It had all started off so well. Departing Verona in the morning, a nice, calm, leisurely jaunt down the autostrada led me to Monza - a name we petrolheads are all familiar with. Monza is of course the home to the legendary Autodromo that hosts the Italian Grand Prix. It’s the third oldest circuit in the world and is, to this day, one of the fastest circuits on the F1 calender. Monza is a holy place, a place of worship - the Cathedral of Speed.
I had arrived in Monza town looking desperately for a fuel station, the game of fuel bingo was well and truly on by the time I arrived, and so I asked the navigation system in my Abarth 695 to find me a petrol station. To my surprise it actually took me down a road near a park… straight into a large green gate. By this point I was pretty sure I was going to run out of the go-juice, so as the road was pretty quiet, I stopped to consider my options. Not long afterwards, a man pulled up alongside me in his slightly tatty Volkswagen Passat. With the touch of a button on a mysterious device, he opened the gate, and after using my questionable Italian, he asked if I’d like to follow him.
“This is one of the service entrances to the Autodromo, but you can follow me if you like, there’s a fuel station inside.” He said in not-so-perfect English that makes my use of quotation marks thoroughly questionable. Imagine accidentally stumbling across Silverstone, and somebody just letting you in the back door, it wouldn’t happen, would it? No.
Respectfully following my leader in, he pointed me in the direction of the “Infopoint” - what we normal people would call a reception - and the fuel station that was right on the back of the main stand on the start-finish straight. I had to pinch myself. There would be time to fill up later, I couldn’t wait to have a look around.
It’s difficult not to understate this, but the Autodromo di Monza is something truly special. You can feel the history in the air around you and even on a chilly late autumn day with hardly anybody around, you can still get a sense of just how valued the circuit is and how proud the locals are of their circuit. Inside the ‘Infopoint’ was a book on the history of Monza written by Enrico Mapelli - a man who’s obsession with Formula 1 and Monza led him to create a stunning book of images and stories about the history of the world’s premier motorsport at Monza. By chance, it was Enrico’s daughter who would show me around the circuit that day.
After touring the main stand, VIP areas, conference rooms, and even standing on the podium, we jumped into a beautiful, bright silver… Opel van. After a short drive through some trees we came upon a stand that sits by the first chicane at the end of the start/finish straight. If you walk past the stand you walk straight onto the old high-speed banking, now disused for many years. This was perhaps the most magical moment of visiting the circuit. Standing on the high-speed banking thinking of the legends and pioneers, brave people who risked their lives in pursuit of speed, glory, and a chance to be in the history books. For me at least, this was the best moment in my time at Monza - the still, crisp air and quiet of the old banking, destined to never again be filled with the roar of the engines.
You’ve now read around 650 words and there hasn’t yet been any mention of any danger whatsoever. Well, that came after leaving the circuit and heading out onto the road for the Swiss border. I needed to avoid toll roads to save as much money as possible due to the ridiculous cost of fuel in Italy - 1.94 per litre in some parts. Having already purchased my Swiss motorway sticker, I told the satnav to point me North avoiding toll roads, and didn’t think much of it thereafter. That was until I started gaining altitude.
The terrain was changing. It was now past sunset but lights very high above me and the shape of settlements was giving me clues as to what was coming next. ‘Great, we’re near the border’ I remember thinking, not at all concerned by the size of the roads or the drop in temperature. Up we went. Hairpin after hairpin, small, quiet villages went by with few souls to be seen. Small, rocky tunnels started appearing, larger tunnels too, roads covered by arches in a less than ideal condition. It was now almost negative Celsius on the 695’s display, and that was when the snow arrived. Gently at first it fell, causing me no concern other than to remember to drive sensibly, but the climbing continued.
Grip started to become an issue as icy patches covered the road along with frozen fallen foliage. I checked the temperature. It was now -4 degrees and the snow was getting heavier. Looking around me, I began to understand that it had been snowing here for a while, small drifts had formed at the side of the road, but I kept going, confident that soon I’d find a place to at least stop and assess my options.
With a decreasing level of grip, the 695 and I continued to potter up the mountain hairpins until we rounded one in an exposed area, got onto the straight and encountered major wheel-spin. There was a small settlement ahead, but the car was now starting to lose all forward momentum. Slowly at first, the little 695 began to slide back down the mountain towards the last hairpin. Visibility behind me was nil, it was pitch black by this point. I recalled seeing the unprotected sides of the road, and could only imagine the drops behind them. The darkness was a threatening, beckoning void that I had no intention of exploring. I was still trying to find grip by using a bit of throttle and moving the steering wheel a bit, but there was nothing - the car began to turn sideways as it picked up pace on the ice. There was only one thing that could help now.
I let loose the battle cry of the Clarkson clan. ‘POWERRRRR!’ All 165 of the Abarth’s horses were deployed and the little Italian bean found some grip. God only knows where from. Turning towards the settlement I kept my foot in and the car began to power forwards, 5kph, 10kph, 15kph. We plateaued on approach to the settlement and I steered the car off the road entirely and onto a snowy, frozen grass area. Safety, for now. The car was rocking with the force of the wind, and how I was left with a choice - stay put in sub-zero conditions, or attempt to head back down the icy mountain.