THE ROAR is murderous. The kind you could imagine ricocheting around a colosseum as the crowd bays for blood. Which, if you’re an Italian Formula 1 fan, is exactly what you’re doing. It’s lap one of the Monza grand prix − a circuit emblazed into F1 folklore as the ‘Temple of Speed’ − and world championship rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton have clashed, Hamilton diving down the outside to complete a daring move into the first lesmo that sends Vettel spinning towards the barriers, his scarlet red racer plummeting from the front to the very back.
Outrage! Scandal! Vengeance!
Thousands of Tifosi shake their heads and fists in unison, the entire circuit distraught and outraged that Ferrari has been wronged at its home track. All of which makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Wheels is here with the perpetrators – Mercedes-Benz – both to revel in the atmosphere at one of motor racing’s most iconic circuits, and to drive the German brand’s newest addition, the fourth-gen A-Class.
The all-new hatchback has already launched in Australia in A200 guise (read our full review here) but this is our first chance to sample some of the cutting-edge elements of the car’s class-leading MBUX operating system, such as sat-nav with augmented reality, which isn’t rolling out in Australia until early 2019. It’s also a prime opportunity to see how the 120kW/250Nm A200 performs with four burley blokes and their luggage on board.
Our day starts early, the matte silver Benz waiting in the underground carpark of our Milan hotel. The influx of racing fans has been enormous, even in Milan which is 30 minutes away from Monza. Team colours for Red Bull and Mercedes abound, but scarlet dominates, the zealous support for Italy’s F1 team verging on cult-like.
The first test for the A-Class is swallowing our luggage. The old car’s boot was a weakness; its load-lugging volume on the smaller side for its competitor set and its opening hampered by bulging taillights that narrowed the aperture. The new car is much better. Now larger at a class-middling 370L and with taillights that are better packaged, our bags fit snuggly.
The roads to Monza are a mix of bumpy urban streets and choked autostrada, yet we make swift progress. The Renault-sourced 1.3-litre turbo four acquits itself well, despite its diminutive outputs and our heavy load. It’s muscular enough to execute overtakes with authority, its athleticism aided by an intuitive and quick-witted seven-speed dual-clutch ’box.
Less convincing is the ride on the 19-inch wheels, especially for rear-seat passengers. Aussie A200 variants utilise a torsion beam rear suspension set-up as standard, though the car we sampled had the more sophisticated multi-link arrangement with adaptive dampers. Even so, loaded to the gunwales as we are, expansion joints and large bumps are transmitted with an unwelcome abruptness.
At least rear passenger room has been improved. Rear-seat accommodation in the old car always felt like an afterthought, yet those in the back now have ample head and shoulder room, while knee room is sufficient, even for those behind people over 6ft.
The cabin itself is a highlight, the two 10.25-inch LCD screens (first seen in the E-Class) and the MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) infotainment system dazzling with technology that’s user friendly and useful. The augmented reality addition to the sat-nav is especially beneficial, the centre screen splitting in half to display the map on one side and a real-time camera view of the road ahead on the other. As turn instructions approach, blue arrows appear on the real-time feed showing you what exit to take.
Design wise, the cabin feels suitably premium, though it is let-down by firm, over-stuffed seats and hard, scratchy plastics on the B-pillar, lower centre console and the outside section of the rear seats that joins with the doortrims.
I’d expected the parking at Monza to be typically Italian (i.e chaotic), yet it’s remarkably simple. Our pre-booked spot (30 euros per day) turns out to be street parking commandeered by people wearing high-vis vests, but we find a park easily and after a brisk 20 minute walk, we enter the circuit.
Monza has a special vibe. Excited fans chatter and laugh as a sea of people flow towards their seats, our feet working the soft earth into a sticky mess after last night’s rain. Cigarette smoke and thumping techno music are constant companions that lend a festival-like atmosphere, one enhanced by the fact that most of centre of the circuit is lush forest.
Our seats are at the inside of Turn 1; a perfect vantage point that takes in one of the best overtaking points on the circuit where the cars rocket into view at 340km/h before braking hard to tackle a tricky right/left chicane, and also overlooks the banking of the old Monza circuit.
The race itself is a cracker; a tense affair of cat-and-mouse strategy that eventually sees Hamilton reel in Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to steal the lead with a handful of laps remaining, the pivotal move executed right in front of our seats.
It’s what follows that’s the real highpoint, however. With the race complete, thousands of fans flood onto the circuit and rush to take part in one of the best podium ceremonies on the F1 calendar. The podium juts over the track, allowing fans to get incredibly close to their heroes, providing you’re quick enough to get to the front. People run and shout, some trip and fall in the rush, the electric atmosphere cloaked in a red mist as flares spew forth and Ferrari flags fly.
It’s a heaving mass of humanity; an orgy of different nationalities, languages and allegiances brought together by a love of motorsport, metal and horsepower. I can only imagine what it would have been like if Ferrari had won. Bloody Hamilton.
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