Can you remember what you were doing at 10.25am on September 12 last year? No? I thought not. Well I can remember exactly what I was doing at 10.25am on September 12, 1981 — 37 years ago.
I was on a business trip to the UK and was in British Leyland’s London head office in Euston Road, preparing for a 10.30 meeting, when I ran into the MD of Leyland Trucks in the corridor. He knew that I was a big motorsport fan and at that time, for reasons that I had never fathomed, Leyland Trucks were a major sponsor of the Williams F1 team.
He was booked to fly to Milan that afternoon to host a group of European truck dealers at that weekend’s Italian GP at Monza. However he explained that he now had to be at an important meeting in Leyland in Lancashire on the following Monday morning so could not go to Monza. Would I like his tickets? Is the Pope a Catholic? Is Bernie Ecclestone rich?
It took me just under a millisecond to say “yes” and then I went to my meeting. At 11.30 I picked up an envelope from his secretary containing the tickets and passes for the race weekend. My airline ticket had to be picked up at the airline’s desk at Heathrow — the flight was at 2.35pm. A couple of quick phone calls to cancel my weekend arrangements, followed by a taxi back to my hotel to pack before leaving for Heathrow.
I made the flight – only just. Then, when I found my seat, next to me was a very attractive young lady. I really am not making this up. We soon struck up a conversation — not difficult under the circumstances — and she explained that she was an off-duty flight attendant who had got herself a staff ticket to Milan so that she could meet up with one of the F1 drivers with whom she had had a “fling” — her words — at the British Grand Prix in Silverstone a few weeks earlier.
When we arrived at Milan most of the airport and the city were in the final hour of a four-hour strike. Welcome to Italy. Total chaos is an understatement and it was swelteringly hot. Fortunately I had only hand luggage so I did not have to wait hours before they unloaded the baggage from the hold. Eventually I made it to the hotel.
Next morning I took a taxi out to Monza Park. I had a pit lane pass. Today you would have to be a very, very important person to get anywhere near the paddock, let alone pit lane. It was different then. In those days they put on the races for the fans.
Making 36 count
What a day it turned out to be. It was again very hot and and I was able to wander up and down the pit lane during practice – now called qualifying — which then lasted all day. I was in Nirvana. I had my Olympus OM2 camera, a couple of lenses — including the Zuiko 28mm which I used most of the time — and just one cassette of Kodachrome 25 film. I had naively expected that I would be able to buy some more film in Milan but the shops were all closed by the time I arrived. So I had to make just 36 shots count. But thank goodness it was Kodachrome otherwise the slides would have faded away by now.
In the course of the morning I met my fellow passenger, Miss Silverstone, in the pit lane. She was tearful and upset. Apparently the lucky F1 driver was in close consort with Miss Monza and had barely acknowledged Miss Silverstone. She then realised that between her and Signorina Monza there probably had also been Mevrouw Zandvoort and Fräulein Oestereichring.
That Saturday was magical for me if not for Miss Silverstone. I got a film full of great photos on the pit lane and the one at the top of the article stands out as the best.
Large, exited Signor Monza
But let me deal with the rest of the weekend first. On the race day, Sunday, I was able to access the pit lane again. At 1.30 I made my way to the nearby grandstand on Ascari corner where I had a seat for the race. The stand was more than crowded. My seat was occupied by a large, excited Italian man and the grandstand steward could not have cared less. He just shrugged his shoulders and pointed at the stand steps — so I sat there. The first few laps of the race were full on but after seven laps both Ferraris were out of contention and the stand rapidly emptied as the Italian spectators headed for the nearest bar. I was then able to watch a great race from the comfort of my allocated seat.
My recollection of the details of the rest of the trip are somewhat hazy. I do remember having dinner with a group of English motor sport journalists and fans in a very noisy and crowded restaurant/bar somewhere near the track and I am pretty sure that Miss Silverstone was in the crowd having a good time. She perhaps had become Miss Monza for some lucky guy after all.
The top photo above is so evocative of an era which is gone forever. The wonderful light of northern Italy on a hot summer’s afternoon; the chaos of the pit lane; the V12 Ligier (with cigarette sponsorship) being worked on by mechanics on the pit lane. Not a PR person in sight. No cars hidden behind screens in pit garages. No banks of computer monitors. No tyres designed to fall apart. Just teams really enjoying the day and not looking as if they are sucking on lemons as they do today.
Formula one was about to change forever — and for the worse — but that weekend it was still magical. And to top it off I managed to capture Miss Silverstone in the photo — that’s her in the shorts. What a weekend. Those really were the days. I am so lucky to have been there and if I had not had that 10.30 meeting in London I would not have been. Them’s the breaks.
- You can find more from John Shingleton at The Rolling Road and on Instagram