My husband and I sat on the train leaving Varenna headed for Milan Central Station, looking out the window at the glittering lake. What could possibly tear us away from the charms of Lake Como? Only a rare treat. Every year, on the Thursday of the Formula One Italian Grand Prix (as is the case with many other race weekends), the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza opens its paddock access to weekend ticket holders.
The racetrack is nestled in the vast Parco di Monza. Originally built in 1808 to complement the Villa Reale, the park dominates the regional landscape. This sprawling green space, once a royal game reserve, now serves as a healthy lung of the city—locals can be frequently spotted jogging, bicycling, or playing team sports. A racetrack was built amid this woodland setting in 1922, and although it has transformed over the years, this venue has hosted the Formula One Italian Grand Prix nearly every year since the inaugural season back in 1950.1 After arriving at Monza’s train station, we headed towards Corso Milano and took the No. 221 bus to Vedano al Lambro (stop at Viale Brianza & Via Novembre), just a few blocks west of the park’s Vedano entrance.2
The paddock was packed, with the crowd concentrated around the far end towards the finish line, where teams like Infiniti Red Bull, Mercedes-Benz—and of course, Scuderia Ferrari—had their garages.3 Walking up and down the paddock, it was nice to get a close look at the cars and their individual components, especially the complex geometries of the front wing assemblies. Monaco and Monza are two extreme examples of the varying demands that a track places on a Formula One car’s setup and the driver’s skill. The long high-speed straights of Monza require a very special low-downforce setup, and superfluous bodywork is stripped off to prevent excessive drag.4
As the afternoon went on, pit crews provided welcome fan service for the crowd during practice runs of their sub-three-second pit stops. As befits a bespoke car, even the tools are custom-made by the individual teams.
Once in a while, a section of the paddock would erupt in cheers as one of the drivers made an appearance. Standing at the front of the Lotus Renault garage, I watched as French driver Romain Grosjean quickly signed team-provided souvenir cards (that is, except mine). Meanwhile, over at the Mercedes-Benz garage, title contender Nico Rosberg had already hopped on his bicycle to take a ride around the circuit.
Late in the afternoon, there seemed to be a bit of a lull; by that point, some fans were content to call it a day. I noticed that the crowd had thinned out somewhat between the Ferrari and Mercedes garages, so I wandered over to a vacant spot next to the barricade and waited for something good to happen. At the very least, I thought, I could lean over the fencing and take some photos looking down the paddock.
After a handful of decidedly “meh” shots, I put down my camera. The mood in the immediate area had changed.
Uniformed men now stood at the front of the Ferrari garage. The masses grew anxious; one of the Ferrari drivers must be coming. Within moments, the horde had reassembled. Some pushed their way to the front, but I stood my ground. I craned my neck and stood on tiptoe as a surge of cheers rippled through the audience.
“Fernando!” they cried. It was Fernando Alonso!
Hands and arms spilled forth as Alonso walked along the barriers in front of the Ferrari garage. The congregation heaved as he proceeded down the pit lane, signing scraps of paper, T-shirts, magazines, homemade photo collages, and, of course, Ferrari flags.5 As he was making his way towards my direction, it dawned on me that I hadn’t thought to bring anything for drivers to sign. I didn’t think that I was going to luck into any autographs at all, let alone one from arguably the best driver on the grid.
The wave surged ever closer to where I was standing, towards the Mercedes-Benz garage. Hands flew over my head. I took my Ferrari cap off and waved it meekly. A magazine wagged itself directly in front of my face, blocking my view. I felt myself being swallowed up by the crush. I pushed the magazine aside and, suddenly, I was face to face with the man himself. I handed him my Ferrari cap and asked “¿Por favor?”
He smiled, took his marker and scribbled across the red brim: Alonso.
“Gracias! Grazie!” I managed to blurt out. By then, he had already moved on, the tide sweeping him away.
After buying a new hat (there was no way I was going to wear my newly signed treasure), I was ready for the race weekend to begin.