Grazie per tutti i ricordi
I love coming to Monza: it's been my favourite race of the season for years, and I have so many memories tied up in the place, from living down the road in Milan for a few years and it being my home track, to all the amazing races I've witnessed over the years, and all the personal memories which have seeped into me like the ever present sun into my bones.
But what is it like to be an Italian racing here? "It's crazy!" Luca Ghiotto laughed as we went to the fanzone this morning, "I had to have help from the guards to get through the crowd to get into the paddock today!" Which made me think: what is it like for the other Italians?
"It's funny for me to race here," Raffaele Marciello began as we stood in the truck before the race, "because in Italy they say I'm Swiss, and in Switzerland they say I'm Italian, but I just say I'm Italian! To be here in Monza is quite busy, because the organisation is not the greatest here (laughs), a bit messy maybe, but it's nice because it's so special: Monza is a different track to the others, so fast, and I love to come here.
"I was with Ferrari of course, but I wasn't famous like the F1 guys so nothing strange or crazy happened, but of course I would have people come and give me their hand, grab me for a photo or something: I'm sure they do that for everyone else as well! And in the car I know where the Marciello fans are, because they're in Ascari, and they're all in yellow!"
"It's amazing, even more because we are GP2 drivers," Luca confirmed, "how would it be if we were F1! It's crazy, and we're only the little F1! The track is incredible, and with the crowd it's such a pleasure to race here, and there will be at least 3 more years here, which is great.
"Of course we have been missing an F1 driver for 5 or 6 years, so now the fans are closer to the lower categories: maybe if I was here in 2011 we wouldn't have so many people who know me or the other Italian drivers! I have my own fan club here, and it's amazing when I leave the paddock and everyone is shouting "Luca, Luca, sign this, take a picture!"" They're all just looking for a new hero? "Of course!"
"Of course it's very different from last year when I was with F3," Antonio Giovinazzi confirmed, "although already there were people asking me for a photo or an autograph, but it's really special now. Yesterday when I finished 2nd in qualifying I saw everyone in the tribunes saying hi to me, and it was something special: I saw the people all waving to me so I waved back to them to say thank you for supporting me.
Most Italian drivers I've known have had good results at Monza - Luca Filippi used to tell me he had a secret way of driving here, but he would never tell me what it was - but why do Italians go fast here? "Yesterday I didn't go so fast!" Raffaele laughed. "In F3 I had a great weekend here, a 1st and a 2nd, but at least for me I don't think I give more because it's Italy, because you have to give everything everywhere: okay, you might have a special helmet design or something, but for me it has to be like a normal weekend where you give all you have anyway."
"Of course there is the extra power, let's say, from the crowd," Luca argued, "and I love the track and know it really well, so even apart from the crowd I feel very comfortable here, but with the crowd it makes us go even quicker! Unfortunately there was a little problem with the safety car today, which maybe stole us from the podium, but without that I was P3 behind Pierre and Norman: I'm a bit disappointed, because sometimes people are too lucky! But I don't mind, because I am sure that one day I will be lucky too. Maybe tomorrow!"
And the main beneficiary of that luck was Antonio. Does it make a difference being Italian to win this race compared to the others he's won? "Yeah, of course! It's maybe the best moment of my career to start last and to win the race here, in front of my people: it's just an amazing sensation! I was really happy on the last lap before I came in: I could see all the people were so happy for me, and it was just sensational!" You'll need a bodyguard to get out of here! "Yeah!"
And for the teams, it's scarcely any different. "For sure, racing in Monza along with F1 is really incredible for an Italian team," smiled Rene Rosin, team principal of PREMA, "it's one of the fastest circuits so clearly it's amazing, and we've had great experiences here in other series, but nothing like this!
"I'm a bit surprised how much people know us here: in other categories it wasn't like this, but in GP2 people really know us and ask our drivers for autographs and photos, and it's really nice to watch. It's quite nice to come through all the people outside the paddock here! Normally when you want to come to work you want to get started quickly, but here, like in Silverstone, it's really good to see that the drivers can get closer to the fans, take photos and autographs, even if sometimes it gets a bit crazy!"
And the guy who is best placed to know what it's like on both sides is Giacomo Ricci: the likeable Italian is a GP2 race winner, and is now team manager at Trident. "It's a fantastic sensation to run in front of our fans, especially this season because there are more people here than in the past few years, but at the same time it's a bit more pressure for the Italian teams and drivers! It's funny: every year we try so hard to make the best result in Monza, but so far for Trident it hasn't worked perfectly! But tomorrow we have an opportunity with Antonio [Fuoco] and Luca: let's see if we can get a double podium!"
Does it make a difference to the team, racing at home? "For me it's exactly the same as for the [Italian] drivers: let's say we have huge pressure here, we have all the sponsors, fans and a team owner who really desires to do well at the Italian Grand Prix! On our side we really feel a great pressure: it was a shame today for the safety car for Luca, but tomorrow I really hope we can have a good chance!"
And maybe that's what brings the Italian drivers, teams and fans together: a mutual love of an amazing circuit, and a dream that better days are just around the corner. In bocca al lupo, as they say around here.
