Category Archives: entertainment

A force awakens… again

[WARNING – MANY, MANY SPOILERS]

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The film may have come out a year and a bit ago, but I’ve finally sat down to watch the Blu-Ray extras for Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Sure, I had to go to the ‘Deleted Scenes’ first (who wouldn’t?) but they don’t really lend much to what happened, and there’s no real nuggets in there, nothing that really (rightly) felt that it shouldn’t have been left on the floor. Because the film didn’t feel anything but lean. But the ‘Making Of’ was a really special viewing. I’m also not afraid to say I shed a tear watching the scenes with Carrie Fisher, both on set and off. It seems ever more tragic that she’s not going to be here to see how the universe develops in front of our eyes. A part of my childhood really did die when she left us.

The Read-Through alone sent shivers down the spine. Seeing Carrie, Harrison Ford and Mark Hammil in the same room, with Peter Mayhew, Anthony Edwards, talk through the words in that universe again… it still didn’t seem real. God knows what it must’ve been like being part of it. Because this is a film (no, not a movie) that I never thought would happen again. After the three ‘prequels’ that let down so many people of a certain age, I felt the stories had run their course. I’d never immersed myself that much in the books when I was a kid – sure, I read a few, but they never gripped me the way that first roll did on A New Hope – so for me, the films were the centre of all of it, and while I love the original trilogy (ok, I’m obsessed by it) and I still watch them regularly, I’d resigned myself to that being it. A sad, underwhelming and overblown successor that drowned in SFX, clunky dialog, toyshop characters and none of the real magic of the first three.

But of course, the last two years have proven how wrong I was. And as a 42-year old man, there should be something a bit sad about being so excited and overwhelmed by a couple of films, but then this is my youth, returning, and in a world that’s so grim, grimy, chaotic, unsure and angry, it’s no surprise that many of us are revelling in the escapism that such a vibrant, colourful and enticing universe that we all find so familiar gives us over the rest of reality.

There’s so much beautiful synergy between the old and new. And yes, some of that is a purposeful, heartstring-tugging intention to rope us olds back in, but it’s also such a reverence to the original films, because JJ Abrams gets that it’s a legacy, not just a money-making machine, churning out ever-decreasing chapters for the next decade. He was a fan himself when we were watching Empire as a small kid, he was a teen in LA, seeing the very same magic. So, where the old generation hand over to the new in The Force Awakens, it’s not just in front of the camera. Just looking at Nien Numb, who so memorably appeared in Jedi in the Falcon in the final battle of Endor, back as a pilot in the base on Yavin, or, even more sweetly, Warwick Davis, Wicket in Jedi, now returning (so much more known to many for Extras) as Wollivan alongside his yellow-headed monster daughter in the bar scene at Mas Kanta’s. It’s that incredible charm and character that’s indelibly inked onto the new films that makes you feel such a connection to them, where it wasn’t expected or assumed. There’s over a hundred creatures in VII, so many of them non-CGI, from the returning Gonk droids, to new pilots, musicians, bounty hunters.

That’s one of the greatest beauties of the  new trilogy so far is Abrams’ and the entire team’s willingness to only use CGI when there was no other means to achieve their ends. As many of us felt Lucas slowly diluting the rough-hewn charm of the original trilogy with needless new effects shots and reissues, leading to an almost shiny, blurred, CGI-laden set of prequels that fell into the era’s obsession with effects, the Force Awakens went back to what worked best: real models, characters, creatures, sets, effects, which felt so much more visceral and real. It always does, and it should be a lesson to filmmakers out there, that computer-generated SFX should be the point of last resort. Gareth Edwards showed that, more than anything with Monsters, a beautiful looking film made on a minuscule budget, whose effects were part of the tapestry, rather than the end-point of the whole fable.

I can’t even imagine what is must’ve been like being part of it, but there was something wonderful about how the younger actors – John Boyega especially – were so blown away by being on set, wanting a hug from Chewie, a walk through the Falcon. It says something that over 200 people were crowded onto the set when – for a day, they set aside a WHOLE DAY – when Han and Chewie get to utter the line that made a million adults squeal: “Chewie, we’re home.” It’s lovely to hear that, even as the film was being so meticulously made, pretty much the entire cast and crew were as excited as the rest of us were anticipating it, and watching it. And all of it soundtracked by John Williams, at 84 years old, still vital and perhaps one of the most important and iconic people in cinema today. Music that is as much part of our lives as Luke, Han, and Leia, but also Indiana Jones, ET, Jaws, Superman, Home Alone, Schindler’s List, Empire Of The Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, Lincoln and War Horse. Who else has been nominated for 50 Academy Awards?

The ILM work is still just incredible. Seeing so much referencing the original trilogy, whose effects were groundbreaking at the time, back against the new film is wonderful. The best CGI is the stuff that doesn’t look like it’s even there until you look, and for every shot that is obviously FX, there’s a bunch of stuff happening in the background that you don’t know is even unreal. And the new stuff: The Black X-Wing, the new TIE-Fighters, the updated Falcon, the Star Destroyer Graveyard, new Stormtroopers. Seeing them photograph the old 5ft model Falcon and take the little motifs the original model makers left (the ‘Drive Safely’ stickers!) and mapping them onto the ‘new’ Falcon so that the little details perpetuated into the new chapters. You’d have to know these details and watch it over and over, so it’s great to see that this is just ‘what had to be done’, even though many of us would never even spot what’s there. It’s just another example of the rich detail, thought and love that went into it all.

