Finally I have typed up some more of my journal. I am now only about a three and a half weeks behind…
We arrived in Nice on Wednesday 21st May. We were staying in an apartment just off Place Garibaldi until we moved into the Hotel Massena on Friday morning.
Like much of the region, Nice was first settled in the BC period, first by the Greeks, who named the colony Nikala. Apparently ‘nike’ pronounced ‘neekee’ is Greek for ‘victory’; in Greek mythology, Nike was the winged goddess of victory. After the Greeks the Romans came to Nikala. Nice formally became part of France in 1860, and during the 19th and 20th centuries it became a winter holiday destination for English aristocracy, and then, when paid holidays were introduced, it became a summer holiday destination for the French.
The wealth of some in the region is apparent, and Monaco’s harbour, while famous for the multi-million dollars of pleasure craft, doesn’t have the monopoly on luxury vessels. Luxurious motorboats ranging from really big to bloody huge (both technical terms for measuring boats) line the western and northern edges of the Nice marina. Smaller boats occupy the central berths, and moored down the eastern side are a colourful array of small, timber, motorised sailing boats. It is an eclectic mixture.
Moored in the harbour were a 76 metre Dutch clipper, ‘Stad’. Randstad were partying on board as we were photographing the complicated rigging that supports the ship’s 29 sails. On the other side of the mooring was a cruise liner, the first of three that we would see moored there.
The Parc de Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill Park) overlooks Nice. On Thursday morning we took a circuitous route to the top up the eastern side of the mountain, looking down over the harbour and its expensive array of boats. We finally descended the western side of the mountain to the beautiful esplanade, the Promenade des Anglais.
While we were in the Place Massena it started to spit and just as we got to the shelter in the Jardin Albert 1st Park the sky opened with what is, I guess, the Côte d’Azur’s version of a summer storm. Luckily no wind, but there was rain, lightning, thunder, and finally, hail aplenty. We waited out the storm in the comfy individual slat chairs under the expansive shelter.
Friday dawned sunny and warm. Today we were heading for the track, but first we decided to take another look around Nice. We walked back up to Parc du Chateau to better appreciate the view of Nice under the blue sky. The water was a deep blue. Closer to the beach it was a pale aqua. With no sand to disturb and make the water turgid, it was crystal clear. The beach is a mixture of stones and pebbles made smooth and round by the constant roiling of the sea.
After lunch we wandered west along the Promenade des Anglais, taking in the cafés and restaurants on the beach charging up to €15 for a deck chair, umbrella, and towel; the myriad people strolling, cycling, rollerblading, or sitting in the many chairs along the esplanade; the hotels and casinos ranging from 19th century to modern architecture; the green spaces dotted among the hotels and street cafés; and the large Jardin Albert 1er with its 18th century carousel and the shelter where we had taken refuge from yesterday’s storm.
At two-ish we made our way to Monaco. The pit lane was open for the afternoon so we followed the crowd into the ‘lesser’ end of the lane, and our first encounter with celebrity. Max Chilton was signing autographs and posing for photos so I got both. He is a thoroughly charming young man and he scored another fan with his pleasant manner.
I’m also a fan of Kamui Kobayashi so I was pleased to get a picture with him too, though he was far less engaging than Chilton.
Adrian Sutil was also out, though busy talking, so no autograph there. While I stood watching him I noted the impact of the new weight restrictions on the drivers. The minimum combined weight of the car and driver has increased from 642kgs in 2013 to 691kgs in 2014 (up 49kgs). The problem with that is that the weight of the car and power unit (engine and energy recovery systems) has increased by more than this, so the drivers have all had to become leaner. Adrian Sutil is 180 cm tall and weighs 75kgs. He is stick thin. Being one of the taller drivers, he has been disadvantaged by the weight restrictions. To put this in perspective, that is around 20kgs lighter than Paul, and Paul isn’t carrying that much excess.
As we progressed to the more ‘popular’ end of the lane the throng of people made forward motion virtually impossible, and at 5’2” I was never going to see anything so we backtracked and headed off for a slow lap of the Monte Carlo circuit.
Monaco is hemmed in by mountains and ocean so space is at a premium. It is precisely for this reason that Monaco is so up close and personal. To a degree, plebs like Paul and I get to rub shoulders with the rich and famous, when they deign to take to the streets to rub shoulders with the common folk.
Those who aren’t shy to get out there are the owners of flash cars. I lost count of the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Mercedes, Porsches, Bentleys, Rollers, Maseratis, and even a McLaren! Some of these people were on their way somewhere, but most just wanted to take their supercar for a lap of the famous Monte Carlo F1 circuit. Having to share the track with all the foot traffic meant they really couldn’t give their high-performance cars a chance to perform.
One of the benefits of walking a race track is that you get a real sense of the tightness of corners, and the gradient of the inclines. Monaco is both tight and steep. I now have a far greater appreciation for what a bastard of a circuit it is to race on; yet it remains the pinnacle of the F1 season.
We walked up the hill to Casino, where we would be sitting for the race. This climb is a lot steeper than it seems on TV. As the name suggests, this corner is at the famous Casino de Monte Carlo, so, plebeian as we were, we paid our €10 each, checked our bags, and went inside for a look around the world’s most famous gambling den.
