The fans gather on track at the post-race podium ceremony for the 2014 Formula One Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

Euro Trip 2014, Part 4: The Italian Grand Prix

In this land of cathedrals, there is one hallowed place unlike the others. Nestled in one of Europe’s largest parks lies the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, the “temple of speed”. The howls of engines echo through the wooded glen, as they have for nearly a century. More Formula One grands prix have been held at this venue than any other, and it is at Monza where the cars are historically pushed to their limit. This world famous circuit has been referred to as la pista magica, “the magic track.” What magic does Monza possess, exactly? I was about to find out.

***

Walking through Parco di Monza throughout the race weekend, I got the sense that the track was very different from any grand prix event that I’d attended up to that point. Absent of the glitz of Monaco,  Singapore’s glittering waterfront, or the modern motorverse of Japan’s Suzuka Circuit, I get the sense that Monza is truly old-school—and perhaps what most traditional European grand prix experiences are like: a bucolic woodland setting; low-key concessions and merchandise setups;1 and, of course, plenty of devoted fans. As such, it’s a fitting end to Formula One’s annual Euro trip before flying off to Singapore and beyond for the big finale in Abu Dhabi.

Monza is a place where things happen. The dominant Mercedes-Benz AMG team had created an exciting rivalry throughout the 2014 season by allowing both Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton to race against each other in earnest for the driver’s championship, provided that they never took each other out. Their relationship—already rocky due to incidents in Monaco and Hungary—took a dramatic turn in Belgium at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, when Rosberg attempted a maneuver on Hamilton on the second lap and made contact, puncturing Hamilton’s tire and ending his race. Rosberg was forced to return to the pit to repair his damaged wing and salvaged a second place result—in a race that Mercedes could have easily finished first and second. “Childhood friends, now fierce rivals!” It was this drama that set the narrative for the race weekend in Monza.

On Friday during the team’s practice sessions, spectators are allowed to sit in any section of  the track. We headed to Variante del Rettifilo, at the end of the start-finish straight, where drivers must brake heavily from speeds upwards of 350 kmh (nearly 220 mph) down to 80 kmh (~50 mph) through a tight chicane. This area is an ideal vantage point for photographs, due to the cars’ relatively slow speeds.2 The quick times posted by Scuderia Ferrari, particularly in the afternoon session, were cause for celebration among the hometown crowd.3

Of course, an inimitable element of Monza’s magic is the presence of the tifosi, Ferrari’s passionate fans. On Saturday, we found our reserved main grandstand seats in Section 26C. Amid the rows and rows of molded white plastic bucket seats (versus the metal bleachers at Turn 1) all along the main straight, we had chosen seats that coincidentally turned out to be the Scuderia Ferrari Fan Club’s area. Anyone who was decked out in rosso corsa (including yours truly) was given a Ferrari flag. At one point during qualifying, a huge Ferrari banner was unfurled across the entire section. Fans under the Prancing Horse insignia (including yours truly) punched giddily at the underside of the sturdy cloth and cheered.

However, the day was for those in the audience waving the Union Jack; it was Lewis Hamilton who earned a hard-fought pole position to cap off Saturday’s qualifying round. The Mercedes one-two qualifying result was the sixth of the year, and in spite of what happened in Belgium, the rivals/teammates were still free to race each other for the win.

At the start of the race on Sunday afternoon, Lewis Hamilton suffered a technical issue with his launch controls; Nico Rosberg smelled blood in the water and stormed off, taking the lead. However, Hamilton kept the pressure on Rosberg and finally, on lap 29, captured the lead when Rosberg misjudged his braking at Variante del Rettifilo and cut the chicane.

Starting with that win in Monza, Lewis Hamilton mounted a late-season comeback to ultimately win his second world driver’s championship at the season finale in Abu Dhabi, making him the first British multiple world champion since Sir Jackie Stewart in 1971.4 Along the way, he and Rosberg also secured the constructor’s championship for the Silver Arrows at the inaugural Russian Grand Prix in Sochi, the first title for Mercedes-Benz since 1955.

