For me, Monza is a box full of memories.
It's the memory of going to the track for the first time in 1997, freshly ensconced in London when the phone rang and my friend Alex told me to meet him and his wife Belinda on their honeymoon in Milan; of Alex and I getting drunk and Belinda yelling at us as we drank slivovic from the espresso cups we had stolen from the too expensive bar nearby (the cup that I still use to start my heart every morning); of Alex and I going out to the track and finding out the hard way that the track is a long way from the town of Monza, while Belinda stayed in the hotel and cried over the funeral procession of Princess Diana.
Of standing inside and up from Parabolica; of the small child with his grandfather's ancient Ferrari cap perched precariously on his head and the airhorn held lovingly in his too small hand which he only wanted to blow for Schumacher. The red cars were following the procession around, there only to make up the numbers that year, and each time the child saw one, he would stare up at me with his saucer shaped eyes and ask beseechingly, Schumacher? If I replied no, Irvine his bottom lip would stick out in a pout until I said si, Schumacher, at which he would blow the horn for all he was worth. He did this every lap, scarcely noticing that the airhorn had run dry by the end.
It's the memory of Alex and Belinda staying with me in London two years later, in the apartment I shared with Elisa - his niece and my love - and laughing like drains at the video we had made those two years previous, at our impromptu press conference where we took turns putting on silly accents and making up answers to questions the drivers would never be asked on television. To this day Alex still can't say Coulthard correctly. Of the visit which turned out to be the creation of their beautiful daughter Olivia; of the trip to Europe which was at the wrong time of year for us to return to the scene of the crime. Of us showing them photos from our trip to Spa the year before; of the compare and contrast of the days.
It's the memory of watching the 2001 race in my friend Celia's apartment in Brooklyn - the first race after Elisa died in the World Trade Center; of Celia politely, gently refusing to allow me to say no to watching the race with her, refusing to let me stay in my apartment and curl up into a ball and moan. Transport was still a mess after the disaster, and the walk to her apartment cleared a small, precious space in my head. Of the moment of silence at the track and then the carrying on with business. Of the sponsor-clean Ferraris with their black noses, of Montoya's stupid grin on the podium at his first win, of Barrichello in full red looking up to the sky and crying, and of me wanting to join him but being unable to cry with an audience.
It's the memory of visiting the paddock at Monza for the first time in 2002 - my first attempt at being a journalist. Of the physical shock of being in that place and seeing the fans outside peering through the fence; of thinking something must be wrong somehow because I was on the wrong side of the fence. Of having no access to the media centre but not caring; of walking into each of the teams' motorhomes and not getting kicked out but rather asked if I wanted a drink; of the thrill that comes with getting away with something you have no right to. Of wearing my New York Yankees hat every day and having no one look at it twice, of it meaning nothing even then.
Of holding my first interview, with Mark Webber in the Minardi motorhome; of him wondering whether to do it and then saying oh, alright – since you're an Aussie. Of being invited to stand in the Minardi garage during free practice, in front of the spare car and between the cars of Alex Yoong and Webber, of comparing the tense Yoong pit to the serene Webber one, of feeling through my entire frame the cars run by me and disengage the speed limiter just metres away. Of seeing the television crew come over and film the mechanics who pretended not to see them but rather look up at the monitors as though the secret to life was there. Of me vibrating in my skin with joy and wondering if my friends could actually see me even though free practice doesn't make it onto television anywhere outside the paddock.
It's the memory of getting up early and ringing the Sauber factory in Switzerland on the off chance that I could interview Nick Heidfeld because he was practicing so close to my new home; of driving through the park with the window down and the sun streaming in as the sound of a V10 Ferrari engine pounding around and around the track in pursuit of a few saved fractions of a second poured into my ears; of telling the solitary guard at the paddock sono un giournalisti di Formule Uno and both of us smiling as he waved me through.
It's the memory of taking my friend Alex back to Monza, for a test session this time, of seeing the wide-eyed awe on his face at seeing the paddock first hand even though most of the teams weren't there; of watching him take a few hundred photographs so that he could remember every single minute of his time there; of joining the few journalists and photographers in the pitlane and seeing Alex's mouth forget how to close itself. Of Barrichello pulling neatly up and around Alex as he returned to the pit, and imagining Alex telling everyone he knows for the next twenty years of the day that Barrichello almost ran him over.
