When I was a kid, watching F1 on the telly was a Sunday ritual – as it is for so many junior car enthusiasts. The tracks which stood out for me then remain the same today – Mansell Mania at Silverstone, Senna on a quali lap at Monaco, or a red Ferrari streaking past vivid yellow Agip signs and diving under the towering old banking at Monza. As something of an amateur Tifoso, I simply had to get to Monza and see the red cars at home, feel the passion of the crowd and enjoy the cars on the fastest circuit of the year.
As I hopped in a cab at 7.00am on the Friday practice day, all the enthusiasm in the world was struggling to fight the cumulative effects of a long week on the road. Still, a cheeky espresso at Milano train station and I was starting to feel vaguely human once more as I crowded onto a train bound for the suburb of Monza, surrounded by scores of other fans. Amid the sea of red caps and shirts, the British McLaren duo of Hamilton and Button seemed well-represented and there was a mix of languages bouncing around the train as we ambled out of the city.
Hitting Monza rush hour on Grand Prix weekend meant jams and it seemed to take an age for the shuttle bus to drop us off somewhere approximating the circuit entrance. I followed the crowds and soon enough was greeted by that much photographed sign: ‘Parco di Monza’. I was in!
Commentators and pundits often talk about the circuit’s long straights, but on TV, as F1 cars pummel them at 200mph plus, they never look all that long. However, emerge somewhere in the middle of the start-finish straight and squint towards the horizon left and right, and you realise that run from the Parabolica down to the Variante de Rettifilo is enormous – far bigger than any TV pictures can adequately convey.
I wandered up to the top of the Piscina grandstand, with the old swimming pool behind me and that vast straight stretching out in front. The GP3 runners were enjoying their opening practice session and they came blaring past at maximum revs, changing up again just past my sight, still accelerating. I must confess at this point that the magic of Monza struck me. The smell of the trees, the excitement of the spectators everywhere, just being at a circuit that remains much as it was in 1922 when it was first constructed. It was an emotional moment I can’t explain, but I had goosebumps and my bottom lip was quivering. No amount of hyperbole and cliché can do justice to the sensation of simply being there – like Maranello the place just has a little sprinkling of magic which sets it apart.
Having suitably composed myself from that rather pathetic display of automotive emotion, and with the GP3 drivers back in the paddock, it was time to find a seat for the opening F1 practice session. Ascari seemed as good a place as any. This ultra-fast chicane was so-named after the double world champion Alberto Ascari who perished at the same spot in a still-unexplained accident behind the wheel of a Ferrari sports racer. I took up a seat in the grandstand and enjoyed the atmosphere building as the tribune slowly filled – locals gossiping excitedly; sharing the moment with home-made sandwiches, espressos and Marlboros. The whole thing was totally Italian, but remarkably civilised.
And then they were released – 24 gladiators back out on track and probably the most productive practice session they would’ve enjoyed since Hungry, after the wash-out of Spa. The big cheers went out to the red cars, of course - and Alonso in particular - but Schumacher is evidently still widely revered among the home crowd and he drew an appreciative whoop from the ‘stands. As Alonso toured through Ascari for the first time, the global TV audience let out a collect groan as my ugly mug shot up on the TV screens for a split second, tracking his progress.
The session was a busy one, with all drivers out on track, anxious to bank some laps and learn more about their summer upgrades packages as the circus prepared to leave Europe and head east and the climax to the season. Big news was the replacement at Lotus of Romain Grosjean with Jerome d’Ambrosio, as the Franco-Swiss served his ban resulting from the infamous La Source misjudgement a week previously.
Half an hour in and it felt like time to take a wander so I headed anti-clockwise around the track and to the entrance of Ascari, where a public terrace had proven a popular spot – and I could immediately see why. The drivers approach really very quickly indeed, before jumping impossibly late onto the brakes, hammering it down a couple of gears and hurling the cars across the kerbs. With the possible exception of standing on the outfield at the entrance to Maggotts at Silverstone, I cannot honestly think of a more dramatic place to watch modern racing cars. The sheer bristling energy is other-worldly. As you gaze in amazement at the ferocity of the cars’ movements and your ears shake from the exhaust notes, it seems a struggle to believe any human could be in charge of such savagery. It’s immaculate and beautiful and violent and compelling all at once. I stand in open-mouthed wonder just soaking up the moment, surrounded by the Tifosi. Welcome to Monza – the temple of speed.
