A walk in the park

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Now a sprightly 93, Monza hosted its first Italian Grand Prix in 1922 and remains a popular staple on the modern Formula 1 calendar. But for how much longer? There is talk of its present deal not been renewed after it expires in 2016 – genuine threat, or simply a pistol-to-the-head gesture in the manner of modern contractual negotiations? While waiting for the truth to materialise, we took the chance to savour the circuit’s charms while the F1 world championship was elsewhere engaged
Writer Simon Arron

East Croydon station, 4.07am. 

There are probably less depressing places in the UK right now, but still you feel upbeat as you pick your way through a cordon of motionless Toyota Prius taxis, all awaiting non-existent custom. Despite the hour, crepuscular sunshine is just about breaking through, sketching pastel reflections on the high-rise backdrop. Attractive would be too strong a word, but I’ve known it look worse. And besides it’s not where you are that matters, but where you’re going. There are just a few people on the platforms at this time of day – and chances are that you’ll be the only one heading for Monza.

It’s a Formula 1 weekend in more ways than one. The world championship teams are in action at Spielberg, Austria, 400 miles or so north-east of Monza… where the Masters Historic F1 series headlines the 62nd Coppa Intereuropa and has attracted a healthy entry of 35 cars – not quite twice as many as the race that will dominate sports news agendas, but passably close. And think of this: spectators in the UK frequently complain about the elevated price of attending high-profile meetings, but it costs just €14 per day to watch the Coppa Intereuropa (about £20 for the weekend, including parking and a busy support programme). Book a budget flight to Milan early enough and you’ll pay about £60, three-day car hire is roughly the same (and can potentially be split) and there are clean, convenient hotels rooms from about £35 per night, including breakfast and intermittently operational wifi.

And no, that ‘€14’ isn’t a misprint. Play your credit cards right and you could probably do the whole thing for not much more than a weekend at a major UK event. Oh, and the price includes paddock access… which many of the locals interpret as ‘pit garage access’, but nobody seems to mind. 

Given the nature of the trip, it seems appropriate to be handed a set of keys to a car that is equal parts Italian and red: a 1.2-litre Fiat Panda, which is absolutely fine in the modern world. This is no longer the Italy of Moss and Jenks, nor even that of Frankel and Foster (see August’s Motor Sport). Traffic cameras abound and most motorists adhere strictly to posted limits. It feels like a different country from the one whose racetracks used to be linked by roads that might as well have been racetracks. 

The eastbound A8 from Milan’s Malpensa Airport towards Monza is fairly clear, but the other side is wholly empty – largely because the carabinieri have blocked every access point. 

The reason becomes apparent when an enormous MPV convoy looms into view, smothered by outriders on BMW motorcycles. America’s First Lady Michelle Obama is in town to deliver a speech on the benefits of healthy eating, although history doesn’t record the effect her presence might have on the blood pressure of those in westbound tailbacks. She’s also heading the wrong way if she wants to see a cast of Tyrrells, Arrows A4s, Williams FW07/08s, a Trojan T103 and even a Merzario A3 in action. A poor choice, one feels.

The drive from Malpensa to Monza takes about 50 minutes (Milan Linate and Bergamo are both closer to the track) and the industrially fringed motorway soon makes way for the architectural elegance of provincial Italy, with houses finished in a symphony of either primrose or caramel. Once you reach Monza’s outskirts, there are many discreet ‘parco’ signs that point you in the correct direction but rather undersell the destination’s significance. 

It is indeed a park, though, and at Grand Prix time most access gates are open, giving visitors a choice of options. Do you follow the herd through the main entrance, or plough a more pastoral furrow, approaching via the Golf Club Milano, tracking streams and passing a farm – nowhere else in F1 do you find goats and donkeys grazing so close to the paddock – before crossing the straight that connects Sopraelevata Nord and Sopraelevata Sud, the famous banked turns constructed in the mid-1950s (but discarded by F1 after the tragic 1961 Grand Prix, in which Wolfgang von Trips and 11 spectators lost their lives in an accident that occurred away from the banking).