I now have some new memories of Monza.
"It's your local Grand Prix - at least you can't get lost," Will Gray said as la redattrice got into the driver's seat in Milan. Later into the weekend, it changed to: "I think this weekend is your all-time record for getting lost."
This was after we returned home from one of the many parties thrown around Monza. The organisers of the Bahrain Grand Prix hired out the Villa Reale, the massive former royal palace for which the Parco di Monza used to be a section of the grounds. It was an amazing gesture – the entire forecourt was lit up in soft lighting with candles and fragrant wood fires scattered around, soothing Arabic music playing throughout, and a number of food tents serving kebabs and prawns as long as your forearm in the middle of a string of larger tents with low seating and tables for eating.
The organisers, having gone to so much effort in setting the whole night up, sat back around the edges of some of the tents to enjoy the fruits of their labour, puffing away at their giant water pipes with smoke snaking from their mouths and looks of serenity on their faces. Some Bahraini women were giving each other henna tattoos on their hands before a call of "yallah yallah" sent them to the next table to repeat the process with some of their guests. We went home happy and full to find our guests there - our friends who had come over for the race and for us - happy and drunk and wanting to continue to be so.
I wore my Yankees cap again on Thursday, the 11th of September. No one noticed again – it felt as though it was a reminder of some obscure battle from World War Two. The only sign in the paddock of that foul day was the live feed from New York in one of the side rooms of the McLaren Communications Centre. The sound was off, and I was probably the only person who noticed it. I guess I'm always going to, every year of my life.
We had a new journalist in the paddock, just one among the many, a Canadian called Jackson Wood. He had sent some emails to a number of F1 journalists to ask for advice on how to start a career in motor racing journalism, and I was the only one to answer him. He walked in to the paddock with what I imagine was the look I had on my face a year previous, and I took him around and introduced him to as many people as I could. It's times like those that I realise how many people I already know in this sport.
It was great to have him around as he reminded me of why I was there, of what an honour and a joy it is, despite the workload and endless travel. I'm there, we all are, because we love it, because motor racing is fun and it draws people who are interesting to be around. Sometimes it gets to be like work, like a chore, and Jackson reminded me that I am there for everyone outside those gates, for those people who want to know what happens on the other side. I'm there for you.
"Do you ever have those 'if only they see you now' moments?" he asked me on Saturday afternoon, as we strolled past all those faces he had only ever seen on television. I do – I have them all the time. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I actually do this job; that I'm not actually dreaming this whole year.
All weekend la redattrice was hugging everyone goodbye – she won't be going to the final two races and wanted to say goodbye until next year. Bernie Ecclestone was walking along the paddock at one stage and was collared by some people with a petition to save the remaining banking from the old track, and he seemed glad to sign it. She took her moment and went over to see him. "Hello Bira," he said, putting his arm around her. She leaned in and whispered something in his ear; he smiled back and said "it's been my pleasure," patting her on the back as he left.
Ferrari held their annual dinner for the media and invited guests on Saturday night in a tented compound next to the paddock, and they don't do things in half measures. The dining room was massive, similar to a circus tent but with the guests in the middle rather than around the sides, as though we were the show for them.
There was an increasing feeling of desperation at Ferrari over the weekend, as though they had forgotten that it was impossible for them to lose and the impossible was happening. Schumacher taking pole in qualifying by the slimmest of margins was clung to as proof that they were still dominant, as though all was right in their world, and Luca di Montezemolo gave a speech to remind the faithful of their faith, pulling the drivers and senior management onstage to display their icons.
It was a presentation that proved there are two religions in Italy, and they can work simultaneously.
Our group sat at a large table with a group of locals, with an old man at the head being looked after by a young guy, perhaps his son. The old man sat impassively, his white hair swept back with regal poise and a small pin on his lapel displaying his love for the marque while his walking stick rested by his side. He ate the starter and listened intently to the speech, and when di Montezemolo led his men out the old man waited for a respectable amount of time and then had his escort help him out – he had come to pay his respects, to affirm his faith in public. When I asked who the old man was, one of the remaining Italians at the table told me he was the publisher of Corriere dello Sport.
