If you’re looking for perspective in Formula 1 – and, let’s face it, perspective isn’t a quality that many inhabitants of the paddock are seeking – then Monza is arguably the best place at which to achieve it.
What do I mean by that?
Simple, the stately royal park in a northern Milan suburb has simply been there and done it for longer, and to a greater extent, than anything else in Formula 1’s long and storied history.
To put it in greater perspective, the Italians were racing cars around Monza nearly a decade before the Great Depression. They were racing cars around Monza nearly a decade before Bernie Ecclestone was born, too!
Monza is Formula 1’s immutable truth. It’ll still be standing – grand, imperious, yet slightly ramshackle – long after we’ve all shuffled off this mortal coil. And, far in the distant future, I like to think there’ll still be some young buck losing the back-end of his single-seater at the exit of Parabolica after getting on the throttle a touch too early. (Hmm, given that they’ve just laid asphalt over the Parabolica’s infamous gravel run-off, perhaps that’s a less likely scenario, but I think you get my gist…)
There’s an atmosphere at Monza that just cuts like a scimitar. It just evokes emotion, feeling, sentiment. And all for different reasons – some days, the place will vividly bring to life the ghosts of the past; on others, it’ll just perfectly frame what modern Formula 1 really is.
It’s only partly about the topography of the place itself – walk into the paddock and you’re greeted by the rocket-like air conditioning system that wraps its way around the all-new pits complex. That certainly wasn’t around when Jim Clark was hauling his Lotus 49 back into the lead with an incredible recovery drive after suffering a mid-race puncture during the 1967 Italian Grand Prix.
True, the circuit is still largely the same as it was back when it was conceived almost a century ago (except, of course, for the infamous concrete banked oval, which was once an integral part of the circuit, but which has been slowly crumbling away unused for half a century), but that’s only part of the appeal.
Alan Henry: Is F1 ready for a makeover?
Take a walk out the back of the track, and you’ll experience the sort of history that has remained unchanged. Out of the second Lesmo, you begin a gradual downhill walk towards the Ascari chicane. In a Formula 1 car, this is simply a few seconds of flat-chat throttle, but, at walking pace, it’s a moment of sanctuary, hemmed in by the forests and lost in time, as the track kinks left, off in the trees to the right sits a square brick building, with what looks like a little abbey connected to it.
It’s the vibe. It’s the knowledge of knowing that, on the spot where you’re doubtless stood, Fangio and Ascari once paced, Rindt sat pensively, wondering if his Lotus would hold together on those long, flat-out straights; Hunt and Prost kept themselves hidden away from the raw, naked emotion of the ranked Tifosi.
But while I enjoy the history of the sport as much as the next man, it’s Monza’s ability to, in my opinion at least, perfectly and fully contextualise the current state of the sport that always makes me look forward to late summer, and a visit to La Pista Magica.
This weekend, I believe that Monza will provide us with the most definitive pointer yet on the still-contentious turbo formula. Formula 1’s sound and fury has long been debated, but it’ll be a trip into the woods to see the current incarnation of cars tackling the Lesmos, or the Ascari chicane, that ought to tell us whether the rule-makers have largely got it right, or if there’s still a bit more work to be done.
I’ve spoken of how Monza ‘frames’ Formula 1 so well. What do I mean by that?
Spa-Francorchamps | The Home of Pure Racing
Let me paint a picture of a particularly vivid memory to try and explain: this was back in 2003, and I still clearly remember arriving at the circuit for Friday practice. If you’ll remember, it was the season when the FIA allowed teams to choose between two additional hours of track testing during the first morning of a race weekend in lieu of any in-season testing. On that particular Friday morning, we were driving in through Monza’s fabled ‘back door’ – the little archway that nestles on the corner of a street in the town of San Giorgio. It enables quick access, and is mercifully free from the hustle and bustle of the busy traffic that lines the Via Cesana e Villa, the street that fronts the park (a little local knowledge is something rarely written about by F1 scribes, but it’s certainly one of the tools of the trade).
It was still early, and we all hungrily looking forward to a cooked breakfast and several rapidly replenished Segafredos to gee us up for the day.
As we embarked on the trip from our hotel, I’d quite forgotten that the Friday morning session (only available for what Ron Dennis euphemistically termed ‘the track sweepers’) was taking place. As we rolled in through the back door, and the road’s hard surface turned to loose gravel, crunching slowly beneath the tyres, we moved beneath the canopy of trees, shards of sunlight filtering through the canopy.
Then we heard it – the unearthly howl of a V10 car breaking the early morning silence, echoing off the circuit’s ancient stone walls and bouncing off the trunks of thousands of stout trees in the forest.
It was quite simply divine, one of those little transient moments that writes itself into your conscious and stays there. At that moment, I knew exactly what Formula 1 meant to me. Perhaps I couldn’t fully explain it, but, to me, that moment wrapped it all up for me, made me know what I was put here to do.
There’s something about Monza that will never change. So when Bernie tells journalists, “I don't think we'll do another contract, the old one was a disaster for us from a commercial point of view. So it's bye bye after 2016,” I think we can take that with a rather large pinch of salt.
Monza always was and always will be. That’s what makes it the greatest racetrack in the world.