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.