There are so many amazing insights into the making of the film. That JJ Abrams himself came up with the basic concept of BB-8. That Poe was going to be killed early on before they changed the story to keep him in. That Kylo Ren’s suit was going to be chrome (ugh) but when it was dumped it ended up as Captain Phasma. The fact that so many of the original crew from the first trilogy were part of the team that made The Force Awakens, in many cases using inspiration from the iconic Ralph McQuarrie, or the original designs, photos, and in one case, one son’s own inspiration from his father’s snowspeeder drawings in Empire. It felt like not just the handing on from one generation to another in front of and behind the camera, but really bringing so much of the history back together to ensure that the magic of the first trilogy was sprinkled all over the newest one. That may seem obvious, but it’s really the most important and intangible thing that, done wrong (especially overdone) would’ve seemed clumsy and too broadly brushed. They got it nailed.

As a film geek anyway, these behind-the-scenes things are catnip to me. It’s why I’ve started a Saturday that I couldn’t get back to sleep at 7am by thinking ‘I’ve been meaning to watch a bit of this for ages” and sitting here on the sofa for almost 3 hours gorging on the entire extras for the original Blu-Ray, feeling like a 6-year old kid again. But the mechanics of putting something so huge together is fascinating. I feel as excited watching this as I did watching grainy extras on the VHS tapes back in the mid-80s, or reading through the articles in the papers and magazines at the time. I wish I could take a weekend out and watch the whole lot from all of the films, but I’ve got packing to do!

Really, it’s an incredible thing to just immerse yourself in every now and then. I know that I’m a bit of an obsessive. How can you not be that excited about watching a universe unfold in front of your eyes that you first witnessed as a small boy (I was barely even walking when the first came out) and want to dive back into that? It’s part of my lifetime. It always will be.

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A princess of Hollywood, gone to the stars.

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“You have owned my likeness, lo all these years, so that every time I look in the mirror I have to send you a check for a couple of bucks.” 

I am not remotely embarrassed to I say I’m obsessed with Star Wars. I’m one of millions. But it doesn’t change the fact that seeing that universe expand in front of me from the day I was old enough to watch A New Hope (on VHS, I’m not that old) changed my life. I’ve watched that film over 100 times, and know every word and every character’s movements and expressions like it was my own. The quote above, of course, comes from Carrie Fisher to George Lucas, one of many quips she so beautifully and bitingly made in a career that was so much more than just those films, knowing so astutely that she’d have to rail against that oversimplified outline for the rest of her life. In this context, it’s not an exaggeration to say that when news of her heart-attack came through before Christmas I just thought “oh god, not her too”. There was way too much more to still come than 60 years would allow, even for someone that packed in as much as she did. I dearly hoped she’d pull through, ready with some withering self-deprecation about her not being dead yet, to witness the outpouring of support, and to solider on for another decade or two. But it wasn’t to be.

Really, it feels so desperately sad. I know public grief is a cheap commodity these days, traded in competitive chunks on a daily basis like a modern currency, but at 41 I don’t feel ready to let so many of these childhood touchstones drift into the mists just yet. Not Carrie, someone that stood out so much in those films, like she did in life, and instructed me about women in ways I didn’t even understand at the time. Even though she often resented the ties that bound her to those films (famously describing the role as ‘a lot of it was just running down corridors’) more tightly than she ever may have wanted, the late-blooming return to this fantasy universe and the rush of adolescent joy it brought me and so many others, makes it all the more sad she’s suddenly no longer here. [Spoiler alert] I’m not sure I could stomach that last scene in Rogue One right now. It just feels too sad to see that fresh face against this backlit scene of contemporary sorrow.

She was my first crush, probably before I even knew what one of those was. But she was also, flagrantly so much more than a sex symbol, and everything many women in cinema weren’t usually allowed to be at the time – feisty, witty, sexy, funny, articulate, intelligent and forceful – and not even Han Solo or Luke Skywalker stood a chance against her in those three films. Even as she was planned for execution, she fought back, showing vulnerability even as she cracked jokes at Grand Moff Tarkin’s expense. What a woman, in so many of the right ways, not some silver screen cypher employed as window dressing. I was hooked from then on, by this mystical figure clad in flowing white robes, who was pretty handy with a blaster and didn’t seem to care for gruff, charming space pirates (well, not at first). She transformed, during those six years from nervous ingénue princess to a star in her own right, famous – sadly, above so much else – for that bikini, rather than killing the mighty Jabba, as she should be. Perhaps one of her best put-downs came from this very weary topic, answering an angry father: “‘What am I going to tell my kid about why she’s in that outfit?’ Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage.””

She was fearless. The daughter of celebrity parents (Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, her mother now tragically joining her barely 24 hours later), born and raised into Hollywood royalty, she spent much of her life and career remorselessly skewering that privilege when others hid behind it, seeing no vanity or assuming no position from it, often making capital out of the litany of ‘you-couldn’t-make-it-up’ drama that befell her. In fact, her truth about the underbelly of the industry, on others, but much of her own often painful and scarred experience, came to inform her post-Endor life. A voracious chronicler, her books were brilliant warts-and-all paens to growing up inside the movie bubble, with Postcards From The Edge very loosely autobiographical, and made into the brilliant film with Shirley Maclaine as the tortuous mother and Meryl Streep in the title role (for if Meryl plays you, you know you’re a true character of note). She even appeared – indirectly, until I only realised very recently – in the lyrics of one of my favourite albums of all time, as Paul Simon (her husband for eleven ill-fated months) talked about the “window in your heart” he found after she’d gone, immortalised in Graceland. Added poignancy when no more were needed.

