Born in the surroundings of Italian racing heritage, Monza, Italy’s very own Vittorio Brambilla was one of the many drivers that raced both on two four wheels during the 1950s and 1960s, as had legendary world champion John Surtees.
His nickname of “The Monza Gorilla,” personified both his macho character and eclectic driving style, as well as being the man behind the “Punch and Crunch” routine. He would firmly shake a potential victim’s hand, following it up with a swift rabbit punch to their neck, making them wince. Something that would clearly not be seen in this day and age of political correctness.
Starting off on motorcycles, Brambilla’s career started at the age of 20 in 1957, where he then went on to win the Italian 175cc title the following year. After an 11-year spell away from racing, he took up the challenge of single seaters, rising through the ranks of Formula Three, winning the Italian championship in 1972, along with some success in Formula Two.
He raced for March, Surtees and Alfa Romeo, before retiring from the sport in 1980, after starting 74 races and taking his only F1 win at the Österreichring in 1975. Despite this limited success and his potential speed behind the wheel, multiple retirements did not help his progression in the sport.
Paired with the great Hans-Joachim Stuck at March, he showed that he was equally as fast as his German teammate, he seemed to be more accident-prone, or getting caught up incidents. His career could have been ended at the tragedy that struck Ronnie Peterson at the Italian Grand Prix of 1978, where he was hit on the head with a loose wheel whilst driving for Surtees’ team in the Cosworth-powered TS20.
However, Brambilla made a full recovery and returned with Alfa Romeo in 1979, but only competed in four races, which including him not qualifying for the United States Grand Prix at Long Beach that year.
Following on from his retirement, he opened a Formula One memorabilia store in Milan in the early 1990s, but still ended up on track, driving the Safety Car from time to time for the Italian Grand Prix. Being one of the lucky ones to survive a dark era of Formula One, the “Monza Gorilla” passed away in Lesmo, just outside Milan in May of 2001, at the age of 63.
For a man that lived on the edge in one of the most fiercest of sports, the heart attack he suffered was as a result of moving the lawn that day, where he is said to have collapsed. A real irony for a man that was known for the personification of Italian machismo, who had settled into a normal routine. There won’t be another one quite like him.