With Formula 1 put on hiatus due to the Coronavirus, I thought it would be a good time to get back into a time machine and head to September 2019 when the word Corona was associated with a dodgy lager that need lime for it to taste bearable.
Picture this a nineteen-year-old autistic lad, who has never been abroad on his own, heads to a country where he can hardly speak the language for a trip of a lifetime.
That was me.
With summer approaching and a burning ambition to do something bit different than usual I elected to go to a Grand Prix and see what the difference was from watching the race from the comfort of my living room to actually being there live.
The first plan was to go with a travel company who would provide you with flights and hotels but after watching the prices being jacked up just for the pleasure of flying from somewhere that wasn’t London plus with no race tickets included, the idea was far from appealing.
With that in mind, I went alone and booked the stupid o clock flight on Thursday of Grand Prix week, followed by a hotel that wasn’t too far from the train station and booked a three-day ticket for the Alta Velocita grandstand right in front of the Rettifilo chicane.
The journey begins…
The big day arrived on a freezing cold Thursday morning at Birmingham airport where I was about to complete a lifelong dream
I had checked in online so I wouldn’t have to worry about missing my flight, and this gave me more time to buy some reading material as I wolfed down my fourth latte to keep me awake.
After being delayed for a reason I am still not sure about I arrived in Milan to a moggy warm day as I marbled at the majesty of Milano’s centrale train station and my spontini’s pizza which filled the gap like a warm fluffy pillow on a cold winter’s night.
After checking in and having five minutes to freshen up I headed to the free autograph session which was due to start at 4 pm in the fan zone, but due to the delay of my flight, plans to have an hour snooze went out the window and I booked an uber just to be sure that I would make the session on time.
My, driver Mario who resembled an about to be sacked Serie B manager from 1994, drove like he was a test driver for an F1 team many moons ago as he weaved through the traffic in his Mercedes whilst casually whatsapping to his friends about Italy’s millionth political drama.
As the clock ticked down to four, I was increasingly nervous that I would be never getting out of the traffic jam, with Mario all he could to get me in before 4 o clock.
Eventually, I made into the entrance where I peeked out the window to the smiling ticket inspector, after thanking Mario for his driving and not putting me in a Milanese hospital I sprinted like Linford Christe, first into the wrong entrance and then into the right entrance and onto the fan zone where I encountered the airport security style queuing system.
The autograph session would not be recommended for anyone who hates tight queues and warm weather as even yours truly nearly fainted just waiting for an autograph.
Eventually, I got desperate and had to raise my voice to get the attention of Pierre Gasly to sign my vintage Ferrari hat, which he amazingly he signed without issue and without complaint.
After the queuing and begging, I headed to do some shopping in the fan zone with my first stop being the Michael Schumacher stall to get my hands on a Mick Schumacher hat, where I was expecting to be told ‘sorry cash only’ by the girl on the counter.
To my amazement a card machine was available and after my card eventually decided to work I got my cap, but as I was leaving the stall to head to make my next purchase I saw a deal for two Schumacher caps for just under 16 euros which would be the daily deal for Friday.
What I noticed from the stalls is that the way to entice fans back to the stalls was to give deals which were complete bargains for the average punter from model cars to trainers the Schumacher and the Ayrton Senna stalls brought the profits through genius initiatives.
After buying a Nacional Senna hat, I realised I had only an hour to get to my train and with a walk through the park to the station just shy of an hour I had my work cut out for me.
My walk was tortuous, I underestimated how long the park was and at one point I didn’t think the park was ever going to end.
To make matters worse when I got out of it I headed through the town of Monza to the station, where I annoyed the locals by walking in a bicycle lane by accident, followed by going down more wrong streets that made me look like I was doing a real-life remake of Pac-Man and to cap it all off I became the residents of Monza’s next form of target practice as I walked through the tight alleyways just hoping that no one wanted an overweight red wearing journalist for dinner.
To my relief my train was delayed by five minutes, but my relief was to be short-lived as the thunder rolled in and muggins here walked back to his hotel wet and desperate for a drink.
