Thank Monaco it’s Friday

Which way to the race?
Which way to the race?

I felt like I’d slept for a week, despite a good bottle of wine down me and only a shade under 7 hours passed out, but then Monaco seems to bring out the best in me. Today is far more sedate, in fact the most relaxed, racing wise, of all this week. With LCD Soundsystem‘s brilliant This Is Happening soundtracking my journey to the track today (I’ll put thoughts of their break-up to the back of my mind, because nothing can break the good mood I’m in), I feel like I’m walking on air, and just as with the previous two days, like I’m the luckiest guy in Monaco. Maybe that’ll switch to Hamilton or Vettel on Sunday, but until then, the title is mine. Today, with only the Porsche Super Cup qualy first thing, GP2 takes centre stage, with its feature race at 11.15 this morning. The stands are all free today, so there should be a substantial crowd, and compared to the deficit-bashing prices of the weekend, this ‘free’ day is a godsend. David is in good spirits after the birthday celebrations. Will, it turns out, is suffering a little, having downed a few more shandies than planned at the Red Bull party last night. I can’t keep up with these A-listers. The thing is though, come 11am, he’ll be grinning behind the mic alongside Karun Chandok – ex-GP2 and current F1 reserve driver and one of the nicest, most good-natured people you’ll ever meet in the sport – and breezing through commentary as if he’d gone to bed at 10pm, the pair bouncing off each others verbals like childhood best friends. If I had even half his enthusiasm on Monday mornings I’ve be far more productive. To this end, it’s a crime that the GP2 Series isn’t available on free-to-air in the UK, but I can hardly complain this weekend!

While the sun is taking a while to duck out from behind the clouds – no great loss with my pink flesh, conveying all the stereotypical skill of an Englishman abroad, still a little tender from yesterday – the Porsches have already torn through qualifying, and it’s time to go our respective ways: me back to Stand K and David to the pits in time for the start. However mad qualy was yesterday, and I’ve seen less exciting months in F1, there’s no doubt that the one way to get the pulse racing is to get the red lights up for racing. Add the iconic location and I actually have butterflies as I weave through the streets to my perfect viewing spot, sandwiched between St Devote and Tabac. I may be sat amongst nationalities from across Europe and beyond, but we’re all here for one thing: watching state-of-the-art cars throw themselves around one of the most famous circuits in the world. But while I’m glad for the overcast conditions, when drops of rain start peppering the air I suddenly wonder if my friend Andi is about to appear, after his incredible rain-making abilities at Valencia back in 2007, when he was almost responsible for costing Timo Glock the GP2 championship. Thankfully, it’s just a passing shower, and the Andi Hawes voodoo fails to strike again.

GP2 racing at its best
GP2 racing at its best

And in a few minutes, the sun is back out, the drops of rain a mere memory, and the cars are screaming round the track on their parade lap. While qualy and F1 practise was sensational yesterday, seeing the cars ready to do battle proper is another level. I’ve always kept an eye on GP2 over years – as I’ve said before, its lack of free-to-air availability limits me to youtube clips and their well-stocked website – but this year with Monaco in mind I’ve been swotting up, and when you add to any prep work spending 48 hours in and around the race series itself, all of a sudden the names on the grid and the teams and personnel take on added significance. Motorsport in general is, considering its money and exclusivity, an amazingly open sport. Think of F1 grid walks, and even for those in pit and paddocks over racing weekends having access to drivers and teams, and there’s no comparison. You wouldn’t see cameras in the dressing room before a Premiership game in England, nor would you have the camera stuck into the middle of the England Rugby team’s huddle before the game kicks off, and yet motorsport seems to have a great tradition of access to the people that matter the most. For me, being in and around the whole system over the weekend only serves to make the events on the track even more special.

And it’s a great race. While Monaco may not be littered with overtaking, the sheer spectacle of the cars heading round the iconic twists and turns is enough to get the pulse racing. But Monaco is no walk in the park either. The claustrophobic barriers and barely two-car-width straights offer little respite for even the smallest of errors, and this would be in evidence today. The unluckiest man in the field is Englishman Sam Bird. A huge talent, leading the standings coming into Monte Carlo, but his car bogged down as the lights went out, and while he avoided being tagged (watch replays of similar incidents again and see just how lighting-quick drivers reactions are to avoid stationary cars on the grid), while the rest of the field was speeding up to Casino Square, he was limping out of the pits in P26. His race would be far from over though. Davide Valsecchi, of the newly formed Air Asia team of Team Lotus boss Tony Fernandes, streaked away from the field and ended up giving a masterclass of how to handle the idiosyncratic character of the principality. He looked at ease all race, and got to say what many would give a limb to say: “I won in Monaco”, something he has dreamed of all his career.