In the past the steeply raked turns have always been a place to reflect on the sport’s evolving philosophy, to appreciate the crumbling majesty of a racing edifice that was a good idea at the time yet would doubtless never be contemplated today. It stands in (mostly) silent tribute to deeds of yore, although its tatty framework is at odds with a fresh lick of concrete on the top. Recent resurfacing work enabled Mercedes to shoot a promotional film with Stirling Moss, Lewis Hamilton, a W196 and its streamlined counterpart – Hamilton taking the opportunity to give the W196 a proper work-out – but it has also stripped away some soul. It’s similar to the situation at Reims, where the old pits and pavilions once shone because of their faded glamour. They have lost a little lustre since partial restoration, but if that helps provide protection against consumption by nature – and preserves them for future generations – then a balance needs to be struck.

This weekend the accreditation office is located along a quiet side street, within earshot of the Lola T70s, Chevron B16s and McLaren M1Bs that have freshly been unleashed – a glorious echo, cushioned by trees, and just the kind of thing that used to set the pulse racing in an 11-year-old me.

It still does.

This being Monza, the lady at the reception desk tells me that the accreditation centre is open… but that all relevant paperwork – including my car pass – is still inside the circuit, beyond its ancient, weather-beaten walls. A mixture of pidgin Italian, hand signals and friendly smiles subsequently get me to the hub, though, and 10 minutes later the Panda is parked within a toasted ciabatta of the paddock. If only life could always be so straightforward. You couldn’t get away with this during a Grand Prix, when every gate is manned by an army of stewards whose tabards proclaim ‘controllo’ (even if the consequence of their presence is frequently just the opposite).

Around the park, the road signs honour the obvious – Ferrari, Nuvolari et al – but also cult heroes, hence the Piazzale Vittorio Brambilla. Once through the main entrance, you don’t travel far before the pit straight grandstand becomes visible, a simple collection of poles and tubes poking above the trees. It’s a pleasing relic – a spindly contrast to the mushroom-topped conceits that line many a modern venue. It looks as though the 1960s lie just beyond the horizon – and that’s not too far from the truth.

Tradition ties Monza to the modern F1 world championship – only once, after all, has the circuit not formed part of the annual schedule since 1950 – but the historically themed Coppa Intereuropa complements the landscape almost perfectly. A field of pre-war Maseratis, Alfa Romeos, Bugattis and Talbots might add a certain flourish – one for the future, perhaps – but I’ll settle for AC Cobras, Tyrrell 001 and Arturo Merzario in a 1955 Alfa Super Sprint. It’s striking that, for the first time in many years, I can see what the paddock actually looks like. During a Grand Prix, the view within its electronically sealed perimeter is obscured by three-tier hospitality suites and any sense of proportion is lost. (When Renault was winning world titles in the mid 2000s, it had one of the smallest paddock installations and team principal Flavio Briatore used to shake his head when he saw what rivals were doing. “Why do I need one of those?” he’d say. “It won’t make my team any faster…”) This weekend Monza’s cosy confines are more obvious, with many cars al fresco and only simple awnings to provide some shade.

The venue’s age is apparent wherever you stroll. Modern circuits have trackside roads that provide clear access for service vehicles and media shuttles; Monza has narrow pathways laced with thistles, nettles and tree roots to trip the unwary. Catch a shuttle to Lesmo 1 during a Formula 1 practice session (it runs on the track, because there’s no other option) and there’s no guarantee the timetable will permit another to collect you, so you must either remain out in the woods or else stroll back through them – no hardship, either way. There are no such shuttles available at the Coppa Intereuropa, but you can hire a pushbike for €10 per day.

In parts the whole place seems to have been constructed using a giant Meccano set from which the architect wilfully selected the wrong parts. It’s a random fusion of 21st century wire mesh, ancient concrete, modern glass, wooden props and rusty barbed wire. And all around there are fence holes tracking the entry points of those who preferred to reach the circuit via other than the official channels. At a meeting such as this, the public goes one step further, cutting slices from the spectator fences to provide direct trackside access. The marshals shoo them away from time to time, but after a short period of obedience a fresh wave of invaders inevitably appears. Towards the first chicane, meanwhile, some spectators gather on the outer lip of the Sopraelevata Nord, in order to take photographs over the debris fencing. Are they supposed to be there? Quite possibly not, but they’re doing no harm and are left to their own devices – a triumph for pragmatic opportunism.