After the calamity of day 1 I elected to bite the bullet and buy a shuttle ticket to the track from the station which only cost five euros there and back from the train station and was more inviting than the hour walk through the park.
There was only one obstacle, I had to get cash out and the pesky Italian cash machines only gave me the option of making a ‘foreign donation’ and with it no transaction of any euros.
So with the operation to get any money out of my card via a cash point failing miserably, I headed to the currency exchange at the train station and took forty euros out to pay for both my buses for the weekend and a programme.
The gentleman on the counter took a decade to sort out my cash before finally giving me the funds I needed and forcing me to charge for my train.
Upon arrival at Monza train station, myself and many race fans were herded in like cattle for the slaughterhouse as the shuttle driver polished off his fourth cannoli and his daily read of the Gazzetta Dello Sport.
In the queue, I chatted with Canadian George Webster a fellow journalist who once upon a time covered CART when it was at it’s glorious best in the mid-90s
With no one to go around the circuit with and me absolutely loving George’s conversations about sports car racing, I decided to team up with George and walk the circuit together as we were dropped off at the Paraboliqua and made our way to the gates where the old banking that was used in the 1960s the first thing that greets you along with the sound of the F3 car’s roaring around the circuit.
Having the benefit of a three-day ticket means that I could participate in Free Friday where I could sit wherever on the track I wanted with every grandstand being able to be sat in except the main straight, it is highly recommended to do this as you get an overall view of Monza and the atmosphere.
Some corners were better than others, Ascari and the Roggia, were good viewing spots with excellent atmosphere as the locals, applauded their prancing horses heroes and jeered their silver arrows enemies every lap.
Not all corners were great value the Lesmos were dreadful value for money as the stands were mostly covered by the trees and the tiny stand that’s near the run-up to Ascari is arguably one of the worst connected stands in professional sport.
After a day where both of our ears were ringing with the sound of Jody Scheckter’s Ferrari 312T4 flat 12 booming around the Monza circuit, I and George said our goodbyes and I went to sit in the pouring rain in Alta Velocita stand in time for the F2 qualifying.
With a trip to the fan zone to get my Schumacher cap bundle done and a photo with the F1 logo outside of the circuit, I headed back onto the rammed bus and onto Milan Garibaldi as the train terminated there and not centrale.
The wait around Garibaldi was painful as the Italian railway network gives you the pleasure of knowing the platform of your train just three minutes in advance, my advice would be to avoid Garibaldi at all costs unless you’re staying nearby.
Saturday was a hot one and as I slugged a cafe lungo and rinsed the same routine that I followed on Friday I headed to my seat after walking through the bridge on the backstretch and the forest to the front of my stand with the expectation of a Ferrari pole position.
But I was struggling to stay up with the early starts playing havoc with my sleep pattern, it was clearly time for a red bull.
Again my card did the work and my selection of caffeine-infused hits was handed to me in the most awkward manner possible with my two red bulls in two separate cups and my coca-cola without the lid as they take the lids off the customers before drinking to prevent people from using them as missiles.
The main story of qualifying was the traffic jam that turned the final one-lap shootout into a farce and whilst many watching at home laughed, many on the course were bemused on what on earth was going on.
But a Ferrari would be on pole again and that’s all that mattered to the Tifosi, as they headed to the exits whilst I stayed behind to watch the Formula 2 race.
The F2 would be a good consolation race after the chaotic qualifying with Luca Ghiotto causing the locals to go crazy as he charged through the order to finish second behind Nobuharu Matsushita who took an emotional win as La Marseillais belted out as a tribute to the late Anthoine Hubert.
Raceday and the unusual weather which had dogged Monza came to play it’s bizarre head with light hot rain, making a walk through Milan like a hideous mobile Turkish bath.
After picking up a Gazzetta Dello Sport where I tried to use some of my basic Italian to understand the articles it was announced to my horror, we would be all chucked off the train due to it being overcrowded and now my fellow passengers would have to charge to another packed train a few platforms away in order to get to Monza.
With Turin receiving a category five earthquake courtesy of my running, I got on the train which arrived at the wrong platform which caused the fans to split into two ways with a choice of either using the local bus or the shuttle.
