be no official “no overtaking” agreement, the race would be normal. Unable, thanks to Villeneuve, to rally unanimous support, the leaders resignedly called off the proposal, and what we got was a considerably safer first lap than it would have been under other circumstances even if precisely Michael initiated an overtaking maneuver on his brother, with two wheels on the grass.
Bernie Ecclestone ‘s opinion on the subject struck a chord with me. “First of all, the first two chicanes shouldn’t be there. If they were removed, we wouldn’t have this problem every time we come here…”
Against all odds, we had a good Grand Prix at Monza, marked by the first of many wins for Juan Pablo Montoya. And luckily nothing bad happened that Michael had predicted.
The photos of that 2001 Italian GP of F1 in Monza. Click on this link or on the image to see them