She published memoirs that laid bare the high and low points of her life, taking them on tour as one-woman shows, and showing the openness and vulnerability that drew us to her from the start. Even forty years later, she managed to raise eyebrows when admitting to an affair with Harrison Ford in The Princess Diarist, which landed only a month or so before her untimely death. To the end, she never dimmed the switch. She also had roles and work that were often – sadly – overlooked. She provided the comic chops and humanity as Marie in When Harry Met Sally, worked in Shampoo, Hannah And Her Sisters, The Blues Brothers, Soapdish, and more as well as television, from 30 Rock, Family Guy, brilliantly as Rob Delaney’s acerbic mother in Catastrophe (for which she’d just finished a new series before the fateful flight home she caught from London), and spiky cameos aplenty in everything from Sex And The City to Big Bang Theory and Entourage. She never stopped working, applying uncredited script work to Hook, Sister Act, The Wedding Singer and more, even if many foolishly thought there was nothing between Jedi and The Force Awakens. Her epitaph is so much more than A Galaxy Far, Far Away.

She was also fearless in her openness about mental illness. Suffering from bipolar disorder from a young age, she never shied away from what it led her to, or the complexities of being a sufferer. Being the daughter of Hollywood royalty would be hard enough to cope with, but fighting bipolar disease, it’s actually incredible to think she had a career at all, given the rates of suicide it induces. But addressed it she did, and head on: “I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital,” she spoke over two decades ago. In a still-incredible interview, she talked in understandable terms about how her battles manifested themselves. ” I have two moods,” she explains. “One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. And Pam, sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs … Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out.” It’s for this reason alone, and her honesty, that she should perhaps be lauded more than anything for helping switch around the usual mental health narrative. She showed that that real, famous, great, successful people suffer from these conditions just as much as the rest of us, and the effect it can have on those people that feel alone and side-lined and unable to feel they can talk to anyone about it. Taboos are there to be broken, and Fisher did this with all the vim of Leia or Marie, realising that if it came from her, then another wall could be broken down.

But the part of me that aches the most is still that boy that watched entranced back in the early 80s, as this whirlwind in white, that grew up with that adoration and admiration unchanged, seeing that return in 2015, and feeling privileged to be living through both ages of the life of the person I knew as Princess Leia. From childhood crush to full-on adult infatuation, to middle-aged reverence, that person on and off-screen that never played by the rules, never kept quiet when it was expected, never felt she should fulfil the role of which she was expected. She suffered, wore that as a badge of honour, and never stopped seeing the positive side of her fractured existence. As my 40s trundles on, it feels like too many of those we held dear in our formative years are being taken away too early. Perhaps this is just what getting old is like, and this is the start of a long, uninterrupted march of those faces in front of us for the next few decades. But few will have the impact that the likes of Leia, Han and Luke had, and that emotional squeeze from the icons of your simpler, more brightly coloured childhood often hold onto you much more than those in our cluttered, complicated adult life ever could.

Sixty years old is way too soon, when so much felt still in front of her. The sadness is only compounded by the devastating death of her mother, Debbie, only a dayfew after her daughter. But for  a couple of lucky generations, we all saw that first clip and thought what Luke Skywalker did: “Who is she? She’s beautiful“. She was one of a kind, and the world is a far poorer place without her. May The Force be with you, Leia.

Goodbye, George

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I thought that 2016 had already done its fair share of disposing of iconic artists, but it still had a few cards to play. So the irony of hearing George Michael had passed away on Christmas day seemed a cruel joke too far (one that social media predictably jumped on in its crass, insensitive way almost as soon as the news hit that evening). But like Prince and Bowie before him, the sudden and unexpected nature of his passing was perhaps the biggest surprise, given he was only 53.

I know that it’s the new norm in the social media age to bear ones feelings online, and to lace tragedy with hyperbole and flowery language, an arms race to see who is the most upset or struck by these events, but while Bowie and Prince have been ever-present in my life, they were never the soundtrack to my childhood. George Michael, in Wham! and as a solo artist was definitely that, even before I knew much about him, or – blissfully unaware as a 7 year-old – his life, I was dancing round the living room to Club Tropicana and Wham Rap and recording hits off the radio on tape (yes, remember that?) Like any child of the 80s (born in ’75, but growing up in that oddly bleak yet flamboyant decade), pop music was central to my formative years. And what a decade for pop it was, perhaps never bettered, with so many big acts to choose from, even the one-hit wonders were somehow brilliant (think Owen Paul, Jermaine Stewart, The Buggles, Cutting Crew, Nina, MARRS). But alongside globe-spanning heavyweights like Duran Duran, Madonna, Prince, U2, Queen and Bowie, George Michael felt much more like one of us. The son of a Greek-Cypriot restaurant owner, born and raised in Kingsbury then Radlett, meeting Andrew Ridgely at school with dreams of pop stardom.

Forming Wham! in 1981, (I don’t know what you were doing when you were 18, but I was listening to his records, and wondering what my Geography degree would get me in life) they had a no.1 album within two years, with 3 top ten singles, including Wham Rap and the iconic Club Tropicana. The latter was filmed at the famous Pikes Hotel in Ibiza, and when I found this fact out much later on in life, I spent 2 summers trying to find the place outside San Antonio, just to be able to stand where that famous video was shot, such was its legend. It seemed crazy that I could be walking around that pool (luckily, no white pants for me), replaying that video in my head, wondering – and wishing – what it would’ve been like to have been at one of those weekend parties there in the mid 80s with George, Andy, Freddie, Grace and the rest.  He just made it all look so fun.

