x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Challengers come, but Monza stands

There is talk of a Rome street race, and Thailand and Iran each want a Formula One event, but nothing can replace the history found at Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, just a little north of Milan.

The gathering of fans in front of the podium even had race winner Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing talking about what it would be like to win while 'wearing red'.
The gathering of fans in front of the podium even had race winner Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing talking about what it would be like to win while 'wearing red'.

"This is what the Wimbledon tennis championships are like for people in Britain," said Sir Jackie Stewart as he surveyed the atmosphere at the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, a quick jaunt north of Milan, Sunday.

Monza, a circuit so steeped in history that even under a bright and blazing sun it can appear with a sepia tinge, was host to its first Formula One grand prix in 1922 and 89 years later it remains the quickest track on the calendar, producing speeds of up to 340kph. The exhilaration is magnified by the fact the racing is for ever watched on by Ferrari's omnipresent tifosi.

Formula One is like a religion in Italy. When Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso stood on the podium post-race, the sea of scuderia red shirts below rippled and rolled as they worshipped their idols in delight.

"It is the best podium in the world - the only thing that could make it better would probably to be wearing a red suit," said Vettel, in doing so likely throwing many an Italian journalist into a frenzy as they quickly revived their Vettel-to-Ferrari rumours.

Button, likewise, referred to the atmosphere as "electric", while Alonso - the home crowd favourite, who had been looking to replicate his success of last year - said "the fans are very, very passionate" and "it gets emotional".

The images broadcast around the world of the heaving throng were in many ways similar to what had been witnessed earlier in the week in Rome and Milan when the Italian General Confederation of Labour organised mass protests to object to the country's governmental motion to impose austerity measures in a bid to reduce their debts by €45 billion (Dh 225bn).

Such drastic measures are a far cry from a country that, until the start of this year, was willing to pay tens of millions of euros to Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One commercial rights owner, to host a second grand prix. The proposal would have seen a street circuit constructed through the Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR) district in the capital city with an annual race being held in tandem with the Italian Grand Prix from 2013 onwards.

Plans for the Rome Grand Prix, however, were abandoned in January after fierce residential resistance was accompanied by concerns that it could steal the thunder of Monza's yearly event. Ecclestone, as ever, had the final say, deeming it not possible for Italy to host two grand prix in one season when there is so much global demand for slots on the calendar.

Only this week, it was confirmed both Thailand and Iran are considering exploring the possibility of hosting a round of the self-prescribed "world's third most-watched live sporting event". Fortunately, Italy has a contract to host the race at Monza until 2016 and is arguably one of the most secure host countries on the calendar, yet regularly the race venue is rumoured to be set to change.

Firenza, Pescara and Imola - as well as Rome - have all been linked with inheriting the Italian Grand Prix from its age-old home. The Montenero Circuit in Livorno hosted an F1 race in 1937, and Pescara did likewise 20 years later, but both took place before the world championship had been founded. Imola hosted the Italian Grand Prix in 1980 before it was rebranded the San Marino Grand Prix, but it slipped off the calendar in 2007.

Vitantonio Liuzzi, the Italian driver who wore a special helmet yesterday to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the unification of his homeland, said the Italian Grand Prix should remain among the wilderness of Royal Park.

"Monza is the only really historical circuit that Italy has left," Liuzzi said. "Because of the long history, I would especially keep this circuit; it is quite different to all the other circuits in F1. I think every driver likes it because it is the only circuit with such a top speed and low downforce."

"It is good to have the grand prix here, even though we have circuits like Imola and others that could be competitive, and I am sure Mr Ecclestone will keep on going with the Italian Grand Prix as long as possible - hopefully here in Monza."