I watched my first Grand Prix in 1993. Dad and I sat prostrate on the sofa of our French apartment, digesting a leisurely Mediterranean Sunday lunch of mozzarella salad and copious amounts of baguette. In those days, Michael Schumacher – driving for Benetton and yet to reach his peak – battled it out to the final lap with British driver, Damon Hill. The atmosphere was electric, overtaking was common and my 84-year-old grandmother just couldn’t get to grips with the fact that I cheered for a German.
Schumacher idolisation aside, the reason I’ve always enjoyed the Grand Prix is because every other weekend, I was transported to far flung corners of the globe. Propelled into a world of high speed and vastly different world cultures, I felt I was there with the drivers. It’s also the earliest memory I have of being inspired by other lives in foreign countries.
So, in 2014 for May’s Monthly Mission, I decided to put over 20 years of wishing behind me and watch Formula One live for the very first time. In keeping with tradition, I also invited my dad. I’m a firm believer in the saying: “If you’re going to do something do it properly” so I knew straight away that I wouldn’t be satisfied with a rain-washed tent at Silverstone. I set my sights high, on the most glamorous circuit of the F1 season: Monaco.
Perching comfortably on a slightly less glamorous picnic stool along the wall of Le Rocher (a steep hill with an impressive outlook) the harbour below me sported billions of pounds worth of white steel. Yachts and speedboats barely bobbed, aligned like sardines. My lengthy view led my eyes to one of the most famous straights in motor racing – La Piscine – and it would be towards the end of the first lap that I would glimpse, for a few seconds, those hot, horse-powered monsters ploughing through the tacky tarmac.
Fortunately, I’m easily pleased, and there have been countless moments of my life where I’ve battled to contain raw excitement. This was certainly one of them. Having dressed to impress in a feminine jumpsuit and oversized pair of sunglasses (“this is Monaco daahrling”) I suddenly contracted an overwhelming urge to yelp like a five year old at Christmas. Given the relative decorum of my fellow spectators, I simply took a deep breath and let my exhilaration shoot out through a short, sharp squeeze of my camera. This was it, my bucket list tick, my childhood dream, my attainment of something I had always wanted. Did it feel good? Hell, yes.
I heard them long before I saw them. The overwhelming drum of the engines echoing through the tunnel made the hairs on my arms bristle. The choir of sandy high-rises encircling the harbour, like a group of friends getting prepped for a photo, captured and bounced the deafening throttles towards their anticipating audience. It was just as well Monaco’s heart was posing, because its onlookers were aiming cameras from all angles: Le Rocher through the trees, cliff edges high above the water, lucky balconies lacing the track and seaborne swimming pools on the back of boats. Complete sensory overload hit as the leaders passed through the S bend in front of me. How often have you wanted to freeze a moment and make it last forever?
There was no freezing these beasts though. For the little girl inside me watching a dream become reality, they were completing the race too quickly. I wasn’t alone in my eagerness. My attention to the track was broken only occasionally, by policemen’s whistles coercing spectators down from the precipices they had scaled for a glimpse of the action.
As races go in this era of extreme rules and regulations, it was ridiculously close. Just like the ‘good old days’ the top drivers fought until the final lap. Rosberg clinched it from Hamilton, with a valiant Ricciardo coming in third. As the deafening noise of the machines died and the cars slowed for the parade lap, another uproar quickly took over; a cacophony of naval foghorns rang out across the bay. Victory had been announced, in the most gregarious fashion.
I expected no less from this wonderfully wacky Principality. If you can’t be gregarious in Monaco, where can you? With this in mind we trekked steadily up to the palace for our evening meal. Set back from a white stone square overlooking the city centre, the Prince and Princess still reside in this guarded residence. In fact, with over 700 years of occupation, this building boasts a record for the longest serving royal palace in Europe. However, concepts of decadence are relative; for me it was enjoying a traditional fish soup and a bottle of rose wine with a view (albeit through a plastic awning) of the well-preserved plaza.
Take the wads of cash, fast cars and inane celebrities away from Monte Carlo and you’re left with a very distinct micro-culture. My adventure had turned out to be two-fold: The fulfilling of a fantasy in a city I thought I knew, pitched against the discovery of a different Monaco that doesn’t revolve around the famous Formula One. Restaurants serve authentic (and inexpensive!) cuisine, the architecture is ancient, and ochre cliffs drop away into an azure sea. Why wouldn’t you visit all year round?
As we ambled our way along the track towards the train station that would drag us from this alternate universe, Bentleys and Lamborghinis littered the roadsides and millionaires were dripped distractedly on the stairs of the Hotel de Paris. Chinos, well-greased side partings and shiny Aviators floated in their masses from bar to balcony cocktail, speckled here and there with a bewildered, rucksack clad day-tripper.
In the midst of this bawdy catwalk, I noticed that my weary nostalgia had been seamlessly replaced with a familiar feeling: The awe and anticipation of that French sofa in 1993. This once in a lifetime experience had quickly morphed into a brand new tradition.
Let’s come back next year dad, yeah?