From there, the hits rolled almost non-stop, with staggering numbers: 100m albums sold, 7 UK no.1s, 8 US Billboard no.1s, his debut solo album, Faith, sold 20m alone, not to mention the list of awards, from 3 Ivor Novellos to countless Brits, MTV, Grammy and American Music Awards. But above all, he was a star, and a star all of his own making. George Michael did things his own way, and all his success came at a time when, if you were gay, you still had enough problems to deal with from daily life, but when you were a megastar, you’d be hounded relentlessly and mercilessly by the tabloids, rabidly obsessed with outing and shaming homosexuals. These are the same tabloids now eulogising him. It has ever been thus, the hypocrisy hanging rank in the air.. But Michael refused to be ashamed of his life. Much has been made of him not coming out until 1998, following his much-publicised bust (sorry, sting) in LA by an undercover police officer. But he didn’t care personally that he was gay, only that coming out publicly would affect his parents more than anything. In many ways, he was still the outsider from suburban London, but also, he didn’t exercise rigid control on his public or private life because he was ashamed, but because he felt it was none of anyone’s business. This infuriated the press, who simply attacked him further, and just made us root for him even more. His refusal to be a sexless, ashamed, out-gay man, is to be lauded, and still feels an outlier today, but in the late 90s, (having endured and survived the turbulent 80s) he was one of a few pop stars to be willing to put his head above the parapet. Even back then almost half the UK still thought same-sex relations ‘always or mostly wrong’. Many thought his career would suffer then, but of course, it was arguably one of the finest ripostes to a celebrity shaming there’s ever been: he made Outside in weeks after that arrest and ‘scandal’, lampooning at once the press, the LA Police, homophobes everywhere, showing that gay sex was still just sex, and making them all uncomfortable at the same time. A masterstroke, and one that many others would never have dared risk. He did it with gusto and humour, and I only loved him more.

There was the usual narrative of the ‘troubled’ star, yet no one bared this truth more honestly than George himself, speaking of his demons and addictions openly and causing many of us that were teens or younger at the time to go back over lyrics and feel embarrassment over what was overtly personal and downright dirty songs, released in plain sight. But it was all part of a talent that wrote and sang songs that were emotionally inclusive and soul-baring. When he was playing the James Dean role on Faith, he was also singing about a quick shag on Fast Love, or more brazenly pushing the tolerance of radio stations and tv channels with ‘I Want Your Sex’ (famously writing ‘explore monogamy’ on his partner’s back in lipstick’. But for all his brazen nature, great copy and partying, tragedy and difficulty was never far away either. Watching Anselmo Feleppa, his partner, die of AIDS-related illness in 1993, and penning Jesus To A Child to commemorate him. Even the accidents and incidents that put him in prison briefly, the public shame heaped on him made him no less forgiving, and it was hard not to love him for that, particularly when you detest the right-wing press and their motives so much. All the while, he still looked for that next hit, writing dozens of news songs, fighting his label for control, and in recent years that next album that never saw the light of day, robbing us perhaps of a next chapter to his remarkable story.

And all through it, he was a trailblazer and a star. While he was releasing solo classics like Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1, he was donating money to charities and individuals. Stories of giving a nurse fifteen thousand pounds anonymously for her IVF, or a concert for NHS nurses following his mother’s death, donating royalties to Childline, or Terrence Higgens’ trust for AIDS, making clear that having ‘more money than he could spend’ didn’t mean he didn’t know how to use it. In a world where celebrities now do much work for charity but do like to talk about it, he was the opposite. His work for LGBT charities was huge, and he also wore the position of a global pop star figurehead for a movement with zest, whatever the personal cost.  The trail he blazed didn’t just inspire musicians and others from his music, but made it easier for people after him to be who they needed to be, and as his music success waned, his legacy’s impact increased only further.

Ultimately though, for those of a certain age, his death leaves a sizeable hole. From as early as I can remember, I danced to his music, wanted to be him – and yes, long before I had a clue he was gay, we all wanted to be him, or be with him, such was his attraction to women – and bought his records. The tapes I had from back then are mostly long gone – I still remember being so excited to buy the cassette single of he and one of my other childhood icons, Elton John, duetting on Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me from Our Price in Redhill in 1991, when it really wasn’t cool to like either that much any more – but the records remain. So many hits, that it seemed like one of his records was permanently in the charts from 1981 to the late 90s, a staggering output, especially when success is so fleeting in the modern musical world. He did so much that seems normal now, but lost him friends, success and money back then, whether it was refusing to be in his own videos (Freedom, particularly, irked Sony, but it’s now one of the most replayed videos that era, chock-full of supermodels), suing his own record company for creative control, and simply be unashamed being out and gay when it was accepted to be a career-killer. Lesser artists would’ve been hit, but he just did what he wanted to, and that’s why people rooted for him.

I’ve dabbled as a DJ over the past two decades, and now the radio show I do is based around being the best wedding set you’ve ever heard. Understandably, Wham! and George Michael have always been high on my list of #bangers since the start. How can they not? So many of them have such happy memories for me, whether it’s listening to Wham! in Africa when I was a kid, or mesmerised by him joining Elton at Live Aid, or cracking up when the LA policeman sued him for making Outside, with George at the centre of his own joke. And every new year’s day for the last seven years, dancing to Everything She Wants at Bugged Out. Even last week, I played Last Christmas (how could you not?) on my radio show’s festive edition. It seems so sad that it’s now an epitaph, rather than a celebration of someone you hoped still had gas in their career for a long time to come. He also joins the list of artists I never saw live and that I’ll never get that chance to. Everyone I know that did was in awe. That voice of his had few peers.

