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The Italian Job

FEATURE BY MIKE LAWRENCE
04/10/2007

My last piece, on Stepneygate, brought me an unprecedented mailbox. If you have not had a response, please try again, AOL has been acting oddly. I now know 15 people in New Delhi and six in Bangalore. We're thinking about a cricket match.

The vast majority of the mail was in support, but three people thought I was being hard on Italians. For the record, I love the country so much that I am trying to learn the language with the intention of moving there. Hey, I become Michele Lorenzo and wave my arms around.

One thing I love about the country is the inspired chaos. Take the National Pasta Museum in Rome. What do you think you might see there? Wrong! It can happen only in Italy. You have a prime site, beautiful design, national treasure, and not one item of pasta. There are photographs, and machines once used for making spaghetti, and that's it.

At one of Rome's airports is a gentleman's comfort zone. Try to work this out: there were four urinals, eight stalls and sixteen washbasins.

Italian drivers belie the myth, they are courteous apart from a sub-group who drive Audi Estates. There may be a speed limit on Italian roads but it appears that nobody has found it. A couple of years ago, I took a break on the autostrada from Rome to Milan. As usual, it was a joy, the panini was fresh and tasty, the setting was immaculate and the service was friendly.

On the site was a shop selling things for your garden. For 540 euros I could have bought a full-size suit of armour. At such stops I have made the odd impulse purchase, a cut-price book, but a suit of armour? 'There's no room in the car. We will have to leave Momma behind. Next year, Momma, it's a promise.'

The armour was not the main challenge. There were the full-size statues of ladies wearing not enough to keep warm. Try getting one of those into a Fiat Seicento.

You might do the arrangements with a garden centre, but this was a stop on an autostrada in the middle of nowhere.

Italy does not have much of a motor racing industry. There was a time when it spawned a plethora of small constructors: Stanguellini, Nardi, Moretti, Ermini, de Sanctis, Taraschi, Osca... the list was a long one. One reason was that there was a tradition of small outfits skilled in the casting of metal. Tiny companies built their own engines, sometimes just the odd one or two.

Those constructors have long since disappeared and Italian motor sport means Fiat. There used to be a joke that in France, the State owned the biggest car company, while in Italy... As well as Ferrari and Maserati, Fiat owns Moretti, Alfa Romeo, and Lancia and is reviving Abarth as a distinct line of modified Fiat saloons.

In Britain and America there are any number of motor racing companies. Through its various series, NASCAR alone has built a massive industry. The British industry not only embraces most F1 teams (including half of Scuderia Toro Rosso), but it supplies CART and IRL. Apart from the Fiat companies the only Italian racing car constructor of note is Dallara.

In countries with large motor racing industries, personnel move and outfits are constantly refreshed. The industry is cosmopolitan because if you are, say, Iranian and want to be a motor racing engineer, you move to England. Go around English teams and you find a mini-United Nations.

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