The Grand Prix circuit at Monza is the fastest in the world except for Spa in Belgium, and the two have totally different characters. Spa is hilly and has many tough corners. Monza is flat and has very few testing corners. What we go in for over Monza's long, straight stretches is slipstreaming, the art of letting the car in front suck you along like a vacuum cleaner. It is because of this slipstreaming that the Curva Grande plays a dominant role at Monza. The curve is a sweeping righthander located at the end of the long straightaway that contains the start-finish line. The groove through the corner is very narrow, has little camber and yields little margin for error on either side. Yet we tear through it at 175 mph. The favorite passing spot at Monza is in the straightaway leading to the Curva Grande, but if the passing has been left too late and has not been accomplished by the time the cars get to the turn, something of a mess can result. The other characteristic of the turn is that in the middle of it, due to a change in the airflow, the vacuum effect created by a car moving along directly in front of another can disappear. Suddenly there is a rush of wind that creates violent turbulence and upsets the trailing car's balance in a totally unpredictable manner. When this happens to you in the middle of the Curva Grande you can be in trouble. And so are the cars slipstreaming behind you.
Le Mans, France
A good number of race courses have turns just like the ones you find on a city street. Le Mans has one, a 90-degree righthander called the Mulsanne Corner that comes directly at the end of a flat-out, 3½-mile straight. To get through this tight bend without shooting down the escape road or piling into a bank of sand that guards the left-hand edge of the exit means getting the car down from a speed of over 200 to about 40 within about 400 yards. The challenge is to put a car through this kind of mechanical torture smoothly enough, 16 times each hour, to have it survive for the full 24 hours. The corner is so tight it must be taken in first gear. The path through it is quite conventional, meaning you come in from the left, clip the apex on the extreme right and then clip the left edge of the road while exiting. The braking should be done early and the brakes fed gently. The smoothest way through is also the easiest so far as the brakes, suspension and transmission are concerned. A driver will often tell himself, "I could have braked later that time," but he had best forget it. If you brake too late you must also brake too hard and you can lose control. Many a driver has ended his race at Le Mans on the first lap by piling into the sandbank on the left at Mulsanne. He then spends the next five hours or so trying to dig his car out. It is one of motor racing's most acutely embarrassing experiences.
This corner has always been an unusually undulating, bumpy and dramatic one, and over the years it has produced some gigantic slides and elbow-waving acrobatics. There have been occasions, in fact, when a driver on the last lap has finished his race in reverse. Last year I had a good old-fashioned Woodcote spin myself, whirling about several times before hitting a barrier.
The corner is a long righthand bend that comes past the start-finish line and leads by the pits. A Formula I race car goes through it in fourth or fifth gear, traveling about 140 mph. It is especially tricky to handle because the car must be maneuvered through a series of bumps and undulations. If you stray from the correct line, your car lets you know about it in no uncertain terms. It begins to misbehave, wallow about and have tantrums like a spoiled child. The line through the corner is narrow, and not the one you would necessarily take if the surface were flat. You must more or less hit two apexes. You clip the marker cones on the right as you enter, drift out toward the middle of the track, come back to the right once more, and then drift out again to the left and exit—finally—in the middle of the track.
You come into Turn One at Indianapolis out of an enormous tunnel of people packed into the grandstands on each side of the front straightaway. You then must apply yourself to a long, bumpy, fast corner that leaves little margin for error. The proper groove is narrow; because of the dust and grit that collects, driving outside the groove is like driving on ballbearings. Thanks to some good luck, I learned how to handle Turn One during qualifying trials in my first Indy year, 1966. Late in a day in which I had been, I thought, driving at my absolute limit in a desperate effort to qualify, a car pulled out of the pits in front of me and seemed to be going quite slowly. I thought, "Uh-oh, this guy is going to hold me up." It turned out to be Parnelli Jones, and far from holding me up, he taught me how to drive the corner. I had been going very deep into it before hitting the brakes. The front end of my car would go down, the rear up, and it was a wrestling match all the way through. Parnelli, on the other hand, eased his brakes on a good 50 yards earlier than I had been doing. This slowed him going in but his car stayed level, and coming out he was putting on the power 100 yards earlier than I could. So I just followed him around, doing what he did. My lap speeds immediately jumped from 158 to 161 mph. At Indy that is considerable improvement.
The paintings on the following pages offer a vivid look at some of the corners that have been discussed. I then conclude with some emphatic recommendations for making cornering safer than it is today—and all of racing, too.
'WE DRIVERS SHOULDN'T HAVE TO DIE'