Race leader Davide Valsecchi
Race leader Davide Valsecchi

I witnessed most of this from the now familiar Stand K, peerage over the back as the cars flew through St Devote at the start, and being surprised to see no one approaching it in mid-air. As the race settled down, I decided to race back to the GP2 paddock. Purists may gasp, but with only a big screen 100m away up Massanet, and no commentary, I struggled for much of the race to see what the order was, and who was making moves. In an era where there’s HD tv, online coverage, blogs, twitter and multiple commentary, sitting in a stand gets the adrenaline pumping, but leaves you bereft of where the cars shake down, and much as I feel like a philistine for doing it, I race away through the blistering sunshine back round the corner to the paddock. I arrive with 15 laps of 42 to go, astonished to see that 7 cars have retired in the 15 minutes since I ducked under the track. Perhaps I’m cursed, as while I’ve been on foot, Romain Grosjean’s cut a swathe through the field to be P4, and Sam Bird, from flat last, is now dicing with his team mate for 9th. And, as predicted, calling the events is a refreshed Will and Karun, sounding for all things like they’re chatting over a crisp beer, jousting with each other like best mates. I could listen to them commentate on tiddlywinks. Once again, while I love F1, there’s something gloriously laid-back and inclusive about its little brother. Will even appears for a post-race lunch, looking jaded, but still with more energy than I can muster at work in the week. I don’t know how he does it.

THIS is what you call close to the action
THIS is what you call close to the action

In the end, the race is more than eventful, with safety cars aplenty in midfield, while the top three of Valsecchi, Parente and Fillipi cruise to a comfortable podium, iSport’s Bird and Ericsson seem to get into a tit-for-tat ding-dong that starts with Bird budging his team-mate into the wall at Noghes, and ends with both retiring as Ericsson’s rear wing gives way at speed coming to the chicane, and Bird’s tyre punctures. Either way, the team meeting will be interesting this afternoon, and two drivers will see the dreaded DNF against their name. The series may lack the glamour of F1 but no one can accuse it of coming second in terms of competitiveness. These guys know that  good win and a strong championship and they could be in the big show next year, and it’s a golden carrot dangled tantalisingly in front of the grid every year. And, breathlessly, in 24 hours, we’ll be doing this all over again. It’s a relentless weekend, and I’m caught up in it helplessly. And the more time I spend here, in Monaco, but more pointedly, with the GP2 circus, the more I wish I was around it every race. You get to feel part of the action, and that’s addictive in the extreme.

Who let this lot in?
Who let this lot in?

In Monaco, you’re never short of a bit of glitter, even if you are parked round the corner from Port Hercule. During the GP2 race as I rush back to the paddock, I pass a couple of familiar looking middle-aged men in fairly uncool denim and shirts talking at the entrance to the car park. On second glance, when I get up top, it’s Jeremy Clarkson and James May (I recognise that bald patch and Wurzel Gummidge hair anywhere) from Top Gear. Lord knows what they’re doing, but it’s no surprise they’re here, no doubt about to squeeze their expanding waistlines into some shiny sports car and drive around Casino Square insulting the locals. Ho hum. I know I’m in a minority but I grew out of Top Gear years ago. It’s like the Daily Mail on wheels, so count me out. Strangely, there’s no sign of Richard Hammond though. Maybe he was behind one of the bollards. Or a hub cap. We’re also buzzed by a helicopter, that hovers around the building for a good half hour over the sea. There’s a jet-ski, and boats aplenty in the sea, so maybe it’s a rescue, but it’s not clear until we zoom in that none other than Prince Albert at the centre of the flotilla. We never quite work out what’s going on, though scuba diving appears to be involved. But when you rule the Principality, if want to head out for a spot of sea air in the afternoon then who are we to argue? In Monaco after a while, nothing seems strange. That’s the beauty, and the wonder, of the place.

