Friday, 23 August 2013

Classic Tracks, part 3 - Monaco

If Le Mans and Indianapolis are iconic race tracks, then so too, in the minds of the public at large, must be Monaco. It is hard to imagine a track more photographically recognisable, one that is instantly associated with the glamour of Formula 1, nor one that is more unlikely in the modern era.

Whether it’s the Lotuses of Stirling Moss in Rob Walker’s colours or Graham Hill in the Gold Leaf livery; Derek Daly’s Tyrrell flying at St. Devote, Ayrton Senna in the barrier at Portier or Michael Schumacher stopped at Rascasse: they are all images ingrained indelibly in the minds of motor sport enthusiasts the world over.

(As an aside, if you are one of those enthusiasts, close your eyes for a moment and try to imagine a 917, 962 or R18 superimposed on the streets of the Principality - no, it doesn’t work for me either!)

Anyway, back to my topic. I have witnessed two Grands Prix at Monte Carlo – the first in 1977 and the second in 1980.

In 1977 I was still at University, and Page & Moy was offering a return coach trip to Monaco that arrived on the morning of the Grand Prix and included a general admission ticket to the “Pelouses Rocher” spectator enclosure that overlooked the Rascasse and the swimming pool.

I decided it made sense to meet the coach at Dover, so I found a side street in which to park my car, and joined my fellow-enthusiasts – most of whom had travelled on the bus from Victoria Coach Station. We took the ferry to Calais, and began the long and arduous journey across France. Well, it was long, but for a passenger, not particularly arduous. I remember not really knowing where I was for the largest part of the journey, finding it hard to sleep, and half-heartedly listening to the FA Cup final on the radio (must have been long-wave).

We arrived at the circuit at around nine or ten in the morning, as I recall, and were given our admission tickets. On the way, I made the acquaintance of another chap who was bound for the same location (quite a few of my fellows had bought grandstand seats), and we browsed the souvenir stalls together.

As we approached the point at which the tickets were being collected, so the crowds intensified and there was something of a scrum to get in. But there was no turnstile, nor any kind of gate, just a loose row of ticket collectors. I reached forward to hand my ticket over to one, only to be barged out of the way by a group of Italians who were slightly, shall we say, more physical, than I. I found myself shoved in front of another of the ticket collectors, except that my ticket was already in the hand of the first ticket collector. Problem! Indicating to my buddy ahead of my and the chap who had collected my ticket over to the side, I shrugged my shoulders at him, and the force of the throng behind me carried me through and onto the Rock itself.

If there hadn’t been a Grand Prix going on, then it would have been a good place for a nice walk, with lovely views over the harbour. As it was, although the view was grand, there were plenty of people and not too much room. Losing touch with my erstwhile buddy, I shoved myself to a point where I could see the track over the shoulders of just two beanie-hatted Italians. We couldn’t see the start from where we were, but we could see the exit from Ste. Devote, up the hill towards the Casino, and then from the exit of the tunnel, down round the swimming pool, and into La Rascasse, albeit at something of a distance. Luckily, I had binoculars.

Of course I had binoculars. Just like I had a stop-watch (an ordinary, analogue one), along with pen and paper for keeping a lap chart. And as the race wore on, and the two Ferraris of Lauda and Reutemann were closing in on the Wolf of Jody Scheckter that had led from the start, my Italian neighbours suddenly were pushing me forward, so they could look over my shoulder and see how many laps were left to run, and see my stop-watch measuring the gap. (There was no chance of hearing the commentary up on ‘the Rock’.)

Much to my frustration, after the race, there was no time to hang about, as I so enjoy to do, as we were supposed to be back at the coach straight after the race for the drive back home.

In 1980, I was lucky enough to go to the Grand Prix again, and in much better style. Although, as I was to discover, the style to which my budget stretched was still way short of the level attained by others. I was living in Lugano, Switzerland, at the time, so I hired a car to drive there and booked a hotel in Nice. I remember it was the Hotel Imperial, whether it is still there or not, I don’t know. The drive down from Switzerland was sublime, I felt like a movie star as I navigated down to Genoa and along the coast past Sanremo towards Ventimiglia. OK so I was only in an Opel Kadett – I remember it was red – but in my head I was Roger Moore in the Volvo P1800.

I found a spot to park on the Boulevard Albert le premier, and tried to mingle with the crowds, but I was hopelessly out of my depth. I had adjusted to the cost of living at Swiss prices, but Monte-Carlo was something else. A beer in Rosie’s bar and a coffee in the Rascasse blew the budget for dinner, so I drove back to the hotel and prepared for Saturday practice.


For Saturday, I had a ticket to a spectator enclosure situated on the inside of the circuit, between the Chicane and Tabac. The F3 support encounter was won by Mauro Baldi from pole position, but the star of the race was Kenny Acheson, who finished fourth having started on the penultimate row of the grid. Nigel Mansell was in there somewhere as well, in the Unipart-sponsored March.

Being there on my own, I was free to soak up the atmosphere of Saturday night in Monaco, and it was a marvellous experience, wandering the streets, observing the somehow obscene displays of glamour, decadence and jaw-dropping wealth that I honestly knew I could not even aspire to. I was in two minds whether indeed I did aspire to it all, but just for a brief moment, I was part of it.

It was also possible to wander around the paddock area (then, as now, along the harbour front from the actual pits) and get up close to the cars being worked on. At the time, I felt very much that this was the 'modern era', when technology (turbo-charging, electronics, etc.) was at its height, but to look back now on cars being worked on under awnings, on dirt floor, by mechanics in t-shirts and shorts, makes you realise how rudimentary it all was, by modern standards. One wonders how the current age will be regarded by the next generation?

 

The race itself on Sunday was almost an anti-climax, compared to the exhilaration of actually being there. There was a support race for Renault 5s, then Prince Rainer arrived to take up his position in the Royal box.


Didier Pironi, starting from pole in the Ligier, was heading for victory until he crashed as there was a brief rain shower. This handed victory to Carlos Reutemann (Williams FW07), who had started alongside the Frenchman on the front row of the grid. Overtaking was never easy at Monaco (unless you’re Kenny Acheson).


But then again, nothing that I have ever experienced in racing comes close to the thrill of watching full-blooded Grand Prix cars threading their way through the streets of Monte Carlo. You are so close to the cars that you feel the impact of the air in your face as the cars go past. Constantly just inches away from concrete barriers, and occasionally glancing off them, by the end of the grand prix, you are exhausted from the physical exertion of watching.

A classic setting for Grand Prix cars, and some very special memories for me.


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