The casino opened in 1866. We entered through the atrium and into the Salon Europe. The interior is sheer opulence, bordering on decadent. Onyx columns rise to ornate ceilings from which hang huge crystal chandeliers that apparently weigh 150 kgs each. This is the only part of the casino that our €10 ticket granted us access to, but it was worth it. There were private rooms and restaurants branching off from the main gambling area, and it is clear from the number of gaming tables, that the main action doesn’t happen here. The casino wouldn’t make a fortune with such a small number of tables, even with a maximum bet of €2,000. Sadly, the pokies detracted a bit from the overall ambience, but what den of iniquity would be complete without the modern computerised version of the good old one-armed bandit?
While Paul was in the loo I engaged with one of the cashiers. I figured the worst he would do if I talked to him would be to ignore me or fob me off. He did neither (after all, they’re people too). He even sold me a €5 gambling chip. I made no pretention of being a gambler, or in the league of other people who might patronise the casino, but now Paul has a memento (the cheapest one I could buy) of our brush with Casino Royale fame.
We rounded out our visit with a drink, relaxing in one of the luxurious couches (or is that ‘divan’?) in the pokie room, and watching the other, mostly commoners like us, go by. Tick that one off the bucket list.
We continued our somewhat relaxed lap of the circuit, heading down the hill to Formula 1’s sharpest corner, now named in honour of the Fairmount Hotel that is located at its apex. This is a place for daring passing manoeuvres, when they come off, or moments of complete brain failure when they, more often than not, end in grief.
After the Fairmount hairpin are the famous Mirabeau and Portier right turns that lead into the tunnel. The TV makes the adjustment from exiting the tunnel into daylight appear to be akin to being struck by blinding light. But in reality, the tunnel is extremely well lit, and the human eye’s capacity for adjustment to changing light is far quicker than the camera lens, so most drivers will attest to this being a non-issue.
The biggest issue on exiting the tunnel is the tight chicane only metres from the exit, meaning the cars have to decelerate heavily as they go from one of the higher speed parts of the track to one of the lowest. Usually at least a few cars don’t make it successfully through this chicane during the race, and drive straight through it, which isn’t great for a car with only a couple of inches of ground clearance with the bumpy ripple strips that define the outside of the corner. This is the best spot for, mostly failed, passing manoeuvres of the Monte Carlo circuit.
This next part of the track follows the marina and through the swimming pool complex. It is here that we had our next brush with fame. This is where the luxury motor yachts, backed in to the marina berths, host parties for the more well-heeled race goers to watch the cars on one of the faster, and more picturesque parts of the circuit.
On this day, sitting on the back of one of those yachts, was Mark Webber. We resisted the temptation to sing out and say “G’day”, he was talking and while I’m not usually backward in coming forward, it would have been just rude to interrupt. I didn’t think it too rude to snap a few shots of him though, and my pictures of him this time are far better than the ones I got at Brisbane airport when we shared the flight back from the Singapore F1 last year (sadly, he wasn’t back with the masses in cattle class).
Further round, towards the famous Virage de la Rasscasse, the second last turn before the final run down to the start finish line, the track was lined with a series of bars with mind-numbingly loud music and dancing girls. Party time! But not for old farts like us. As much as I’m sure Paul would have enjoyed the spectacle of the dancing girls, even they weren’t good enough to tempt him to endure the thumping music. The officials would have their hands full cleaning up that mess in preparation for Saturday practice and qualifying sessions.
Our lap of the Monte Carlo F1 circuit took about 3 ½ hours longer than the average F1 car, but I think we had a lot more fun. It may be the most prestigious race on the calendar, and the drivers will all say publicly how much they love racing here, but privately, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t rank as a race track. The lap record for Monaco is 1:14.439, set by Michael Schumacher in 2004, (most records are from 2004 when the engines were larger, and the tires softer, and many are held by Schumy).
Typically a difficult circuit for overtaking, the race was a bit of a procession, though Adrian Sutil kept us entertained with some daring passing manoeuvres, until he tried one too many. Daniel Ricciardo started third on the grid, but with a shocking start, lost two places to Vettel and Räikkönen.
Räikkönen got a puncture which dropped him down the field, and Vettel retired with turbo trouble so our Daniel finished on the podium behind the Mercedes’ of Rosberg and Hamilton.
As expected there were thousands of people trying to catch a train out of Monaco so we took a leisurely stroll back to the station via Rue Grimaldi. Time for a Heineken moment!
Our first ever Heineken moment was on our honeymoon in 2004. We were leaving the F1 track at Monza along with thousands of others. The exit to the station was near the camping area where there were stalls selling rip-off merchandise and others selling Heineken (among other things). We looked towards the station and the throng of people waiting to get onto the platform and opted for a couple of Heinekens instead. We sat on a gutter and had a leisurely beer while doing some people watching. When we’d finished our beers we stood up and surveyed the crowd.
Nope, still too many people.
So we bought another couple of Heinekens and resumed our seats on the gutter. And so the Heineken moment was born.
This time we found two chairs in a crowded bar in the Formula 1 Experience area at Monaco and sat down to a pint of Heineken for Paul and a wine for me (my stomach couldn’t handle that much beer nowadays). We shared the table with an English Mum and son and had a good old chinwag with them while we waited for the crowd to clear.
By the time we finished our drinks the street leading into the station was still packed, but moving at tolerable intervals. I’ll give the organisers credit, they managed the flow of people at the Nice and Monaco ends very well. We joined the throng, and before long, were on a train heading back to Nice.
This was our first ever Monaco Grand Prix. I hope it isn’t our last.