It’s the Monaco Grand Prix today, where they drive around the city streets which of course have been cleared of traffic and pedestrians and drive high speed racing cars against one another. I went there once. Jackie Stewart won.
I can’t recall the date.
Might have been 1973. He won Monaco twice, in 1971 and again in 1973. I wouldn’t have been old enough and nor would I have had the money to travel to Monaco in 1971. Many of the greats were there though that year, in ‘73. Lauda [with whom incidentally I have a weird link because we both came within a hairsbreadth of meeting our deaths on 1st August 1976]. Hunt, who seems to be more highly regarded in retrospect than he was at the time; Graham Hill, probably well past his prime then. I knew nothing, absolutely nothing about Formula 1, just caught up in the glamour and the daredevil expertise of people like Stewart. The seat I was allocated was high in a tiered corner stand: pretty hopeless, as I remember. You had to be in place by 9.00am and it was already scorching hot by then. You were stuck there until the race finished around four, no wandering off to get to the toilet or buy a fizzy drink; you were anchored along with everyone else, wherever the stewards put you.
I lost interest in motor racing after that: I hadn’t realised that it is almost impossible to pass on the closed road circuit of Monaco and that what there is, all there is, is a procession of quick cars doing thirty laps or so and that in fact you have travelled all this way and you will only see Stewart flashing by thirty times, in the queue. The following year, I drove all the way to LeMans to see the 24-hours road race, 645 miles there and 645 miles back again. It wasn’t uninteresting, the cars with their headlights on as the dawn came up was surreal; Porsche came first, second, third, fourth in those days, no-one could touch them but you were allowed to race road cars then . . . perhaps you still can . . . so there were Shelby Mustangs and e-Type Jags in amongst the factory-prepared cars which added considerable interest. The other thing I remember was there was a fairground and I think a circus in the middle of the circuit, so you could go and get your fortune told or watch elephants standing on their hind legs at two in the morning, then wander back to see the cars on their two-hundredth lap. This commercialisation plus the misuse of earth’s resources; squandering petrol luxury yachts, soon resulted in my losing all interest in motor racing after that.
I know F1 is a [young] man’s game and that its appeal is largely only of interest to young men, generally self-absorbed people who are what? . . . impressed, by bling and conspicuous wealth, the sun, the palm trees, the lifestyle and the materialism represented by the billionaire’s yachts anchored offshore or in the harbour [they leave within moments of the race ending, don’t stay around even for the podium presentation]. I am not being hypocritical; I can see that one can get caught up in it and the aspirational aspect of it; which team has the best driver, which team has the best car; which team has the best tactics and then throw in the element of chance, the possibility of a puncture or gearbox failure. Or a crash or a shunt. Any activity, sporting or otherwise in which skill, expertise and chance can combine to bring an unexpected result is of interest in itself. Add in the sun, sea and glamour of the Cote de Azure and the Monaco Grand Prix is what you get.
I watched it this lunchtime when the pre-race scene-setting was on TV. Two blokes, probably in their late twenties, beards, chinos, body-language, in the streets and in the Pit-stop area with a hand-held camera and microphones trying to locate glamorous people to interview, while Ferraris and Porches were roaring by. ‘Oh there’s Olga Zolga. And look here is Claire Williams’, but over Claire’s shoulder they can see Mr Wolff himself so they push past her and as they do so there in the crowd we can see Jackie Stewart, wearing a tartan cap over his white hair [he is 77 now] and Jackie pauses because he thinks they are going to speak to him but they shoulder their way on past him as well because they have seen just ahead Susie Somebody, tall blonde downhill ski-ing champion, surrounded by twenty TV network interviewers and as they try to join that throng, one mutters to the other, ‘That was Jackie Stewart, he won Monaco twice’. Finally, they reach the downhill ski woman and she is a foot taller than them. And she wants to gush.
He won Monaco twice. Do they have the remotest idea of the import of those words? The inner turmoil, the outer motivation? The skill, the hours and hours of practice, the near misses, the actual crashes. The bones broken and the mental anguish? To swim upstream and all the while mastering the car, the complexities of the tactics; the personal relationships that have to be formed and still address the inner life, the unspoken and the unconscious. And all at 200-miles an hour.