Gary Meenaghan arrives at Monza to be overwhelmed by thousands of 'tifosi' eagerly anticipating another scuderia victory at the Italian Grand Prix this weekend.
Red riding high in Ferrari territory
Be it the grassy banks of Australia's Albert Park or the grey granite roads of industrial Shanghai, Ferrari's feverish supporters follow their treasured team across the globe. They are known as "tifosi", from the Italian for "typhus carriers", a construction not dissimilar from "fans" as shorthand for "fanatics".
Naturally, in Milan on the weekend of the Italian Grand Prix at Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, the whole city metamorphoses into a sea of scuderia red. Ferrari World may be in Abu Dhabi, but for this weekend at least, few could be surprised if they were told Milan had changed its name.
At the entrance to the majestic five-star Hotel Principe di Savoia in the city centre, a suited man awaits his valet-parked car while holding a black leather briefcase decorated with a subtle silver Prancing Horse. Beside the graffiti walls running the length of Viale Monza - a long road stretching from Centro to Sesto San Geovanni in the north - smoking youths stand clad in Ferrari shirts and baseball caps.
Take a drive along the winding roads that snake through Royal Park towards the circuit and red shirts are everywhere you look. Reach the entrance and merchandise stalls heave with spectators. Reach the paddock and the crowd becomes overwhelming. Literally.
On Thursday, the first day of a weekend that marks 89 years since Monza hosted its first Italian Grand Prix, the situation became serious as enthusiastic fans showed too much vigour in their quest to get close to Mercedes' former Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher.
During the traditional pit walk, the throng had to be forced back by marshals as the dividing barriers threatened to give way. A trio of rotund red-haired fans failed to notice as they continued their chants of "Ole Ole Ole Schumi".
"There is a special atmosphere, a special motivation this weekend for all of us," said Fernando Alonso, Ferrari's Spanish driver who delighted the tifosi by triumphing here last season.
"Winning for Ferrari was an amazing feeling. We call them tifosi for all the passion that people in Italy display. When you arrive and you drive for Ferrari there is the support from the fans, in the hotels, here and in the paddock."
One such spectator is Stefano Carli. A Milan native relatively under-supporting in only a Ferrari T-shirt, he stands admiring a vintage Ferrari road car. "Formula One is a little bit like a religion here," he said. "Everybody follows it and I really hope Fernando wins. I think he can because he has proved he is the best driver. I missed his win last year, so I promised myself I would come this time."
Alonso's victory in 2010 was his second at Monza after winning with McLaren three seasons earlier, but he said the two performances, unsurprisingly, cannot possibly be compared.
"When you win [with Ferrari] and you see the start-finish line full of the tifosi, being so happy that a red car won the race; an Italian car won the Italian Grand Prix once more, it's a very special feeling. In 2007, it was like winning a normal race at another circuit - the reaction from the tifosi was not the same …"
Felipe Massa, Alonso's teammate at the Maranello-based marque, is unequivocal in the effect a strong home support has on a driver. The Brazilian has been with Ferrari since 2006, achieving his best result at Monza last season when he finished third.
"Being at the home grand prix is always special," Massa said. "We have an extra power from the people. I won two races in Brazil and the power from the people helps. It gives a lot of support, a lot of confidence as well. And here it's the same.
"By being here and looking at everyone in red pushing us to the front is very, very special and I hope we have another good weekend like it was last year."
Alonso added that the race takes on special meaning for the entire team because "the mechanics and the engineers have their families in the grandstands, they have people they know in the paddock.
"We always do 100 per cent every weekend, but here in Monza there is an extra care in everything we do. We want everything perfect."
Alonso's task of delighting the tifosi for a second successive year will be made easier if he can secure pole position in Saturday's qualifying session. He was fifth-fastest during practice on Friday afternoon.