My Formula One birthday!

Authored By Brian

It’s been almost exactly 10 days to the minute since my last entry but I’ve been busy enough to justify the shortage of writing. Yesterday being my birthday, I was just outside of Milan staying with my cousin Laura, her husband Etorre and their two very cute Italian children Marta and Frederico. My weekend trip for my first Formula One race was everything I thought it would be and a little bit more.

Ferrari’s home grand prix at Autodromo Nazionale di Monza is 15km outside of Milan

My basic routine for the weekend was car to train station, train to Monza, walk/bus to racetrack, walk/bus back to train, train to Brescia, car back to Laura’s house, wash, rinse, repeat. It took about two hours each way to get there; one hour for the train from Brescia to Milan, another 15 minutes to train to Monza, 15 minutes to bus close to the racetrack and then almost a 30 minute walk to get to the grandstands. I didn’t have my ticket in advance but rather I bought one at the last minute on Ebay. I was supposed to sit in Tribune 4 which is on the front straight just in front of where the cars grid up for the start of the race. I wasn’t going to be able to get that ticket until Sunday though when the German whom I bought it from on was going to arrive.

For Saturday qualifying, I had to buy another ticket and I picked one up for face price (after negotiating down from double the face price) and went along my merry way. Saturday was qualifying for Porsche SuperCup and Formula One and the last Formula 3000 race before they end the series permanently. The weather was a little grey and cool, perfect for sitting outside all day and watching sports. Between qualifying sessions, I walked around the “F1 Village” which contains superbooths from BMW, Ferrari, Toyota and Mercedes. Each booth had some type of attraction and a loooong stand hawking their wares. As Yogurt once said, the real money is made in “merchandising, merchandising, merchandising!” Almost every fan is wearing something that undoubtedly came from these booths and you can’t buy anything for less than about 35 euros. The most expensive items top out around 200 euros meaning the 100,000+ fans at Monza are wearing millions of euros in merchandising.

F1 qualifying was exciting because the Ferraris were placed around spots 9 and 10 in the “pre-qualifying” round. To qualify that low would have caused a riot at Monza. That all changed (of course) in the real qualifying round and the top 3 were Barrichello, Montoya and Schumacher. They were separated by just a few thousandths of a second showing they all had the pace. The stands were about 2/3rds full for the qualifying and the fans would go crazy each time the big-screen TV would show a rival log a slower time than the Ferrari duo.

Monza is an almost mythical circuit. It’s the third oldest purpose built racetrack in the world after Brooksland (in England) and Indianapolis. It’s constructed in the middle of a giant park of greenery and trees. If it weren’t for the roar of the engines, you would almost stumble upon the track it slices its way among the trees. Once upon a time, Monza had a high-speed oval that was so fast and punishing the racers boycotted it because it was too dangerous. Even today, the Monza literature claims it is a place where “risk is balanced with reward”. The modern version has been sanitized with chicanes in the high-speed straights and large gravel traps to protect the drivers.

Monza is a place where ‘risk is balanced with reward’

Sunday morning, I wanted to make it to the train station by 8am so I could make it to Monza by 10. The Porsche SuperCup support race was going to start around 11 and I wanted to see it. The sky was much darker than Saturday. It didn’t scream “rain”, but I think it was whispering. About 10 minutes from Milano Centrale, little drops started to occasionally hit the windows on the train and by the time we arrived at the station, it was a steady rain. Great day to be wearing flip flops and shorts…

The (free) train to Monza was different than Saturday and was dropping everyone off 50m from the Lesmo curve at the north-east corner of the track. The bus parking lot where the ticket seller and I had discussed potentially meeting was at roughly the south-west corner of the park. This wouldn’t be a completely terrible thing except that there is a wall that circles the racetrack to prevent unauthorized entry. This makes corner to corner something like three miles. In the rain. In flip-flops. I spent the first half hour there locating a pay phone to call and when I finally reached him, he told me that he was already inside and to instead call the bus driver. The bus driver didn’t answer his phone and another call to the seller confirmed that he wasn’t coming outside.

