The jewel in the Formula 1 crown. One of the three races of the auto racing Triple Crown, with the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Only one driver has managed all three, British racing legend Graham Hill.
This year is the 76th Grand Prix of Monaco, a street circuit used by regular traffic all year long, that takes 45 days to set up, and makes the life for residents a challenge, if not a nightmare. It is the only circuit to have held a race every year since 1955. It is also a massive source of income for the Principality of Monaco, the second smallest country in the world that generates ten percent of its Gross Domestic Products from this single four-day event.
November – Our adventure starts in November when the tickets for the event become available. I go to the Automobile Club de Monaco (the organiser of the race) website, and find out that the highly desirable tickets I got for the previous race in 2017 have almost tripled in price, from €500 (£436.64) to €1,400! (£1219.06) So I look for alternatives. I call the Hermitage Hotel, which has a terrace overlooking the track, and offers a big screen as well as a full day buffet and Champagne – all you can eat, and all you can drink. By the time I call at the end of November, they are very courteous and tell me that attending the race from their venue will cost me €4,250 (£3700.71) per person, but that they are taking bookings only for 2019, as they are sold out for 2018! So, I turn to another alternative, the yachts in the harbour: the three day event (Thursday free practices, Saturday race qualifying, and the Sunday race) will only cost me €11,000, but this includes the Saturday night on-board party as well as buffets and Champagne on all three days, as well as the boat shuttle to the harbour! I am also relieved to know that it is sold out as well.
As a native of Monaco, I remember the days when you had a friend with a flat on the race course, and you would simply call him and ask him if you could join him. That would cost you a bottle of Champagne, and you were good to go. So I call my friend Pierro, and ask him if he could host me for old times‘ssake. He tells me he would be delighted, but as it stands, he has rented out his flat to a hosting company and they are selling tickets for €2,500 per person for the Sunday race. If I want he can give me their number. In any case, he will not be there for the race, as the company will have about forty guests. Suddenly, I wish I had invested in a flat overlooking the track.
January – I still cannot make my mind where to watch the race from. There are more options: the Nikki Club at the Fairmont – their €1,000 fee suddenly sounds quite reasonable; the Café de Paris, but this is not available for the Sunday race; and of course, one of the grandstands. In desperation – the tickets are selling quickly – I opt for four seats at the T1 Grand Stand, overlooking a small portion of the track and the pit lane. The tickets are only €550 per person, and only for the Sunday. I will have a big screen, but no food, and no Champagne. I still have to buy tickets for the Thursday and settle for the Casino grandstand for only €80 per person.
Tuesday – Five days before the race – The trucks carrying the cars arrived during the night – I can see them from my father’s house. They are parked on one of the harbour piers. In the afternoon, I make my way to the pit lane, and can see the activity of the team members, unloading incredible amount of gear, finishing building the motorhomes, and pondering pensively on the shells of the cars that are supposed to be ready for the next day’s practice. Parts of cars are all over the front of the garages – four front wings for the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, two noses for the Renault of Nico Hulkenberg, and two engine covers in front of Lewis Hamilton Mercedes garage. No drivers or famous people can be seen. It is more like a moving scene. On the steps of the Alfa Romeo motorhome, mechanics are eating take away pizza. They pay no attention to people watching them from behind the fence. I realise it is almost eight at night. Time to have some food. I walk to rue Princesse Caroline. It is deserted. Supposedly the poor weather and cool temperatures have kept people away. I sit down at the Eight and a Half. I am the only patron. The waiter cannot understand it. He blames the weather, the French railroad strikes, and the fact that the residents have moved out to rent out their places. Prices are not an issue in his view.
Wednesday – Four days before the race – The street vendors have finally arrived. It is the evening and they are almost done setting up. I am struck by how few there are compared to the previous year. I talk to one of them, and he blames the poor economy and Brexit. ‘English fans are simply not coming to races any longer,’ he comments. I assume they were his best customers. The Race Day art gallery is also deserted. I ask the manager how he is doing. ‘We are ready, but we don’t see the same crowd as there was last year’. I walk to the Automobile Club de Monaco gift shop to buy the annual Grand Prix de Monaco shirt. I stroll through a shop that is virtually empty. ‘The clients will be here tomorrow’, the sales lady tells me. I buy a shirt with the logo of the 76th Grand Prix for €99. The person next to me just bought ten as gifts for his family and friends.