The Crown Prince
The Crown Prince

Being a half day, it’s late afternoon when the dust settles, driver interviews complete, and the hubbub dies down (until the stewards do their work) – refreshing, as last night we left the paddock at gone 9 – but as ever behind the scenes no rest is really taken if you’re one of the army of support staff here, be it caterers, production, administration, not to mention all the teams, mechanics and everyone else. At 5pm it may be quiet in the paddock but the GP2 team are still hard at work, and I’m anticipating another top-notch blog from David. Beers will be richly deserved tonight. But sitting here, looking over the sea outside the marina in Monaco as the sun gets lower in the sky, part of me is more than happy to watch it all go by. I’m sure many motor racing fans in Monaco are heading home to get their gladrags on, or sitting in one of the hundreds of cafes thinking about F1’s big boys tomorrow. For me, THIS is where it’s at.

Nando v Racing Engineering
Nando v Racing Engineering

Walking back to Rascasse with David for a cold one, we pass two joggers, and I almost miss the fact that the smaller one is Fernando Alonso, taking the chance to get some laps in under the golden skies before the big weekend. As we’re in Avenue de la Quarantine, he must’ve run straight past the massive banners with his face on. I wonder what he’d have made of the huge one next to him for Racing Engineering, cheering on Dani Clos and Alvaro Parente. It was almost as big as his. Maybe next year it’ll be bigger. Rascasse is its usual packed with the full spectrum of fans, teams, hangers-on and randoms. It’s something to just stop, look, chuckle, and wonder at the whole cross-section of motor-racing faithful mixing in one place. So many people are sporting over-glamorous garb; understatement doesn’t seem to be a term that’s well abided by here, but that makes it all the more entertaining. A band starts up as David and I wait for Will to arrive, and it’s fair to say they’re not going to be memorable for musical reasons. Murdering a series of ‘big hits’ – starting with Coldplay’s The Scientist, and further maiming the likes of With Of Without You, and even Radiohead – it actually becomes a fantastic game of spot the intro, often proving wrong as the song that’s played sounds only vaguely similar to the original. The singer’s interesting inflection – I love a good song when English isn’t the singer’s first language, it’s why Eurovision is so classic – is intriguing, so when Will turns up with motor racing photo whizz Matt, we spend a fantastic half hour extolling our music tastes, good, and bad, and getting misty-eyed about the golden days of Britpop. What I’d do for a bit of Bluetones now.

Rascasse reunion time
Rascasse reunion time

We leave the fun after a quick couple before things get too shifty, as next stop is back to Beaulieu for dinner with the GP2 team. Unfortunately we keep them waiting longer than planned when we narrowly miss our train but all seems to be forgiven as we settle down at Le Max in the marina in Beaulieu. It’s one of a small boulevard of restaurants that cluster along the waterfront, and just down from where David and I enjoyed a birthday drink the night before, and it’s a nice arena of calm after Monaco’s daily bluster. I’m very lucky to have been invited along for dinner, treated as I have been throughout this trip as a grateful guest of the GP2 crew, and once again, just as I was in Bahrain and Valencia in 2007, I’m overwhelmed by their hospitality. I could just as easily be heading off for a bite, but I’m ushered along and made to feel part of the family. The food is good, as is the conversation with Alexa, Tony, David and Didier and his wife, with my attempts to speak faltering French to her taken with patience and good grace! I may have spoken it fluently as a child and teenager, but I still struggle to find the correct words, even after a few glasses of vin rouge to lubricate the vocal chords. It’s frustrating, but it’s better to try I always feel, even if the end results are a bit of a mess! As we head back for the night, I reflect on another brilliant day and look forward to rest before the GP2 Sprint race, F1 Qualy and the business end of the weekend tomorrow. I’m tired, but, as I have been all week so far, elated.

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!

