Tuesday, 5 June 2012

About Monaco (Part 3)

Saturday 26th May 2012

Qualifying day! I was almost feeling something approaching optimism, for a change. Generally Saturday afternoons will find me sitting on the sofa with my head in my hands at the end of Q2. However after an eventful FP3 which saw Felipe second on the timesheets, surely, surely, this would be the race when he finally got into Q3.

I never take many photographs during qualifying or the race when I'm at a GP – I don't have a good enough camera, I don't have the ability, and I find if I try to take photos, I dick about with my camera too much and end up missing what's going on right under my nose.

After FP3, we went to the tabac behind our grandstand that the corner is named after. It sells lots of semi-tacky memorabilia, like keyrings, t-shirts, and ashtrays. My eye was on their splendid array of postcards, though. Not only do I like to get nice postcards any time I travel anywhere, I also love the old vintage Monaco GP posters. I have a book about them, and a print of the 1965 one hanging on my kitchen wall. It took some pretty extreme willpower on my part to not buy some of the many other Monaco posters available (and now I'm home, I really wish I had). I limited myself to five postcards and they're now framed and hanging in my kitchen wall. A nice memento of the week, I feel.

So. Qualifying. We watched from the K3 grandstand, which again allowed us views of Ste. Devote, Tabac, the tunnel exit, and the swimming pool. While I knew Felipe should make it into Q3 going on his performance so far, I was worried about traffic. Thankfully those worries were unfounded, and he finished Q2 at the top of the timesheets. I was so, so happy. My eyes even may have been stinging a bit behind my sunglasses as I saw MAS at the top of the big screen opposite us (but don't tell anyone). It felt good – after a really, really tough start to the season, it was wonderful to see Felipe back to the way we know he can drive – committed, feisty, a little bit crazy. Let's hope it continues, because I think he's taken a hell of a lot of shit from the media and fans recently, and not all of it has been deserved. I'm quite aware that he's had a couple of lousy races this season so far, but there's others on the grid who have also, yet they seem to get a free pass from criticism. I firmly believe that the awesomeness is still in there somewhere, and I hope Monaco was just the beginning. I don't believe in just giving up on a driver when they're not doing well, I don't like fans who chop and change who their favourite driver is depending on who's winning, and I plan to continue having faith in wee Felipe. I get emotionally attached to drivers at the best of times, but when you've spent a night not knowing whether the driver you support is going to be alive when you wake up, and when you follow every single tiny development in their recovery, you kind of become protective of them. But I digress. I shall try not to go off on any more of a pro-Massa rant. Not today anyway.

After Q2, Q3 was a bit of an anti-climax. 7th was alright, but if truth be told I'd been hoping and expecting something higher. Then again, if Felipe had qualified in the top 3, or even the top 5, I probably would have had to have shown some kind of emotion in public, and that would never do. So we were both happy enough with a top 10 place on the grid. Michael getting pole position was a bit of a shocker, and I didn't even realise when he set the quickest time that qualifying was over. I can only imagine that the takings for Mercedes merchandise increased dramatically in the immediate aftermath, and indeed we saw two women at the train station carrying intensely creepy Michael Schumacher dolls. I don't have a photo of these – it's probably for the best, as I don't want to give people nightmares.

We watched a bit of the GP2 race after that, although I think I may have been lying there with my eyes closed at that point – going to a Grand Prix is a bit like an endurance event when you test yourself to see how much you can actually walk on as little amount of sleep as humanly possible.

GP2 carnage (again)

We spent the majority of Saturday evening standing outside the Ferrari motorhome again. We saw Rob walking about but by that stage we'd seen him so many times it was kind of embarrassing, so I didn't want to gawk at him (well, I did want to, but I resisted). He was too busy sneaking down the side of the motorhomes for a quick cigarette and what may or may not have been a cheeky beer anyway.

We also saw various media types and celebrities mingling about, such as Lee McKenzie and DC filming at the top of the Mercedes motorhome, and Ron Howard. I laughed when Ron Howard walked past – during a trip to Universal Studios in LA several years back, there were videos of him introducing himself ("Hi! I'm Ron Howard!") before the Backdraft ride which made my best friend Kerri (AKA @WifeBuddy) and I howl with laughter at the time. (You needed to be there – but suffice to say it was one of the funniest days of our lives).

Apparently my dad liked DC's green shirt

Damon Hill takes time out of his busy schedule of looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights on Sky

"Hi! I'm Ron Howard!"

Jade saw Will Smith (thankfully I did not – every film of his I have ever had the misfortune to watch has been a pile of crap), and George Lucas was also hanging about in Ferrari. His girlfriend actually came out of Ferrari, talking on her mobile. She was ranting about there being "a problem with the cooker". At least, that's what I thought she said. Jade thought she said "hooker", which perhaps makes more sense, scarily.

