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Monaco – When Saturday comes

Morning in Monaco
Morning in Monaco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where did everybody go?
Where did everybody go?

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

Au revoir, Monaco
Au revoir, Monaco

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

The GP2 paddock
The GP2 paddock

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

Vamos Barca!
Vamos Barca!

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

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

How to get ahead in Russia

Marry an oligarch, then get him to publish an exclusive book to publicise his love and admiration for you. Or, more specifically, if you’re Olga Rodionova, pose in a series of ‘edgy’ photos with not much more than a smile to announce yourself to the world. An article in today’s Observer Woman monthly tries to shed more light on one of the new Russia’s fastest-rising females.

The Book of Olga

In this post-feminist world, perhaps this is the newest (or is it oldest?) form of empowerment, and you have to admire the sheer audacity of it (not to mention Rodionova’s attitude to, shall we say, self-promotion) but isn’t it a bit depressing that the one of the best ways to carve attention and impact still seems to involve disrobing? Or is it really that black and white? While Olga and Sergey epitomise in many ways the ostentatiousness of the new Russia – money, sex, glamour – they’re not as clear-cut or textbook as first appears. This isn’t the first time her husband has indulged her fantasies and put them into print. Far from it. It started a decade ago, the oft-asked question from photographer to aspiring subject: ‘why don’t you try it naked’? But she is hardly the usual subject either. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they shun the limelight, (though with that sort of hobby, it’s unlikely that in a country that’s still conservative, even as it changes, that high society would welcome them with open arms) and she sees this as a noble act of expression, of strength, even if it’s of the most unreconstructed kind.

Olga Rodionova

There’s no doubt that Bettina Rheims’ images are far more than simple tacky puff pieces, in fact we can only estimate the money that went to into their manufacture was at least sizeable. But what is their aim? They’re certainly explicit enough to at least match, if not eclipse the famous (and now rather dated) Sex that added another level of notoriety to Madonna’s already gargantuan profile, even if Rodionova doesn’t have the existing image to begin with, but as an act of self-promotion it can’t really be beaten. For the record, Olga is pragmatic about the collection. “We decided to do something that will go down in history” she states, though where this fits in with the Iraq War and Mumbai bombings I’m not sure. Her confidence and attitude aren’t in question though. As is her almost detachment from the images: “People don’t understand here, they can be primitive: they confuse the image with the person.” So, if they’re not her, then what do they really represent? Her husband, Sergey, sees them as art.

“This is about the freedom of a woman who dares to appear the way the artist sees her and who is aware of her beauty and strength…. It is also about the freedom of a man who is so sure in his feelings, in his family and in his relationship with his woman that he fully approves of her self-expression. I would be proud if this book occupies a place in the history of art.” I’m not so sure everyone that would purchase book would see it with such lofty ideals. It’s certainly yet another way to set the couple apart from the rest of their money-laden contemporaries.

The book won’t be onsale in Russia. “Our society is not ready for such things” Olga sagely notes. “Men prefer their wives to stay at home under lock and key. No one wants feminism here.” But is it feminism? Or is it ‘art’ wrapped up in exploitation, in high-class pornography. Maybe it says as much about the country they inhabit as the pair themselves. That is more easy to conclude than the motives and merit of the book, but you have to at least take your hat off to the Rodionovas. They know how to make an entrance, and they will at least shake up the system. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people waiting for the sequel as well….