Closure at last, and a significant event, but the end is still a long way away

Bin Laden's reign at the head of Al-Qaeda is at an end.
Osama bin Laden

Waking up to the news of Osama Bin Laden’s capture, and ultimate death gave a sense of relief, but also a sense that this significant landmark is only a mark in the long path to defeat terrorism. We can only wonder and hope that there is some closure now for those that have lost loved ones, friends, colleagues and family in the atrocities before, on, and after September 11th 2001, but it won’t be the end of this story. Bin Laden was a figurehead, the head of an organisation that had, for the last 15 years, been at the hub of multilateral actions against the West, and, as is often overlooked, many Muslims around the world. Seeing the events and reaction unfold today brought a rush of the blood, but not excitement. While the man behind so many deaths is now gone, it gives me no pleasure to rejoice the death of another human being.

Scenes in America have been more colourful than in the UK. It’s understandable when their operation resulted in the killing – with, tellingly, no direct assistance or involvement from the Pakistan government – and their country was so horrifically affected. I can’t imagine how those friends and relatives of those lost in the Trade Centres must have felt over the last nine years as bin Landen evaded the clutches of the allied forces, and countless American soldiers and intelligence, prolonging the agony and seeing the man responsible taunting the West with videos, messages and more attacks. Dancing and cheering in the streets – from a mostly young and sometimes well-oiled crowds – didn’t sit too comfortably with me, as I can’t bring myself to celebrate a death, however repugnant the person may be. But the US has invested so much emotionally, financially and ideologically into finding and killing Al-Qaeda’s leader that the reaction was always going to be different on the other side of the pond. Watching some of the reactions today of the bereaved to the news, and how they conducted themselves with such dignity was very moving. For them, the victory, however hollow, must bring an end in part to a harrowing period.

For Britain, it’s also a landmark. We’ve been – justifiably or not – invested into this battle ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the United States since its beginning, and we’ve been directly affected by the spectre of Al-Qaeda, its operations and figurehead looming over the last decade. For teenagers and younger adults, they’ll struggle to remember a time before this was so. Having attended a funeral after 7/7 – something I hope I never have to go through again, let alone seeing the pain it caused to the family – it’s a relief to be at this point. But the reality is that little will change. In fact, we may see things escalate if revenge attacks are orchestrated. London will be a more tense place for a while. But we can only hope that this is the beginning of a new chapter, and that, with all the change that’s now afoot in the middle east, that Al-Qaeda’s lustre is reduced, and that their dominance ebbs in the coming years.

And predictably, even as the news surfaced, there were naysayers already debunking the news. However low governments and the military may stoop – whatever we may say, we left thousands dead in Afghanistan and Iraq – it’s hard to believe that this would be an untruth. It would be one that would dwarf the spin that so ashamedly took us to war in Iraq. The US and its allies have invested way too much time, money, resources and emotion in this claim otherwise, and there have been none of the usual denials from the terror groups that form the cabal involved. I’m a skeptic, but this is one thing that I am taking on face value. And cheeringly, Obama will have a grandstand moment to validate his presidency, giving him a boost that even grudging Republicans can’t deny him. The States are united for a short time, and great that is too.

We will be talking about this day for many years, and the main hope is that it can be a positive landmark, that we will look back at this as a turning point. But to think that cutting the head from one of the snakes in Medusa’s hair renders the rest of the beast incapacitated would be short-sighted. But at least for many, this will hopefully be some sort of closure, and draw a line under the terrible events in New York and London. It’s the least that the bereaved deserve.

Evaporating the goodwill.

As a Lib Dem, the past few months have been a living nightmare. And nothing comes any worse than the tumult over tuition fees. I may not be a student any more (those days are long gone) but I understand the dismay that they feel, knowing that in the future, the burden of paying for university will be placed on those that attend, rather than the taxpayer.

I also supported the protests when they were announced. We talk a good game in this country, but when it comes to direct action, we’re not always the best at walking the walk. However, it’s been astounding the size and amount of demonstrations, both in London and around the country. The sour taste that sits in the mouth though, and that will continue to do so, is the violent element to these protests.

Now trying to unpick the propaganda is easier said than done. It wasn’t hard to see there was a hardline element willing to cause as much damage as possible when they broke away to Millbank, and some of these were aiming for damage not just to the buildings, but the police, or bystanders. And once the police’s underwhelming response was noted, the stage was then set for ugly repercussions. We’ve seen it all before. In the G20 demonstrations, where the Met Police stated that trouble was ‘inevitable’ beforehand, thus giving them the perfect excuse to kick off. We all know what happened that day.

