Magic and madness at Monza

When you die and go to Heaven - if you've been good - you will arrive at the pearly gates and there will be St. Peter, smiling in an avuncular fashion.

"Hello pilgrim," he will say. "Anything I can do to help you on your journey?"

"Oh, yes please," you will reply, a little nervous about what you are about to discover. "I'm a motor racing fan. I was hoping that there might be a racing circuit here in Heaven."

"Oh, how very nice," Peter will say. "How pleasant it is to meet a motor racing person. We don't get many of them here you know. I am told there is a very competitive Other World Championship in Hell. But, pilgrim, I have good news. The Celestial Motor Speedway is just a few miles away. You don't need any passes and there is plenty of parking space available.

"If you get lost on the way," he will add, "just ask for Monza. We couldn't come up with a better place for a racing circuit in Heaven. Monza is magic, you know."

And as you cruise through Elysium Fields in your dream car, looking for the Celestial Motor Speedway, you will probably wonder - if you have never been to Monza - what to expect when you get there. Sadly, I have to tell you that some of the girls you see at the real Monza are rather too naughty to make it to Heaven. So it won't be quite the same.

I guess that a lot of the Italian crowd wouldn't make it either if bad language is considered. They do get very excited when you have just run them over because they were wandering down the middle of a road. They always seem surprised and offended that someone should be driving.

The tifosi seems to have a remarkable belief that if you wave a Ferrari flag nothing bad can ever happen to you. It is a wonderful form of madness and one which never fails to kick-start the emotions. Such enthusiasm really is contagious and I guess that this, above all else, is the reason that I love going to Monza. No matter how bad the politics or how tired you are or what preoccupies you, Monza cures the moody. It's a kick and it reminds you what it was that first attracted you to motor racing. There really is nothing like it.

My first time visit to the Autodromo was miserable. I came from Milan by train and then caught a bus and ended up walking through the royal park, dragging a vast bag (which had a tent in it) behind me. It was March and it was raining almost non-stop. I pitched my tent in a car park and was as miserable as miserable can be. And yet, even then, when I walked through the woods and watched the cars going through the Ascari chicane I fell in love the place. Since then I have come to Monza at various time of year - in the baking midsummer and even the chill of winter but somehow Monza is always linked to September - the traditional date of the Italian GP.

The problem these days is that the Italian Grand Prix is always right in the middle of the F1 "Silly Season" and so the paddock people are at their absolute worst: lying, misleading, wheeling, dealing and generally making money any way they can.

In the past there have been times when the Italian GP paddock has been hard going. Back in 1991 we had "The Schumacher Affair", during which Michael Schumacher moved from Jordan to Benetton and lots of people involved told lots of lies. Everyone seemed to have a lawyer in tow and the media was given very little help in unravelling what was going on.

I went for a walk in the woods.

After that things began to become more amusing. McLaren made a point that weekend of announcing that it was running the same drivers as at Spa, and Thierry Boutsen - remember him? - explained that although his Ligier was not handling very well, he had decided "not to change teams for the final qualifying session".

The absurd returned a year later when we had Nigel Mansell and Frank Williams quibbling over contracts. This led to Nigel departing F1 in dramatic fashion - despite the fact that Frank Williams was offering him all the money he needed. As I recall the sticking point in the contract was that Nigel wanted 20 hotel rooms for his pilots and assorted hangers-on plus free Mars Bars and flower arrangements or some such silly rubbish. He went to Indycar racing.

This year we had Damongate - Frank Williams dumping yet another World Champion because the driver in question did not fit in with his plans for the future. The last Williams F1 World Champion who was retained by Williams was Keke Rosberg back in 1983. Since then Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and now Damon Hill have all left the team after winning their titles. The newspapers seem to have forgotten that Nelson left because he had a better offer and Frank Williams knew nothing about it until a note was slipped under his door. The other three have all been ditched by the team.

Monza is the perfect cure for all this sort of thing. All you do is wander off, dodging badly-ridden bicycles, to see the cars at the Lesmos of Ascari. Once, a few years ago, I even managed to go through a hole in a fence and I found myself on the old banking. It was magic. This year we ended up, at one point, on the old back straight.

On another visit I somehow conned my way into one of those funny Pirelli "scoreboard" towers which stand beside the main straight and from there one has a wonderful view of the race track.

The main grandstand - which has a restaurant underneath it - also provides a great view and these days I tend to watch races from up in the hallowed corridors of the TV commentary boxes. Below there is a mass of writhing humanity but if you pass through a single arch you are in calm little world. You climb a few steps and you are at tree-top level on a covered walkway at the back of the grandstand. There must be 30-odd doors into these funny little cells in which the TV commentators of the world sit and if you wander around here in the minutes before a race you will hear a great array of bubbling language, all of them telling the world the stories of Monza.

The grandstand was built in 1938 and as it nears 60 years of age, the grandstand - which, incidentally, was used in 1945 by allied soldiers to watch a tank parade along the Monza main straight - has become rather antiquated. This year a radio commentator - way up in the rickety bits where only the brave and radio reporters fear to tread - became so excited with what was going on that he actually went through the floor, showering TV commentators below with plaster and bits of old wood.

It happens. Actually, in comparison to a sportscar race back in the mid-1980, this is not a major incident. The Monza 1000km was held during a particularly bad storm and Dr. Jonathan Palmer - he of the BBC - was charging along through the tree-lined track down near the Lesmo, in a Canon-sponsored Porsche 956. The high wind caused a very large tree beside the track to fall over and crash down across the road. Palmer was able to stop the car before he hit the tree and duly climbed out, wondering what to do. Jonathan says that the next to arrive on the scene was German driver Hans Stuck in a Rothmans Porsche. Hans stopped as well and then tried to get Jonathan to help him try to lift the tree out of the way. Palmer felt this was probably not a very wise idea as the tree probably weighed several hundred tons. Stuck was insistent. It was not until the second Rothmans Porsche arrived - with Jochen Mass (now a German TV commentator) that Stuck was convinced that three men could not actually clear the track and get on with the racing.

There are always such stories at Monza. Frank Williams used to live in a campsite on the outside of the Curva Grande when he first started out in Formula 3 racing and was wheeling and dealing his way around Italy. This proved to be a very convenient arrangement until one day something other than a tree fell out of the sky - it was a Ferrari sportscar which had a mechanical failure in the Curva Grande and come over the wall and landed next to his camp.

The campsite is still there but it is probably a little better off than was the case in those days - so, incidentally, is FW. I used to go there in the early 1980s to interview drivers. Those were the days of the European Formula 3 Championship with the likes of Gerhard Berger and Pierluigi Martini driving and team owners such as Eddie Jordan and Gary Anderson (once they were enemies - now they are on the same team). The European F3 race (the Monza Lotteria) was always held in the mid-summer. It was always very hot and so the drivers would rush away after practice and hang out at the swimming pool in the campsite - just by the first chicane. If you stood on top of the diving board you could just about see what was happening in the race track.

Everyone seems to have such stories about Monza and when someone asks me which is my favorite race in a year I might say Melbourne or Montreal but that is not because of the race track, it is because of the nearby city. A Grand Prix at Monza is an event which no serious racing fan - from Patagonia to Poland - can afford to miss. Why not book now for next year - I know I'll be back. I'll be at the top of the grandstand - if it's still standing...

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