As I write this, I’m heading down to the south of France and Monaco for this week’s GP. The so called, jewel in F1’s crown is a special place, a special race and holds some incredible memories for me personally.
Everything about the circuit says it shouldn’t work as a race track. It’s too narrow, too bumpy, no run off area, too slow for modern F1 cars, unsafe, nowhere to overtake, inadequate facilities and so on and so on. It’s absolutely everything Hermann Tilke would despise and couldn’t be further away from todays requirements for a grand prix venue.
Having said all that, no one could imagine an f1 season without this race on the calendar.
Everything that’s ‘wrong’ with Monaco, is actually what makes it so right.
When I first began working at this event, there were no ‘garages’ to speak of for teams to work from. The top 4 teams had awnings attached to the side of their trucks, shoehorned in down by the harbour, whilst the rest of the grid would be set up in a large multi-story car park down the road!
Pit lane had a very small pit building, with each team allocated a ‘shed’, roughly the size of an average domestic garage, certainly not enough space to fit three cars, as it was then, in and work from. We would base ourselves down in the awnings, then push the cars up through the streets each evening to the FIA weighing scales and of course for each session. When I say through the streets, I do mean exactly that. Teams of mechanics pushing Formula One cars up the road and in between thousands of excited, often drunk, race fans. It was a proper mission to a) not run anyone over, and b) protect the car from being clambered all over by people wanting photos and a good look. For teams too, it was a good opportunity to get up close and personal with opposition cars. ‘Undercover’ team designers would blend in with the crowds, trying to get photos of whichever area of the car they were interested in, whilst mechanics did their best to stop them.
It wasn’t uncommon to have wings, turning vanes or barge boards damaged during the whole process and on one occasion I even had some drunken nut case throw a 1 Euro coin down the air intake and onto the engine air filter!
Nowadays, pit lane provides a garage complex capable of housing all of the teams in one place, although by normal standards it’s still incredibly small and restrictive.
For teams the race presents a very different set of logistical challenges, let alone the challenges faced by drivers and engineers on track, but for fans, sponsors and tv viewers it offers something no other race can even come close to.
Modern F1 tends to keep fans very much at arms length, however in Monte Carlo, that arm has to be considerably flexed at the elbow.
With the track running through built up areas, overlooked by apartments, cafes and restaurants, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by the noise and close proximity of the racing. Balconies are filled with spectators able to wine and dine in complete, but familiar luxury, whilst the current crop of F1 superstars tear through the streets only feet below.
The images most people will have of the Monaco GP are the tv shots of the rich and famous lapping up the glamourous lifestyle aboard multi-million pound super yachts or the most expensive cars money can buy parked up outside the casino and those images are not an over exaggeration. Monaco represents the glamour of Formula One.
In a sport and an industry like any other, F1 has had to reign in the purse strings a little over the last few years, relatively speaking of course, but the extravagance of 10 years ago has rightly had to take a back seat to the need for efficiency and ‘sensible spending’. Monaco is a two fingered salute to that. It’s a platform for teams, sponsors, drivers and life’s financial high flyers to basically show off. Massive egos dominate, competing for kudos of being seen on the largest, most expensive boat in the harbour and whilst some may well find the whole thing vulgar, it’s also part of what makes this race special.
There is most definitely a vulgarity about the whole thing, but it’s also strangely addictive and fascinating to observe. Perhaps because of the modern rarity of such public displays of wealth, the GP embraces it as a symbol of F1’s glamourous side and broadcasts it to millions of people around the world who, admit it or not, love to tune in.
People involved in the event, mechanics, marshals and workers etc. get the chance to rub shoulders with this ridiculously extravagant side of life and I can tell you, that can be great fun.
For years I spent every night of my week in the principality hopping from one yacht to another, drinking the finest champagne and eating the finest food. At McLaren we were lucky enough to stay at one of the best hotels, where a constant stream of Ferraris, Lamborghinis or limos would pull up at the door, keys thrown over to valet, and some of the worlds rich and famous would fill the fashionable bar. As mechanics by day, evenings made us indeterminable from anyone else and we could enjoy the social scene incognito, even if on very different budgetary scales to the locals.
Whereas most of the other circuits on the calendar have, over the years, had to modernise by moving spectators back from the track, increase run off areas and provide adequate parking etc. Monaco remains very much a ‘hands on’ race. The track itself hasn’t changed much over the years and the nearest it’s come to conformity was moving the yacht moorings a few feet back from the harbour wall a couple of years ago.
This race is not so much about great racing as it is about Formula One as it used to be. A throw back to the 70’s when there was genuine danger involved and half naked women sprawled on boats beside the track. People don’t come here to see the excitement of a driver cut through the field to victory, they come to be seen and to say they were here. They come to get close to the cars and the drivers, again like it used to be, and to hear the noise and feel the tremors of our modern machines racing centimeters from the barriers as the likes of Hunt, Senna and Lauda did years before.
The truth is this race is both fantastic and awful at the same time, but I for one couldn’t imagine Formula One without it.