There and Back – an Infrequent Traveller’s Tale

Here we have Greg Smith (@blagmasterg) detailing the experience of his first grand prix. Monaco. At the invitation of his employers. Keep the green monster in check and read…

Those who know me will know there are two fundamental truths to my character.  One is that I absolutely adore motorsport of any kind whatsoever.  Be it the fast paced and highly technical world of F1, the endurance of sports car racing or the joys of thundering V8s going around an oval, if it involves wheels and engines then I will give it a watch.

The second is that I am, at best, a nervous traveller.  All that being considered, you can imagine the tumbling rollercoaster of thoughts that went through my head when my boss told me, less than two weeks before the race and with an insouciance that bordered on infuriating, that I would be accompanying the work ‘jolly’ to the Monaco GP.

Image courtesy of Greg Smith

After the initial gobsmacked goldfish impression, jaw silently working as my brain struggled to verify what my ears were telling it, came the first frisson of fear.  Monaco meant a plane. However, I was going, and with much less than my customary six months warning before a major trip. I was scared, but also thrilled and in my heart I knew that I couldn’t pass this up.  This was my opportunity to tick off one of the ‘big three’ from my list (Monaco GP, Le Mans 24-hours and the Indy 500) and for my first ever GP as well. Regardless of how scary it would be, I owed it to myself to go out there and enjoy the hell out of it.

And so, on the 26th May I bid farewell to my wife (still simmering with jealousy whilst simultaneously beaming with pride and joy for my good fortune) and set off on the train journey to Gatwick.  It was long, it was dull, and I spent most of it watching Truth in 24 II on my iPad (the story of Audi’s 2011 Le Mans – free to download from iTunes and recommended to any motorsport fan).

The journey from Nice airport to the outskirts of Monaco was about 25 minutes.  The journey from the outskirts of Monaco to the centre, still some thirty minutes from our eventual destination trackside, was another hour and a half (minimum). Monaco on race day is just as heaving as you would expect, though the highways going to the principality seem oddly quiet, almost as if the race exists in its own tiny bubble.

Image courtesy of Greg Smith

Arriving at our seats was fantastic – a giant grandstand overlooking the harbour and with a decent view of the track straight after the Nouvelle Chicane all the way to just after Piscine.  We also had sight of a giant screen that was just too far away to see the text without binoculars (which fortunately our party had access to a few pairs of).

The atmosphere was electric as the crowd waited for the race to start, and it was the strangest feeling sitting there, knowing that I was at the very track which I had been watching on the TV just 24 hours ago, and which the missus would be sat watching right now. It was also an education in what a great job the TV presenters do of entertaining the audience pre-race.  There was an interminable half hour whilst each and every driver was named, and small biographical facts repeated about them, mostly in French and entirely impossible to hear in our position. And then, finally the race began.

I have attended races before, but never a GP, and Monaco was a great place to start.  I had fortunately had the foresight to purchase a decent pair of ear defenders, and so was spared the worst of the skull splitting scream of the engines, but still the noise, the smell and the feeling as the vibrations rattled up through the floor and your spine was intense.

The start finish straight was almost directly behind our grandstand, so as each lap began you could hear the roar of the cars behind you, then a glance left would see them climbing the hill after Turn 1, looking curiously like  children’s toys going around a motorised track before disappearing.  Then you would listen patiently, watching the screen and waiting for them to appear from the tunnel and race past you, before they vanished again around Piscine and you waited for the roar at your back to tell you the next lap had begun.

Image courtesy of Greg Smith

Because I have attended DTM, BTCC and European Super Truck races before, I was well prepared for the confusion of attempting to follow a race when you can see only one section of the track and a screen far away.  Or I thought I was. Glancing through the notes that I was scribbling whenever I had a moment for the benefit of my beloved back home, it is clear that I was immensely confused very quickly.  I was just about keeping up with events until the first round of pitstops, wherein I lost it completely.  I knew there had been chaos at the first turn, and of course the safety car start helped in keeping track of who was where for the first few laps, and then it got….interesting.

Massa seemed to be being held up by Alonso, then Alonso suddenly disappeared. Räikkönen clearly struggled on his tyres towards the end of his first stint.  After getting up to 8th at one point, when it looked like tyre strategy may yet work for him, Jenson was then (inexplicably to me, trackside) stuck in 14th, spending what seemed an inordinate amount of time behind a Caterham of all things – a sad foreshadowing of things to come for our Jenson in the next few races had I but known it at the time.

My boss’ ability to follow events is best summed up by the fact that he suddenly declared to me, pointing at the number in the bottom right hand corner of the giant screen, that the temperature had dropped ten degrees since the beginning of the race.  He has enough of a sense of humour that he was able to laugh at himself as hard as I laughed at him as I pointed out that the number was the laps remaining, and that we were ten laps into the race….

Image courtesy of Greg Smith

The one thing that REALLY didn’t come across on the TV coverage (which I watched afterwards) was that it had been trying its best to rain throughout the race.  There was talk of ‘potential rain coming’ on TV but it felt like odd spots of moisture had been dropping on us almost from the start, thunder was rumbling from about halfway through and about thirty laps from the end there was at least one giant fork of lightning out to sea.  By the time the last five laps rolled around, it was properly starting to rain, although the full fury of the weather was reserved until after the chequered flag, whereupon it started to rain in a full on downpour of biblical proportions.

But the winner… I mentioned how hard it was to keep up, right?  Well with 25 laps to go, I thought to myself ‘only a miracle would be able to stop Vettel now’.  No wait.  That’s not Vettel.  It’s Webber!  Webber leads!  I knew that would cheer ‘her indoors’ up if the McLaren boys didn’t get on the podium.  It was great to see the Aussie on top, getting one over on his team mate.  Not such a number 2 driver today!

The torrential rain post race was particularly annoying for me, as I had dressed for sunny weather (unusually for me) in shorts and a short sleeved shirt.  Given that we had to spend about forty minutes just getting out of the circuit (including twenty five minutes moving a few inches at a time out of the grandstands) I was fairly damp by the time we reached a bar, at which to eat, drink and enjoy the unique hospitality of the French as we whiled away the few remaining hours until the coach came to take us back to the airport.

In less than two weeks, thanks again to the good graces of my employers, I will be at Silverstone, this time with the wife in tow.  We will be doing Silverstone properly – arriving on Friday morning and staying at the circuit until Monday morning, and with a champagne hospitality day on Saturday at the Stowe complex.

Though she complains that she missed out on the Monaco experience, I do keep telling the better half that she didn’t miss out as much as she thinks. Monaco was awesome and all, but it was a blur of travel, no audible commentary, pissing down rain and packed French bars with ‘unhelpful’ staff.  Silverstone will be a three day extravaganza of speed, which we will enjoy together.  Monaco may have been my first race, but as far as I am concerned, Silverstone 2012 will be my first Grand Prix.

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