Standing towards the first chicane’s braking zone, I’d challenge anybody not to be stirred by the sight of a Sauber C11 in full flight. Few cars have such presence, even now, and it’s hard to get your head around the fact that its heyday was almost a quarter-century beforehand. Group C cars still look and sound the part, but it’s a pity there aren’t a few more participating. Many of the grandstands are borderline empty, although there’s a decent crowd at Ascari and almost every passing car is warmly applauded.

And it’s a real treat to perch above the Parabolica, watching 30-year-old F1 cars turning in – or at least attempting so to do. Some participants are merely fulfilling youthful fantasies, but others – not least former Minardi F1 racer Paolo Barilla, at the wheel of his recently acquired Williams FW07 – have a solid track record. Most of the quicker drivers have to wrestle quite hard to coax their cars close to the apex: the brutal efficiency of their modern F1 counterparts is a thing of wonder, but also sometimes a source of regret. The body language is impressive in both cases, but the angles here conjured have a particular charm. And all the time, you’re trying to take photographs while members of the public sneak onto a media platform that’s supposed to be out of bounds. When marshals finally appear to commence yet another clear-out, one punter justifies his presence by pointing at his camera. This doesn’t wash – odd, that – and he’s ushered away, though doubtless he’ll be back before long. For reasons that aren’t clear, the circuit commentary isn’t audible at this part of the track: instead, the PA spends all day pumping out what can only be described as EuroReggae for the benefit of nobody in particular.

No argument, some parts of the circuit are simply run down – although I’m among those who wouldn’t want it any other way. It might be nice if they renovated the toilet block by the Ascari chicane, which has possibly been there since before the racetrack opened and appears fit only for condemnation, and it would be beneficial occasionally to take a strimmer to some of the trackside pathways. Wearing shorts is a sensible option in 30-degree heat, but there’s a fair chance your calves will be ripped apart by plant life that appears not to have been pruned since Fangio was a lad.

It’s a wonderful location, then, but is it a great circuit? Some would argue not. Average lap speeds are high, but in essence the layout isn’t intricate: long straights, slow corners, a tempered approach to both Curva Grande and Lesmo 1… Perhaps only Parabolica retains some of the original Monza spirit, but even that has a partially metalled run-off that F3 drivers earlier this year adopted as a track extension, in a bid to increase their speed onto the pit straight. A line that might have taken your life in the 1950s is now perceived to be worth a couple of tenths. Such is the sport’s evolution, such are its altered mind-sets.

Wherever you roam the whole day is an experience, from parking on arrival at espresso o’clock – when, no matter how accurately you line up, the stewards invariably insist you shift your car another 2cm fore or aft – to sorting dining tables of an evening. Racegoers receive a consistently warm welcome, irrespective of provenance or native tongue. 

A few miles from the circuit, in Arcore – where headline magnet Silvio Berlusconi owns a substantial villa – my hotel’s restaurant was closed on the Sunday evening, but I was allowed to use their cutlery, terrace table and wine to accompany a very fine pizza from a takeaway across the road. Culinary improvisation at its finest.

This was a particularly warm weekend, with but a sprinkling of Saturday afternoon raindrops to interrupt fierce heat. They would barely have filled a coffee mug, but somehow the main exit tunnel was still flooded by the day’s conclusion. And that triggered an exit traffic jam on a scale I have never witnessed at the dozen or so Grands Prix I’ve attended at the track. Floods without rain, queues without a crowd? Such illogical contradictions form part of Monza’s culture and soul.

During the weekend, news broke of Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz’s latest threat to withdraw from F1 – but countless teams have come and gone during the 93 years since Monza hosted its first Grand Prix.

It would be a far bigger story, surely, if the Italian GP’s spiritual home were allowed to slip through the net.

Lewis Hamilton

“There are two sides to Monza. The circuit has great historic value, but then there are also the fans who absolutely make the weekend. There are a few races that feel like the sport’s foundation stones – and Monza is one of those. After the race the whole pit straight is a sea of fans and we don’t get to see that at other races.
I think it’s important that we keep it.”