Thursday – Practice Day – Three days before the race – The sun is finally shining. We walk down to the marché and get a slice of the local pissaladière, a tomato and onion tart. We then head to the Casino grand stand. The crowd is sparse, it is still an hour before the Formula 1 practice, and we easily find three seats together. To our dismay, the front row seats are ‘reserved’. For whom we are not told. We are simply informed that with a general admission ticket you cannot access them. We have nothing to do, so I go check out the concession stands on avenue de la Madone. There are only four where there were possibly twelve last year. None of them has the Alfa Romeo team cap I am looking for. ‘They won’t be ready until the Grand Prix of France’, the salesman tells me. ‘We have no Alfa Romeo gear’. On the way back to the grand stand, I meet two American couples. They don’t know how to get to the harbour, where they are supposed to board a boat and watch from there. I give them the instructions, and they tell me they spent €44,000 to come to the race, excluding the aeroplane fares from California. They are with Exclusive Grand Prix, and they will watch the race from one of the flats on Sunday. I wonder if they will be at my friend’s flat. The grand stands are almost full when practice starts. It is not a good day for Ferrari. We go home with the hope that the team will sort out its problems.
Friday – Lesser formulas races – Friday is free, but nobody goes because there is no Formula 1 activity. Instead we head to the famous market in Ventimiglia, about twenty kilometres from Monaco, into Italy. For the first time in years, the Italians stop me at the border and ask to see our ‘documenti’. We spend about five minutes on the side of the road while they do, and they give them back to us without comment. Like in Monaco, there are relatively few people in Ventimiglia. I can even find a parking spot in the central parking lot, which is the first time it happens in four years. The crowd is mainly French and Scandinavian outside of the Italian locals. Some Germans, but certainly not the majority of English that used to be there in previous years. We eat at our friend Carmelo’s restaurant ‘Colombo’ on via Cavour. He has retired. His brother Rocco runs the place now. We shop till we drop and go have dinner on the beach in Bordighera, in Italy.
Saturday – Qualifying – I did not buy tickets form qualifying as we will watch it with my father and family on TV. We split activities between the beach and a trip to the streets by the track. The crowds are there but not in the numbers they used to. Beautiful people are all over Monaco by now. Elegance, sexiness, and supercars are every place you can look. We have a light lunch and consider that at least fifty per cent of the vendors sell Ferrari gear. During lunch we meet Marcelle. She is 75 years old. She arrived in Monaco from Toulon at 6:30 am. She had to get up at 4:00 am to come and see qualifying. She could not afford the race ticket, but bought a €390 ticket for the day. She will take the train back in the evening and she will arrive home after midnight ‘if there are no delays due to strikes’. She bemoans the increased costs to attend the Grand Prix. Ferrari qualifies second. We can tell they already lost the race on a course where it is impossible to pass. In the evening we go to the parties on the harbour – everything will have to be cleaned before the race start. We have dinner at Botticelli. Our table neighbours come from Australia. They flew twenty-nine hours from Melbourne to Nice, and are staying in Nice to save money. The room at the Fairmont Hotel, track side costs €25,000 for the weekend. They have a package from Senate Grand Prix, and they will watch the race from one of the yachts anchored along the track. They purchased their tickets at a charity auction, and spend well over €15,000 each. They are excited as it is their first time in Monaco. They have questions about everything. I show them the place where Bandini had his fatal accident during the 1967 Grand Prix. We go to the party and I meet Carlo. He is from Naples. He drove the entire day to be here for the race the next day. He has tickets for the Pelouse du Rocher – an area on the cliff overlooking the track – which he bought for €80. He is walking the party before joining his friend who is already at the spot they picked. It is tough to get a good spot as it is first come, first serve. They will sleep there. He asks me with some anxiety whether there is any chance of rain. They will watch the race and drive right back to Naples as they have to work on Monday. We get home at 1:00 am from the parties. The best one was on an Italian boat, but we could not get in. We did not have the tickets, and for €500 per ticket, they were sold out in any case.