I switched plans on the spot and bought another scalped ticket about 100m down the street. This one was in Tribune 1 which on the seating chart indicates it was covered and between the start-finish line and the grid line – straight across from the hot pits. I stood in the mighty long queue and muscled my way to my seat just before the SuperCup race started only to find… I had a special ticket that is actually closer to the track than Tribune 1 but is unfortunately… not covered. At this point, we’re still under a steady rain and neither I nor my stuffy nose and sore throat are looking forward to five hours of sitting in the wet. Still, my seat was about 75m after the start/finish line and directly across from the BMW-Williams and Mercedes pit garages. The podium for the winners extends from the VIP seating over the pit garages and above the pit lane where everyone can see it. Because Ferrari had the #1 pit stop, it was actually located above their space. Given the results so far this year and the Ferrari win last year at Monza, it wouldn’t be a surprise if one of the two red cars put their driver on the top step.

Although standing in the wet might not be that great, watching a race in the wet is far more exciting. After clearing the grid of the Vodafone grid girls and firing up their engines, the SuperCup cars took a two lap warm-up and then lined up for the real start. The lights went green and they shot off towards turn one which is a chicane at the end of the front straight. It’s a heavy braking area and even in the dry racers are overly enthusiastic here, locking up brakes and going wide. The Porsches didn’t disappoint as one car appeared to completely forego braking and spun across the chicane, destroying a large Vodafone advertisement, across the track and almost into the wall on the other side. This elicited great cheers from the crowd and lots of laughter but our protagonist managed to get back under way.

I skipped out on the race about half-way through to see if I could find one of the “trash bag” jackets that everyone had. After walking around for a few minutes, I was told that they were only available outside the park. That meant exiting and standing in what was now an even larger queue to re-enter. The best decision of the day was made right then – stay inside.

I was close enough that I could hear the impact wrenches during the race

While perusing the food vendors for some lunch, I picked up on a technique used by some other attendees and hunted around for the freebie newspaper-magazines that were available. Behind one of the food stands, there were a box of a few dozen and I took about 6 of them to be my personal seat. I added to my haul a sausage and pepper sandwich with mustard and ketchup that tasted as great as it smelled. As I headed back to my seat, the rain was lightening a little bit and with some napkins I cleared out a dry space to put the newspapers down. Cowering under my little umbrella, I watched the Formula One procession with the drivers standing on the back of a flatbed truck waving to the fans and an Italian marching band tromping up and down the front straight playing music. My seat was only about 75 feet from the edge of the track so I could really see the drivers’ faces and expressions. I was close enough that I could hear the impact wrenches from the pit stops during the race. It was a little surprising to be so close to people you see on TV and in magazines all the time right before they’re going to contest the world championship.

By the time the pit lane is starting to open, the rain had completely stopped. The seats really started to fill in once the engines were started and stopped as part of the pre-race inspections. The noise these engines make is unreal. It sounds nothing like a conventional car engine and it’s far rawer than the noise of a jet engine. It’s the sound of a wild beast being piped out of exhaust pipes straight to the sky. The announcing was almost entirely in Italian except for a quick English update every few minutes. Unfortunately there was nothing broadcast in English on any radio station I could pick up so I was left to figure things out on my own.

One by one, the cars left the pits like being shot from a cannon and drove around the track to come to their grid positions. Each grid spot was marked by a team full of engineers and mechanics as well as one very attractive Italian girl dressed in a short skirt and belly shirt covered in Vodafone logos. This grid girls are one of the most popular things about Formula One weekends and the endless pictures and cheering for them only proves the point. There are websites dedicated to these women: hot, scantily clad and at a motorsport event. This is something like the Holy Trinity for a racer or a racer wannabe.

This is the point when the crowd starts to get amped up. The sun just starts to peek through and in the grandstands just above and behind me, an entire section unfolds a giant Ferrari symbol measuring 80’x50’. The television helicopter soars overhead to show it on TV and on the megatron to everyone’s applause. This is the kind of audience participation you want to be a part of – and the race hadn’t even started!

The cars are fired up by the mechanics and they are motioned to proceed onto the formation lap. They are warming up the tires and the brakes and they come around to line up for the start. This exit leaves the mechanics scrambling to pick up their gear and get back to the other side of the pit wall while they zoom around the track. As they came around Parabolica one by one, they slow significantly just in front of where I was sitting and then they hammer it to spin the tires and get some last minute heat in them. The Ferrari duo took it one further by pausing for about three seconds directly in front of the stands to allow the fans to cheer and snap photos.

