Passion. History. Spectacle. If I were to single out three things that keep me addicted to Formula One, those would be right at the top of the list. And there are few tracks remaining on the F1 calendar today where all three come together in such potent doses as at Monza, the home of Italian GP races since 1950.
In the clinical modern world of F1, Monza appears to be a relic from the past. There are no ornate and glitzy hospitality buildings. You walk past abandoned, derelict refreshment stands on the way to main grandstand. The facilities are neither cutting edge – stroll past the rows of port-a-loos if you don’t believe me – nor spotlessly maintained.
However, you’re constantly reminded of the heroes of the past – here people still know (care) about Varzi, Ascari, Scheckter and Villeneuve. The track, too, is steeped in history (90 years old this year), and first started out as a high-speed oval long before Hermann Tilke, the architect of many of the bland modern-day circuits, was born. Yes, Monza wears its history on its sleeve and, in my opinion, is all the better for it.
That’s the history bit. The passion (at Monza at least), comes in the shapes of thousands of fanatical Ferrari supporters (the famous Tifosi). I was a guest of Shell Helix, a partner of the Ferrari team and as a result I had access to the Ferrari Hospitality area right on the start/finish line. Whenever a Ferrari came pass, spontaneous applause and cheering would follow it. And when Vettel pushed Alonso off the circuit on Sunday, I swear I could hear a collective sucking of breath, and then relief. The obsession with F1 and Ferrari is seemingly all consuming.
Then, the spectacle… there’s a slow build-up on a race Sunday. First a couple of smaller Formula races take place when the stands are still mostly empty. Then a Porsche Cup race. The F1 cars remain silent for much of the morning as enthusiastic supporters crowd the entrance to the Paddock Club, hoping to catch a glimpse of a hero. Shell took me onto this celebrity packed stretch of motorhome-lined tar and within five minutes I had seen (and snapped) Jackie Stewart, David Coulthard, Fernando Alonso, Johnny Herbert, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Vitaly Petrov. On the way out of the Shell Trackside Laboratory, where oils and fuels are analysed, we bumped into Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali. Everyone seems relaxed, smiling and waving.
But as soon as the first engine fires up, everything changes. First there’s a moment of reactionary silence. Then everyone becomes more animated than before. Goodbyes are quickly waved as the imminence of the race become a reality. There’s suddenly an urgency in everyone’s step. The anticipation builds further when the grid girls start taking their positions and the thunderous Mercedes SLS AMG safety car roars out the pit lane. But that first F1 engine starting up… piercing, shrill, other-worldly… and far, far louder than you’d ever expect if you’ve only ever heard them on television.
The atmosphere that is provided by these three elements is what makes it worth coming to an F1 race. The race itself almost doesn’t matter. Certainly, it’s far easier to follow an F1 race on the couch in your lounge, or over a beer in a sports bar. I had probably the most expensive seat in the house and saw the cars flashing by on the main straight, but that’s hardly race action. Most of the people on the grandstand spent the entire race looking down at portable TV screens showing BBC 5, only glancing up when a car screamed over the start/finish line to record another lap. Nevertheless, the atmosphere provided by Monza, through its ambience of history, passion and spectacle, made it one of the most memorable days of my life.
But, sadly, it won’t last.
If you haven’t seen an F1 race at one of the more historical tracks yet, then you better act fast, as various insiders told me during the weekend that these circuits are under threat. It’s not only about money. Infrastructure isn’t the main problem either. I spoke to a number of people involved in the sport and they singled out two issues. Firstly, health and safety regulations (and particularly sound regulations), are becoming stricter. In some European countries it is apparently becoming very difficult to use racing circuits on subsequent days. Such regulations would immediately rule out F1, as three days of practice, qualifying and racing are needed. Also remember that new housing developments have encroached on the locations of most of the older circuits, and you only need one person to complain about noise for the petitions to start and the politicians to get involved.
Now, of course, F1 is switching to new regulations in 2014 that call for turbocharged small-capacity engines to be used. As evidenced by the smaller formula that competed before F1 this past weekend, loud engine sounds will certainly be a thing from the past. But that, in itself, is an even bigger threat to the future of F1. Without the characteristic sound of an F1 car at full acceleration, the spectacle so crucial to F1 (for track visitors), will be lost. Without it, why would you then come to the track? It is massively expensive to attend. It is not easy to follow the race. And refreshments are costly, too. In my opinion, the FIA must protect the spectacle first and foremost. According to one source, the situation will not get better post Ecclestone, but worse…
Nothing I heard during this past weekend was particularly good news to me as an F1 fanatic. Tracks in Germany and England are apparently most under threat for future F1 races. Meanwhile there are a number of countries waiting in the wings to take their places with modern, clinical circuits. Problem is, these tracks have no history, no sense of occasion and, crucially, the people who typically live there, have no appreciation for the history of the sport, and no passion for it. As a result, Bernie has had to twist at least one host country’s arm far enough for them to bus in spectators who have zero interest in the sport, just to make sure that the grandstands look full on TV.
Attending the Italian GP at Monza will be unforgettable. But with it comes a depressing realisation that I may have caught it just in time. The passion, the history and the spectacle are still at Monza in big quantities. The question is, for how much longer?