Andrea de Adamich

“Monza has always been like home to me. My first race was there, in a Triumph TR3. I’d been to the Race of two Worlds as a spectator in 1957 and came away very impressed by the high speeds on the banking. That was my first inspiration to be a racing driver. For me, Monza is what Grand Prix racing is all about, the speed and power you need there, and the compromise of absolute speed on the straights and downforce for the corners. No other Italian circuit has the history, or the pure emotions, of Monza. The original road circuit – with no chicanes – was the best. You took the curve at the end of the start/finish straight at almost full throttle, no guardrails, only trees on the outside if you made a mistake. People always say Ferrari is Formula 1 but we can also say Monza is Formula 1, and Formula 1 is Monza.”

Nico Rosberg

“Monza is one of the legendary tracks and is important to the F1 calendar – just as the German Grand Prix is important! I definitely hope that we continue to race there, in front of the tifosi. The atmosphere is always awesome.”

Fernando Alonso

“I think it’s one of the best races of the year. The podium is amazing, with all the fans on the main straight. It’s the home of Ferrari and very important for Formula 1 – but, as Nico said, the same is true of Germany and that’s no longer on the calendar this year, so who knows?”

Martin Brundle

“History, atmosphere, the challenge, high speeds, big braking zones, potentially painful if you get it wrong… If Monza fell from the Formula 1 schedule, I’d need a serious think about whether I wanted to continue. If they let Monza go, you’d have to question the sport’s future. I’m not against Tilke circuits. Some work very well, but you need balance and variety. You can’t just toss away so much heritage.”

Sir Stirling Moss

“Monza is fantastic. To start with it’s in Italy and the Italians are mad about their motor racing. When I was there it was actually quite a difficult circuit, the cars were very close together, very fast, slipstreaming on the straights. It would be dreadful if they got rid of it – even the name, Monza, means so much to motor racing. Not all my memories are good, even though I won there three times. I was on the banking in that Race of Two Worlds when the steering broke on my Maserati – that shook me. I hit the Armco at the top of the banking, closed my eyes and spun to the bottom. The circuit is ruined now, chicanes and run-off areas, all that stuff, but it’s still one of the races they all want to win.”

Toto Wolff

“It would not be right to lose Monza, but I can assure you that is not going to happen. Bernie is pretty aware that there are a couple of historic tracks that are very important, but equally F1 is a big business and needs to make a viable business case. It is OK that we move to new locations, for the business, but Monza, Spa, Hockenheim – and some others – they are the heart and soul of motor racing, so it’s important that we stay. It is time we stopped talking F1 down all the time, the sport and the spectacle are like they always were. There have been bad years before, some bad races. Too much negativity is hurting the sport; the cars are very fast and are not easy to drive. If you watch on the circuit you will see. People can overrate the past sometimes, but there are always things we can improve and I believe the Italian Grand Prix will stay at Monza.”

Jochen Mass

“To get rid of these old, historic tracks would not do the sport any favours – it would make Grand Prix racing a flatter piece of entertainment. There is still a lot of emotion in these tracks, they are the glue that keeps the history alive, otherwise it’s just a business. Monza is in a fabulous parkland setting, with parts of the track under the shade of the trees. It tickles a fantasy, brings memories of so many great races. The Grand Prix is a real event, fabulous in terms of spectacular driving in a beautiful setting – the Parco di Monza in late summer. It was very quick there, the Curva Grande was flat out, Ascari, the Parabolica, no chicanes. But as a driver the high speeds come automatically with racing, it’s not the biggest thing. Of course the circuit is also very Italian, the food, the coffee, the fans… It will surely survive, despite the move to so many new places.”

Jean Todt

“It’s important to appreciate the history of the sport, to have a culture that recognises the past, but the motoring world is moving, things are changing fast. Tradition is important, history is important, and I am disappointed we have lost the German Grand Prix and the French Grand Prix – but the world is changing. Europe is only a very small part of the world map, and motor sport is no longer reserved only for European countries. We need to keep moving, take the sport to new countries. Of course Monza is part of the history of motor sport so, yes, we must do everything we can to keep the race. We need more positivity, there is too much negativity in Formula 1 sometimes.”

