Monaco – When Saturday comes

Morning in Monaco
Morning in Monaco

Sadly, this is my last full day in the principality. I go through my normal morning routine here. Up, shower, down to breakfast where I’m treated to more fresh rolls, pain au chocolat, croissants, all smeared with healthy amounts of beurre and jam, readying me for another day of petrol-headed action. I’m banishing all thoughts of sadness (and an early flight tomorrow – more of that later) with a throwback album inspired by all the talk of Britpop last night. Blur‘s Parklife flows into my ears as I walk down to the station to catch the train into Monaco. It’s another cloudless day and high 20s. This Is A Low isn’t that appropriate, but it’s a beautiful piece of music. I’m being careful on the sun front though, seeing as my only colours are white or pink, I don’t want to add to any of the already burnt parts of my body. Once an Englishman….

All eyes on F1 Quali in the GP2 paddock
All eyes on F1 Quali in the GP2 paddock

The GP2 paddock is busy as ever, with the teams already pushing yesterday’s results into the background with another race to prepare for this afternoon. Unlike F1, there’s two races every weekend in GP2, so it’s double the fun, enjoyment and excitement, and the stress. No rest for the teams sadly, but it means that drivers can make up for mistakes in the first race, and while the Sprint race is 15 minutes shorter, and with less points, the beauty of it is the reverse grid. Cars 1-8 in the Feature Race reverse positions and so P8 is on pole. It’s a good incentive for the midfield to push in race one, even if they’re out of the points early on, and makes for an interesting race every time. This time round, it’s Frenchman Charles Pic – he of the lion’s mane hair – that sneaked into the coveted 8th after Englishman Oliver Turvey failed to take his drive-through on Friday. As with many sports when they get to the top of the tree, it’s the details that often make the difference, and with a season of 9 rounds and 18 races, it’s small changes like this that can decide championships.

"What do you mean you don't have any D'Ambrosio caps?"
"What do you mean you don't have any D'Ambrosio caps?"

There’s a full day’s programme before the GP2 guys hit the lights at 16.10, with the Formula Renault drivers qualifying as a stroll out of the station after 9.30 (no late starts here) and down past Place D’Armes, where the merchandising stands are in full flow. It’s fair to say that here, being so close to Italy, and with scant French representation on the grid, at least not in the cockpits, that Ferrari rule. It’s a sea of red in almost every stand, and while Schumi, Lewis and Jenson get a look-in, as do the Red Bull guys, it’s the Scuderia that have a hold on the public’s affection here. An Alonso win here would register on the Richter scale. And it’s F1 practice and qualy that’s high on the agenda for many of the fans here today as I head through the now familiar tunnels and out to the GP2 paddock. It’s a hive of activity, with the ever-present sound of engines firing up and turning over as the teams feverishly fine-tune (or in some cases reassemble) their cars before this afternoon’s race. Something that’s really come home to me this week is the inordinate amount of work that goes into putting a car on the grid. We all know the massive teams and budgets involved in F1, but in GP2 there’s only a fraction of the manpower, and yet the work put in is monumental, with a restless weekend for the mechanics, media, drivers, team principals and sponsors – it’s a wonderful microcosm of how motorsport works, and for many of the teams, having been in since pretty much the beginning in 2005, they’re a close-knit crew of friends as well as workers that function with the single aim of putting their driver on the top of the podium.