And so it came to pass again on the day of the vote. While many students were aiming for peaceful protest, the minority, just like the police’s pre-justified actions, will know that, since violence is ‘inevitable’, then they have the perfect excuse to disrupt and grab all the headlines from those trying to uphold the tradition of peaceful protest. Watching the scenes on tv it was pretty appalling. The police stated the protest strayed from an ‘agreed route’, thus justifying their first overreaction. With the violent few then pushing at the barriers, the first baton charge was their pre-prepared reaction, and after that, the rest of the events were almost pre-ordained.

Sights of a wheelchair user being dragged from their chair were disgraceful, as were those of a policeman being knocked off their horse, and the barricades being flung at riot police. Seeing Winston Churchill’s statue defaced, and idiots swinging on the remembrance day’s flags on the Cenotaph were flashpoints that will go just as far (especially with older generations) to evaporating any sympathy that students may have garnered over the last months.

There are no winners here.

The students, protesting in a battle they surely knew they’d lose (and did, just). Their futures and those of students that will see the first hit of the new fees in 2012, pitched into a system that puts the epmhasis on mere higher education attendance rather than excellence and focus on academia.

The police, who, while they are often in a no-win situation in scenarios such as this, were brutal, heavy-handed, untruthful, and have shown themselves to have learnt little since the G20 other than to make sure their ID numbers now show as they bring the batons down on the skulls. Mounted police charging a kettled crowd (students, rather than rioters) was shameful, and the myth that protesters (some young kids or old) were allowed out when this wasn’t possible is one that should be exposed. Kettling the last group until midnight on Westminster Bridge was a story that seemed to get scant coverage. It deserved more.

The press, who covered in an often hysterical and biased way, reporting on the police hurt and never the students, until much later in the day. What happened to impartiality?

And lastly, the politicians, who through their thinking got us into this ghastly mess in the first place.

This may be the death knell of the Lib Dems. Personally I hope (and think) this isn’t the case, but like the case for Iraq for Labour, this may haunt them for years to come.

And with the dire economic future showing little sign of improving, this may be the start of a very long, violent winter of discontent.

Live music still has a heartbeat….

The run-up to Christmas is always brilliant for gigs, and we’ve been busy on that front, seeing 3 of Dropout’s favourite bands in the space of a few weeks. Heading to Alexandra Palace on 11th November we got a double-header of two of the best bands around at the moment: LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip.

Having seen both this year already (in fact Hot Chip are my most-seen band now, clocking up 6 gigs since Lovebox in 2006) at Sonar, it was great to see them together, and while the venue’s organisation left a bit of be desired, the sound and vision from the two groups were, as ever, brilliant. Hot Chip may not click live for some people, but I love them as a real work-in-progress style of performance: there’s so much going on, so many instruments involved, and they look like they’re having the time of their lives (as much as uber-electro-geeks can do anyway). Hearing a lot of their new album One Life Stand was great. Brothers and One Life Stand always get to me.

 LCD Soundsystem Alexandra Palace

But it was even more poignant seeing LCD Soundsystem, as it is probably the last time (certainly for a long time, possibly for ever) that they’ll play in London. Having started up as a one-album experiment by James Murphy and Pat Mahoney – with Nancy Whang joining them as well as a roll-call of concert and album collaborators (including, aptly, Hot Chip’s Al Doyle) – they’ve been possibly one of the bands that’s dominated the decade’s music since their eponymous album in 2005.

It’s hard to think it’s only been 5 years since I first heard Daft Punk Is Playing In My House. I was captivated, and wanted to know who this band was, that played rough and scuzzy pop that sounded alternatively like house music, garage rock and lo-fi electronic wistfulness. Since then, they’ve been the soundtrack to mine and many others’ lives, each album being able to pinpoint various events, be it trips to Ibiza, Sonar, roasting London Summers or grey wet winters. It’s obviously sad they’re going their seperate ways, but you can’t blame James Murphy. He’s so full of ideas that it’s almost criminal to keep him on one thing, and he passed up producing Arcade Fire’s last album (Neon Bible) when he was caught up on Sound Of Silver.

