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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.

For a minute…. I lost myself

At the risk of sounding stale, and conformist, a certain band from Oxford happily turd from a great height on nearly everything else around, still, ten years and more on. Despite mild derision for green credentials (good on them, fuck all other bands give a toss), or middle-class roots (so what), and the usual criticism for staying to the same musical path (variations, imo, on a wonderful theme), they are still one of the most important bands on the planet. I can’t think of many others that have consistently produced interesting, edgy music over such a long period of time, and through changes in style and method that would’ve alienated many others fans to nothing.

And seeing them live is the pinnacle of the experience. I was lucky enough to catch them at V in 2006 (though sadly, not Glasto in 1997) and the anticipation with which I greeted their return to London in Victoria Park this June. There was the backdrop of the ‘free’ album (I bought the box-set, of course) and some lukewarm reactions to the album (it’s a grower, and as good as anything that’s about at the moment), they mesmerised for over two hours, two encores, and a set that dipped into tracks all the way back to the Bends (My Iron Lung, The Bends…. still magical).

They really are an ethereal experience live, Yorke’s voice somehow being otherworldly, not fitted to his slight frame or meek appearance, but onstage, he, and the others, become more than the sum of their parts. Playing Karma Police was a personal highpoint, bringing goosebumps to the neck and tears to the eyes, (too many memories and people to go into really) and finishing with Paranoid Android capped it all off almost perfectly. If it hadn’t taken 2 hours to get home then it’d have been 10/10. So, it’s a 9.9 instead.

I may be in my thirties and middle class, but then I’m their perfect demographic, so no-one’s going to tell me they’re anhything but the best band in the world. And anyone that disagrees, they’re just plain wrong. Cool beans, eh?