Herbie Blash

“I have both good and bad feelings about Monza. It used to be a very unsafe track – I remember Ronnie Peterson in the 1970s, and Jochen Rindt, I was close to both, so I go there with some bad memories. The circuit has been spoilt, like many others, but still has character and is much safer now. The first chicane causes problems, and I’d love to see Monza without it, but the cars would be going so quickly into the next corner and the changes were made for safety. When you go to the banking, or to the old garages, you feel the real history of Monza, when the fans used to climb over the fences, slide down lamp posts to get into the paddock and sit in the trees to watch the race. Even now, at the end of the Grand Prix, you see the passion, the crowds that come to the podium. There is still a special magic in the air. I’m sure we won’t lose Monza, I don’t think Ferrari – ie Fiat – would let that happen. I’m positive they’ll find a way to keep it on the F1 calendar.”

Allan McNish

“When I think of Monza I think of the old signs entering the park, the crowds, the Italian fans, the noise, the passion, the heartbeat, old movies of the banking – and Ferrari. The Italian Grand Prix at Monza is an iconic race, steeped in history. It’s the one I’d take my kids to see, so it must be preserved, like the banking. Monza is old school, in the middle of a park in the town, and preserves a tradition. I first went in 1990, in F3000, then F1 of course, and I’ve done some testing there for Audi. As a driver I always enjoyed the place, you’re always on the edge, trimming the wings for outright speed, feeling for grip in the chicanes. Monza has to be a part of the world championship, both drivers and teams have to learn to adapt to its special demands. Can you imagine what all those Italian fans would do if there wasn’t an Italian Grand Prix at Monza? Wow…”

Stefano Modena

“I am sorry to say, but for me it does not mean so much to keep Monza on the F1 calendar. It is not one of my preferred tracks, nor even close. To tell the truth it is probably one of the circuits I dislike the most. It is dominated by Ferrari, and by the fans of Ferrari and its drivers, who are not always so special – apart from Michele Alboreto who was born near there. I think Monza is without driving pleasure, it is flat with only fast straights and slow chicanes so there is no possibility for the driver to be inventive or creative. For me, Imola is better in terms of sheer driving pleasure.”
Interviews compiled by Simon Arron and Rob Widdows

A time of change

One of Italy’s leading Formula 1 writers offers a few thoughts on Monza’s longer-term future

n Italy there are two words synonymous with motor sport: Ferrari is the first, no question, and Monza the second. Italy’s racing tradition can be traced through these two names, and the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, which opened in 1922, is the elder. But I’m not talking only about a circuit that has to date hosted all but one of Italy’s world championship Grands Prix, but about a town that has contributed so much to national racing folklore. The Ascari family’s story began In Monza, as did those of Lorenzo Bandini, the Brambilla brothers, Michele Alboreto and many others who first discovered the sport when they entered the local autodromo.

There have been periods of great splendour at Monza, with terrific fixtures complementing the annual Grand Prix: the famous 1000Kms, the inaugural FIA Touring Car World Cup in 1993, Formula 2, Formula 3 and all other major racing disciplines. Over the past 15 years, however, the story has progressively altered. The annual calendar has become ever smaller and, F1 showpiece apart, relatively little of a glorious past remains. And even the Grand Prix looks uncertain… This led, in 2014, to a wholesale management restructure, with former Formula 1 driver Ivan Capelli coming in to take on the challenge of preserving Monza’s place on the F1 calendar beyond the expiry of its current contract in 2016.

Thus far the circuit has not had the financial confidence to upgrade its facilities or commit to a new deal, so Capelli has inherited a very difficult situation. The one weapon he can use is the circuit’s name, but unfortunately Italy has a bad habit of addressing problems only when it is potentially too late. Despite the fine work Capelli is doing, he could do with greater support.
When asked about the possibility of Monza being dropped from the F1 calendar, Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne said: “If necessary we will move to make our voices heard.” A positive response, but time is passing.

If Monza goes, it is likely the same fate will befall the Italian GP. At present, there is no real alternative. Monza has history, a good overall infrastructure, is well situated close to Milan and remains one of the world’s most historic venues. Imola has none of this and is not presently equipped to meet F1 standards. Mugello’s circuit and facilities are suitable, but the access roads and hotel capacity always present problems. And then there are the tifosi, for whom it is unthinkable that the Italian GP at Monza could be dropped.

While the main problem today seems to be financial, I strongly suspect that it will soon become political. Cars might lap quickly at Monza, but the decision-making process is rather less brisk. Personally I believe the circuit has a future, but whatever it takes to secure it will doubtless remain unresolved until the very last moment, with the deadline approaching.

That, too, is a Monza tradition. Roberto Chinchero

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