By Sanjay Suri
Ah, Monza. Another visit to the Temple of Speed has gifted us with controversy, drama and a shock race winner. It was without a doubt one of the races of the season, in a season which has provided us with numerous nail-biting and unpredictable races.
Yet it has thrown up hours of debate between experts, racers and fans alike, primarily due to THAT moment between title protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, as well as other incidents such as Perez’s duels with both Ferraris and Kubica and Tsunoda’s coming together in Saturday’s sprint race.
What all of these incidents had in common was that they happened at a chicane – either the del Rettifilo chicane or the Della Roggia chicane. It is indisputable that chicanes have saved lives and made many classic tracks safe enough for Formula 1, but is it time we thought about improving them?
Chicanes are synonymous with Monza. Their primary purpose is for safety, as they tend to break up long straights of track and have heavy braking zones to avoid cars going into more sweeping corners at dangerous speeds. Because of this, they end up being prime positions for overtaking, as cars are able to get a tow on the previous straight, then potentially use newer or softer tyres to brake later and pass their opponent.
Chicanes have often been brought in in response to a fatal crash, to ensure such an accident never happens again. Examples of this are the Ascari chicane, brought in after the deaths of Jochen Rindt, and Alberto Ascari, and the Tamburello and Villeneuve chicanes at Imola, created in 1994 after the deaths of rookie Roland Ratzenberger and Three-Time World Champion Ayrton Senna.
The increase in the number of chicanes is one of many reasons why we see so few serious accidents in motorsport and, while some are quite fiddly and take some of the life out of the track, others can produce thrilling moments.
Think of the final corner of Canada, where cars pass inches from the wall to eke out a few milliseconds in qualifying, knowing one slight error could ruin their entire race weekend. On the other hand, corners such as Turns 14-15 in Barcelona have limited overtaking at the track due to modern F1 cars being unable to follow closely due to the dirty air produced.
Chicanes are not one of those pieces of racetrack where the designer has pondered for weeks about how to create an overtaking zone where the battle can be fought out over the next few corners if the overtake is not completed immediately. They have simply been stuck in to slow the cars down, leaving the drivers to explore different ways to overtake. This is where the problem lies.
As Hamilton and Verstappen approached Turn 1 on Lap 25 of the Italian Grand Prix, it was clear that two cars could enter the corner side by side, but only one car could emerge in the lead at the exit. Given how pivotal this corner could be in what has been the closest title fight since 2016, neither driver was happy to yield and potentially lose precious points. The result was Verstappen’s car climbing over Hamilton’s, his rear wheel clipping the Brit’s head and leaving all of us thankful that both drivers walked away unharmed.
Herein lies the problem. We did see a lot of overtaking at Monza, but lots of that was DRS assisted and the move was done and dusted before the cars entered the braking zone, as we saw when Bottas carved his way through the field.
When cars entered a chicane side by side, someone always had to back out, such as Perez against Leclerc, or Hamilton against Verstappen in Lap 1. Every time, the driver who yielded suffered as a result, with Perez losing a podium due to his time penalty and Hamilton losing a place to Norris as he took to the escape road.
Chicanes invite overtaking, yet also deny it at the same time. There is often only one line to take through them and not enough room for two cars to pass through without one going off track. But are we condemned to just watching boring, DRS dependent overtakes at Monza, or can this problem be fixed?
In conclusion, it simply is not viable to replace the chicanes. Such changes would be expensive, potentially dangerous and would change the layout of tracks like Monza so much that the classic fan favourite would be almost unrecognisable.
But could they be changed? Wider chicanes would allow different lines to be taken and promote wheel-to-wheel racing, allowing battles to continue to the next straight or corner. The heavily criticised ‘sausage kerbs’, which sent Verstappen flying into the air in the first place, should probably be removed in the interest of safety. Drivers could receive time penalties as their punishment instead.
Having said all of this, I am writing this article on the back of what was an unforgettable race for all the right reasons. With Ricciardo and Gasly enjoying days of redemption at this historic track after Leclerc’s thrilling victory in front of the Tifosi, maybe Monza and its controversial chicanes aren’t so bad after all.
Image: crash71100 via Creative Commons