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Jun 18, 2007
Monza; the Cathedral of Speed - ForbesLife

ITALY

Monza: The hordes of Italian Ferrari fans, also known as tifosi, swarmed the tarmac, waving flags with the Ferrari prancing-horse battle standard and greeting the victor of the 2006 Italian Grand Prix with the same hysterical energy their ancestors used in greeting invading Visigoths. And in fact, they were saluting a German: Michael Schumacher had just won his 90th Grand Prix race, and the Teutonic coolness with which he returned his fans' ardor did nothing to dampen their spirits: "He can be German as long as he drives a Ferrari," one fan effused.

Everyone was high on speed. Speed that only Monza, the world's fastest racetrack, can produce. Add to this the fact that the track is in the middle of Ferrari's Italian home turf, and you have a mix as explosive as nitroglycerin. Come early September, this is the place to be for Formula One racing. Monza, also known as "The Cathedral of Speed," is where 160-mph speeds are simply a drive in the woods and where long straightaways and parabolic curves are rife with enough legend, bravery, drama, blood and foolishness to make bullfighting seem like a pet show.

Laid out in 1922 on the grounds of an old royal hunting forest outside Milan, Monza is the bucolic antidote to Indianapolis or Monaco. It's the aristocrat of racetracks. The ancient oaks that line the course still drop acorns on the carefully tended tarmac, while up on the decks of the Paddock Club, men and women in Armani clink Champagne glasses while wearing earplugs against the engines' high-pitched buzz and the constant roar of the tifosi.

"A lot of American fans think Monaco is the place to be for Grand Prix because the race is out on the street. But the drivers can't really overtake each other on the city roads," said Tony Jardine, a former F1 assistant team manager and British television racing reporter. "Monza, on the other hand, is full of surprises. There's no other racetrack like it: It's got history. It's got the world's most passionate fans, and the track layout always promises great drama."

And, as with many transcendent sports, great tragedy. Some of the worst accidents on the F1 racing circuit occur here. Even while car manufacturers continually find new ways to ratchet up performance, Monza has remained faithful to its classic design. It took a series of high-speed accidents--including Wolfgang von Trips killing himself and 11 spectators in a 1961 crash-- before officials added a few chicanes and barriers to slow things down, albeit reluctantly.

"Every year there's a new proposal to add another chicane or gravel trap to counter faster cars," notes Jardine. "But the officials usually just shrug and say it's up to the drivers to decide how fast they want to go." Italians, apparently, would rather support drivers than regulators.

"Victory at Monza has a special taste to it," company founder Enzo Ferrari once famously said. No doubt true, but it is a taste far more expensive than the local white truffles. Although Ferrari doesn't publicize the exact amount it spends on Formula One racing, it's estimated that the automaker puts a cool $250 million into its team every year. Call it R&D: Everything from the paddle gearshifts on the steering wheel to the grooved undercarriages on street Ferraris were originally developed for Grand Prix racing.

And every small technical innovation counts. In 2006, despite the fact that the race entailed 180 miles with some half dozen pit stops, there were only eight seconds between Schumacher and Kimi Räikkönen's McLaren Mercedes.

General admission at Monza is about $100, which allows you to move around the track and see the race from different angles. Don't miss the eclectic memorabilia stands that open up on center track. The best seats are generally thought to be at the Ascari and Parabolica curves (tickets about $125 to $420), while deeper-pocketed spectators can watch the proceedings with the race sponsors and officials in the Paddock Club above the pit stops. You'll have to part with about $3,800 to get into these posh trackside terraces, but that does include an excellent three-course lunch next to the finish line--just the kind of fast food I covet. --Finn-Olaf Jones

The Setup

Formula 1 Gran Premio d'Italia will be held on September 9, with practice and qualifying races September 7--8. There are daily flights between the U.S. and Milan's Malpensa airport. Trains and shuttle buses connect the city with Monza, ten miles away. For further information and tickets, visit www.monzanet.it or www.formulaonepaddockclub.com.

   
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