As we get older, it’s inevitable that those we love, and revere and worship will slowly slip away before our eyes. Only a fool would be unwilling to accept this. But 53 is no age to go, discovered by your partner lying calmly in bed on Christmas morning. Not when you’re re-releasing a classic album in 2017, and planning a documentary that we’ll now never see. Nostalgia is a business all of its own these days, but when a chunk of your childhood becomes a freeze-frame of memories, and no longer a living, breathing person, part of that dies with them. It’s not overdramatic to say that, because while I listen to so much new music, there’s a huge part of me that’s still that little nerdy kid dancing round the room with a comb singing Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, and wanting to be that flamboyant guy on tv in tennis shorts and a haircut bigger than my torso, bobbing around alongside Andrew Ridgely. Knowing that George Michael is ‘never gonna dance again’ is a sad, sad day indeed.

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....

Monaco: Day Two in the Principality

The calm before the storrm
The calm before the storm

Hangovers in a foreign country. I’ve been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. In fact, if I wake up somewhere outside England, and I’m clear-headed I almost wonder what’s gone wrong. The hangover wasn’t too stressful this morning (Will’s was – his one for the road turned out to be beers and vodka, but like a consummate pro he was on commentary duties with a coffee in hand mid morning), and by breakfast at the quaint Marcellin hotel in Beaulieu -sur-Mer, my home for the next 5 days, I was raring to go. This was the day I’d get to see cars throwing themselves round the world famous streets of the principality, and I could barely wait to get to Monte Carlo.

One of the joys of being where I am is that I’m two minutes from the station, which means 10 minutes of trains – through numerous tunnels and coastal views, one of my favourite journeys on rail, despite its brevity – and I’m slap bang in the middle of Monaco, much better than those that have to fight their way through traffic to get to the same place, poor David, for instance this morning. Today the city is a very different beast. There’ll be racing today – at least practice and qualifying – and the streets are teeming with fans of all shapes and sizes and nationalities, like a convention on motor racing has rolled into town. And F1 fans, in particular, are a dedicated breed all of their own. Top of this are the tifosi, Ferrari’s addicted followers, and they’re all here in the hope that Fernando Alonso can magic a pole. He’s a magician on these streets, but he’ll have his work cut out to top Lewis Hamilton, and of course, the Red Bulls, sweeping all before them this year.

The GP2 boys roll out to the grid
The GP2 boys roll out to the grid

For me, I’ve decided to actually buy a ticket today, because it’d be sad not to experience the racing from the grandstands themselves, but also because Thursday is the least wallet-shredding full day of them all. With some of the normal seats costing upwards of 500e on Sunday for the F1, and if you’re on a balcony somewhere, think more like 1000, I’m not about to take out a new mortgage for two hours of petrol and revs, however good it is. So, the slightly more reality-based price of 70e gets me a seat all day at Tabac, so I get to view the cars as they sweep down from the tunnel, through the chicane, round Tabac’s right hander, through the Swimming  Pool complex. In short, about a third of the entire lap. 30% of heaven, basically.

First port of call is the GP2 paddock. Because of Monaco’s premium on space, this weekend doesn’t get to share it with its big brother in F1, so it’s is parked out round the corner, through a tunnel, but it’s a beautiful spot, with its own beach (seriously) and a much more laid-back atmosphere than its bustling, A-list counterpart. As David comes to give me my hallowed pass, I’m more glad for it. F1 is amazing, but GP2 is like a little family, and having waited four years, it’s great to come back to see long-lost relatives, people that run a brilliant series on a fraction of F1’s budget with (whisper it) better racing, and ten times the fun. Getting introduced to some familiar faces (Bruno, Didier, the irrepressible Marco) and some new (Alexa, still in her cast, worse luck) fills me with a sense of warm familiarity. They may not have the glitz or buying power of F1, but they treat you as if you’re one of their own, and I never cease to be forever grateful to the warmth and generosity of everyone involved, particularly for letting some overexcited, 36 year-old boy into their office for a weekend and putting up with all my daft questions and my piss-poor attempts at appearing knowledgeable.

Still, it feels like I’ve not been away since Valencia in 2007. The cars may be different (the new 2011 GP2 car is an awesome machine, and looks every bit as good as it’s F1 cousin, minus, welcomingly, some of the bewildering aero and design elements that mega-budgets allow to sprout on the cars) but the atmosphere is just a good. Many of the drivers are young enough to be university age, and some of them even my kids,  (and some look younger than that), but it all just adds to the uncynical enthusiasm and happy atmosphere that pervades the paddock. The racing is still ultra-serious, but it’s all done with a wonderful air of unfettered joy.

