Grands Prix are fickle friends. They can promise you the Moon on a stick, only to splutter and fizzle frustratingly as you try not to nod off.
But, on their day, they rival any sport for drama and excitement.
I was talking to some fans about this in Monza at the weekend. We were all raving about what a fantastic GP it had been, with pre-race predictions overturned, excitement all the way through the race and then crushing disappointment for the Tifosi (and for those of us hoping for a night of Ferrari-fuelled festivities down the road in Milan) as Ferrari blew it again.
I compared it with this year’s Canadian Grand Prix, which was shaping up to be a belter and then … it all went a bit Steve Davis.
Street life is calling
The thing is, though, that both Monza and Montreal were fantastic weekends – if you got out and enjoyed the city.
Don’t get me wrong, a weekend of tent life at Silverstone, Spa (or Le Mans, for that matter) fuelled with Heineken and tinned curry is not to be sniffed at. Actually, it’s definitely not to be sniffed at.
But Formula 1, by its nature, gives fans a great excuse to take in some glorious cities. And, if you are coughing up for flights, accommodation and yet another team top, you’d be mad not to plan in some proper exploring time while you’re abroad.
I mentioned Montreal – it’s like a corner of Mediterranean Europe, with worse roads and less bullfighting – because it transformed on race weekend, to such an extent that the dull Grand Prix wasn’t actually such a big deal.
Melbourne is another cracker – you’re just a tram trip from Albert Park circuit and you can be dining high on the hog, getting all cultural or hanging out with the locals in a sports bar just minutes after leaving the circuit.
The Italian Grand Prix is, perhaps, the best example of this. Monza itself is a bit of a maiden aunt, with grand old buildings and a hint of snootiness about its brash niece, Milan, which is just half an hour away in a cab but a lifetime away in terms of lifestyle.
Away from the fan zone, out of the comfort zone
This year, instead of hanging out with an F1 crowd all weekend, I tagged along with a group of social media influencers – people with a huge online following for what is, in essence, their own personal brand – who were checking out Milan with race sponsors Heineken.
They got to laugh at my dancing and ask me questions about F1, I got to laugh at their dancing and see Milan through different eyes.
There was beer involved, oh yes, but a lot of it was Heineken’s 0.0 alcohol-free offering, because you don’t want to be too tipsy if you’re live-blogging to your adoring fan base.
But these guys were all about drinking up the whole Milan experience, not just the (undoubtedly fabulous) F1 element.
We had our own guide – Simone, you legend, I salute you, your fashion knowledge and your gloriously naughty take on the world – and he took us shopping.
Yes, yes, I know, that’s what I thought too but we’re not talking Aldi and Poundstretcher here. But neither are we talking Prada and Gucci, or any of those other high-end staples of Milan and west ends everywhere.
The shops we visited were (relatively) young, vibrant, oozing retro-cool in a way that the giant fashion houses can really only imitate.
And so I now have a reversible black waistcoat with fancy lining that doubles as – well, as a reversible fancy waistcoat with black lining. And none of my mates has one, because they’ve not been to Wok, Federica Zambon and Simona Citarella’s eclectic outlet in Navigli.
Nor do they have a stunning pair of bright orange hi tops, a colour made for celebrating Max Verstappen’s career, mourning Stoffel Vandoorne’s and dancing to retro mixes in sundry Milan clubs. I found those at Sunnei, whose founders Loris Messina and Simone Rizzo first found fame on Instagram, with their street-savvy eye for fashion.
The people that run these shops are very different to the fashion giants – small-scale fashion retail is as challenging as small-scale F1, but with even fewer income streams.
Don’t fancy shopping? My threshold isn’t too high either so I took in some remarkable modern art and equally remarkable architecture at the Fondazione Prada. Plenty of people come here for the work of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst but, for petrol-heads, the third floor holds a treat in the shape of three Chevrolet Bel Airs, aka Walter De Maria’s Bel Air Trilogy.
If even that is too much, try a full-on hot towel barbershop treat (and perhaps a little bourbon) at the rather fabulous Tonsor Club barbers… especially if your beard needs some TLC. Or, if you’re feeling brave, create your own masterpiece – we tried life drawing at Palestra Artistica. Goodbye comfort zone.
The studio laid on a dude in race overalls to make us F1 types feel marginally less awkward about the whole thing; it didn’t improve our output.
F for F1, F for fashion
Milan and its shops serve as a high-fashion metaphor for F1 – the big boys take a huge slice of the action and, on occasion, ‘borrow’ winning ideas from those further down the pecking order.
Time and again, though, it’s the smaller operators, short on glory and funding but big on talent and dedication, who deserve recognition.
Just occasionally, one of those minnows makes the leap to the big time … in F1 as well as fashion.
Ten years ago to the month, the rain came down in sheets at Monza and, as vastly more experienced drivers in far better cars struggled, a young German drove his unfancied Toro Rosso, with its roots in the Minardi minnows, to a famous and hugely popular victory.
Sebastian Vettel was, on that day, F1’s youngest winner; he certainly made the leap to the big time, even if Max Verstappen eventually swiped the ‘youngest winner’ record from him.
It’s smart to pay attention to the little guys, be they drivers or shops, because that’s where the stars of tomorrow come from. And because it’s fun.
Twice the fun
If you spend a few days watching F1 at Monza, you’ll be happy and your friends will make admiring comments. Likewise, if you spend a day or two in Milan, or Montreal or Barcelona or any number of F1-friendly cities, you’ll be spoilt for entertainment as well as getting cool points from your buddies.
For maximum fun – and value – though, do both. You could even take your significant other, even if they don’t like F1; and, no, they don’t have to attend life drawing classes.
I don’t have anything against those who spend an entire GP weekend tethered to the circuit – I’ve been there and drunk up the atmosphere as well as the Heineken. F1 isn’t a cheap hobby, and there’s nothing wrong with getting the biggest F1 bang for your buck.
But, if you get the chance, planning in some quality city time around a Formula 1 trip will add an entirely different dimension to your visit.
Heck, you might even end up with some orange boots.