Following the track anti-clockwise a little further leads you down to the famous bridge, where the old banked circuit crossed its road circuit brother. The vast concrete banking looms over the site and you stumble upon it numerous times as you traverse the spectator areas. It’s crumbling now, with the surface concrete flaking away, exposing the steel reinforcement behind. Still, for 90 years old it could look a lot worse, and it’s full of scary character – a chilling reminder of how dangerous motor racing once was. To think that in 1969 the International Championship of Makes raced on the full circuit makes you shiver – I can only imagine that a Lola T70 made for something of a handful.
It’s worth dwelling again on the size of the place. The banking is absolutely vast. The radius of the corners is quite unlike anything you might see on a road course and you never quite get used to its sheer reach. I would love to have seen the greats go to work around there but it’s not hard to see why racing ceased around there in 1970. That the whole layout remains so intact is a real treat for the visitor and it lends the whole place a certain atmosphere, especially as you watch a modern F1 machine duck under the bridge; an articulate juxtaposition of the old world of racing and the new.
As you wander out towards the Lesmos, you get a real feel for the parkland vibe. The woods are dense and the crowds thin as you move further from the start line and the paddock. General Admission is actually very generous in terms of views, though big screens are limited so you can’t expect to follow the action too closely. Over the course of the day I walk the entire track, spectating at various times from every corner to try and get a real feel for the place. My feet complained with all the walking but it’s a sensational place to enjoy fast cars.
The Lesmos are super-fast, with a useful camber allowing physics-defying entry speeds. The F1 boys’ ability to pile speed on in the tiny shoot between the two never ceased to amaze. Stood under the trees on the apex of the first Lesmo during GP2 practice was particularly special though. You’re just a few feet from the cars at this point and as they make their final downchange into the corner, generous bursts of flame erupted from the exhausts. Combined with the sheer speed of their entry, it was mesmeric and no matter how hard I tried, I failed miserably to adequately convey the drama in a photograph.
As the last session of the day for the Porsche Supercup started, the crowds had mostly dispersed and it was time to head back to Milano for pizza and birra. I’d rather nonchalantly presumed that it’d be a 5 minute walk back to the shuttle bus stop. 45 minutes of torrid strolling later and I finally found myself at the bus stop. I’d heard talk of the great size of Monza park, but from within the circuit it’s hard to judge. Once out of the circuit confines, you quickly realise it is enormous and similar in nature to Richmond Park in Surrey. So, next time I’ll remember to pack my walking boots and leave a bit (a lot) more time.
After all the walking, I missed my train but blindly headed for the next one to Milano and settled down for the journey. It soon became apparent that the train and I had different ideas about what constituted ‘Milano’ and I was deposited somewhere in the north of the city and facing a further 20 minute walk to get to my dinner. Still, the blisters on my feet were already there so with the grim determination of the truly idiotic I headed towards the bright lights and the end of a remarkable practice day at Monza.
Saturday was a little more successful as we had a shuttle bus booked from our Milanese hotel out to the circuit. This gave a useful opportunity to read the race programme (basically the same as Spa) and meet our fellow travellers. A friendly bunch of enthusiasts, we enjoyed some good banter on the way to the event and everyone had a different opinion on how the weekend might transpire.
Once again we headed out to enjoy various locations for the free practice sessions. The F1 cars were staggering through the Curva Grande. The name doesn’t lie – it’s a massive corner with a wide open radius and it just seems to go on for miles. With the throttles pinned wide open and the noise bouncing off the high concrete perimeter wall, it’s a suitably dramatic name for a dramatic corner.
The Variante Roggia proved great fun for watching Porsche Supercup practice as the pilots experimented with how much kerb to take. Too much and the inside wheels were launched high in the air, limiting traction; too little and the direction change meant progress was slow. The quick guys seemed to blend through with little effort and that distinctive 911 pivot around the rear wheels.
Meanwhile, as the Porsche boys trying to find a clean lap, we were delighted to note a neat snapshot of how the Italians go about doing things properly. Two gentlemen had set up table and chairs at the trackside and were busily making sandwiches from Palma ham and fresh bread. On the table was a bottle of fine red wine, with two glasses to hand; it was civility personified and a useful contrast to the boozy antics on the muddy spectator banks of Spa a week previously.