Sunday – Race Day – The weather is overcast. But there are five cruise ships in the bay and over fifty private yachts. Shuttles are going back and forth, and it is only 7:00 am. The Pelouses are already jam packed, and I think of Carlo and his friend. I hope it does not rain. We have plenty of time to get ready since the race only starts at 3:10 pm, which means nothing happens until the drivers’ parade at 1:30 pm. We make our way down for lunchtime planning to have some food at the Marché de la Condamine. There are lots of people finally! The main event is today. Yet, still very few English people. We run into a couple who say that since McLaren and Williams are doing so poorly many of their friends don’t come any longer. Then he adds, ‘with Brexit, the future is so uncertain, we need to save money’. They are staying at a small second rate hotel by the Italian border. In previous years, they would have stayed in Monaco, he says. The streets are busy, but not the crowds we had seen in previous years. Vendors are not doing that well. You can tell when they discount Ferrari caps from €35 to €25. The market is not that busy either, as we can even find a table. Our neighbours are from Finland. They came from Helsinki to see Kimi Raikkonen win. He will start fourth, and they know he will not win.
Sunday – Thirty minutes before race start – After the pits being invaded by personalities and celebrities, the pit lane has been cleared and the cars make their way to the installation laps. They go onto the grid (we can see it on the big screen), and the Price and the Princess of Monaco drive around the track. Very few people cheer or bother to inquire who is driving. Despite the controversy, Monaco has kept the grid girls. The oldest race in Formula 1 will not be bullied by the new Formula 1 owners. In any case Formula 1 is replete with controversies. Before the race Ferrari had to change the configuration of its rear-view mirrors that were illegal. Mercedes also requested that the Ferrari electrical systems be checked as they suspected them of bypassing compulsory technical regulations. In the pits mechanics run back and forth between the starting grid and the garages. Three minutes before the race, panic overwhelms the Williams garage. They cannot affix one of the wheels. Automatic penalty for a team that is already in trouble.
Sunday – 15:10 pm – Right on time. The warm-up lap starts. The excitement is palpable. Then, it is the start. The Ferrari of Vettel challenges the Red Bull of Ricciardo for the lead, but cannot pass. He has to settle for second. The entire 78 lap race will be an epic combat between the two men. But on a track where one cannot pass, the advantage is on Red Bull’s side. The local Monégasque driver, Charles Leclerc, suffers a late-race brake failure on his Alfa-Romeo and crashes heavily into the car in front of him. A disappointing day for the Italian teams, as Ferrari settles for second place. The Australian driver of red Bull finally wins the Monaco Grand Prix, a victory that he was robbed from two years before when his pit failed him during a tyre changes. The national hymns are played, and immediately the cars go to technical control while the mechanics start packing the gear they unpacked four days before. We wait until we can get off the grandstand and walk to the old town for our traditional after race dinner at the Express Restaurant. There are not that many fans hanging around. The race was a rather dull affair, with the top six cars finishing in the order they started. There we meet the people at the table next to us. Four Austrians who drove down from Austria on Saturday, spent the night in Nice, and will drive back home on Monday. Bernd, the oldest has been coming to the race every year for the past fifty years. ‘Do you go to other Grand Prix?’ I ask him. ‘No way! None of the others have the excitement of street races, the supercars, the yachts, and the pretty girls you have here!’
Monday morning – The day after – The weather has turned to wind, a storm on the Mediterranean and rain. The trucks carrying the cars are gone, on their way to the factories before the cars are shipped to Canada for the next race in two weeks’ time. The yachts have disappeared and the big cruise ships have sailed on to their next stop. It is as if the Grand Prix had never taken place. Our guests have taken the train to Rome. On the track, workers are busy taking the circuit apart – they will need a month. We can now only wait for next year, when we will again get together with our friends and family for the greatest social and event in motor racing. Maybe next year Ferrari can win!
Photos by: Didar Aslan