After dinner, a number of waitresses struggled out to the tables bearing large silver trays covered in red boxes. There was a box for every guest, and in each box was an ashtray made from a Ferrari cylinder head with the Ferrari shield and the words 'Monza 2003' embossed on the side. Each one was a heavy item by itself, and it was no wonder the waitresses were struggling with the trays. It was a beautiful gift, but I couldn't shake the feeling that more than a few of them would end up on eBay after the weekend.
An angry storm broke while we were finishing dinner, and the tent started to shake under its wrath. We don't normally get much wind in the region, as the area is ringed by mountains, so when we do - all the locals stop to have a look. It was stronger than I've ever experienced there – at one stage I was saved from being crushed under a partition by the wine waiter, who saw it shaking and grabbed it before it could fall on my head. The rain came as we were leaving, and there were a gaggle of Ferrari girls lining the exit holding umbrellas – I thought they were going to hand them out to people as they left, but it turned out they were merely showing us they had them in case we were worried. I felt glad for them that they would remain dry throughout as we skulked through the storm to the car.
Unfortunately for la redattrice, she forgot to put my name on the car hire form, so I was unable to drive home. I wasn't too unhappy about that. "Did we pass Villa Reale?" she asked, squinting into the sodden gloom.
"Did you see it?" I shot back, breaking off from my conversation with Will and Mark Glendenning, two of our many guests for the weekend.
"No, but I don't have my glasses on."
But just because she couldn't see didn't mean she would accept my help with directions. I pointed her in the right direction for Milan but she kept going past the turn off with a flippant "your way sucks - it's got a traffic jam."
"But your way goes to Switzerland!" I spluttered as the lads in the back seat giggled nervously.
"Sure, but at least there's no traffic," she insisted.
I suggested that she might want to turn the car around. I wasn't quite as diplomatic as the nation she was headed towards.
Sources close to the driver later suggested that I was right, and we made it home eventually. Our friends were waiting for us to return - with beer, vodka and lemoncello at the ready. As much as I love seeing my friends, it can be hard sometimes; they come to the races to have fun, to enjoy the weekend and fit as much in as possible, whereas a race weekend means I have to work. It's a tough mix – it would be like me going to their office and having a party while they sat at their desks. We found the solution, but it meant a great lack of sleep over the weekend. For me, anyway; they got to sleep in while I went to work.
As it turned out I had to fly to New York before I could catch up on sleep. I'm sitting here now, in the apartment of amore mio while she's at work, in this town where people still don't understand me when I talk even though we supposedly speak the same language.
La redattrice thinks I accepted this job because of what happened two years ago; I think it was simply an amazing offer, and I didn't want to let it pass and later think if only. I suspect neither of us will ever really know the reason completely.
But as I sit writing this, my head is full of memories - from Monza and from New York. The two places are linked in my head, the two places I love, the two places where I've witnessed so much, both good and bad. I will never be able to go to Monza without thinking of New York – I know that now – but I will never be able to be in New York without thinking of Italy as well. Memories become your life, and that box of memories is a lot larger than I originally thought.
You get into the back seat of the cab at the end of a long, frustrating weekend and watch the city wash past you, this city that you've wanted to visit ever since your friend came here and you didn't all those years ago, this city of songs and tales you've longed to hear firsthand. All those buildings, all those lights and people blur past as you head towards the Chain Bridge, onward and upward, and then climb the hill to the palace. You've been invited to a party, and the invitation said it was to run until five in the morning. You can't imagine how anyone will still be awake at that hour as the cab circles the statue and pulls up by the entrance, but you're ready to find out.
I woke up when the ticket collector on the train to Budapest threw the door and curtains open in a manner suggesting that the idea of me having an hour or so of sleep offended him to his soul. At first I assumed it was yet another in the long line of ticket collectors and border guards who combined to guarantee me a lack of anything resembling solid sleep, but it turned out to be just a surly train guard who felt it was time I woke up for good.
I sat there blinking for a while, my eyelids full of sand and my skin like old cheese, before peering out of the window to get an idea of where I was, as a number of people took the open door as an invitation to take over the cabin rather than find another of their own to sit in. The sleep deprivation is probably why it took me five minutes to realise my bag was gone.