For F1 qualifying we settled into our grandstand seats at the first chicane. While this spot might lack a little of the visceral drama of the circuit’s fastest corners, a TV screen was right in view and the big brake from 200mph to 40mph meant plenty of opportunity for driver error.
The big news to emerge from the qualifying session was the lack of form in Q3 from the crowds’ darling, Fernando Alonso. Having shown epic speed through practice and the early stages of qualifying, suddenly he was way off the pace and languishing in 10th, with much work to do in the race. His troubles were attributed to a suspension problem, which was little consolation for the expectant crowd. Felipe Massa defied his recent form with a strong run to third, behind the McLaren twins. With wins in the previous two races, the Woking concern was looking ominously strong. Paul di Resta made it three Brits in the top four behind Massa. His team mate Nico Hulkenburg had dropped out of Q1 after coasting into the Variante de Rettifilo with a ‘box full of neutrals.
It was a tense session and, had it not been for Alonso’s uncharacteristic effort, the top 10 would’ve been covered by a single second.
The 2012 GP2 series was precariously balanced heading into Monza, the penultimate round of the championship. It was looking like a straight fight between Luis Razia and experienced Italian Davide Valsecchi. Max Chilton highlighted his much-improved form with a strong pole position, but was unable to match the pace of returning hero Luca Filippi in the race. Filippi cut the chicane on the opening lap, handing the lead back to Chilton, but the Italian was incisive during the pit stops and assumed a comfortable lead which he held to a dominant win. Not bad for a driver who hadn’t raced in almost 12 months.
At this point it was time for us to head back into Milano, our transfers sadly not permitting enough time for us to see the opening GP3 round of the weekend. As a result, we had no idea of the drama which had unfolded, setting up a major title showdown on Sunday. Champion-elect Mitch Evans had earned pole position but retired early on with damage, allowing Daniel Abt to back up his strong Spa performances with a win and an unexpected title tilt. It set up a thrilling finale on Sunday and we were sad to have missed it.
Sunday morning and this was it – the Italian Grand Prix 2012! By this point I was completely captivated by Monza, so different in character to the epic Spa but an equally compelling circuit to watch racing cars and a beautiful place in its own right. It’s hard not to describe the experience in terms of cliché but the passion of the fans, the atmosphere, the sheer presence of the banking and that autumnal arboreal cover. It’s a heady mixture and even another early alarm call couldn’t sate our enthusiasm.
Unlike Spa, where we were up early to grab a favoured spot on the muddy banks high above Pouhon, at Monza we were sat in glorious grandstand luxury at the first chicane once again. It was a surprise that the crowds weren’t greater for the support races, and in fact it was their loss as GP3 and the Porsche Supercup put on magnificent displays in deciding their respective drivers’ championships.
In GP3, Daniel Abt had a mathematical chance of snatching the title if he won with Mitch Evans out of the points. It seemed a fanciful notion but Evans was starting from the back, courtesy of his early retirement in race one. His immediate progress was brisk but when Vainio inflicted a puncture which brought him into the pits, his race had unravelled and he was no longer master of his own destiny. It was cruel luck as Abt had worked his way back into the leading group where four drivers were scrapping for the lead. He found himself in the lead with just a couple of tours to go. An unlikely championship win was looking on the cards, but that did not account for the flying Tio Ellinas and the pair went toe-to-toe over the closing laps. When the chequered flag dropped it was Ellinas ahead and a shell-shocked Abt looked inconsolable. As the Cypriot national anthem rang out across the park (how often do you hear that one...?), Evans’ title celebrations began. As a protégé of Mark Webber, he is sure to have a bright future ahead of him, but it one couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Daniel Abt who couldn’t have done any more to try and take the title back to Germany with him.
After a fairly static encounter at Spa the Porsche Supercup competitors put on a far less sober display at Monza. The leading championship contenders occupied the top positions and it became a showdown between reigning double champion Rene Rast and Kevin Estre. Initially it was looking like the Porsche meister Rast’s crown might’ve been slipping as Estre headed him in third, with Brit Sean Edwards second behind fellow contender Norbert Siedler. Estre ran wide exiting the Parabolica though and Rast was decisive, through and secure in title-winning position. However, a moment of argy bargy between Siedler and Edwards at the Variante Roggia allowed him to really show his class with a clean move past the pair of them and a comfortable drive to the finish. A third consecutive title with a blemish-free drive as his rivals wilted. It was heady stuff and proof – if it were needed – that Rast is the undisputed master of European Porsche racing at the moment.