The GP2 teams hard at work
The GP2 teams hard at work

F1 3rd practice, like qualy after it, is dominated by a huge shunt. In practice, it’s Roseberg, and in qualy it’s Perez, both coming out of the tunnel up to the chicane, and echoing some bad memories of Button and Wendlinger’s accidents there in previous decades. It’s moments like this that make you remember that sign that dominates the tracks around the world: ‘Motorsport is dangerous’. The sport is so safe in this era, it’s easy to forget the terrible toll it took on its drivers in the past. Jackie Stewart’s campaigns against the lack of safety and medical provision in the 70s was met with a furious backlash at the time, with many traditionalists questioning his commitment to the sport, but now we can look back and see just how far safety has moved on, and what we have the Scotsman to thank for. It still doesn’t prevent some heart-in-mouth moments, and both of these were such incidents. Coming out of the Tunnel, first Rosberg, in the morning, and Perez, in the afternoon, braked, losing the back end and snapping them into barriers before being propelled, helplessly, towards the barriers that separate the safety road from the run down to Tabac. Rosberg was lucky, while launched over the bumps, he missed it by millimetres. Perez was not so lucky. He came wide out of the tunnel and hit the barrier side-on after glancing the wall, the slo-mos showing him desperately clasping his hands in protection around his helmet just before impact. It was a sickening crash, and for 20 minutes, while the medical teams carefully worked to remove him safely and get him to hospital, a cloud descended over the city.

While qualifying resumed – and Hamilton lost out worst to make only P9 – it was clear that their comrade’s safety was all that was on drivers minds. They may be paid millions (well, some of them) and feature in a sport that is steeped in money, glamour, and individual achievement, but at times like this it’s refreshing to see everyone in the paddock thinking only of one thing, and that’s a speedy recovery to the stricken driver. It was a tense wait until a delayed Sprint race, but by the time the parade lap was in progress, a collective sigh of relief descended on Monaco as reports of Perez being conscious and talking in hospital fed across the airwaves. He wouldn’t be racing, but the popular Mexican will be back, hopefully for Canada, and news that he was sitting up and watching the GP2 race that afternoon were heartening, and amusing proof of how obsessed drivers are with their sport. The race itself didn’t quite live up to the Friday stormer, with Pic’s sterling drive from pillar to post edging out Josef Kral, with Romain Grosjean coming home in 3rd to keep up his championship title charge. With another stall on the grid from local boy Stefano Coletti – resplendent in his dinner-suit overalls for the race – there was more precision avoidance, but otherwise little incident barring Chilton’s struggle on wearing tyres giving way to first Filippi then Valsecchi. The result left a cigarette paper between the main contenders – astonishingly the top 5 left the principality separated by 5 points, with Grosjean and Sam Bird tied on 23, race-winner Pic on 22, and Valsecchi and Van Der Garde on 21. GP2 has always been tight, and this weekend was another reason to shout it from the rooftops: get into GP2 if you’re a real racing fan, because it’s motorsport at its finest and most elemental.

Where did everybody go?
Where did everybody go?

No sooner had the race finished, and the quotes been given to David, now speed-working on a deadline with the rest of the GP2 team and journalists covering the race, than the paddock was slowly coming down. It’s amazing that so much is packed into a small space, but if it was full at 15.00, at 18.00 it was almost empty, the tables away, TVs off, teams packing up and staff frantically dismantling the space that’s been my home in Monaco since Thursday morning. It was hard not to feel tinged with sadness at this point. In some ways it’s felt like I’ve been here for a week, with so much crammed into an amazing 4 days, but also with the racing done, it all suddenly feels over too quickly. And yet for me, as a glorified punter (albeit a massive fan) it’s merely the end of a holiday. For the majority of people here, it’s a job, and their hard work and dedication will receive only a short break before they move on to Valencia in four weeks to do it all over again. I get to walk away into the Monaco night, while many of the teams here – either racing or GP2‘s own administration – will still be here long after I’ve sat down with my first beer. It’s easy to forget that while fans watch in the comfort of their own home, the work that goes into a race series is almost never-ending. But it’s a love for motorsport that keeps the wheels turning, and GP2 is no different.