Computer. Digital camera. Palm pilot. Mobile telephone. My favourite hat. All gone.
I think it happened in either Slovenia or Croatia, but I'm leaning towards the former as I've got some Croatian friends and therefore feel duty bound to side with them in the never-ending campaign of finger pointing. I have no idea how it managed to disappear without waking up, as you get used to waking up on a seventeen hour train trip across eastern European borders and I would wake at the sound of a hand on the door. Maybe David Blaine stopped by to annoy the hell out of me.
Everyone I know thinks I have one of the most glamourous jobs around, following the Grand Prix circus around and talking to all of these people they've seen on the television. But it's a hard life - I'm always either on the road and working non-stop or I'm back home and writing about it. I have no social life, because I have no time for one and because I don't know anyone in the country, and amore mio is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Having everything of value that I own stolen just compounded the funk I was in, and it made me wonder what the hell I had let myself in for when I took the job. I sulked all the way to Budapest, with la redattrice trying in vain to make me feel better about anything at all.
I told the police about the theft when we pulled into Budapest, and they checked the train before asking me if I wanted to fill in a report. There seemed little point as I didn't have any insurance (I used to work for an insurance company, so obviously I wouldn't) and it seemed unlikely that the toerag who stole the bag would then turn around and hand it in. So they took my details and we walked off to get a cab to the hotel.
The cab driver charged us way too much for the ride, of course.
La redattrice met a couple of Swedish guys in reception who were about to go out to the track and arranged to share a cab with them after we dropped off the remainder of our bags. The cab driver made the usual assumption that people who speak English must want to go the long way there, and drove us all around town before passing Baumgartner Autos (presumably owned by the father of the Formula 3000 driver) and out into the country.
Strangely the driver felt that dropping us five kilometres from the track entrance would have been a suitable arrangement, and was therefore somewhat surprised when la redattrice argued vociferously against the idea. As we drove along the massive wall around the track I noticed a vast collection of scaffolding being built by the locals to see over, but none of the fans seemed as well prepared as one enterprising fan who had parked his campervan by the side of the road, stuck a ladder up against the side, and set up a solid wood table and chairs on the roof, all covered by an enormous umbrella.
Thursday is the best day for interviewing drivers, as they have little else to do, and accordingly the teams often arrange for journalists to queue up in the motorhomes to get the media demands out of the way before the real work of the weekend begins. I had an interview lined up with Jacques Villeneuve - an interview we had been chasing for a while - but given the theft I was not in the best of moods. La redattrice suggested we tackle him together, which worked out brilliantly; we often try to talk over the top of each other in conversation, but in an interview we both held our tongues and just laid question after question of him.
And the nice thing for me was that, when I became mesmerised by Villeneuve's newly returned hair, she was able to jump in and take over, and vice versa.
This arrangement worked out so well that we ended up doing all of the interviews this way, and it probably improved the final results - we were supposed to get Jenson Button to tell us a quick story for a side bar on the Honda special issue, but while he was talking we started laughing, which caused him to laugh, and we somehow ended up with a feature we didn't expect.
Reporting on Grands Prix is an expensive business. Everyone is aware of the frankly unimaginable sums that the teams spend to go racing, but for those of us following the circus the costs add up too. Start with transport (car hire and petrol, airfares, train tickets - they all add up), then factor in accommodation and food (all marked up because of the demand in the area when a race is on), and then add on the costs associated with getting the news out to the waiting world (phone and ADSL lines) and you start to realise that the word 'cheap' doesn't exist in the vocabulary of Formula One.
But Hungary took this to an extreme. When la redattrice went up to secure a line for her computer she was in for the shock of her life: a normal phone line had a four hundred euro rental fee, plus calls. Needless to say she didn't enquire about ADSL but instead decided to put up with the dubious delights of dial up internet access.
Sadly, despite the costs involved, they were unable to actually give us a line that worked until the middle of the next day. And when the line finally came on someone clearly decided to call their mother or something and overloaded the system, crashing every journalist in the room without notice.