The bald one and the birthday boy
The bald one and the birthday boy

We head out for practice, and into the pits, and for the next 30 minutes I’ll be seeing racing from the absolute sharp end. There’s something intangible about walking along the pit lane – apart from the overriding fish out of water syndrome (I’m used to the inner workings of clubs and festivals, not the minutiae of sporting arenas like Monaco), just like anywhere where I’m surrounded by the sort of utter professionalism that you see in a sport like motor racing – that seems to add a few bps to the heartbeat, and raise the blood pressure. I’m trying to be as nonchalant as I can, dressed up like I expect the ‘cool’ people to be here. But really, I may be clued up on what’s big in Dalston, but not sure I know much about Monaco. Still, I if love one thing, I love my t-shirts, and about 15 of my favourites, including the one I wore today, and in fact ones I’ll wear most of the weekend are designed by one amazing company: Millionhands. They’re a team that’s a labour of love, designing their own, and work with labels and the like in the electronic music industry to put together some of the most eye-catching ts you’ll see around. Nothing gives me more pleasure than wearing something you know was made by a mate, and in this case it’s a collab with superb London label Tsuba. House music at its finest. Not sure too many in the pit lane notice though, as they’re diverting 100% of their attention to getting their men to the top of the timesheets. This is motor racing in its most elemental, and scanning the names of the F1 drivers on the garages (GP2 get to wheel their cars down here and drive them back afterwards) and see the mix of marshals, mechanics, photographers, journos, and even the odd F1 star, once again causes the hairs on my neck to stand proudly to attention. I remember my first ever experience like this, in Bahrain in 2007, courtesy of the much-missed Super Aguri team, and the sensation of the screaming revs of an F1 car going through the length of your spine as they power out of the box for qualy was something I will never forget. I don’t think I’ve been quiet for so long in my life.

Imposter in the pits
In the pits

I keep talking, trying  and wishing to look like I fit in here, and make it through to the end of the session unscathed, which is better than some of the drivers manage, with Davide Valsecchi‘s Air Asia clouting Van Der Garde‘s Addax right below us as the session draws to a close. Watching it from this side of the wall only makes me realise what, despite its bonhomie and family atmosphere, a highly professional outift GP2 is. It may be in some eyes the very much second fiddle to F1, but seeing the cars, teams, officials, and the amount of organisation that goes into just a practise session is mind-boggling. And yet everything happens like clockwork, as if this has been done a million times. As a spectacle – and being a long-confirmed geek, I always lean to the minutiae of any process, it’s awe-inspiring, and an incredible thing to watch. Thirty minutes of Practice is adrenaline-busting entertainment at its best, and as we head back up the road for lunch I’m still a little light-headed. Yes, more pinching. Lots of it. After lunch – and it’s high class catering that keeps the GP2 army on its feet, and praise for another unsung group that provide a variety of mouth-watering fare for everyone here, day in day out, rain or shine – I do head off to Tabac, the roar of F1 engines filling my ears as I try to find where on earth the entrance to the stands are. It’s a maze, one in which I buy a McClaren hat to shield my shiny head from the sun. No attempting to look cool here (I don’t really do hats) but while I’m English, the last thing I want to do is fuel the stereotype by making my bonce a shade of pink for the next few days. Painful, and stupid.

Grosjean at Piscine
Grosjean at Piscine

Stand K – as is my home for the afternoon – is a supreme vantage point, and I get to see the cars I’ve watched so many times on television over the last 30 years scream past me repeatedly for an hour. It’s surreal, noisy, petrol-scented brilliance, sitting in a stand full of like-minded motor racing nuts, and drinking in the views of Monaco, the boats, the buildings, the track, that every so often I have to remind myself surrounds me. At times, it’s almost too much to take in. A cool beer between sessions gives me a well earned and shady rest under the stands before a frenetic 30-minute qualifying for GP2. And if you think F1’s 3-part shootout is busy, try twenty-six cars all on track at the same time desperately trying to get clear air, set a time, and get back in one piece. It’s easier said than done, and while many drivers are managing this with aplomb, there are still a dozen that manage to end up the wrong way, or in Romain Grosjean‘s case (the joint leader of the series), trying to drive over the top of your team-mate. It’s not the sort of skills becoming to someone that’s one of the top echelon of drivers in this series, and while he’ll be chastened by a later penalty, like anything in motorsport, the biggest relief is that both drivers walk away. The last 5 minutes of qualifying has more action than some of last year’s entire F1 races, and I need a sit-down to take it all in before the dust settles and Giedo Van Der Garde appears top of the sheets, edging out Sam Bird in the last minute of the session. It’s proper racing, and this is only deciding how the grid shapes up! And before you think F1, and the immense gaps on show, the whole field here is covered by little over two seconds. The time it takes you to even think about that, well, you can basically cover P1 to 26 there. Amazing, really.

Monaco from Le Rocher
Monaco from Le Rocher

With this over, I have a chance for a last mission – to head up to Le Rocher, the grass-covered slopes over Rascasse where the fans not willing or able to part with monster-size wedges of cash choose to watch the weekend unfold. There’s something great about this part of Monaco, like the Hill at the Adelaide Oval in Australia, that shows that it’s not just about VIP areas or 1000-euro grandstands (it’s 70e for Sunday here, which while still chunky, not a price that requires a loan at least), and it’s well-populated, even when only the Porsche Super Cup is due before the day’s action comes to a close. Come here for F1 sessions, and you’ll find a chap from the North of England wearing a mirrored army hat and shouting choice words to whoever will listen (whether they want it or not) and on whatever takes his fancy. That’s F1 for you. It breeds fans that are more than a little off the wall. And that’s why it’s so great. Nothing beats a few crazies to add some atmosphere.

This evening is likely to be less eventful than the last. For my head, my liver, my wallet and my waistline, this is probably a good thing. While David hammers away on the keyboard, dedicatingly compiling the official results and press for the day’s action like a machine, as well as creating a hugely entertaining GP2 blog, I’m sat here putting this together with the grooves of canadian Frivilous‘ Meteorology ringing in my ears. It’s a relaxing end to an amazing day. And I’m barely even 36 hours in. I really don’t deserve this, but there’s something about gift horses and mouths that’s appropriate here. The evening is indeed relaxed and civilised. David and I walked passed Le Rascasse on our way out, but we didn’t really feel like being deafened by shit electro-house and drowned in free Midori. If we wanted that we could go to Croydon. So, we headed back to Beaulieu, settled in a bar by the marina with a bottle of rose, chewed over the day’s proceedings, and calmly celebrated his birthday, a world away from the bustle (and posing) of the nightlife in Monaco. I think we made the right choice.