I took the shuttle gamble and got there in good time as I headed to the circuit with the crowds even busier than the past two days, with the ques to hand in our tickets for inspection making everyone wait around like soldiers ready to charge into war.
After the Porsche Supercup’s had done their thing plus one last trip to the fan zone to get myself some final pieces of merchandise and a coffee I settled down to my seat and got ready for the pre-race ceremonies which included a smokey flypast by the Italian airforce.
I should mention before I get on with the race itself what the grandstands are like at Monza and that they are extremely basic with no covering whatsoever so it’s recommended to bring a cushion with you that fits in your bag, also you may have to sit on the stairs if the stand is nearly full, George and I had to sit on the stairs at the Roggia before the rain came and some fans left for shelter.
The race itself was a rollercoaster of emotions in the crowd, they cheered when Leclerc stuck the boot into Hamilton and Bottas and groaned when Vettel spun at Ascari but in the end, the Tifosi got what they wanted with a Leclerc win over Hamilton and Bottas, with Ricciardo best of the rest in fourth.
With three laps left I thought about the incoming track invasion, which had been keeping me up at night not knowing how I was going to get on it.
When going for my coffee I asked two English gentlemen some advice on how to do the track invasion, they gave me three simple words follow the Italians.
So I did and ran through the forest and the opened gates where thousands of race fans headed on to the main straight as soon as the race was done, with some getting on their knees and kissing the pole position slot.
Any F1 podium is special, but Monza’s takes the biscotti with the fans losing their absolute marbles with flares and big Ferrari flags being seen all over the packed front straight as the locals sang the Italian national anthem is almost a choir-like way before watching their heroes lift the winner’s trophy.
There is one thing left to do afterwards and that’s to get something you can’t buy in the gift shop, and that is a piece of advertising hoarding or car debris which fans ripoff with glee.
I too decided to get myself some hoardings and so I and an American ripped off a piece of Pirelli advertising board at the Rettifilo giggling like two naughty schoolboys that had been sent to the headmaster’s office for letting off farts in his assembly.
I had two pieces of hoarding and although I desperately wanted to keep them why arms were killing and a thought came into my head, how on earth am I going to get this home?
In the end, I had to put them down and go home empty-handed, as I left the park for the final time with plenty of memories and sunburn as I pondered how to get on the next train.
The trains had been rammed all weekend but Sunday was the worst as getting onto the first train getting back to Milan was almost like going into a rugby scrum as everyone pushed and barged their way on.
Luckily I forced my way with my unpolite Englishness and made it home for the evening.
So what are my seven tips for Monza and for attending a Grand Prix weekend.
Always get the shuttle bus – It’s the quickest and safest way to get to and from Monza train station if you don’t fancy being target practice for motorists.
Get cash in advance – Unless you fancy experiencing what I did by nearly missing my train to the track on Friday I would suggest getting euros, dollars, yen in advance for the stuff that can’t be paid by card.
Prepare for chaos – The Italians are notorious for being laissez-faire towards the concept of organisation and you may have to run to your next train if delays or a change of train gets announced unexpectedly.
Beware of pickpockets – Before I went to Monza I was informed that pickpockets would be out in force at Monza, so with that in mind when I was in crowded areas I put my rucksack in front of me so I could see who was robbing me.
Book an extra day – Unless you go to Monaco or any street race for the weekend, you will see very little of the actual city where the race is being held, so I decided to book an extra day to see Milan and relax before flying home on Tuesday, it paid dividends.
Check-in online – There is nothing worse than running around an airport like a headless chicken trying to check-in, now with the help of modern technology it’s possible to check-in and not have to worry about the traffic it also reduces stress unless your phone dies.
Don’t be afraid to push and be ready to run– It may be rude and it may cause people to look at you in a funny way but the fact is if you want to get anywhere including the last train home you will have to occasionally say the old ‘scusi’ to get where you need to go. Also, it would be wise to know how to run as the old cancellation of a train or the track invasion at the end of the race will require you to at least get into a light jog to get to the circuit or to get a place see the podium up close