You walk through to the back of the palace and someone puts a drink in your hand - a Kir Royale with Red Bull in honour of the party's host - and the lights all around you are dazzling. As you wander through the area you notice faces that seem unfamiliar and yet oddly recognisable. Your friend Will sees you and smiles, leads you over to a buffet table to line your stomach and hits the bar for a new drink before taking you over to a table of people you know from one of the teams. They look a little out of place to you - it's the lack of uniforms - but they smile at your approach and the conversation flows with the drinks and they laugh at your first joke. So do you.
There weren't many media shuttles available over the weekend, so I walked in with Will Gray a couple of times, and the way in went past the statues of World Champions, which the track owners have placed near the entrance to the circuit. Some of them are incredibly bad, but the funniest one was given pride of place over the weekend - in what may amount to the biggest example of brown nosing in Formula One history, a bust of Bernie Ecclestone had been placed in front of them all.
It's a funny little statue, with a tight, stern face, and his glasses and paddock pass in place. I wish I'd been there to see Bernie's bemused expression when he unveiled the thing over the weekend. All we could do was laugh. "He looks pretty pissed off!" Will spluttered, his faced creased with mirth. "You would too if you had no arms!" I roared back. We walked on, enjoying the early sun before it turned into the usual midday furnace, and after a light breakfast at Toyota we headed up to watch free practice.
Walking into the media centre everyone was standing in the entrance looking at the televisions as they replayed Ralph Firman's massive crash. It looked horrendous, particularly in slow motion, but when we established he was alright we rushed back to our desks to post the news, only for the power to go out throughout the building just as we'd finally managed to get a line out for the computer. I can only assume someone plugged in a kettle where they weren't supposed to, which is to say somewhere in the Hungaroring region. One of the centre workers came around and switched off every single television set even though there was no power - I guess he wanted first dibs on a cup of tea when the power came back.
The media centre in Hungary was the emptiest one I've ever seen, and I was starting to understand why. The prices are exorbitant even by Formula One standards, it's held in the middle of a dusty bowl surrounded by farms, and then there's the crime element to consider. But it was strange being in such a quiet room for once - the biggest disturbance of the weekend was the sporadic crunch and subsequent yelp of a startled journalist as yet another chair broke underneath him; or the startled gasp of someone receiving an inadvertent shower from the pipe leading to the urinal whenever they flushed.
Everyone sat in little clumps across the two floors, as though there was safety in numbers. We had the incredibly loud Brazilian radio commentators in front of us as usual, and at one stage Antonio Pizzonia's manager Jayme Brito came over for an interview with them. Sitting next to us, as he waited for the interview, He spotted the Jaguar qualifying press release. "Oh, look at this," he said, raising his eyebrows archly, "Mark Gillan is happy with his drivers taking 3rd and 12th place on the grid". It's good to see that he doesn't harbour any grudges against his driver's former team.
But there was fun to be had if you wanted it. There wasn't much happening in the main paddock so I spent quite a bit of time down the hill in the Formula 3000 one, and it was fun to chat and joke with some of the up and coming drivers that I know. With the lack of teams there the space available to them was huge, and so Giorgio Pantano set up an impromptu football match with his mechanics, everyone trying to prove they had the ball skills they clearly lacked.
Tonio Liuzzi and Bjorn Wirdheim started whizzing around on their motor scooters, which is asking for trouble when the riders are racers, tearing back and forth as their mechanics looked on and laughed. It seemed like an antidote to the sterility of the senior paddock, like a cure for an ailment I didn't know I had. All the drivers down the hill want to make the move upstairs, but I suspect those that do will probably look back on their time in the junior category as the most fun they had in motor racing.
They also had two open paths onto the track next to their paddock, which could have provided anyone keen to prove the Hungarian promoters wrong on their statement that no one could invade their track an easy, and unsecured, way to do so. After a glass of wine in the Porsche Supercup hospitality tent, I thought about doing it - it was as an easy way to guarantee an Atlas F1 exclusive - but I figured it might restrict my chances of a pass to the next race, and trudged back upstairs.
You're standing on the balcony overlooking the Danube, the city shining like the summer sea just for you, a strong drink to hand and the DJ behind you pumping track after track of gold, and with a tableful of people waiting for you to come back and talk to them again. You're most of the way through the season, you're living the life of a writer, a life you've always wanted to lead, and you are asking yourself if it's all worth it. And is it? Before you get a chance to think about it Will comes over to give you another drink, to lead you back and on to the next round.
