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.