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Monza: The magic of a name

Maurice Hamilton September 5, 2012
It's tough to beat Monza for history © Getty Images
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Pass through the ancient iron gates at the entrance to Parco Monza and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Not many race tracks have that effect.

The secret is that much of the circuit and its sylvan environment remains more or less as it was when the place was built in 1922. It took 3,000 men 110 days to construct the original 6.21-mile high-speed track with its long straights and steep banking. Then they named it 'Autodromo Nazionale di Monza'; the very name sounds dramatic when it rolls off a fast Italian tongue.

The circuit is within the Royal Park, not far from the centre of the town and now buried within the sprawling environment of Milan. Attempt to build it today in the same place and you would be laughed out of court. Saying that, and this being the home venue of Ferrari, there is a sneaking suspicion that the local government would be voted out of office if they refused.

That's the other ingredient, of course. The Italian fans - the Tifosi - are besotted with Ferrari and little else. I've seen the grandstands empty three-quarters of the way through a gripping race if both Ferraris are retired. But put a red car on pole and you are guaranteed a race morning build-up like no other (with the possible exception of Interlagos).

In 1982, following the loss of Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari asked Mario Andretti to make a comeback at Monza. The Italian-American, proud and aware of his roots, stepped off the aircraft wearing a Ferrari cap and then put his 126C2 on pole. Talk about a dream result for F1 and the organisers.

Even though Mario finished third, Patrick Tambay took second place for Ferrari behind the Renault of Rene Arnoux. This was entirely acceptable in Italy because Enzo Ferrari had just announced his intention to run Arnoux in 1983. The headline in the following day's 'La Gazzetta dello Sport' shouted: 'Monza: Ferrari - Ferrari - Ferrari'. Can you believe that? Yes, you probably can.

This is one of my favourite races of the season. There is something magical about the simple act of negotiating your way through an over-manned side entrance and meandering along a cobbled internal road dappled with shafts of hazy sunlight on a warm September morning.

You know immediately this is a heartland of motorsport. You also know there is a need to keep your wits about you and be prepared for anything. The Italians are opportunists on a grand scale. Last year, between the entrance and the media car park, I counted 21 people in possession of a bib bearing the word 'Controllo'. Whether it was an official badge of office I wouldn't know.

The only qualification necessary seemed to be knowing the Chief Controllo at each point. This man is easily recognised because his bib is a different colour and he carries an air of self-imposed authority as he orders his friends and relatives about. Efficiency and knowing what you're doing appears to be low on the list of requirements.

Controlli watch on after a hard morning's work © Getty Images
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There is a crossroads before the main tunnel under the track. The road at this key junction is thick with Controlli blowing whistles, shouting, flicking their wrists in your direction and generally enjoying their moment of fame. One will beckon you forward with great enthusiasm while his brother will be doing exactly the same for traffic coming from the opposite direction. Coordination and calm are not words that spring to mind. Which, of course, is the point of the exercise.

It will be considered a bad morning if there is not at least one animated debate every 30 seconds between all and sundry in so-called authority. The hapless motorists, meanwhile, sit and wait.

This being Italy, it usually takes less than a couple seconds before a horn is sounded further back in the growing queue. Some don't even wait that long. Either way, it is a futile exercise because another man's mounting agitation is meat and drink to any Controllo worth his yellow bib.

Anywhere else in the F1 world and this would have escalated to an international incident with indignant reports being fired off to the FIA. But, at Monza, the entire shambles is merely a way of life to be enjoyed immensely by the perpetrators of the confusion.

Then you get into the tunnel which, by a wonderful piece of design, is not quite wide enough for two medium-size vehicles to pass in opposite directions. And, wouldn't you know, trying to get out as the world tries to get in, comes a man with a wolfish expression driving an effluent truck. He's probably been parked up for half the night waiting for this opportunity to express contrived innocence over the antics of drivers desperately trying to avoid the truck and its cargo.

The Controlli, meanwhile, excitedly regard his approach in anticipation of a massive ruck with motorists who, until this moment, have been enjoying a peaceful Sunday morning. No point in arguing or complaining. It's simply a matter of accepting it as part of the slightly insane pleasure produced by the wonderful Autodromo Nazionale di Monza on a certain Sunday every September.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1 in the build-up to each Grand Prix.

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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live