Mercedes put on their customary boat cruise along the Danube, delayed for a few hours so that the journalists could wait around for a story that everyone thought would be vital and which turned out to be nothing at all. This happens a lot in the paddock - it's the journalists' version of the army platitude 'hurry up and wait'.
The sky was black as a raven by the time we walked on board, but the food was good and the drinks were strong. Strong enough to embolden a drunken Finn to stumble past us in order to steal one of the Mercedes flags decorating the side of the boat - much to the horror of la redattrice, who told him off in no uncertain terms. He was apoplectic at the lecture and yelled that he was allowed, inadvertently spitting as he did so, before sulking off after stating uncategorically that Kimi Raikkonen was going to win the race and he wanted something to wave. At least that was what I think he said. Will and I just laughed and fetched some more drinks for the table.
A word of warning for those visiting Hungary: do not, under any circumstances, order the local drink Unicum. I did, and I regretted it with one sip. I ordered vodka and brought the remainder of the Unicum to la redattrice, telling her it was a local specialty and she'd love it. Her look of disgust slayed us, and the best part was Will knew what I was doing and therefore had the camera ready to capture it.
The drinks were strong, though - strong enough to make Will think that he spotted Mars, despite the fact that the light was white and overtook us; strong enough to make him gulp down a handful of chilies and then gasp for ice cream; strong enough for the guy next to us to take off his boots before falling asleep in his chair, which prompted la redattrice to start flicking things at him to see if he was dead; strong enough for a variety of journalists to start sucking the helium out of the balloons hanging off the walls and perform increasingly bizarre Murray Walker impersonations.
And it seemed that Budapest had finally shrugged off its problems and decided to give us all a good time. The parties were great, and the racing was even better - the Formula One race was worthwhile for once, on a track that usually holds the most boring race of the year, but the Formula 3000 race was one of the best races I've seen in a long time, with overtaking all the way to the last corner.
Tonio Liuzzi fought back well but caught Giorgio Pantano on the last corner and was then given a 25 second penalty, prompting a pained look on his face and excessive hand gestures as he complained to me that "the FIA want exciting races, and then when we make them they penalise us" later in the paddock. "You're kidding!" I blurted, "It was a brilliant race! Are you going to appeal?"
"Pfft," he waved his hand dismissively. "It costs twenty thousand euro just to appeal, so fuck that!"
Late on Sunday, we were getting ready to leave the circuit and go to the Red Bull party at the palace. I went off to find Will and arrange our ride back into town while la redattrice went to pay for the phone bill. Down the stairs, Will and I could hear her yelling furiously at the Hungarian Telecom people, "there is no way on earth I am paying five hundred euros for phone calls! Do you think that Budapest is a long distance call or something?"
"Yes, it is."
"This is ridiculous! Budapest is fifteen minutes away! I am not paying it - you can sue me if you want the money!"
At which she barreled past us to collect her bag, growling: "Let's go to the party!"
They keep coming, the drinks and the people bearing them. You dance at some stage, something you never ordinarily do, and you talk and talk and talk. There are more and more people, and they all spin in and out of your circle in that way that only happens when the drinks work and lift you rather than drop. The sun rises, the sky above Budapest suddenly blazing with intent, Red Bull runs out of their own product and it's time for you to slope off down the hill with Will in search of a ride home. It comes and ferries you to the hotel, and you leave him in the lobby to argue with the driver about his ride back after pushing some money at him. You were going to tour the city today but there's no need - you saw everything at its best last night, and there's nothing left but to try and sleep for an hour or two before heading home. The smile probably stays fixed in your sleep, and nothing is going to remove it until you wake again and your head starts to throb.
The Red Bull party was the perfect antidote to all that went wrong over the weekend - it was the most fun I've had on the tour yet, and it made me happy - no mean feat considering the mood I had all weekend. Did it make me re-evaluate my current life? No, but at least it showed me that I can enjoy myself now and again, and it gave me something good to think about on the long train ride home before falling soundly asleep, something la redattrice couldn't manage, seeing as she was using her computer as a pillow.