Monaco? I must be dreaming….

Welcome to Monaco
Welcome to Monaco

There’s a delicious irony about wandering the streets of a small town outside Monaco listening to Metronomy’s brilliant new album. I’m not sure there could be anything as far removed from the sun-drenched style and relaxed nature of Beaulieu-sur-Mer than The English Riviera, but the album’s title and music matches the landscape perfectly, and the pain of the 4.30am alarm call starts to melt away as I sit on the beach with a picnic, French style. A stick of freshly-baked bread, a small Camembert roule, and some cured ham. Oh, and a can of 1664. I am British after all. It’s a refreshingly inauspicious start, considering the real reason that I, and thousands of others, ranging from the local fans to the bejewelled yacht-dwelling, casino-patronising jet-setters, are here. It’s Monaco, late May, and this can only mean one thing: The GP.

Now, before anyone thinks I’ve suddenly transformed into some sort of nouveau-riche pretender, it’s not quite as glamorous as it sounds, or at least as high-rolling, and nor would I want it to be. I may be here on Grand Prix weekend, but it’s the GP2 I’m here to be immersed in, reuniting myself with the tooth-and-nail racing that thrilled me in 2007 in Bahrain and Valencia. The outgoing GP2 champion that year was a certain Louis Hamilton, and the likes of Nico Rosberg, Bruno Senna, Vitaly Petrov and Kamui Kobayashi were racing that year. You see, this may be F1’s feeder series (and in the last 5 years it’s given GP fans Hamilton, Kovaleinen, Senna, Di Grassi, Hulkenberg, Kobayashi, Glock, Perez, Buemi, and Maldonado amongst others) but this where the REAL racing happens. No DRS, no KERS, no steering wheels that look like 5 Sega controllers stitched together. This is 20-odd broadly similar cars, going at it hammer and tongs to see who really is the quickest guy out there. No Ferrari-sized budgets or drinks manufacturers bankrolling things. And thats’ why I love it.

But this is Monaco, something else entirely. I’ve been watching this place all my life, from first seeing the washed-out colours of the Malboro McClarens and JPS Renaults back in the 80s, the days of Piquet, Prost, Senna, Mansell (actually, it should just be Senna and Prost, because no one else won it for a decade back then astonishingly) and getting to know the mythical twists, turns, corners, and of course the Casino Square, the Swimming Pool, Rascasse, it’s not any GP track, it’s probably the most famous in the history of the sport. Which is why Im already giddy with excitement, and I’ve not even set foot in Monaco yet. In around 45 minutes, I’m hoping to be stood by St Devote. It’ll be like the first time I went to New York, staring wide-eyed at Times Square. It’ll be like I’m on the set of a film. In short, it’ll be incredible. But tomorrow, I’ll be seeing racing, in the thick of it in the GP2 paddock. And then it’ll sink in, or maybe it won’t.

Casino square, in the mirror
Casino square, in the mirror

Well. Wow. Just wow. Nothing really prepares you for being in Monaco the first time. Everything is so familiar, yet, everything is also so new. You know the corners so well – Rascasses, St Devote, Casino, Piscine – but seeing them in the flesh makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand up. It may still only be Wednesday, which means no racing, but the added bonus of this is that you can walk the length of the track and experience the feeling of being on that famous circuit, something you only get on race days in the evening. And yes I hear you say, you can do that all year round, but there’s no Armco, no sponsor’s logos, no fencing, no marshals, mechanics or drivers here then. The circus is only in town one week every year. Being in Monaco right now makes you feel instantly that you’re part of the action. I’ve been lucky enough to experience Bahrain and Valencia, but the out-of-town circuits are just that. Often the same razzmatazz, but outside the circuit, there’s little else on show. This is slap bang in the middle of a city, one that’s already bustling and brimming with buildings perched on hills and waterfront, and in fact, looking at the finishing touches being put in place, it’s a wonder that they manage to fit everything in here. The space is tiny, but yet somehow it all gets squeezed in. How the motor homes and trucks fit down the roads is beyond me. You’d need a slide rule just to get into the place.

Beers with Will at Rascasse
Beers with Will at Rascasse

After 90 minutes wandering around open-mouthed I hook up with Will. He’s a veteran (at 30, sickening isn’t it?) of GP2, F1 magazine, GPWeek, and now Speed TV, covering the races on the grid for the US Network. I don’t’ think I’ve ever met a more enthusiastic man and when you add his passion – F1 – to this, it’s almost off the scale. The thing is, while he’s such a fan, he’s also a consummate pro, talking casually about his job when it would make most of us mere F1 nuts weak at the knees. He’s been interviewing Lewis Hamilton one-to-one today, and yet asking for a run-down of his weekend so far is like water off a duck’s back (if he’s not going over his experience at the Mille Miglia of course). Shooting the breeze over a few crisp lagers at Rascasse (it may be expensive, but it’s not eye-wateringly Ibiza expensive, so it’s less of a shock to me than to some that find two ‘pints’ of Carlsberg setting them back 14 euros) and watching the Monaco people flit by with him is an experience in itself. Whether it’s the mechanics or PRs from the teams, taking a well-earned rest, or the fans, or the jet-setters (self-appointed in some cases, clearly, and hilariously), or the motley collection of ‘Miss Grand Prix’ girls that are being pawed over by various males – though i’m really not sure why in this case, when most of them appear to have taken a morning swim in foundation – it’s a menagerie on show, and defies sensible description. Every wants to see, be seen, be the centre of attention, and watching them vie for it is witheringly enjoyable for someone with a dry sense of humour. It’s a worthy sideshow to the race itself.