They leave a legacy of amazing records, and resounding memories, and as a live band they’re up there with the best. Sadly for the gig, James’ voice was suffering, but he still made it a night to remember, one which is – as is now ever more popular – now also available on CD. It’s a way for bands to get extra income against the illegal downloads that hit their record sales, and to the music fan it’s an official modern-day version of the concert bootleg that becomes a perfect memory of a night that may have been hazy in the coming weeks. So, goodbye to LCD, I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of them. Even more incredible was 1st December, and finally seeing Arcade Fire after 7 years of failed attempts. Words don’t really do the band or gig justice, but suffice to say they took a venue that I hate – the o2 – and turned it into a majestic backdrop for one of the top 5 gigs of my reasonable life.

 Arcade Fire live at the o2.

Many times you’ll build up the event that you’ve been waiting so long to see until it’s at a level of anticipation that it can’t possibly top, but in this case, it sailed past that and way beyond. Having loved all three albums with reverence, I knew it would be impossible to include every song I’d want to hear, but they almost achieved it.

Adding a raw energy to the studio sound, especially rocking the walls down to Month Of May (they’re not violin-wielding folksters when they don’t want to be) and closing with a fantatsic encore of We Used To Wait and Wake Up (the cherry on the proverbial cake) I shuffled into the cold floating on air. It’s at times like this that you realise live music is really without challenger for an emotional, physical and aural experience.

Let’s hope we’re still saying this in 2020.

Obama’s changing religious image….

I was depressed but not surprised to see news of a poll this morning that almost a fifth of Americans think Barack Obama, their President, is a secretly pracitisng muslim. More worrying still, in a country where the religion, especially of a president, is seen as a key belief, those that think he’s a Christian has fallen from 43 to 34%.

Driven in a large part by the right-wing conversatives, above all in the media (Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, take a bow) it would be almost amusing if it wasn’t alarming. Clinging to the tenet that his middle name – Hussein – and schooling in Indonesia must’ve contributed to this, and the concious feeling that, unlike his very publicly god-fearing (and communicating, if you beleive Dubya) predecessor, he’s not visibily religious enough, those that oppose him politically and ideologically are slowly eroding his image. Most worrying of all, some of those whose minds have changed are his own supporters.

With the mid-terms approaching, this is another worrying statistic in a long and difficult term for a president that deserves a lot better from his people and his country.

When celebration on 9/11 is not glorification

Islam is taking a hammering in the US press at the moment, most of all from the traditional right-wing (read: intolerant) suspects over its so-called increasing influence in America. Witness the reaction over the plans to build the ‘9/11 mosque’ (an Islamic centre to be run by an organisation that aims to build bridges between the Islamic and Western world, but why let the truth get in the way of a good polemic?) near Ground Zero in New York recently – and the battle is still ongoing – to see that Islam is under fire as much as any time since that terrible day in September 2001.

But even more worry is now placed on the Eid festival this year, which falls on or near September 11th. For Muslims this is a celebration of the end of Ramadan, a religious period of fasting that goes back to the very core of their beliefs, but there’s a real danger that certain parties in the United States will use any show of elation as Islam glorifying the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001.

With some of the reaction in the US over the decision to go ahead with the mosque two blocks from Ground Zero (a church’s “burn the Qu’ran day” and “Islam is EVIL” signs being some of the most shameful) coupled with growing Republican support, particularly from the far-right ‘Tea Party’ movement in the last year, September 11th 2010 is likely to be arguably the most tense anniversary of the terrible day since the event, but one can only hope that it can be treated with some perspective, and some understanding, a reminder that the US constitution is based on freedoms, including that of religion, and that all religions should be resepected, however unlikely that may be.

The worry is that those that seek to spread the message that Islam = Al Qaeda, and that all Muslims supported 9/11 – shocking untruths that still are too readily accepted by those that hear what they want to believe – will use this unfortunate clash to “prove” that the Islamic world and terrorists are one and the same. One can only hope that sense wins out, and this vocal minority (and it is, thankfully, whatever you feel of the US, still that) is put in its place. We are, after all, still claiming we live in a civilsed society where freedom still has value. And that, after all, should extend to everyone, not just those that we feel it should.

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.

What did we expect?