Now when they hammer it, they hammer it. I had ear plugs in but the sound from the motor is so powerful that you actually feel it in your stomach. The bottle of water I was holding had ripples in it as they accelerated towards their start boxes. This only amps the crowd up further and as the last car pulls into the grid box, this is where religion begins. As the red lights appear on the starter lights, every car on grid pegs the car at the rev limiter and when the lights go out, they engage their gear and sprint to the first corner jockeying for position. The sound is unbelievable! 18 engines all going simultaneously in a mad dash for the most critical position at a track where overtaking is difficult.

Although the sun had come out, the track was still damp if not wet in some places. With Schumacher spinning himself back to 15th place on the first lap, the race was a nail biter until the final laps when the tried and true boys in red came home 1-2 with a great victory and the first win of 2004 for Barrichello. Schumacher finished just 1.5 seconds behind him and Jenson Button clinched third place. The crowd was pumping their fists and cheering and whistling and turning to each other to share the joy of a complete Ferrari domination.

With such domination at home, fans started jumping the fences and pouring onto the track. They were running in waves both directions from Parabolica and Prima Variante. Long before the drivers came out to the podium, the track was a giant cheering crowd covered by people from fence to fence. There were fireworks ablaze and air horns blaring in a cacophony of celebration. It only intensified as the winners came out onto the rostrum and Barrichello began celebrating his hard fought victory. The customary champagne was uncorked and sprayed into the crowd and fellow competitors.

After the awards ceremony, I decided to touch the pavement. Since most people wanted to get off the track, the tiny little gates between the track and the stands were now swarming queues with zero structure and a lot of pushing. It was massively easier to get on to the track than to get off which made me think twice about it but I had nowhere important to go so I decided to, quite literally, push my way through and onto the track.

I spend a decent amount of time at racetracks through my racing and instructing but it is still a very weird sensation to be standing in the middle of the front straight. At the events I attend, you’re never actually standing on the track but rather in the hot pits looking out at it. Looking straight up at the starter lights feels a little dangerous; like you should be looking over your shoulder to make sure the track is clear. Thankfully the full-force party going on around me left me with little doubt the track was cold – although it didn’t necessarily mean I was safe around!

After a few pictures and some general reveling in the Rosso glory, I found that I could cut across the inside of the track back towards the Lesmo curve exit to pick up the train. It was a long walk but taking the less trodden path allowed me to, as I described was possible earlier, stumble upon a little piece of history. Out in the woods between the trees and hidden in the shade are pieces of the old Monza circuit. The incredible banked sections that are no longer used still stand, at least in this one part, between the modern track sections. As I was walking, it looked actually like a cement wall but as I got closer I saw a guard rail at the top and that there was a slight curvature to the wall. I stepped through a gate in the fence and trees and I could see approximately ¼ mile in each direction of the old track. It becomes immediately obvious why it was deemed “too fast”. Climbing the track is nearly impossible – it’s more like a quarter-pipe skateboard ramp than a racetrack. A pair of kids were trying to make it to the top next to me and the only successful attempt involved sprinting up using momentum to carry him far enough to lunge for the railing. I stopped to take a picture of myself and in my flip-flops I could only manage mid-track (the yellow line). Racing was, once upon a time, a much different affair than today, and this piece of pavement proves it.

Another long walk and a long queue onto the train and I was headed home. I managed to just catch a train after we arrived in Milano Centrale so I was lickety split back in Brescia and at Laura’s house. This morning I got up early and took a taxi to the train station, train to Milano Centrale and then shuttle bus to Malpensa for my flight back. I nearly missed my flight after a train from Brescia was cancelled but all’s well that ends well.

The only other noteworthy item is my Spanish education. Unfortunately I missed one day today by staying in Italy but I’ll resume tomorrow for the rest of the week. I’m really picking things back up and although they take up a lot of time (4 hours a day!) they are definitely worth it. I need to spend more time out of class practicing though to really cement things in my mind. And maybe stop typing so much in English! I’ve met some nice people in my class including an English guy named Martin and a Dutch girl named Judith. Each day there is a short break mid-morning where everyone goes downstairs to the mini-cafe and has a bite to eat and a coffee. Most people also pack in a smoke (or three) during that time but I stick to a bottled water and a bocadillo (sandwich) with either chorizo or jamon. If the sandwiches are looking sad I’ll have some tortilla espanola which is the all-time eat-it-anywhere-and-it’s-good snack. I think I pay something like 2 euros for the drink and snack… I can’t fathom where $2.50 gets you something similar in the states.

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