To the Italians, Monza is as sacred as any church; they go there to worship the Gods of Italian motor sport – Nuvolari, Varzi, Ascari and of course, Ferrari. In Italy, you must treat Monza with respect. To visit Monza and do something untoward would almost certainly result in some form of Mafia intervention. What follows therefore, is a risky confession.
Geography has never been a strong point of mine, which is why it wasn’t until quite soon before I was due to fly to Lake Garda for a week’s holiday, that I realised Milan isn’t a million miles away from my destination. In turn – as I discovered – Milan isn’t a million miles away from Monza. Without a doubt, a day would be set aside for a visit to the famous cathedral of speed.
The day came and my hired 1.1 litre Fiat Panda was fired up and ready for a pilgrimage that all Italian cars dream of making.
The town of Monza was a surprisingly quiet, stereotypical Italian town – a delicately designed church here, a ristorante/pizzeria there – but knowing that once a year the Formula One fraternity visits this place, gave it a buzz only a motor sport fan could sense.
After getting lost – sense of direction not a strong point either – I found the royal Parco di Monza, which made my impromptu detours all the more embarrassing; the park is enormous, several times larger than Central Park in New York. Nestled somewhere in the park is the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza – I say somewhere because once again, I was lost – I couldn’t see the racetrack for all the trees.
It is a beautiful park, but something other than the spring leaves and Italian flowers caught my eye; the weekend previous to my visit had seen the World Superbike races at Monza called off due to horrendous rain – the same rain I was caught in upon my arrival in Italy – and hanging from trees and lampposts were directions to parking left over from the Superbike’s weekend.
I was in search for the Monza I had seen on television; the Monza of flat-out straights, hard braking and tight chicanes; the Monza that saw Sebastian Vettel take his first Grand Prix victory for Torro Rosso in 2008; the Monza that saw Rubens Barrichello take his last victory in 2009 and that saw that famous, emotional Ferrari one-two in 1988, just days after the death of Enzo. What I found was much, much better.
The Superbike signs directed me through the park, along a bumpy, gravel track and into what I assumed was an over-flow car park. No race-track.
This empty ‘car park’ seemed very short and wide…or was it long and narrow? As I turned the Panda around – assuming I was lost once again – I noticed ahead of me – almost as far as the horizon – the concrete beneath me seemed to extend into the distance and bank impressively to the left.
I stopped the car.
It couldn’t be.
Behind me – again far into the distance – the concrete banked to the right.
This was Monza! Not the Monza I’d seen on television every September, the place Michael Schumacher announced his first retirement in 2006 but the Monza I had read about; The Monza where Fangio, Moss, Ascari and other greats had once thundered along the high degree banking at terrifying speeds. Before them, the likes of Bernd Rosemeyer, Achille Varzi and the great Tazio Nuvolari did the same thing.
The impressive and intimidating concrete banking I was now stood on had claimed many lives. They say there are ghosts at Monza and I could see why. The thought of racing a car at break-neck speed on a track that wouldn’t think twice about spitting you off into large, solid tree trunks should the slightest thing go wrong seemed suicidal. Of course, driving on it at all would simply have to remain a dream.
Or would it?
I had a car. I had a race track. Suddenly I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I’d have to be sneaky – well, as sneaky as one could be when driving a car on a prized and priceless race-track with a history like no other.
I looked at the Panda – parked innocently on the long straight that connects the two banked curves – the Panda looked at me. I felt that the car knew the importance and history of this place as well as I did.
I’d have to do it, if not for me, then for the Panda.
I climbed into the driver’s seat and fired her up. Suddenly, I was Stirling Moss firing up a Grand Prix Mercedes, I was Juan Manuel Fangio selecting first gear in a race winning Alfa Romeo, I was Tazio Nuvolari at the wheel of a pedigree racing car on the road to victory . I was away.
Along the straight – with the banking looming ever nearer – I pointed the Panda at the gap left in the fence and there I was, driving on the Monza banking at speeds of almost 40mph!
I went as far as I dared – a dream had come true. I turned the Panda to face the apex of the curve, stopped and fumbled reverse gear, deafeningly grinding the gearbox and scattering birds in the nearby trees – Nuvolari I wasn’t. But only for that embarrassing moment; I was away again, back along the banking towards the straight with thoughts of those great races held on the hallowed track beneath me and of what food I’ll be served in an Italian prison should I be caught.
I made quick my escape from the old banking and continued my search for the modern-day Monza – which now, wasn’t too difficult to find.
For a five euro entry fee I walked through Monza’s paddock, took pictures of the Fangio statue and cut through an open pit garage where a Scuderia Ferrari sportscar team were prepping a fleet of cars. I stepped into the pitlane, jumped over the pit wall and sat on pole-position; all the time wondering if there was a hole in the fence I could drive a Fiat Panda through and drive this Monza too; but knowing that despite the monstrous long straight, the famous Lesmo corners, Ascari chicane and the legendary Parabolica curve, this Monza was missing something compared to the old one. Something in the atmosphere makes the old banking special; maybe it’s all those ghosts of motor racing’s past or maybe it’s the knowledge that a new driving force was born there; me and my Panda.