Things seemed to be winding down in the paddock so we stood chatting to the guy whose job it was to stand outside Ferrari checking people's passes. Martin, I believe his name was. He was from Kent. He looked a tad like Sergio Perez which can surely only lead to more rumours. He was a good laugh to talk to, giving us suggestions as to how we could get into the paddock ("Take your tops off"), and revealing that they'd been put up in a hotel near Nice airport where there were prostitutes, and the breakfasts were "shit". The glamour of working for Ferrari, eh?

Our friend Martin on the steps (oh, and Felipe)

We stayed there long enough to see both Fernando and Felipe again, before the very real threat of severe dehydration forced us to go to Stars N' Bars to get a much needed drink.

The way home saw Hideous Train Experience No. 3. The last train from Monaco to Nice was due at the stupidly early time of 9.42pm, meaning that everyone in the entire Principality was trying to get onto it. We were stuck standing on the train, packed like sardines, for around 20 minutes in stifling heat before it even moved. Thankfully on this occasion, we had a reasonably okay amount of room to stand in, but the area beside the train doors was horribly busy, with people trying to push on, girls crying because they'd been getting pushed, and an English man threatening to beat up an Australian guy who'd accidentally knocked into his wife/girlfriend/whoever. To be fair, the Australian guy was the only person keeping me sane on the horrific journey back to Nice – he was cracking jokes and serenading some poor girl who was with her parents with 'You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling'.

It was a relief to get off the train and its threat of violence without expiring from heat exhaustion and dehydration. 'I need JUICE!' became my battlecry for the remainder of the week, and I'd like to thank the tabac beside Nice Riquier train station right now for always, always being open, and for selling me Orangina and that awesome mango-y juice drink on the Saturday and Sunday nights. Without you I would surely have shrivelled up and died.

The thing that struck me about Monaco was how the whole week was an experience. At all the other GP's I'd been to previously, the race itself was obviously the main focal point of the entire trip. But in Monaco, so much had already happened by the Saturday night that I did have to catch myself now and again and think 'Oh that's right, there's a RACE on tomorrow!'

Sunday 27th May 2012

The race day nerves were bad. Very bad. I've always wondered how much my heart rate increases just before the beginning of a race – all I know is that I normally want to breathe into a brown paper bag and/or heave.

We got settled into the grandstand, with the banners hung (lovingly crafted by Jade with a sheet, masking tape, and car spray paint), and waited for the driver's parade to start. As always, I tried to film it, and as always, I made a mess of it. It's good to see the drivers before the start of the race but it really is nigh on impossible to distinguish who is who when they insist on sticking them all on the back of a lorry together before speeding past your grandstand.

My usual procedure for the race start when I'm watching at home is to go into the kitchen and hide behind the door until I know that Felipe is safely past the first corner, or to pace about the living room, or to shield my eyes with a miniature schnauzer. When you're there, you can't do that – you have to actually look. Thankfully both Ferraris just missed the Lotus of Grosjean, and got away cleanly. All week I had had this idea in my head that Felipe wouldn't make it past the first corner, so I was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief and start to enjoy the race once all the cars were safely past us on the first lap. If he had gone out in lap 1, Monaco would have been hit with a massive temper tantrum, the like of which it had never seen.

I actually managed to get a half-decent video of our view of the first lap (although it's come out pretty rubbish quality here) -

I've been home a week now and I have to confess I still haven't seen the race yet. I'm still working my way through the coverage of the practice sessions at the moment, as work and real life has boringly gotten in the way. I've obviously heard people complaining that it was boring, which doesn't surprise me in the slightest. Unless you throw in a bit of rain, you generally don't get much drama in Monaco these days so I have no qualms about sitting down to watch a race that I expected to be processional anyway. Boring or not, I enjoyed it from where I was sitting, that's for sure. The last few laps were nerve-wracking as the top 6 were so close to one another, and I was very happy indeed that Felipe was in the mix. 


If the rain had come just ten minutes earlier than it did, then who knows who could have won it. As it was, it only started to belt down just after the race ended, and as I stood there, cold and wet and worried about the rain soaking through my bag and ruining my autograph book, I thought 'Well, NOW this feels like a normal Grand Prix.'

During the slowing down lap, all the yachts honked their horns as the cars went past. It was a nice touch.

Mark Webber obviously wouldn't have been my first choice of winner, but I wasn't too offended by him taking the victory. As long as it wasn't McLaren I was reasonably pleased. I saw Mark take his first win at Nurburgring in 2009 as well, so my presence at races seems to be rather good for him. As for Felipe, Jade and I had been expecting to want to hang ourselves after the race given the way things have been going this year, but we were both very pleased with his race. Sure, 6th place wasn't ideal, but it was a good solid points finish, and so we were able to put away the nooses and razor blades we'd packed. It was nice, for once, not to feel despondent after a race.

As it was our last chance to get to the paddock that week, we went there immediately after the race and took our usual spot outside Ferrari. Shame? Us? No, not so much. It was quite sad to see the teams starting to pack up and disassemble the motorhomes already, and there was a real sense of winding down. Sob! There were some media types and drivers walking up and down, and celebrities like Boris Becker, who'd been on the rooftop of Mercedes.

