Planned for 2020 and postponed again last year, at the third time of asking, myself and Cennydd finally headed to the French Riviera; Monaco baby, yeah!
Over several days we would experience this self-titled jewel in the crown of Formula 1. Its contract expiring and popularity in decline, this may have been the final opportunity to do so.
I was unaware of this beautiful yet ostentatious restaurant at Paris Gare de Lyon station. Their signature Train Blue Menu must be designed for those contemplating a 6-hour train journey, with the combined weight of its 7 plates enough to send any traveller into a food comma.
Our trip to Nice was onboard a double-decker TGV Duplex high-speed train set. Designed to increase capacity on the popular high-speed lines across France, I wondered why we don’t see anything similar in the UK.
Alighting at Gare de Nice Ville, the warm evening air and purple-tinged sky set the mood for the days to come. We hailed an Uber and headed to a Holiday Inn Express in L’Arenas, a part of the city bordering the airport. With the nearby Balm restaurant able to supply a few delicious plates of tapas to round out our first day, I slept easy, excited for the next few days to unfold.
Monaco has a tradition of holding free practice on Thursday before taking a break from proceedings on Friday – one of many differences its organisers have long been able to get away with. As this event was part of a double-header with the previous weekend’s race in Spain, a more typical schedule was followed, meaning we could decompress in Nice before spending 3 full days in the nearby principality.
Nice was a revelation. The proximity to Italy is evident in its architecture, climate and general attitude. The Côte d’Azur has this name for a reason, the deep blue Mediterranean making me rue my decision not to bring any swimming shorts. This enticement was undermined upon learning that Nice shares with Brighton that unfortunate shortcoming of having a stone-covered beach.
We would spend a few more evenings in the city but one day in Nice wasn’t enough. I’m already thinking about a return to this part of the world.
After 2 years patiently waiting, and two more days of build-up, we were finally headed to Monaco.
Not being the owner of a helicopter or yacht, this would be a slightly arduous affair, travelling to Monaco each day by train. The nearby Nice-Saint-Augustin station was sat in the middle of a construction site, and we’d need to wrestle with SNCF’s Heath Robinson-like ticket machines before we could find a space in the sardine boxes that would transport us across the border. However, alongside 50 or so other fans of Formula 1 looking for a taste of how the other half lives, we would get to spend our first race day aboard a yacht.
To do this, we’d need to get a tender at Port de Fontvieille. Hidden away on the other side of The Rock, walking through Fontvieille led to my first realisation; Monaco is bigger than I imagined. Not much bigger, but large enough to have a few distinct districts, of which Monte Carlo is but one.
Our tender – a sleek black mini-yacht that wouldn’t look out of place in a Bond film – raced around The Rock before delivering us to Port Hercule. After a short wait among all the traffic, we boarded our larger yacht via a gruesome ladder.
Over three decks, fans were fed and fuelled while waiting for the free practice sessions to start. Once underway, we headed to the stern to watch the cars as they exited the tunnel, down the straight and towards the Nouvelle Chicane. It was the usual blink and you’d miss it stuff of watching live motor sport – but on a boat!
The new regulation cars are noticeably larger, an impression undoubtedly aided by the minuscule track. The engines – always a topic for debate – still sound horrendous. I’m not one for arguing they should be louder, but they currently give the impression that these cars are lumbering hulks of partially decorated carbon fibre, groaning as they approach each corner. I love the new design, but the engines need fine-tuning.
Once the racing was over, we were offloaded onto another tender so the crew could prepare for their evening guests. With the streets reopened, the sun shining, and larger crowds expected to arrive the next day, we decided to walk the entire length of the circuit.
This was an experience that left my mind as bent as the famous Lowes hairpin. Having watched the Monaco Grand Prix over several decades and raced around a pixelated impression of it at a young age on my Amiga, these streets were eerily familiar. Yet this track has to be trudged to really appreciate its undulating topography. This privileged perspective also revealed features I was unaware of – I had no idea that Saint Devote is named after a small church tucked just a few meters away from the first corner of the circuit.
With the restaurants and nightclubs under the pit lane opened up, this part of the track was now host to hundreds of party-goers, its adhesion increased given the amount of beer and energy drinks thrown around on it. La Rascasse looked like a lot of fun too, with dance music, lights and smoke emitting from this nightclub which, for a few days each year, is the penultimate corner on a motor racing circuit.
The whole city had a brilliant party atmosphere. One of the benefits of hosting a race in the middle of a city is that there’s no shortage of bars and clubs. You would find it difficult to find a livelier event on the Formula 1 calendar (the new race in Las Vegas permitting).
Monaco is notorious for its ability to produce processional races where overtaking is next to impossible, so qualifying on Saturday is considered the main event.
We would reach our seats via the entrance to a primary school, passing over the start/finish straight on a footbridge, down a temporary staircase, under the pit lane via a tunnel (hidden away for the remainder of the year) before emerging under a grandstand constructed only a few weeks earlier. This mix of temporary and permanent adds to the unique feel of this event. It’s hard to imagine what this city looks like once all this infrastructure is removed.
Much like any other Grand Prix, I soon found myself in a long queue for the toilets or in a poorly managed line for food. Unlike other events, once at my seat, I was close enough to the track to be almost able to shake hands with each driver. Our seats were situated directly opposite the pit lane adding further intrigue and interest, and a nearby screen meant we could follow the action in its entirety.
Charles Leclerc clinched pole position. Would his Monaco curse – never finishing a race at his home circuit – be lifted on Sunday? Returning to Nice, we found ourselves inside another tunnel and at the back of a lengthy queue for the train station. At this point, it felt like we might never find out.
On our final day in the principality we hoped that some light rain might arrive to liven up the race. While the temperature was notably cooler, the sun was shining, so this seemed unlikely.
The Monaco Grand Prix is the place to see and be seen, but this year’s event seemed light on the ground when it came to celebrities. The Cannes Film Festival had just taken place further along the coast and Tom Cruise was taking any available opportunity to shill his latest movie, yet the only notable people I spotted were Pamela Anderson, Conor McGregor1 and Zinedine Zidane. Still, it was fun seeing the drivers, team principles and other familiar faces (David Coulthard’s tan looked painfully red).
As the drivers paraded around the track an hour or so before the race, the sun was still shining, although clouds were forming around the mountains above. Only once the cars lined up on the grid did the heavens open. Out came the waterproofs, umbrellas and ponchos. With the start postponed, everyone sought shelter under the grandstand. Such was the ferocity of the passing storm it wasn’t much drier here, either.
One the race restarted we saw a few overtakes and witnessed Ferrari’s incompetent pit strategy first-hand. We were also within earshot of Mick Schumacher’s accident.
Leclerc’s Monaco voodoo was partially lifted; he completed the race but crossed the line in fourth. Sergio Perez was a popular winner, with a large group of spectators on our grandstand loudly singing the Mexican national anthem.
Having experienced this race, I’d be lying if I said that none of the shine has worn off. Still, Monaco has a spell-binding appeal; walking around the Lowes hairpin and under the tunnel and sitting on pole position are memories I’ll treasure.
The quality of the racing remains entirely dependent on having wet weather. While the God’s seemed to be on Monaco’s side this year (the rain stopped just as the last car crossed the finish line), it is hard not to think that the organisers need to up their game, even more so as the cars grow ever larger.
I would love for Monaco to stay on the calendar alongside the events with the fake palm trees and marinas that try to mimic it. Yet, as is often the case with Formula 1, it’s difficult to advocate for an outdated experience that should, in many respects, no longer exist.
The biggest fan of Conor McGregor? Conor McGregor. ↩︎