Meanwhile, Ferrari was admittedly having its worst season in years.5 As the weekend looked increasingly dim for the Scuderia, even the fan club hype crew seemed deflated. Perhaps nothing represented the culmination of this frustration more than the failure of Fernando Alonso‘s car during lap 29 (when Hamilton took the lead), forcing the race retirement of the team’s de facto superstar in front of its fiercely passionate home crowd.6 Fan favorite Kimi Räikkönen could muster no better than ninth place; it would be the first time in six years that no Ferrari driver stood on the podium at Monza. Such a poor result would not go unpunished….

***

The post-race podium ceremony at Monza is almost as eagerly anticipated as the race itself. As the race entered its final laps, spectators began to congregate behind the fencing closest to the podium. Once the race was over and all the cars had returned to the paddock, the valve was released. Suddenly, the track’s main straight was flooded with giddy sports fans. The Scuderia Ferrari Fan Club had perked itself back up and was on track in full force, carrying their giant banner down the straightaway.

How would the famously partisan crowd react to a podium absent of any Ferrari drivers? When the race winner raised his trophy aloft in victory, there was a surprising cheer for race winner Lewis Hamilton, and perhaps not-so-surprising jeers for Nico Rosberg—given the incident at the Belgian Grand Prix and the similar response he got on that podium. Former Ferrari driver Felipe Massa received a warm and appreciative applause for his third place finish for Williams Martini Racing, the first time that he had ever stood on the podium in overalls that were not Ferrari red. All three drivers addressed the crowd at one point or another in Italian, which was always met with applause.

It was like no one wanted the day to end.

Flags and banners waved, the Champagne sprayed, and tricolor confetti rained down from the sky. After the pageantry was finally over, the track was opened to everyone. We walked down the start-finish straight to Variante del Rettifilo. All around us, spectators had taken over the place. Fans held footraces, lining up along the grid and sprinting down the main drag. Others picked up fallen confetti and threw it back into the air, reliving the moment. It was like no one wanted the day to end. Still others gathered patiently at the rear access point to the paddock, waiting for a last glimpse of their heroes as they left the track at the end of the day.

***

Before we headed back to Lake Como, there was one more sight to check out. While at Turn 2, we hopped over to the unused oval section of the race track. Lying down on the steep concrete banking, exhilarated and exhausted, I thought of all the races that this place had hosted: the daredevils who invited death (and met it) each year, the triumph and tragedy; how (bitter)sweet that Champagne must have tasted.7

In the time since that trip to Monza, I’ve thought about what motorsports mean to this region, this country. Every morning that race weekend when we’d make the trek by foot from the train station to the track, passersby in cars, on scooters, or seated in cafés would always shout to us: “Forza Ferrari!”  (“Go Ferrari!”) To wear a Ferrari shirt or hat, to drape the flag of the Scuderia over one’s shoulders (red wig and tricolor bodysuit optional), regardless of nationality, is to publicly declare I (heart) Italia.

What Italy’s storied motoring marques—Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Moto Guzzi,8 Ducati, AbarthLancia, Lamborghini, and especially Ferrari—represent is the Italian nation’s highest aspirations for itself in a modern world.

The freedom of individual mobility—and speed.

The hope that industrialization and technology could launch a country into modernity.

The belief that there is a beauty to be found in pursuit of these goals, traced in sensuous, aerodynamic curves.

As long as there have been automobiles and motorcycles, there have been people who wanted to make them go faster. And for more than a century, many of them have been Italian. For nearly as long as Italy has been making motor vehicles, people have been coming to Monza to watch them race. Monza is a place that epitomizes this national heritage, inviting the world to share in the celebration. For one weekend, everyone is Italian—or at least one of the tifosi. That is the magic of Monza.

Dark streaks of tire rubber remain on track along the main straight.

Dark streaks of tire rubber remain on track along the main straight.

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