“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
Some drivers are infamous for their inability to keep their car on the track: Andrea de Cesaris was known as Andrea de Crasheris and Pastor Maldonado is called Crashtor Maldonado. Then there is Taki Inoue, who seemed to have a magnetic attraction to safety vehicles of various kinds. However, none of these drivers have crashed while waving both hands in the air celebrating a race win. That honour goes to Vittorio Brambilla, “the Monza Gorilla”.
It was on this day in 2001 that Vittorio Brambilla was mowing his lawn when he collapsed and died from a heart attack at the age of 63. He was a larger than life driver, even compared to some of the other Formula One drivers of the 1970’s just as James Hunt. Born in Monza in 1937 he was known as the Monza Gorilla as he was stocky, swarthy and fearless. He was also famous for his periodic lapses in concentration and over his career he would destroy 176 cars.
Brambilla came late to Formula One. He started off racing motorcycles, winning the Italian 175 cc championship in 1960. He then went to karts where he won the 200 cc world championship in 1963. He worked as a mechanic his father’s garage and then in 1969 won the Formula 3 championship. This led on to four seasons in Formula 2 until his big break when he signed to drive a March in Formula 1 for the 1974 season, at the advanced age of 36.
His first season was marked by multiple accidents but he did manage to score a point in Austria. 1975 continued in much the same way, multiple crashes, 9 DNF’s from 15 races, but this time a victory in a rain shorted race at Austria.
He was the oldest man on the grid and as the race started it began to rain. The race was stopped and everyone pitted for rain tires. On the restart Brambilla went from 8th on the grid up to 3rd, with only Niki Lauda and James Hunt in front of him. Lauda struggled with his dry set-up in the wet and dropped back, and then Hunt’s Hesketh lost a cylinder and when he got held up by a backmarker, Brambilla got past him for the lead.
As the rain came down ever harder, multiple drivers starting spinning off the track in the torrential conditions and the decision was made on lap 29 to stop the race. However, instead of waving the red flag, so the race could be restarted after the rain had eased, a chequered flag was accidentally waved, bringing the race to an end. As Brambilla went over the finish line he waved both hands gleefully in the air, his car aquaplaned on the standing water and he crashed into the barriers. He limped around for his victory lap, oblivious to the irony.
In 1978 he suffered serious head injuries when he was hit by a flying wheel during the opening lap accident of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in which Ronnie Peterson died. He raced the occasional race for Alfa Romeo during 1979 and 1980 but retired for good at the end of the 1980 season.
He set up his own garage with his crushed March nose from his Austria win proudly on the wall, displayed for all to admire. He also occasionally drove the safety car at the Italian Grand Prix – I wonder if race organisers were ever concerned about if he would crash it?