The circuit at Monza is one of my favourite places in the world. There is the history, sure, but for me it's much more personal: to me, Monza is a geographical representation of much of my personal history, and every year adds a little more to my own story.
The first grand prix I ever came to was here, back in 1997: I had just moved to London from Sydney, my friend Alex had got married and was having a honeymoon in Italy, and he asked me to fly down to Milan for a long weekend to meet up with them and go to the race. Princess Diana had just died, and Belinda stayed in the hotel to watch the funeral while we stood inside Parabolica and pointed out Michael Schumacher to a small boy so he could honk his air horn at the right Ferrari.
In 2000 I moved to New York, briefly switching allegiances to Montreal, but when my girlfriend Elisa passed away on that horrible day ten years ago it was a friend's gentle coaxing to come over and watch the Monza race on TV the next weekend that helped me tentatively re-engage with the world outside my apartment.
The next year, in 2002, I was in the F1 paddock in Monza for the first time: my friend Bira thought that I had to escape from New York, and the best way she knew to do it was to make me a journalist and bring me over to interview Mark Webber. Back then he was driving for Minardi and eating food made by Christian Staurenghi and his crew, and now he is a GP3 team boss and in our hospitality area all the time. The more things change...
For the next few years I moved to Milan and covered F1 for AtlasF1, with Monza being very much my home track. I remember driving over for an interview during midweek testing at the circuit, and even now the memory of the sound of a lone racing car barking through the trees in the park makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
At the end of 2004 I was supposed to go back to live in New York: a miscalculation in timing for a visa meant I missed the window, which is why I was in the GP2 media centre for our first race in 2005, and why I've never left. One of the most vivid memories I have of the year is of Nico Rosberg desperately trying, but failing, to catch Neel Jani here for the sprint race win, on the way to becoming the first ever GP2 champion.
Monza always feels like it's the end of the season: even though it doesn't always work out that way, the atmosphere here always seems to be the friendliest of the year. The best years are the ones like this year, where the championship is over and everyone can really go for it, let their hair down and just fight for the hell of it, like in 2006 when Giorgio Pantano showed Lewis Hamilton the way round his home turf, finishing off by doing a few donuts, getting out of the car to throw his gloves into the crowd, and returning to the pits to rapturous applause.
And it's the place where we have had some amazing parties. We've been to the Sporting Club of Monza a number of times, a beautiful old building in the middle of a huge garden, a rarity in this land of apartment living, and we've had jazz bands, live artists and racing drivers DJ-ing over the years to entertain the masses.
It's also the place where, in the pouring rain and rushing to get to the venue to set up, I put the trophies down on a motor scooter in the car park to keep them dry while we brought the car around: with the traffic wardens screaming at us all for even thinking about stopping, we all forgot to pick them up again. Which is why Bruno Senna is memorialised holding the trophy for best female fisher, and why I had to talk Giorgio into giving us back the best male golfer trophy after the ceremony. Hopefully they liked the replacements.
And it's the place where random things seem to happen, with nobody batting an eye. It's where Jules Bianchi and ART team boss Fred Vasseur are happy to pose in the most strikingly colourful clothes on the planet, and then tell everyone that they are the 2012 team uniforms. It's where Valtteri Bottas and his engineer can be taped to a trolley and then wheeled through the hospitality area with a giant speaker playing We Are The Champions at full volume while everyone queued patiently for dinner, to the amusement of all.
And it's where the Italian drivers find that little bit extra, to give something back to the local fans. I know I'm supposed to be impartial, but I was so happy when Luca Filippi won the race today: he's a guy who has had so much bad luck in his career but always manages to find a smile and a nice word for everyone he meets, no matter how he feels inside.
For Luca, he would swap all of his other wins for the one here, today, at his home circuit, at the track that he loves as much as I do. He's been racing here for years, and you know that he will keep coming back here each year when his racing career is over, because he just can't bear not to be here. Because for him, like so many in the paddock here, Monza means racing. And racing means something different, something special to every one of us here.
Wherever my life takes me, a little part of me will be standing right here next to him, wearing my old Yankees cap, and talking about all of the things that have happened to us to put us right here, right now, the things that have made us the people that we are today. The things that make us racers, the things that make us love Monza like it is home.
It was a strange feeling to be back in the paddock after a couple of races away (albeit for the best reason ever – my son Arthur is the best thing to happen in my life since I met my wife): I've never missed two races before, and you sort of wonder how things will be after a break away from the coalface.
As it turns out, I only had time to put my bag down before Alexa had me writing up a race preview and some other items while she organised a bunch of things for the end of season party on Sunday. Some things never change.
She was also running around madly because she had to organise something different this year: the teams had all congregated at the football pitch just behind the Variente Ascari for the first annual (hopefully) GP2 teams tournament, and like everything else in this paddock, they were taking it very seriously indeed. Well, apart from the ones who used it as an opportunity to get a few early beers in, anyway. Yes, you know who you are.
Needless to say, the GP2 staff team was entirely useless (if only I didn't have all those reports to write up for Alexa!). And, perhaps inevitably, the final came down to iSport vs ART, one of the big grudge matches in the paddock, and with so much at stake it was always going to end up with a penalty shoot out to break the deadlock. And we all know what the English are like at penalties...
There was also a photo shoot organised for the five guys in the fight to be this year's vice-champion. Unfortunately they were all getting along a little too well, cracking jokes and looking a little too happy to be there. “Come on,” implored Alexa, “I need you all to look mean, like you'd do anything to come out on top.” “I'll try,” Sam Bird sniggered, “do you have a prayer mat I can borrow?”
This morning there was another challenge for the drivers: they had to sign all the photos for the competition from earlier this year. A few of the guys took it as yet another contest, and were racing each other to see who could get through their stack the quickest (Jules Bianchi put in a notably huge performance), but Romain Grosjean deserves a special commendation for getting through almost 1000 signatures before free practice.
I can't help wondering if it made the difference in his performance today – he only missed pole by a couple of tenths, after all. It would be ironic if his fans lost him pole position...
We were heading back to the paddock after a fairly quiet free practice session only to see Jules heading back towards us on a bicycle. “I like the changes the team have made to your car!” “Yeah, for sure I can get pole on this!” His teammate Esteban Gutierrez and Davide Valsecchi had come together during the session, and I couldn't help but wonder if he had been called up to the stewards because they saw a collision between green and yellow cars and just figured Jules was involved.
Even though Stefano Coletti was out for the weekend after his accident in Spa, he still turned up to support his Trident team: his denim patch printed back support brace was a questionable fashion accessory, though. He popped his head around the door when he saw me setting up the press conference backdrop: “I don't think you'll see me in here for the press conference this weekend.” “That's okay, you can still come and ask some questions.” “Really?” he asked, delightedly. “I just might do that! I can come and ask them something funny, or really embarrassing!”
Unfortunately he didn't come in – he definitely would have had a laugh with Luca and Fabio, as they all get on really well – although it was embarrassing enough for Alexa as it was. “I spent the whole press conference thinking about the Rapax teammate interview, when Fabio kept going on about his lucky underwear, and I was wondering if he was wearing them. Were you thinking about that?”
Obviously I wasn't, because why would I? But now that she's put the thought in my head I am actively hoping that Fabio misses out on a podium finish tomorrow. I'm sorry Fabio, but none of us want to be thinking those thoughts in the cauldron-like (it is right behind the kitchen) heat of the press conference room.
I'm sure you understand: let us know if you've burnt the offending item, and you'll be welcome back any time.