As a Brit with an interest in US politics that’s lasted pretty much my entire adult life, all I can say is that if Brexit has taught us anything, it’s that those promoting the politics of fear and division don’t care about you or I. Their ideological, selfish campaigning has nothing underneath it. The vote to Leave was a shock, but not unexpected. The Remain campaign simply thought they could scare voters into staying, while Leavers simply peddled negative, xenophobic, racist and outright made-up figures that played to that populist, “we don’t need anyone else to be Great Britain” rhetoric. It resonated with people that thought politics had failed them and saw solutions through demonizing others rather than the very people telling them to Leave. The very same people from the heart of the establishment who were claiming to be anything but. Sound familiar?
But Bernie has forced Hilary into adopting more of his language and policies. This can only be a good thing. Is she as inspiring? As emotive? As warm and engaging? No, she isn’t. And she’s up against a candidate that, however abhorrent, knows how to speak in a way that (unfortunately) connects with many people, playing to their fear and anger. She has to be positive, she has to be able to reach out to voters that want to be heard, that are being attacked by her opponent. That’s a potentially huge demographic. The more he alienates, the more voters are up for grabs for the democrats. Simply refuting his “policies” won’t work, because he makes them up as he goes along, which makes them hard to lay a punch on. And yet Hilary seems to be held up to a level of scrutiny that no man and certainly not a “personality” like Trump ever is.
But however depressing it is to see another dynasty crowned (between Bush and Clinton, that’s most of my life covered, more than half if Hilary gets in) and feel as if there’s such a narrow choice for leader, the alternative surely must galvanize democrats? So many here voted Conservative in 2015 thinking it was a safe bet for a coalition only for a majority to get in and set about further ruining the country, culminating in our decision to leave the EU. Many voted there as a protest, or because they bought lies on immigration, the economy, public services, and it’s going to affect the rest of our lives in the UK.
Trump would be the same. It would be an atom bomb in the US political landscape. Like Leavers, I’m not even sure he wants or expects to win. It’s just about his own ego and popularity. He’s willing to divide the country to feed his own myth and coffers. It’s a crazy situation, but Hilary hasn’t even made her convention speech and yet democrats are fighting each other: it’s just what he wants. I can’t see any reason not to vote against Trump, and to prevent him from being in office, Hilary is the only choice, surely? Anything else is just giving a vote to the devil….
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!