Six beers in, and some chat with some of Will’s many friends and acquaintances on the circuit (including some wonderful Ferrari girls who brighten up the evening immensely) it’s apparent that if we don’t get food down us then Thursday will be a bleak day of suffering, which is fine for me, but as Will’s working from the crack of dawn, I’m thinking of him, and also the fact he’s a bit of a lightweight in all honesty. We end up hoofing a chilli burger and fries in a sports bar down the road –  Stars and Bars; think a sort of Euro Hard Rock Cafe that revolves around football, motor racing and cycling – and coincidence means soon seated next to us are Dani Clos and Alvaro Parente, teammates in Racing Engineering, and two of the nicest (and talented) drivers you’ll ever meet. I pretend not to be in awe, convinced I’m styling it out admirably, when it’s probably the Carlsberg doing the trick, while Will chats away on setup, tyres, Monaco’s own unique challenges, and I try to join in without putting my foot well and truly in my gob. To avoid this, I stare at the cycling memorabilia on the wall (Miguel Indurain’s bike, Tony Rominger’s various shirts, Johan Museeuw’s too – all legends and from the era that got me into cycling itself) and wonder how on earth I managed to get myself into such an incredible situation like this. While for many this is a job or an expensive regular hobby, for me to come to a city and a race like this is boy’s own stuff, and I’m going to be spending the weekend pinching myself every ten minutes just to check I’m actually here and not in some hugely satisfying dream.

By this time it’s gone 10, and I’m trying to get home before the last train strands me in Monaco and I have to spend my life savings on a cab. David, who’s one of the dedicated and unsung GP2 team, and the reason I’m out here in the first place, has landed, and I’m attempting to get home to say hi and thank him. It doesn’t go to plan, I’ve missed my train, and need to get on the next before cabs are the only option. This won’t be a good option, because the prices here are beyond eye-watering (as I found out in Nice this morning), in fact I’m pretty sure if you look at a taxi for too long you’ll end up having to pay, so I say my goodbyes, and stagger off to the train leaving Will to ‘have one last one’ on the way home. Sounds like danger to me (it will prove to be). Having spared a tired David my presence, I fall through the door of my room and onto the bed a tired, lightly-drunk, extremely happy motor racing fan. This has been one of the most fun days I’ve ever had, and the racing’s not even started yet!

Particle physics? Yes please.

Atlas Experiment

We’ve all watched it. Well, 5 million people have tuned in over the past weeks, and I’d thought that I’d never say that quantum physics had become the highlight of my week. But that’s where we are. And it’s bloody great.

Yes, the Wonders Of The Solar System has landed on Sunday nights, and all of a sudden we’ve got a scientist that’s cool, that doesn’t look like a teacher, and who can speak in ways that takes a ridiculously complex subject and talks about it in a way that anyone can understand. Professor Brian Cox has popped up on Horizon before, and he’s a regular contributor to Sean Keavney’s breakfast show on 6Music, and (seemingly trawled out at every turn) he was in D:ream, (and, much cooler, he was the scientific consultant on Sunshine), but the most important thing is that he’s been involved at CERN with the Atlas Experiment, he’s a Royal Society University Research Fellow in Manchester, specialising in Particle Physics.

Professor Brian Cox
The Wonders Of The Solar System

Those last three may not seem a reason to get excited (though for a geek like me it is) but when you watch the show, and marvel at its big ideas, you wonder why nothing like this has been on tv before. It’s simple really, physics doesn’t sell. We all love to look at slo-mos of tigers chasing antelopes as Sir David’s dulcet tones recount the glory of the natural world, but we’re not supposed to be enthralled by the ice on on Europa, or gasp at the height of Olympus Mons. But the genius of the program is that Cox has managed to take subject that seems as cold as the Artic, and make it as interesting as the first time you lit a bunsen burner at school.

The laconic Lancastrian has put into terms that you and I can understand, just what links us to the planets in the Solar System, what parallels there are between volcanoes, canyons, ice sheets, and craters here, on Earth, and throughout our faraway neighbours. It’s jaw-droppingly fascinating, and delivered with the enthusiasm – and the beauty, from some incredible film and effects – of your favourite childhood teacher, and the result is, for me, a rekindling of a love for the cosmos that I had as a kid, that I obsessed over the Moon landings on when I was 14, that made me want to be an astronaut (didn’t we all) and that makes me want to dive back into this all headlong. Yes, when the LHC started warming up it came flooding back, the sheer geekery (and the insane numbers involved) brought out the inner nerd, but five hours of the best science tv in years is what’s got me wondering about relativity, anti-matter, solar flares, string theory and gravity.

I’m unashamedly a fan, and we need people like Cox. Science has taken a battering of late, and physics especially is something that brings blank looks across faces, but I never thought I’d be talking to people at work about Jupiter’s moons on a Monday morning, instead of the football. Sometimes, you just get dragged in, and I’m even excited about reading his book. On the theory of relativity. With equations in it (oh god, not my AO Level Maths again). If even 1 kid for every 50 that watched this gets hooked on physics and the universe then it’s probably done more good in just over a month than hundreds of teachers could, and that’s reason enough to get excited. Yes, you could argue that Cox’s public profile, his Twitter account and work on the BBC could dilute his study, but when it’s bringing science to so many, then it’s worth every effort.

I just wish there was another five shows to take me into May.