Enzo Ferrari rarely attended races; he would turn up on the Saturday of Monza to watch his cars qualify for the Italian Grand Prix and then return to Maranello and watch the race on television. He was passionate about F1, but he preferred to watch the races from Maranello.
Current Ferrari president Luca Montezemolo is keeping the tradition alive. He showed up at Monza on Saturday to watch his cars in action, and he did a lot else besides. After watching qualifying from the Ferrari pit garage, he paid a visit to F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone; he then caught up with McLaren boss Ron Dennis, had a meeting with FIA president Jean Todt, signed a sponsorship agreement with Santander that lasts until 2017, held a press conference and was presented with a lifetime achievement award. All in a day’s work for Montezemolo, and in keeping with a longstanding Ferrari tradition.
“Ferrari is the only team that has contested every race in the world championship,” said Luca, “and Monza has staged more world championship races than any other circuit. Ferrari and Monza are interlinked in the history of this sport, and it is a pleasure for me to come to Monza to support Ferrari.”
For all the idiosyncrasies of the Italian Grand Prix, the whole F1 circus loves racing at Monza. The drivers love the high speed nature of the track and the passionate fans; the engineers love the technicalities of trying to marry straight-line speed with cornering grip; even the motorhome chefs love the local ingredients from the Milanese markets.
“I’ve put the Italian flag on my helmet this weekend,” said Lewis Hamilton. “I raced in Italy a lot between the ages of 13 and 16 and I learnt a lot during that time. I even learnt to speak a bit of Italian! Out of respect for the Italian people I thought I’d put the Italian flag on my helmet.”
Another man who spent a lot of his career racing in Italy is Robert Kubica. He was born in Krakow, Poland, but he has spent more of his life in Italy than in Poland, and on Sunday he made his return to competitive driving just up the road from Monza.
Kubica had a life threatening crash in a rally 18 months ago and as we went to press he was contesting the Ronde Gomitolo di Lana rally. He was 11s in the lead after the first special stage, which would suggest he’s lost none of his speed as a result of the accident…
Events at Monza are of course important, but the Formula One paddock is keeping half an eye on the London Paralympics this weekend. Former F1 star Alex Zanardi is ripping up the asphalt at Brands Hatch in the handcycling event, where he’s just added a gold medal in the H4 individual road race to the sprint gold he won on Wednesday.
“I’m so proud of what Alex has achieved,” says racing legend Mario Andretti. “It’s as if he were my own son.”
This was a closer race than the one Alex won on Wednesday. He took the lead on the final lap, but he was always a cool customer in races, as anyone who saw him car racing – particularly in IndyCar – will no doubt concur. With just the relay event to go, can he make it a triple whammy of golds? Go Alex!
As for Monza, the teams were able to bask in glorious autumnal sunshine during practice. It was the perfect conditions for Jerome d’Ambrosio (aka ‘Custard’ – see yesterday’s post) to learn the Lotus E20 and get back up to speed at Monza, where he hasn’t driven for a year. He’s part Italian and he certainly got a vote of confidence from the crowd, who cheered loudly whenever he arrived at the first chicane.
Mark Webber didn’t seek inspiration from the crowd. Instead, the Aussie has been seeking stimulation from a ‘Mook’ (half magazine, half book) about rallying legend Colin McRae, who died in a helicopter crash in 2007. Mark has always had a soft spot for rallying, going back to his days on his parents’ farm near Queanbeyan, Australia, when he used to race his dad’s Ute around. Sadly for Mark, that’s not the fastest way to lap Monza in an F1 car!
As always happens at the last European race of the year, driver managers are bouncing from one motorhome to the next in their efforts to sort deals for next year. Jenson Button’s manager Richard Goddard raised a few eyebrows on Friday when he emerged from Force India with a smile on his face, until it became clear that he’s now the new manager of Paul di Resta. Whoever thought Paddock Cat would be breaking hard news stories like that!
If you love Formula One, you love Monza. It’s one of four tracks on the 2012 calendar that featured in the inaugural World Championship in 1950, but no other circuit in the world oozes so much history and passion for racing.
The track – real name ‘Autodromo Nazionale di Monza’, colloquial name ‘La Pista Magica’ – was built in 1922 in just 101 days. The original concrete banking that formed part of the original layout can still be seen today; it lies adjacent to the modern track and provides a poignant reminder of the sport’s past.
After the trials he experienced at Spa, Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso refletcts, “It’s not only the history of the circuit that makes Monza special, it’s also the fans and the speed. We reach higher top speeds here than anywhere else and the fans are amazing. They make so much noise and one of the best victories of my career was here, in 2010, when I won the race for Ferrari. It was an amazing experience to win in front of the Tifosi and I would love to do it again on Sunday.”
Getting to Monza has been no mean feat for the teams. The Belgian Grand Prix ended at 3.30pm last Sunday, after which they had to pack up, transport everything the 850kms to Monza and then prepare their cars for this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix. Remarkably, the first teams were fully set-up in the Monza paddock by lunchtime on Tuesday. None of the mechanics had had much sleep over the previous two days, but such is the nature of these back-to-back races.
Jerome d’Ambrosio made his first appearance of the year in an FIA press conference on Thursday. He’s replacing Romain Grosjean at Lotus this weekend, after the Frenchman was issued with a one-race ban for triggering the first corner shunt at Spa-Francorchamps. Despite claiming Belgian nationality, Jerome says Monza is also something of a home grand prix.
“My grandparents were Italian,” he says. “They were from Naples, and I also spent a lot of time racing in Italy during my karting days and in the junior formulas. I’ve probably spent more time racing in Italy than anywhere else, so it’s great to be making my race debut for Lotus at Monza.”
He might be Belgian, with Italian ancestry, but the Lotus mechanics have given him a very British nickname. They call him ‘Custard’, after the English brand of Ambrosio custard. Such is the humour in an F1 pit garage.