I never knew Finns were so chatty until I came to Monza. Of course, it might be because they were drunk.
Although that didn't make much difference when I travelled to Helsinki all those years ago, when I would sit at the bar writing into my notebook as all around me there would be tables of Finnish men sitting in silence with a bottle of vodka swapping back and forth between them. Local girls would come over and ask me what I'm writing, so starved of conversation that they chose me as their chat target. Which was silly, as I'm not known for chatting.
"So, you must be a Mercedes man," the first drunk Finn, a combination of white hair, tattoos, Ferrari shirt and booze breath, said as he collared me in the store next to our paddock, to where I had retreated while I waited for Pauline and Leandra to return from their track walk, begun just before I arrived at the circuit. No I said, hoping that would bring the conversation to an early finish.
"Oh!" beamed the other one, darker and more tattooed but similarly attired in Ferrari gear and alcoholic fumes, "You are for Ferrari!" Not so much I gasped as I involuntarily stepped backwards, looking for clear air. "Then," the first one stuttered, "what?" GP2 I stated, an answer that stumped my inquisitors. "You are British?" he queried, as though that would be the magical answer to clear everything up. Australian I posited, looking for the exit with increasing fear. "Ahh!" the second one blurted, slapping his thigh with his elaborately painted arm as though he'd solved the conundrum of the Higgs Boson particle before looking at me expectantly, as though it was my turn on the giddily leaning conversational roundabout.
I thought for a minute before retorting and you are ... Dutch? "HAAHAAHAAHAA!!" the pair howled, tears streaming down their faces as their volume increased. "YOU ARE TOO FUNNY!! No, we are Finnish! FOR KIMI!! Do you want to go for a drink now?" Thanks, I replied, but I have to get back to work. "YOU WORK HERE?!?!" they blurted, but I was already out the door and headed back to the safety of the paddock.
Once safely ensconsed behind the gates I went for a walk to see who was around, and Gustav Malja was playing football with his mechanics in the open space next to the Rapax truck: he looked up and came over to shake hands, saying hi as he approached. Nice work last week I suggested. Thanks he replied, and we both went back to our own respective worlds without outstaying each other's welcome.
In the morning everyone was getting ready for free practice, with a few of the drivers watching the F1 session in hospitality while they waited. Arthur Pic was there with his trainer Emilien Colombain, whose right leg was elaborately strapped up to deal with an extensively torn thigh muscle. I think: to be honest, I was struggling to listen after he explained the damage, from which frankly grisly details I shall spare you.
Suffice to say, he's going to be out of action for the rest of the year. Which is a bit of a problem when you're a personal trainer. But your job is, well, to keep him fit? The scowl on Arthur's face suggested the thought wasn't lost on him, but Emilien put on a brave front, suggesting there was plenty he could do, even in his current debilitated state, despite the workload the pair famously put in (as previously detailed here). Okay, let me know if you need someone to kick a ball with him for you...
Free practice came and went, and when I saw Gustav eating his lunch I asked him how his session had gone. He put down his knife and fork, thought for a minute before noting messy, and returning to his meal. And with 3 VSC periods it's hard to argue with his summation, as marvelously brief as it was.
The main problem for new drivers to Monza is slipstreaming. A circuit this fast and flowing demands that you get a good tow for much of the lap to ensure your laptime is as good as it can be, but that's easier said than done: get too close and you're compromised at the chicanes and Ascari, but not close enough and you don't get the benefit of the tow.
One person who didn't seem to worry about it was Artem Markelov, but then again there seems to be very little he does worry about. Arriving in the paddock yesterday his team were practicing pitstops, and he sat in the car in a pair of shorts and little else, doing stop after stop with the same serene, impenetrable half smile on his face as he rolled back and forth time and again, the same smile he had on his face when his car stopped halfway through the practice session at the entry to Parabolica, and that he had on his face in the press conference after he had brought home his best qualifying performance for third.
Maybe he needed to pull up short in practice more often, I suggested, given the great qualifying session he'd had. To his credit he laughed, and said "yeah, maybe we will do the same for the next race, just do 9 laps and stop, then go quicker in qualifying!"
It was clearly better than Gustav's session: the Swede was just over a second off the pace, but given the closeness of the field in Monza he finished the session in P18. I asked him how he'd gone when I saw him at dinner, not having read the timesheets all the way down, and he looked up, considered for a moment, then simply stated shit.
It got a little better for him not long after, albeit at the expense of Antonio Giovinazzi and Nabil Jeffri, who saw his best qualifying result removed as the pair were excluded from the session for having inadequate tyre pressures. I wrote up the news story explaining what had happened and then walked outside to see a number of people crowding around the notice board to see what had happened, including Gustav.
Two spots better now, I noted, and the Swede smiled. Anything can happen in a race he replied, before picking up his bag and heading out of the circuit for the night, and as I watched him walk away I thought I'm not happy about this development: he's getting as chatty as a Finn.
So from now on I'll just talk to Jimmy Eriksson: at least I know I won't have to get tied up in a long, rambling chat like I do with his countryman now.