With the famous Italian Formula 1 Grand Prix taking place at Monza this weekend, I thought it would be a good opportunity to take a look back at the 2013 race, which Any Given Reason attended. If you can’t be there in person you might as well be there in spirit, right?
This post won’t attempt a blow-by-blow account of the race because you can find that elsewhere, written by far more knowledgeable and experienced scribes than myself. This post aims to give a glimpse of what it’s actually like to attend the Italian GP; information that doesn’t make the international broadcast.
The Monza circuit is situated near the city of Monza, around 50km north of Milan in northern Italy. Below it sits Italy’s motor valley and the homes of Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Pagani are all less than a couple of hours drive away. Around 30km north of Monza sits Lake Como, the gateway to the Alps and the rest of Europe. Monza is the spiritual home of modern Formula 1, and is the only circuit to have held a round of the World Championship every year since its inception.
The Monza circuit sits inside a 688 hectare walled park. It’s the fourth largest walled park in Europe, and is very similar in concept to Central Park in New York or The Serpentine in London. The park includes a golf course and extensive lawns, and about a third of it remains as natural woodland – it is inside this wood where the circuit lies. As can be seen in the above picture, one side of the track runs directly along the historic perimeter wall of the park. It’s a very pleasant location for a racing circuit.
Monza is an important location in terms of the history of motorsport, but its significance to Italian culture is even greater. The park was commissioned by Napoleon’s stepson during the French occupation of Northern Italy, and was completed in 1808. Crumbling relics dot the park, such as this ornate building sitting trackside. It looks like it might have been a gatehouse or servants quarters for the Royal Villa, also located within the park and built between 1777 and 1780. If this building were in Australia it would be a national monument, but in Italy it’s just a place for race fans to catch some shade.
Cast in several spots on its walls was the Biscione, the emblem of the Visconti family, rulers of Italy in the 14th century. So why is this relevant? True Alfisti will recognise this serpent eating the small boy as the right-hand side of the Alfa Romeo badge. The red cross on white background on the left side of the badge is the shield of the city of Milan, which is situated 50km south of this building. For those not familiar with the badge, click here. This building is so close to the track that you might catch a glimpse of it on the telecast, and it really highlights what a historically significant place Monza is.
But for us gearheads, Autodromo Nazionale Monza is most famous for being one of the original birthplaces of motorsport as we know it. Construction began in 1922, making it one of the first dedicated racing circuits. It has undergone various redevelopments over the years, but the basic formula remains intact – a road circuit with corners, and a huge high-speed banked oval. Chicanes have been continually added and the road circuit modified to reduce speeds after some terrifying accidents over the years (27 spectators once died in a single crash), but the basic layout is largely similar to how it’s always been.
The original banking used in the 20’s and 30’s was never this steep, and it’s a serious challenge to walk to the top. The circuit fell into disrepair during the war years, and the current banking was built in 1954.
During the 50’s and 60’s the banking could be combined with the road circuit to create a terrifying 10km lap, and this combination was used for the ’55, ’56, ’60 and ’61 World Championship races. The bowl was dropped from F1 because speeds were simply too great, and it was last used in the 1969 1000km of Monza sports car race. The banking has been threatened with demolition on a few occasions, but it still survives and you can explore a fair part of it on foot if you’re prepared to do some hiking.
Sometimes you’ll be cutting through the infield forest on a path to get to another part of the track, and chance upon the banking as it laps around. The locals don’t even give it a second glance, but I was awestruck every time I saw it.
The disappointing thing is that the Italian GP, as a race, is actually not that great to attend. It really is a spectacle created for television broadcast, and it feels like the spectators at the track are forgotten. It was only a last minute snap decision to attend the race, so I just went with General Admission tickets and didn’t worry too much about it. The grandstand seats were quite expensive and I remembered how at the Melbourne Grand Prix you actually get a better view from GA than you do in a grandstand, so I hoped for the best. But there was nowhere good to spectate from.
… or stand on a straight or on the inside of one of the big, sweeping bends. Seeing F1 cars speed by at 340km/h is exciting for the first ten minutes, but the novelty soon wears off. Monza is a fascinating track engineering wise – you need a very low grip, low downforce setting and lots of horsepower to give you the speed in the straights (80% of the lap is at full throttle), but that setup means you’ve got no aero grip in the chicanes. That’s exciting for the driver and is a battle of brains for the engineers, but it’s not especially fascinating to watch.
That presents a challenge photographically, too. There are catch fences lining the whole circuit, sometimes two or three deep, so your choice is to pan so slowly that you can blur the fence – but this is a challenge in itself. Shooting too fast will freeze the car and the fence too much, making for a boring photo. But trying to keep a car traveling at 300km/h in focus at 1/80th or 1/100th is nigh on impossible.
Or you can attempt to freeze them head-on and zoom through the fence, but this is difficult unless you have a good quality lens with big zoom. Which I don’t. And then there’s the hassle of finding a spot where you can shoot them head on, which is rare at Monza.
At the Italian GP this March was the only car on display in the whole circuit, and it was only there because it was part of a promotion for the RUSH movie. At the Melbourne GP there’s six or seven different car shows, trade stands, education halls, rides and after race concerts but there was none of that at Monza.
… and Carrera Cup, which only had one race each on Sunday. And given how there were no big screens and the commentary was in Italian, I had no idea what was going on in the races. There was no on-track demonstrations of old race cars, which makes us especially spoilt with our full programs of support races and activities in Australia. It was quite disappointing, to be honest.
But this is Italy, and I have to accept that maybe my expectations were misaligned with what the Italians want from a motor race. Maybe they don’t want the stress of a full day of noise and action? All throughout the park and the circuit infield, tables were set up and families and friends were enjoying long lunches.
And then as the race start drew nearer, they would emerge from the forest and take their place at the fence. Some had the foresight to pitch their tents right at the fence, so that they could sleep as long as possible.
A ladder? Grandstand for three! I didn’t get any photos but I saw multiple people bring scaffolding in and erect their own stands. Bags and containers are not checked on entry, meaning clever scaffolding can be split between three or four people and smuggled in. I heard stories that spectators would come into the park in the weeks leading up to the race and bury their scaffolding in the forest, and then dig it out and build it on race day. There were some elaborate constructions.
It’s the passionate Italian fans that really carry this race, and it’s almost impossible not to get swept up in it. Standing next to these guys as they drunkenly belted out Il Canto degli Italiani (the national anthem) just before race start is a special memory.
As soon as the race finished I joined the thousands of fans and sprinted to the finish straight with a hope catching a glimpse of the podium celebrations. I got there just in time to see Mark Webber take his second place trophy, right off in the distance.
It was a privledged experience to soak up the atmosphere at Monza, but I doubt I’ll be rushing back. It has made me appreciate that we really do have a truly world-class event at Melbourne, and I think there’s other races in Europe that would be a better spectacle if you’re abroad.