Steph came down and told us that Rob Smedley was at the other end of the paddock, being interviewed by Jake Humphrey et al. We realised that it must be for the BBC forum, and indeed it was. Having since watched his interview, he was saying how he thought Felipe could have gotten a better result. It's a shame that he didn't end his interview by headbutting Jake and dropkicking the poison leprechaun EJ into the harbour, but you can't have everything, can you?

About five or ten minutes after the interview, he came out of Ferrari and noticed us. He walked over, saying "It's the Felipe fans!" Yay, he remembered us and was happy to chat. He said much the same as he had on the BBC – that they could have gotten a better result – but he put it in slightly less polite terms to us... potty mouth. Jade revealed the banner to him, and his response was "Yeah, I like Led Zeppelin too" – followed by a grin and a wink. There was a lot I'd have liked to have chatted to him about, for example, I'd have loved to have told him that in 16 years of being a Ferrari fan, I'd never enjoyed F1 so much since he and Felipe were teamed up, but natural shyness and being conscious about not bothering him prevented me from blabbering away. I always worry about taking up these people's time, or pestering them - they must get it all the time from fans at every race they work at. However, all bias aside (genuinely), Rob has never been anything but extremely friendly and willing to sign and pose for photos; not just for us but for the other people I saw asking him. As he left he told us "Keep supporting Felipe." Always.

Nothing could have topped that, but we waited a little while longer outside Ferrari in case Felipe was still about. We saw his wife and brother leaving, but Felipe was nowhere to be seen. I wasn't too disappointed – I'd seen him loads over the course of the week and gotten photos and an autograph, which far surpassed what I had expected. We did get one final appearance from Fernando, who kindly posed with some fans who were following him in the paddock. Then he was gone. They were all gone. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

After dinner we reluctantly made our way back to the train station. We had about an hour and a half's wait until the last train, so we sat outside a little bar where a band was playing outside. They played Rolling Stones, U2 and Eric Clapton songs, and people were dancing and drinking outside. It was ace. Well, ace aside from the fact that they also played Zombie by The Cranberries, AKA THE WORST SONG OF ALL TIME. We sat on the bench listening to them, feeling sad that the whole experience was over but extremely happy at the same time that our driver had had a good day and we'd managed to have a proper chat with our most favourite race engineer.

Despite the best efforts of SNCF, even Hideous Train Experience No. 4 couldn't kill the buzz of what had been an absolutely spectacular day. I mean, it almost killed US, but not the buzz. Once again it was massively overcrowded, with people pushing on. We were standing in the carriage completely squashed and unable to move our arms. Jade was worried about fainting, and I was worried about falling over and getting trampled (I'm both short and unsteady on my feet even when sober). The train didn't move despite the fact that there was no way they could fit any more people onto it, and it was scary and hot and dangerous. When an announcement came over the tannoy that the train would not be moving until the police(?!) arrived, we bailed and got ourselves off the train before both of us passed out. We had to deal with the possibility of either paying around €100 each for a taxi back to Nice, or sleeping in the train station. Thankfully, a couple of minutes later, the train decided to depart and we managed to get back on. I spent the journey pressed right against the door, trying not to fall, and if it wasn't for the fact a security guard was standing behind me, I probably would have completely freaked out with how claustrophobic it was. It was genuinely one of the most scary experiences of my life and really, SNCF – you need to sort it out. Should I be able to go to Monaco next year, staying closer to Monaco so we don't have to put up with train bullshit is going to have to be considered. It was really, really awful, and the only thing that could have put a dampener on the week (although thankfully, it didn't).

In case it's not blindingly obvious from this blog, I had the absolute time of my life in Monaco. It didn't just match my expectations, it far exceeded them in a way I didn't think imaginable. I saw and met everyone that I'd wanted to, and my favourite driver had his best race of the season. You can't really ask for more, can you? (Well, aside from a pass into Ferrari).

I used to roll my eyes when people described Monaco as F1's 'jewel in the crown' - I've been to Silverstone, Spa, Nurburgring and Monza, and I adored each and every one of them (especially Monza, swoon), but Monaco is definitely very, very special. I get it now. The access you get to the teams and drivers is fantastic, and you get to see so much more of the paddock and pits than you do at any other race. Yes, it's expensive – but every Grand Prix is expensive to go to (especially when you live in Northern Ireland and going anywhere requires a flight). In terms of track food and merch, it isn't any more of a rip-off than anywhere else, and probably less so than the British GP. If you're prepared to stay outside Monaco itself and not blow a fortune eating and drinking out every day, you can do it for the same amount as other races in mainland Europe.

I'm really hoping to be at the 2013 Monaco GP too. We'll see – it depends both on getting time off work, and the driver market next year (please don't break my heart, Ferrari). For anybody else thinking about it, my advice would be just do it. Start saving now, and GO. You absolutely will not regret it. 

Bye, Monaco. See you next year, I hope

1 comment:

  1. aww brought back loads of memories. Trains are not normally like that - at least not going home. All the same I'd love to be within walking distance of Monaco just so I could hand around in the evening a bit more