Blair at the Chilcot inquiry
Blair at the Chilcot inquiry

Depending on what papers you read, or what radio stations you listen to and tv stations you watch, today was due to be one of the most important in the last decade of our political history. Forget Obama’s one year on, or even his election, but Friday 29th January 2010 was the day that the Chilcot inquiry would get to hear from Tony Blair, perhaps the figurehead of our Iraq ideology and the focus of bile and criticism from the anti-war lobby. Having an ex- (and previous) PM give evidence in an inquiry such as this is unprecedented, and even despite its lack of legal standing or recourse from what evidence was heard, the frenzied build up raised almost feverish hope that we would have our Frost/Nixon moment, especially in light of a recent interview with Fern Britton where he appeared to state he’d have invaded with or without proof of WMD.

In reality, of course, this was never going to be the case. Blair, whatever you say about him (and personally his political conduct before, during and since the invasion turned my opinion of him from respected – if not supported – leader to self-important and pious disappointment) was a good leader up to this juncture. One of his main strengths was being able to put his point across, and to debate and discuss, much of which went into his conduct in the run up to the Iraq invasion. He had his convictions, his beliefs, and he stuck to them rigidly. In previous circumstances this was a strength, but this time it clouded his judgement, in the face of advice from the Foreign Office, Attorney General, and criticism from his own Cabinet, not to mention a tidal wave of public opinion, he ploughed ahead, striving to retain the ‘special relationship’ with America, possibly at all costs.Typically, he slipped in a side door and away from the protesters and families of Iran casualties, an action that seemed to preface his performance during the day.

Chilcot protesters await Blair

What we know now is that we had a ‘dodgy’ dossier, a misleading document that overstated intelligence that was patchy from the JIC at best. What we had was a legal opinion from the Attorney General that right up unto the decision to go to war wasn’t convinced of a legal case for war with the existing UN Resolution 1441. And what we had was a plan for war, but no clear plan for post-invasion. There were clear questions that were needed to be asked today, for us to try and finally get some clarity and give at least the public some modicum of truth and respect on how we came to go to war, and with retrospect, what we did wrong.

What we got was another Blair masterclass in bluff and subterfuge, stating his own case, swerving questions and restating his firm belief that he was right. Ignoring whether the intelligence he was given that led him to his ‘beyond doubt’ statement wasn’t strong and if he wasn’t correct in saying what he had, he simply stated that he believed it was beyond doubt. Similarly, he stated that he believed that the case for war was sound, and that the planning for the post-war period was ok (despite multiple criticisms from many parties in the inquiry), blaming it on conditions being different to what had been planned. If regimes with WMD needed to stop using them, why did we not invade Pakistan? China? Korea? It simply isn’t consistent. So many times, his answer started with ‘let me say that….’ where he would revert to pre-prepared answers and statements about, Kosovo, 9/11, Iran, when all we wanted were answers on Iraq.

Don’t let’s get too excited here. We knew this was never going to be a career-wrecking day. Blair wouldn’t have got where he was today by being careless or carefree (he is, let’s remember) a barrister. But he’s deflected every contentious question, at times almost suggesting in the light of others’ criticisms, that there was no issue (and effectively suggesting by that, that everyone else was incorrect). Batting everything back with a stern defence, clinging to the ‘special relationship’, stating his firm beliefs in everything he stood for, and justifying his actions on this. The only chink of light coming where he admitted his interview with Fern Britton wasn’t worded sensibly, but at the same time, denying that he was wrong. He did also concede that the 45-minute claim wasn’t, with hindsight, a sensible move.

For the families sitting in the gallery, that have lost their loved ones in the conflict, this won’t be much closure. If anything, Tony Blair’s performance, while nervous and shaky in the first hour, became more sure-footed, and less revealing as the day went on. The panel made a decent effort of not letting him settle, and after early criticism during the inquiry, they’ve become more steely, but ultimately, with no real legal grounding in their group, they were never going to get one over on the former PM.

Yes, with hindsight we can look at many decisions in a different light, but much of this was being criticised at the time, and there was huge opposition evident, but today started full of hope, and ended with weary resignation. I suppose the only consolation is that, however steadfast his outward rhetoric, Blair will have to live with what happened (and is still happening) in Iraq, and there are hundreds of thousands that have lost their lives as a result of decisions he took. This, sadly, is a situation we will most likely face again in this decade. One can only hope we look back at this inquiry and at least use it to colour our actions in the future, or this will have been a pointless exercise.