Racing Against Terrorism – Remembering the 2001 Italian Grand Prix

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If the race had been held on the first weekend of September as normal, there would have been nothing special about it. But in 2001 the Italian Grand Prix was scheduled for the third weekend of the month, only a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Story and images by Károly Méhes. Edited by Andrew Balfour.

The whole world was in shock as I sat in my car heading towards Monza on the morning of September 12. The car radio was on constantly as I passed through Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, trying to figure out what was going on in the USA, and whether the race at Monza would actually go ahead. Some people called for all major sporting events to be suspended as a sign of respect or simply precaution. Nobody could guarantee safety for the 100,000 plus fans that converge on Monza every September.

Arriving in Monza didn’t feel so different to normal. You could still see thousands of Italian fans (the tifosi) strolling the streets, Ferrari flags flying. In the house of my host in nearby Cernusco, Bruno and his family didn’t seem so concerned. They were not dedicated tifosi, so the weekend was always a huge inconvenience for them anyway due to road closures and the like.

Inside the paddock, it was a different story. You could sense a very strange and depressed mood everywhere. The smiles and the happy Monza feeling was gone. Ferrari’s red livery was stripped of sponsor logos and ran with a black nosecone as a sign of mourning. Ferrari drivers Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello also wore plain overalls, their expressions firm and steely. The topics for the press conference were focused on world politics and safety rather than the usual gossip and race predictions.

Hushed discussions were taking place throughout the paddock, while Jaguar boss Niki Lauda just shrugged and smoked a cigarette! Nevertheless, the show went on and there was some F1 stories to report. Alex Yoong arrived at Minardi, the first ever Malaysian to take part in a Formula 1 race and Czech driver Tomas Enge took a seat at Prost, becoming the first ever driver from a former Communist country. I managed to talk with both of them.

Being Monza, I took the opportunity to dive into the mass of the tifosi just for the experience. It’s hard not to get swept up in the emotion as you stroll the paths around Parco di Monza or grab an espresso from a small bar. I also entered the circuit shop searching for some relics of the past. I love finding old postcards, signed magazines, original stickers featuring early F1 sponsors and names such as such as Regazzoni, Hunt, Andretti, Berger and others. A true goldmine for those who are interested in the history of F1 and Monza circuit itself.

As if the dark shadows of 9/11 were not enough, news of Alessandro Zanardi’s accident spread like fire through the paddock. The ex-Formula 1 driver and Indy Car star from Italy had sustained terrible injuries in an accident at the Lausitzring in Germany. As his former team Williams provided updates, it became clear that the Italian would lose both his legs, which didn’t help the mood in the paddock at all.

Despite all this, I had a very enlightening afternoon interviewing Professor Sid Watkins, the FIA Formula 1 Safety and Medical Delegate, and head of the on-track medical team. It was already the end of his day, so he enjoyed a few glasses of red wine as we sat in Bernie Ecclestone’s trailer and talked about his 20+ years in Formula 1.

Race day itself proved to be almost normal. Of course, there were hordes of police, too, but in Italy the sight of the carabinieri in their shiny uniforms and sunglasses are an everyday occurrence. Ferrari President Luca Montezemolo was there with Piero Ferrari, son of Enzo, and Arturo Merzario, always a unique sight with his Marlboro cowboy hat. Late in the afternoon, there was at last something to celebrate. Juan-Pablo Montoya scored his maiden F1 win! He was joined on the podium by Rubens Barrichello and Ralf Schumacher. After the chequered flag had fallen, the tifosi invaded the track with their flags and horns, lending a sense of normalcy to a weekend that was anything but normal.

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About the Author ()

Károly Méhes (born 1965) is a Hungarian F1 journalist and author. He has been covering F1 since 1990 for Hungarian and international magazines (The Paddock Magazine) and is also an expert for the Hungarian broadcaster. Since 1998, Méhes has published two dozen Formula 1 books, most recently a popular volume of interviews about Gilles Villeneuve (Pitch Publishing 2018). He lives in Pécs, South Hungary.

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