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Monaco Grand Prix

May 28, 2013

One of the first car races I can remember seeing on TV was the Monaco Grand Prix. I don’t remember the exact year but it was in the early 2000s and the beginning of the Michael Schumacher days. I don’t remember who won but I do remember my interest in the track. It is like no other track in the world. It is a street circuit with a hill climb, hairpin corner, tunnel, and passes directly next to a bay. I didn’t know it that day but over time I learned how all of these intriguing aspects come together to form the most difficult track in Formula 1 and one of the most prestigious racing events of the year.

Every year the streets on Monaco are converted into a track. I’ve read that this takes six weeks to complete. The track is short and tight. Nelson Piquet, a three time winner, says it is like “riding a bicycle round your living room”. The hairpin is the slowest corner in F1 and many teams redesign the suspension and steering systems specifically for this corner. The tunnel presents many interesting challenges. According to the engineers, who have a unique definition of “corner”, the tunnel is the fastest corner in F1. Also, down force, which is the dominant factor in cornering speed, is reduced by 20-30 percent because of the enclosure. For the drivers, the rapid shift from dark to bright conditions wen exiting the tunnel (at 290 km/h) can be problematic. The bay and the hills give Monaco an unpredictable weather pattern which creates constantly changing conditions.

The event itself is like mixing the Super Bowl with the Oscar awards. The weekend is among the most important social events in Europe for the rich and famous. It is a chance for the wealthy residents of Monaco to show off their town. The prince and princess play a large part in the ceremonies and events. Several movie stars attend the event. This year Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz among others were spotted. There are many exclusive parties on yachts and in the high rise buildings along the track. Unlike the other races, the Monaco Grand Prix is more of a festival like Mardi Gras than just a race. For those of us not participating in exclusive events, many bars had live music in the streets. At the end of the day, they open the track to local traffic and the general public. One street where many local bars and clubs are located, they set up tables and umbrellas right on the track. It is really cool to drink a beer in the exact place where F1 cars were going 200 km/h just two hours before.

Monaco is built on and into the side of a very steep mountain. When I stepped out of the train station the first thing I noticed is that most of the building was inside of the rock formation that surrounds it. The roads in Monaco follow a pattern much like spaghetti in a bowl. They wind, twist and often cross each other. There are tunnels and bridges everywhere. Because of this, I found a road map useless. When you look at the map you see what looks like an intersection; but when you get there, you realize that one road is a bridge. To navigate Monaco you must think in three dimensions. It might look like 3 blocks on the map but it could easily be 10 stories of vertical change. After walking around on Friday with my heavy bag, my calves were sore for the rest of the weekend. I can’t imagine doing it in heels; I guess that’s why everyone has a driver.

There is really a misconception about the Monaco Grand Prix. Everyone assumes that because of Monaco’s reputation, the race must be outrageously expensive also. However, it is actually one of the most affordable F1 venues. Sure, if you want to, you could probably spend 100k but you don’t have to. For starters, Monaco does not have a track to maintain so their investment is much lower than most venues. And, because it is in a town, there is no monopoly on concessions or viewing points for that matter. In fact, there were no track associated sales points for food or merchandise. All of the concessions were sold by the local cafes and restaurants, some of which were covered by grand stands and fences. For lunch, I was able to have a sandwich and beer for less than I would pay at Subway. Many of the local condos and apartments can be rented or host people to watch the race. I met a few people who went this rout as opposed buying race tickets. Another advantage is Rocher, a hill where you can purchase standing room only tickets for less than 75 euro. Most venues only have grand stands where the cheapest tickets go for 200-600 euro and they sell out quickly. Lodging is readily available in Nice and other nearby towns for a very fair price. The train system adds extra trains to accommodate the extra traffic. I had to wait in line on Sunday but overall it was quite efficient.

For Saturday, I splurged a little bit. I bought a ticket in row 5 of the K grandstand which is located directly across from the bay and all of the yachts. From this point I could see the debris and track conditions. I could feel a rush as the cars passed and the engine noise vibrates through your body. I could smell the fuel from the exhaust. This was a great place to sit because you could really tell who was pushing the car and who wasn’t. By the end of the day I was able watch a car pass and accurately predict whether or not it would be a new fastest lap. You could tell by listening to how long the diver stayed on the throttle before entering the chicane directly after my section and watching how much speed they carried as they cut across the track into that turn. It was impressive to see how close the cars come to the guard rails. Saturday’s events were full of action. One of the fan favorite Ferraris wrecked directly behind my grandstand during practice. I could see the car dangling from the crane that removed it from the track. It is jaw dropping to see a several million dollar car hanging in the air and completely destroyed. It is just as exciting to know that the wreck happened in the same place where I got lost looking for the train station the day before. Qualifying at Monaco is probably the most important qualifying session of the year. Frequently, the winner of qualifying also wins the race because overtaking is almost impossible on such a tight track. All morning the sun was out but about an hour before qualifying it began to lightly rain. The rain was just enough to get everything wet and stopped as qualifying began. Qualifying is done in three sections. The top 16 advance to Q2 and the top 10 of Q2 advance to Q3. It is very important to make the cuts when the track is wet because lap times continually get faster as the track dries. All of the teams used intermediate rain tires for Q1 and most of Q2. These tires offer the best traction for a wet track but poor performance in comparison to slicks under dry conditions. With less than 4 minutes left in Q2 many teams stopped and put on slick tires. This was a little risky because only the main lines were dry. If a car with slicks was to deviate from the normal line it might have wrecked. However, it was an aggressive move because a moderate lap with slicks would likely beat a fast lap with intermediates. It takes between 1:14 and 1:23 (minuets: seconds) to complete a lap and at least one lap to get the tires warm. This forced many teams to trade tires and left them with only one lap to get a top 10 time. Some of the favorites were unexpectedly dropped at Q2 because of the switch. Q3 was relatively uneventful but it was quite clear which teams were the fastest.

Sunday I stood in Rocher. I was much farther away from the track but I could see more sections. From my place, I could see pit lane, the short strait after the last chicane, and the last turn onto the home strait. The race on Sunday was very eventful. There were many wrecks and 7 cars did not complete the race. From my section, I saw a car catch on fire but no wrecks. There was a nice Englishman with a loud speaker to keep everyone entertained between race events. Someone in his group had binoculars and scanned pit lane for celebrities and important people. When one was spotted the Englishman would shout down to them so they would wave back. At one point he handed out masks of his favorite driver, Lewis Hamilton. He shouted down, “Lewis, Lewis”. When Lewis looked up at us the man yelled “we want you to win, have a nice day at work”. The TV crews found the masks funny and filmed them for TV. He also made sure to remind everyone use sunblock and drink plenty of fluids (He was obviously leading by example on the fluids part).

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of Nice. I walked around for an hour or so on Friday night but that was it. I wish that I had left an extra day to go to the beach and explore more. I did eat dinner there one night at a local restaurant. French cuisine reminds me so much of the food in New Orleans. It also felt good to use some French. Unlike my trip to Paris, I think my Italian is better than my French now. I forgot a lot of words or replaced them with Italian words but it came back quickly. When I was learning French in school I thought it was a soft sounding language but after living in Italy, it sounds much different than it did before.

Ferrari on pit lane at Monaco Grand Prix 2013

Ferrari on pit lane at Monaco Grand Prix 2013

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