The season’s final European GP2 round saw a definitive swing in momentum back to Davide Valsecchi. With rival Luis Razia imprisoned in the mid-field following retirement the previous day, Valsecchi was ahead at the end of the first lap and there he stayed to win by a slight margin over Fabio Leimer. Behind this pair, it was all action though with Jolyon Palmer in particular getting his elbows out on both his team mate Marcus Ericsson and Stefano Coletti. A strong drive netted him second. Valsecchi was defiant in victory on his home turf, and as he ascended the podium insisted that one of the attendant ladies kiss him on the cheek. It was a fairly nauseating moment which did little to endear him to the crowd, in spite of a superb drive. Perhaps a little humility next time...
And so the build-up to the big event began. As the clock ticked down to race day, the sun burned ever brighter and the grandstand slowly filled with excited spectators. Just 5 minutes before the green flag signalled the cars to leave the grid, it was bedlam as marshals anxiously tried to find homes for everyone in the tribune. There were fans everywhere throughout the stand and fire marshals would’ve been having palpitations from the hazard of so many raving enthusiasts filling ever inch of seating and circulation area. However, as the grid assembled for the final time, everyone was politely sat down and we all had a fantastic view of the first corner ready for the opening lap carnage.
In the build-up, a mob of incredibly friendly but obsessive Tifosi had been conducting proceedings on the crowd’s behalf. All members wore bright red wigs, red Ferrari shirts and emitted a delightfully feel-good vibe with singing and dancing in evidence. Their chairman wandered along the front of the ‘stand, addressing the assembled crowd initiating Mexican waves – cigarette in hand and Ferrari flag draped over his shoulders. In a desperate bid to get themselves on the telly they handed out pieces of red paper to everyone sat in the tribune and we held these aloft during the Mexican waves. It was fantastic theatre and so sincerely well-meaning. By the time the green lights heralded the start of the race, I was actually quivering with excitement. It was an absolutely golden moment – one I’ll never forget and quite unlike any other race experience: the magic of Monza.
The start was tense and after the silliness of Spa, it was relieving just to see the whole pack hit the Curva Grande relatively unscathed. Massa was right alongside Hamilton off the line but mercifully they put their 2011 altercations behind them, with Lewis hitting the front for a lead he maintained imperiously all afternoon. Behind, there was jubilation from the crowd as Alonso immediately started making up places – his practice pace evidently very real. One felt there might’ve been a real motor race between him and Hamilton had he qualified higher up.
As the race wore on, Alonso’s progress became the crowd’s focus and his rise into a podium-paying position was evidence of hard work and perseverance; not to mention some cooperation from his team mate. However, the spectators were very even-handed in their affections and as Sergio Perez commenced one of his epic attacks following clever tyre strategy, each overtake was greeted with sincere appreciation. Even as he swept past Alonso’s Ferrari, the spectators showed their appreciation for a fine drive. Perhaps they’d have been less effusive if they’d known Perez would be signing for McLaren a few weeks later.
If Alonso’s rise up the order was impressive, his composure during battle with Vettel was evidence of a man playing the long game. In 2011, the roles were reversed and Alonso had offered the young German just enough room for an awesome, kamikaze attack around the outside of the Curva Grande. It was the other way around in 2012 and there was no quarter given, with the Ferrari being forced wide on the exit of the fearsome ‘Big Bend’. It was an unpopular move in the grandstands and there was little disappointment when Vettel’s Red Bull went lame. In contrast, Jenson Button’s unfortunate retirement was met with a collective groan from the punters.
Sadly there was no prospect of a grandstand finish as the laps ticked down before Perez could get too close to Hamilton, but it was still an intriguing race and imbued with more action than Spa the previous weekend – opening lap notwithstanding.
As soon as the race was over a mass track invasion swept over the hallowed tarmac and there were delirious fans swarming the circuit. They immediately picked up anything which wasn’t tied down and ran amok in a faintly silly way. Sadly our passage onto the track was blocked by the ancient banking but it was fun watching the carnage acting out in front of us as the fans headed to the amazing cantilevered podium over the pit straight.
And then it was over, time to spend fiendishly on merchandise in the famous Libreria Autodromo and prepare for the next leg of the trip. I make no bones about it, I adored Monza. The atmosphere, the scale of the track, the passion of the crowd, the proximity of the spectating, the looming banking...it’s intoxicating. Must get planning a return visit.