I've a confession, although it's not exactly a secret: I'm not really into motorsport. It's a fact that perplexes and even vexes my colleagues. What kind of motoring journo doesn't get up at 3am for the F1? Well, me, for one. (There are others, too, but I won't name and shame.)
Still, I've attended my share of races, and while I can't name every helmet on the grid, I wouldn't say I've ever been bored.
Earlier this month, I journeyed to Europe as a guest of Mercedes-Benz Australia. I was off to see the new EQC electric SUV revealed in Sweden, interview global executives about the car, and write.
A few weeks before the trip, an additional offer was made: Sweden via Milan, where the Italian Formula 1 Grand Prix would be held – as it always is – at Autodromo Nazionale Monza.
I had reservations. Not for seats (although Mercedes did), but about accepting the invitation.
I know, right. Who even thinks twice about going to Monza? And so, it was only once I'd heard "are you _____ kidding me?" for the third time that I understood this was a privilege and invitation greater than the usual.
So, I understood I should go. But, I'd be leaving my partner alone with our terrorist toddler and beautiful but needy newborn for a few days longer than the one-week pass I'd already been granted. I ummed and ahhed, until...
Until Alborz made clear, through a series of shirty text messages, that he was supremely jealous.
"F1 in Monza? You lucky ___," he nearly spat. He's a mad Lewis Hamilton fan, you see.
"Monza. Meet Hamilton. Make me jealous. You… for ____ sake, go to Monza! It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Lucky ____."
Potty mouth. But, it was clear, I had to go, if only to simultaneously live out Alborz's dream and to send him some shit-stirring selfies from the track.
So, the day after landing in Milan, we piled into a new-generation Mercedes-Benz A200. Four up, two of us over six feet, the other two – me and Merc's PR boss Jerry Stamoulis – closer to 5'10", and three of us on the far end of the notches in our belts.
A bit about the new A-Class…
I was driving. Now, as a guest of Mercedes, I'll take a moment here to touch on the new A-Class. Paul Maric has already driven it in Australia, and he was fairly impressed. So am I.
I wasn't sold on the styling when it was first unveiled – I leaned closer than Mercedes would like to the chorus of "hey, those are Cerato tail lights" that went up in our comments section – but, in the metal, it's a very handsome thing. Especially in the satin grey finish worn by ours, with AMG Sport styling bits thrown on.
Here are some key points for me:
The 120kW, 250Nm turbo petrol four worked admirably to haul us up to speed on Milan's motorways, while overtaking at (let's say no more than…) 130km/h was surprisingly a doddle.
The seven-speed dual-clutch shifter showed some minor low-speed uncertainty and lurching, but once you're away, it responds well to demands for power.
Seating position and comfort is excellent in the front row, while the rear seat is adequate for commuting, but not a relaxing place for adults on road trips.
Cabin materials, particularly in the front row, now do far more justice to the tri-star badge than the previous model ever did. There's no suggestion of S-Class luxury, of course, but there's a clear feel of substance and quality at every squeeze and tap and shake of the interior surfaces.
The intelligent new MBUX infotainment system is terrific. I never liked the COMAND setup, but this new unit is a breath of fresh air and then some. The 'Hey Mercedes' recognition is excellent, the interface is stylish and easily navigable, and… well, I probably wouldn't bother with my beloved Android Auto if my car had MBUX. It's up to the task.
A good cruise down, and we'd arrived at the Monza circuit. A buff parking attendant directs us to the spot we took a few unplanned detours to finally arrive at, and as he flags us into position with arms waving and "ye, ye, ye, ye, ye, ye, ye, eh! Ohhhkay!" instructions – we realise we (well, Mercedes) had paid about 60 bucks just to park kerbside in a regular backstreet that wasn't even cordoned off. All official, but oh so Italian.
As we walk to the circuit, it's not long before I'm surrounded by a sea of red, Ferrari-mad racing fans all around me. Plenty of AMG and Red Bull devotees, more than a few McLaren mclovers, but it's clearer now than ever: I'm in Ferrari country.
The Prancing Horse 'Tifosi', I soon learn, define obsession. Indeed, the red-shirted fella sitting not far to my left more than once looked as though he could have thrown up his anxiety and dread, watching Kimi (and his tyres) hanging on for dear life at the front.
You can imagine how he felt when Hamilton finally reeled him in. For me, with no horse in the race (pun intended), I couldn't have been happier.
On arriving, I knew one thing: I was going to love the walk around the track, because I always do. Monza is particularly beautiful and charming, because every inch of it feels like you've walked through a forest and stumbled upon a mythical race track. I mean, it is literally surrounded by forest.
I didn't expect to enjoy the race, frankly. I knew there'd be some exciting moments, but enjoy lap after lap..? Not likely, not me. Thankfully, I did. The tension was amazing, the pit strategies nearly laughable in some cases, and the chase at the front of the pack… wow.
The view from our seats at Variante del Rettifilo, where the overtaking potential was greatest, was just a thrill. Even better: our seats were perched over the old track, so the sights were magical even without the on-track action.
Oh, and a point from old mate Wikipedia about that chicane: "Cars approach the first corner at 340 kilometres per hour in seventh gear, and brake at about 120 metres before the first chicane – the Variante del Rettifilo – entering at 86 km/h (53 mph) in first gear, and exiting at 74 kilometres per hour (46 mph) in second gear. This is the scene of many first lap accidents. Higher kerbs were installed at the first two chicanes in 2009 to prevent cutting."
What a spectacle! So this is F1!
In the heat of the moment, filled with passion borrowed from the crowd around me, I certainly considered myself a new fan.
I'm not the only motoring journo that isn't obsessed with motorsport, but this is a memory I'll cherish – and I'll be bloody happy to do it again.
Here, have some more photos.