Making a pilgrimage to a sacred site for motorsports.
This week marked the unofficial start of classwork at Bocconi, an intensive crash course in the Italian language. However, for reasons I won’t go into, it didn’t work out, and I ended up quitting after three days. Those who know me well know I’m not normally a quitter, and sometimes that’s to my detriment, but in this case I saw that I wasn’t deriving any benefit. The whole experience also gave me a greater appreciation for how good Duolingo actually is, despite its idiosyncrasies.
In any case, my housemates and I have subsequently decided to turn the apartment into an Italian-only-as-much-as-possible affair, so as to reinforce our comprehension skills. It will be an interesting experiment. Certainly this whole affair was certainly not the way I wanted to start my education experience at Bocconi. But I’m thankful for the support from my friends and family, who assured me that I was making the right decsion.
Classes start officially tomorrow, and for me it’s a full day of courses and meetings. We’ll see how the week pans out; none of us have much idea of what to expect, beyond knowing that it’s time to get back to working hard.
Moving along to more adventure, one of my polymathic interests is engineering and particularly car racing. When I found out that I was moving to Milan I immediately checked whether I would be there at the same time as the F1 Grand Prix at Monza, just north of the city. I’m not as diehard a fan as some, but I have been known to stay up to or get up at odd hours to watch qualifying and races, and to me the sheer effort that goes into the engineering and driving of the cars is mindblowing.
I’ve also grown up playing the Gran Turismo series of video games, which have featured the legendary Monza track. Every curve is etched into my memory, even if I never quite got the braking points right. Basically, having the chance to visit the real thing was an opportunity not to be missed. I also couldn’t miss the opportunity to be a part of the “tifosi”, the throng of Ferrari-mad fans that make the pilgrimage to Monza every year for the race.
So I got up early Sunday morning, put on my Ferrari cap, and headed to Milano Centrale station. There were special trains direct to the track, and it was easy to spot the train, all you had to do was follow the crowd of fans in various team shirts, though dominated by the iconic Ferrari red.
It was half hour ride through the northern suburbs of Milan and its rows upon rows of apartment blocks before we passed through the city of Monza and out into the countryside. At the edge of a dense forest there was a small train station marked with the words “Biassono-Lesmo”, where the train stopped and disgorged its passengers. However, this was no ordinary forest; souvenir stores and food trucks serving panini were crowded around the station, and guards stood at the edge of a path into the forest, checking tickets and bags.
Just a few metres into the forest itself, the path turned downward, and crossed under a bridge. We were, in fact, walking under the track itself as it entered the series of corners known as Lesmo, two deceptively tricky right hand turns requiring precise control of speed and direction. From there, paths forked off into the forest, heading to various vantage points along the track.
The main path was filled with spectators heading in all directions. If it were not for the distant noise of engines warming up, you would have never suspected you were at a racetrack. I reached a clearing with an old farmhouse that stood at the edge of the track, and headed over to the fence. I was at Serraglio, a fast left hander. The first support race of the day was about to start, so I followed the edge of the track, the cars tearing past beside me. I crossed underneath the steeply banked curve of the old track, a concrete oval cut through the forest that now stood mute, deemed too unsafe to race on.
The next stop was the chicane known as Ascari, where I paused to watch the first race of the day. Some of the more dedicated fans had been set up there for days, with tents and makeshift seats, camped out in order to secure the best views. Some of them had even spent the night in the park, and were still asleep as I passed them. Not even the deafening roar of the cars could wake them.
A few fellow students had been organising a group visit to the race, and I eventually found one of them further along the track, near the entrance to the final “Parabolica” turn, a curve which starts tight and then opens out, allowing the driver to build up speed into the main straight. As the full group of students turned up, we moved to an even better spot, right at the point where the Parabolica curve began, directly across from a TV screen. The crowds were really starting to build up as the final support race took place. Not a seat was left free.
The crowd itself was a huge mix of different nations, I could hear just about every European language being spoken, along with many accents from across the globe, including Australia. People draped flags of their nations on the fence in preparation for the main event, the F1 race.
For those who follow Formula 1, you will know that this has been a controversial year in terms of the new engines being used. Many have complained that they sound wrong, and are too quiet. As the cars roared past on their way to the grid, I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, they are quieter, but it meant that earplugs were not needed, even in the front row where we were. That made life much more pleasant. The sound of the engines themselves were fascinating, the mix of the explosive combustion with the whirr of the turbo created a complex sonic effect. I liked it.
The helicopters flew low overhead, and the crowd launched into cheers as the race got under way. It wasn’t the most eventful race ever, but it had some great moments. Every overtake was received with cheers and claps from the appreciative crowd. Sadly, Ferrari’s top hope Fernando Alonso retired early when his gearbox failed, breaking the hearts of the fans who had hoped for a victory for the Italian marque. It’s been a bad year for the team, and it wasn’t letting up. However, the crowd were pleased with the eventual winner, British driver Lewis Hamilton, who came back from a disappointing start to regain first place through some determined driving.
Once the final car had passed at the end of the race, the marshals in front of us came up and opened the access gate, letting us onto the track. Thousands of us streamed onto the asphalt where just a few minutes earlier cars had been screaming by. I rounded the Parabolica curve onto the main straight, picking up a couple of “marbles” (rubber fragments from the car’s tyres) to take home as a souvenir.
The main straight was a sea of fans and waving flags, all crowding towards the podium tower at the finish line, where the winners were receiving their trophies. To the strains of the overture from Bizet’s “Carmen”, the winners sprayed champagne out into the crowd. Once the presentations and interviews were over, I made my way further along the straight, walking the track down to the first curve, a nasty and tight chicane that even the best drivers misjudge. In fact, it was a misjudgment at this very corner that allowed the winner to overtake and gain first place.
The track was more like a park afterwards, the sunlight of a Sunday afternoon streaming through the trees, children riding bikes across the asphalt, people sitting upon the concrete barriers, watching it all go by. It was a leisurely stroll along the racetrack to the Lesmo corners, where I cut across the gravel trap to a marshal point that led back into the forest and to the exit.
From there it was a crowded train ride back into Milan. We were all tired but jovial, having enjoyed a great day out. I sat and played with the rubber marbles that I had collected from the track, a souvenir of a pilgrimage that I would not soon forget.
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