The Italian Grand Prix is the last chance for European fans to see a Grand Prix this season
Ahhh Monza. One of the handful of Formula 1's venues to survive since the series' inception in 1950, "The Cathedral of Speed" may not be the fearsome beast it once was, but it still commands respect as F1's fastest circuit.
The home of Italian motor racing means a return to Ferrari's homeland, and a visit to the most passionate crowds in the sport. Ferrari fans, known as the tifosi, turn out in their droves, drowning out the noise of the engines with their rapturous cheering and applauding as anyone in a red car passes by.
Racing has been held at Monza for almost 100-years now, with the Autodromo Nazionale originally being 10 kilometres in length and consisting of most of the current layout, along with a long heavily banked section. To give you an idea of how scary the banking was, part of it currently runs over the current layout as the cars power under it approaching the Ascari chicane. Yes, that scary, narrow little bridge regularly saw the cars powering along on a lap averaging 135mph+.
With the banking at Monza supported by stilts, the constant fears about its danger meant that even in the late 1950s, the organisers occasionally elected to hold the Italian Grand Prix on the road course and ignoring the banking - usually the decision came down to whether the banking would play into Ferrari's hands or not. 1961 was the final year of the banking being used, the year of the tragic accident that killed championship contender Wolfgang Von Trips at the entrance to the Parabolica.
14 spectators were also killed and the race didn't even stop, causing an outrage at the time. While times have moved on from the prehistoric attitudes to safety at the time, the circuit in its current, modern form still retains a bite. Jochen Rindt won the World Championship in 1970, despite being killed in a crash at the Parabolica in practice, while Ronnie Peterson was another victim in 1978. In more recent times, race official Paolo Ghislimberti died when he was struck by a wheel from Jordan's Jarno Trulli after a Turn 3 crash in 2000.
Onto happier thoughts ahead of this weekend's race, Monza remains one of the highlights of the year. The race length of 53 laps sees the drivers cover the usual 190 mile distance, but the duration is usually around 75 minutes, some 15-20 minutes shorter than usual. This is due to the constant high speeds, with chicanes used to break up the otherwise unending flat out sections. The long main straight leads into a very tight first chicane, leading to the best overtaking opportunity on the track, but with slipstreaming a given here, there are ample opportunities for a quicker car to get past a car in front. In recent years, Monza has served as the final European round of the season, meaning the last race with all the comforts of "home" for the teams and drivers, such as their own hospitality units and trucks.
This means that this weekend will be the final time that Felipe Massa races on European soil as an F1 driver. The Brazilian driver announced that he is to retire from the sport at the end of this season, having joined the circus at the end of 2001. The Williams man, who is married with children, has chosen to move on after experiencing all the highs and lows of a competitive F1 career. With 11 career wins, he has been teammates with some exemplary names - Jacques Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, comparing favourably against them all.
It was during his time alongside Kimi Raikkonen that he really made his mark - outclassing the reigning Champion in 2008 to challenge Lewis Hamilton for the world title. For a fleeting moment, he even won that title by winning his home race in Brazil, until Hamilton's infamous last corner overtake on Timo Glock's Toyota pipped Massa's points tally. Felipe's proud triumph became an emotional but dignified display as he fought to control all of his conflicting emotions in front of the world, winning him many fans as he revealed the true extent of his sportsmanship.
Massa and Hamilton fought it out for the title at Interlagos Picture by: Oliver Multhaup / AP/Press Association Images
With serious injuries suffered as the result of a crash midway through 2009, Massa's career stumbled. Having been the match of Raikkonen, he returned to partner Fernando Alonso. Unlike the equal status quo Ferrari employed with Raikkonen/Massa, Alonso had been hired to be top dog, and Massa was infamously ordered out of the Spaniard's way at the 2010 German GP. Suffering that confidence blow, he never managed to regain his form and left the Scuderia at the end of 2013. Since joining Williams in 2014, he has regained the self-assuredness that briefly allowed him to rival the best in the world and has scored podium finishes again.
How apt, considering his long standing relationship with Ferrari, that Massa's announcement comes at Monza. Due to his selfless approach to racing with pride for Ferrari, he remains beloved by the tifosi and is sure to enjoy a warm send-off from crowds that have cheered him on since his first dalliances with the Prancing Horse back in 2003.
Also sure to enjoy the reception are Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel. The pair stumbled over themselves last Sunday at Spa, not helped by Max Verstappen's first corner aggression, and this doomed Ferrari to fighting for lower positions than they appears capable of. However, their speed suggests that Mercedes may not have it all their own way this weekend. New power units, complete with upgrades, are on the way for both Raikkonen and Vettel this weekend, equipping them with what Ferrari hope will be enough to fight Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg hard.
Vettel, not for the first time, is one of the darlings of the field for the Italian crowd, having won his first Grand Prix here in 2008 while racing for the 'other' Italian team, Toro Rosso. Ferrari's last win here came in 2010, courtesy of Fernando Alonso.
Hamilton goes into the weekend without any more power unit concerns, having taken an abundance of penalties at Spa in order to add more engine parts to his permitted yearly 'pool'. While definitely going against the spirit of the rules, Mercedes have exploited a loophole and, with Hamilton coming home to score a podium, his championship lead has barely suffered. While Nico Rosberg made the most of the open goal to score the win, the German would no doubt have preferred Hamilton to have scored a few less points. With both now seemingly on for a straight run to the end of the season with no grid penalty concerns, it's game on as the clock starts to tick down to season end.
Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel lead the way in terms of victories at Monza, while Nico Rosberg is yet to win even once at the venue. Last year's race was a disaster for Nico, retiring on the final lap with an engine failure as he closed in on Vettel's eventual P2. Assuming all goes to plan for Mercedes this weekend, barring any mechanical happenstances, expect sparks to fly between Hamilton and Rosberg again this weekend as the battle for the 2016 title starts to get tense.
Thomas Maher is the co-founder of Irish motorsport website Formula Spy.com.