You Don’t Need to Be Rich To Watch Monaco – But It Helps
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Correspondent
Monaco. It’s like no other city – or country – and no other race.
All the great drivers have raced in Monaco since the first race in 1929 and most of them have won on the streets that wind through the steep hillsides of the tiny principality best known for its casino, the absence of income taxes and for the Grand Prix.
Because the train service makes the city easily accessible and the viewing from the hillside known as Le Rocher is relatively cheap, it’s not as expensive as one might imagine for a fan to take in the race.
Monaco has its undeniable upscale aspects. Double-wide yachts jam the harbor on race weekend and are available for rent starting at $100,000 for the smaller versions. Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bentleys come close to outnumbering anything else on the streets. Currently, a Paddock Club ticket runs a mere $3,000. The grandstand tickets, if you can get one, start at a more modest $250.
In case the yacht is in dry dock or otherwise unavailable, the Hotel de Paris on the Casino Square will set you back $1,250 a night according to the current JetSet magazine – with a seven-night minimum. All are welcome in the Casino even without formal evening dress, but be prepared for relatively outrageous minimum bets.
It’s been a decade since I spent the weekend in Monaco as a fan, staying in a borrowed apartment along with my wife and two friends. I was en route to cover the Le Mans 24-hour for On Track Magazine, whose lone F1 credential was being used by its regular series reporter. An effort to get a credential through a relationship with Fox Sports, where I was writing an Internet column on racing, was a blind alley.
Le Rocher, a rocky peninsula with steep slopes that borders the harbor, was a little piece of heaven as it turned out. Assuming you can beat the crowd and get a clear spot, the hillside offers an excellent view, albeit somewhat distant, of the the three key turns along the roughly one kilometer section of the track that runs inside the harbor: Nouvelle Chicane, Tabac and the Swimming Pool.
Once on Le Rocher, or literally the rock, one can afford to feel a little like royalty since the prince’s palace and its apartments are situated just above. There’s also a magnificent view of this extraordinary Mediterranean enclave and its mixture of architectural influences from the Byzantine, baroque and more modern eras.
Made up of three districts including Monte Carlo, Monaco is a friendly principality in the sense that it depends on tourism and much of the Monegasque population is employed by that industry. They are by nature and occupation relatively outgoing.
It was after a solo trip to Le Rocher during Thursday’s practice that I discovered Monaco is not necessarily about being rich and famous. I got lost on my way back to the borrowed apartment. When I stopped into a working man’s bar at the top of the business district to ponder my predicament over a beer and asked directions, one of the regulars offered to give me a lift on his motorcycle.
It turned out I was way lost. A scenic ride around the bobbing and weaving rim road at the top edge of the steep cliffs ensued. My newfound friend finally stopped and then pointed out a long, long series of small steps to get down to my still distant building.
With tickets in hand (costing at that time 250 French francs or a little less than $50), the four of us returned to Le Rocher to watch qualifying on Saturday by taking a bus from the Italian side of town that required about 30 minutes to travel two kilometers due to traffic, then hiked up the hillside.
Although one could hear the cars go through, we couldn’t see the final harbor corner known as La Rascasse, due to the trees below us in a garden that the palace guards allow to be trampled by the common folks once a year. But the top end of the pit road, occupied by Jordan and McLaren-Mercedes, and the beginning of the pit straight could be seen from above as well as the jumbo video screen across the harbor, which reported lap times and positions.
Even from afar, you could see Michael Schumacher’s greatness on this day. On the lap before he set a qualifying record, Schuey demonstrated his technique. He lit up his Bridgestones in the Nouvelle Chicane and at the exit of the Swimming Pool, fishtailing like one of the harbor’s rock bass. On the next lap for a record pole, the German scythed his Ferrari through in perfect arcs, having discovered the limit by exceeding it.
The difference between Schumacher and most others was his confidence and ability in going just beyond the limit, and then on the next lap cozying up to it, gaining the maximum in speed. From the hillside, I realized why sometimes you saw a perfect lap go wrong for Schumacher due to a slight miscalculation on his flyer. It seemed by contrast that his chief rival Mika Hakkinen indexed himself up to his best lap, by disposition and for the preceding two seasons in 1998 and 1999 by virtue of a better car from McLaren-Mercedes.
Schumacher, in effect, indexed himself down to his best lap.
During the one hour of hot laps and one hour qualifying session, we made friends on Le Rocher just like any other race. We met a German named Walter who spoke perfect English. A professional private-plane pilot, Walter nearly fell off the hillside in an effort to take a group picture for us.
Then there was “Caesar.” Just after we chased an Aussie off the slippery rock behind us, this determined Italian with a huge motorcycle helmet in hand barged in and claimed the rock. He promptly began skating, frantically sashaying his feet in search of grip so as not to slide down on top of us. This went on for several minutes until he finally grabbed the branch of scrubby bush on the ledge above with his free hand. He then stood sentry for the entire hour of qualifying, the first line of defense against any one of the wine and beer set who might fall off the ledge above us, or kick brick-size rocks over it.
More amusing were the young sunburned Germans clad in shorts, who butt-surfed down the precipitous hillside during beer runs, then climbed straight back up despite leather-soled shoes, beer in hand.
Once having seen the first sub-80-second lap around the historic street circuit, whose course was little changed from the day of the first race 71 years earlier, we climbed down before the F-3000 race and found a cafe where we could at least listen and watch the race on TV. Later, we stopped by the Casino and walked the now open course down through the Loews Hairpin after a drink at the Tip Top.
Race day tickets were $100 apiece for Le Rocher, where a dawn arrival guaranteed a good seat and a long wait. So we decided to “stay home,” opened the doors to our apartment and listened to the engines reverberate off the surrounding mountains while watching the coverage on TV.
As it turned out, Schumacher glanced off a barrier hard enough to break his suspension. Hakkinen left early with technical problems, leaving the victory to teammate David Coulthard.
The next day, we celebrated one of our friends’ birthday at a small restaurant near the harbor. Our waiter told us he knew Coulthard and in fact was friends with his fellow Monaco resident. Maybe that was a stretch, but given the generally friendly, surprisingly egalitarian atmosphere of Monaco, we nodded, chatted about the race and ordered more wine.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingrambooks.com.