Au revoir, Monaco
Au revoir, Monaco

For me, I head off for a last look round the port, climbing up to the amphitheatre that sits on the corner of the headland below Port Hercule and gazing over the iconic skyline, knowing that I’ve heard my last roaring engines for this year. Some of you may wonder why I’m not staying for the F1, but there’s good reason for that. While I love F1, in fact it was/is my first love, there’s an economy of scale that means many fans will never get to witness an F1 race first hand. In Monaco it’s possible to grab a lofty viewing point above the port, or even a balcony close to the circuit if you’re in with the locals, but for many, grandstands are upward of 200e, or even up to 1500 euros for the top packages, which prices all but the privileged out of the market. As GP2 finishes on Saturday, so too will I, and while I’m sad to be missing the marquee event, I’m not hugely disappointed. I’ve seen all the F1 cars on track twice, and that’s an experience I’ll not forget. It’s just a shame that F1 – as, I guess, befits its glamourous image – is a sport that is only affordably viewed from the sofa. My love for it is undiminished though, even so, but it’s one of the many reasons that GP2 is neck and neck with it. The racing, the teams, the drivers, the atmosphere, seem much more connected to the years that I first fell in love with the F1 circus, and its purer, more unreconstructed racing. When I watch the drivers on the grid in Valencia, I’ll be tinged with happiness and sadness: I’ll know the faces better, feel more closely connected than ever to GP2, but of course, I’ll wish I was there to enjoy it all over again.

The GP2 paddock
The GP2 paddock

The night isn’t quite over though, and tonight is Champion’s League final night. And while I’m English, my loyalties tonight are with Barcelona. Odd? Not really. I’m a Spurs man, so no great lover of the Red Devils, and I’ve spent many many weekends in the Catalan city, be it at the amazing Sonar festival, or staying with friends that live in the city. I’ve even been lucky enough to see them at the Nou Camp, trouncing Getafe with only ten men. I can’t seen United winning, so I’m trying to meet up with Will and David to enjoy a Catalan victory. The location is about as anachronistic as I think you could find in Monaco – The Ship and Castle, perched in the Fontevielle port is a good old English boozer, and I’m sat at a table with a pint of Fosters waiting for the cavalry to arrive. Will makes it, but sadly not David, but what he misses in football, he also misses in annoying chanting from the assembled Reds. “We do what we want, we’re United and we do what we want.” So, that extends to losing to City in the FA Cup then? As it happens, it’s a glorious night for Barcelona fans. Apart from some early scares and a great Rooney equaliser, it’s Barca’s night, the 3-1 scoreline barely doing justice to their domination of the English champions, even if it upsets Alfie, a four year-old in United kit that adopted us for the game. Watching them play is a privilege, and the last pints sank, with GP Week’s Adam Hay-Nicholls also in attendance, are a fitting end to another action-packed day that’s left me well in need of bed.

Vamos Barca!
Vamos Barca!

As I take the train from Monaco’s main station back to Beaulieu for the last time, I try to scan through the events of the last 72 hours, and coming across a bewildering succession of highs. From my broad grin as I descended over the sea to Nice, to my wonder at first sight of the Monaco skyline, wandering the track at Casino, Massanet, Tabac or Rascasse, enjoying beers with Will, Matt, James, Dan and David at Rascasse, hearing the roar of engines start up for the first time, seeing the familiar faces of the GP2 team and being looked after by them as if I was royalty, to the wheel-to-wheel racing of the GP2 drivers, my amazing trips to Stand K on Thursday and Friday, and my heart-fluttering half-hour in the pits on Thursday, plus the odd celeb spot, and mixing it with the drivers in the GP2 paddock, it’s been a whirlwind of petrol-tinged wonder. I’ll be taking back memories aplenty, hundreds of photos, my hallowed GP2 pass, my Jenson cap (not sure pinky-orange is my colour but what the hell) as well as some great times spent with Will, who’s responsible for me getting into GP2 all the way back in 2007, and David, who as well as being my regular city pub-parter in day-job London, is also part of all those memories, plus everyone I’d been lucky enough to meet along the way. I may be up at 7am tomorrow to catch the red-eye back, and be watching the F1 action from David’s sofa in London, scarcely getting my head round all the sights and sounds, knowing I was there less than 5 hours earlier, but this weekend will be with me forever. I can’t wait to bore everyone with it for the next few months. They may grow tired of the tales, but I never will.

Merci, et bonne nuit....
Merci, et bonne nuit....
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