A HACK LOOKS BACK

Monaco GP

With a certain young British driver openly stating that he believes he can win this year's race at his first attempt, anticipation about the Monaco GP is more intense than ever.

If you have never attended a World Championship F1 race, and you get the chance to go to just one, choose Monaco. It will be uncomfortable and crowded, expensive and frustrating. If the Principality's grasping hoteliers haven't robbed you blind, the restaurant owners will certainly be aiming to do so. One way or another you will be soaked (either by sweat or rain), and you will have been deafened long before the day is over. But it will have been worth it, because you will have had the chance to see an F1 car operating in anger from a closer vantage point than you are able to find at any other circuit in the world.

No matter how processional the race turns out to be, I defy anybody who's been to Monaco (this means you, Mr Briatore) to use the 'b' word about our sport. Watching at the approach to the Swimming Pool will persuade you that any man who climbs aboard one of these evil-tempered cars, even if he is a backmarker, is a hero. Traction control and all the latest electronic trickery may have put an end to the power slides that used to make Casino Square the most exciting place on earth during Saturday afternoon qualifying. But even with the staccato misfiring that cuts in just as things are getting interesting at 20,000rpm, today's 2.4-litre V8 engines still rattle the guardrails and make the ground tremble.

It is for this race that most of the sponsors and car makers shell out their millions. If you could see just how much money they spend on this one event, and then divide it by the number of spectators present, it probably comes out at a figure that would buy a pretty decent new car for everyone who actually attends the Monaco GP. It's four days of licensed madness. If it hadn't been taking place since 1929, with miraculously few casualties, some political Jobsworth would have made it illegal by now.

Why, then, will I not be there this year? Well, it's 40 years since my first trip to Monaco, and I've only missed a couple since then. So I reckon I've paid my dues, not to mention making a few of those hotel keepers rich. If some TV channel is prepared to save me the cost of a room and get someone to do all the running-around which I used to do, then I am happy to stay at home for once. But I'll be back ...

The first year I went to Monaco, it was as a spectator. The second time, I went to report the Formula 3 race - with a credential. A colleague from Motoring News and I decided that we would take a leisurely drive down through France in his new Lotus Cortina. It seemed like a very agreeable prospect. He suggested that it would make a nice break for our mothers, who had both been recently widowed, so they came along, too.

This is where the planning ended and the nightmare began. It was possible to accept the rather uncomfortable fact that the ladies in the back, who didn't know each other, were not getting on particularly well. But it was completely impossible to overlook the fact that this was May 1968 and France was in turmoil. By the time we rolled up to our hotel in Cap d'Ail, revolution was abroad on the streets, Paris was burning and the entire population of France was on strike. The few shops that were open were running out of basic foodstuffs, rubbish was piling up and - worst of all - there was not a centilitre of petrol to be had.

Fortunately, the hotel restaurant was able to keep us fed and the cellar was well stocked. But come Monday morning, there was only one way back to England - the long way. Through Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium we sped, reluctantly stopping for bathroom breaks and petrol. Day turned to night, and we just squeaked on to the ferry at Dunkirk. Dishevelled, dirty and hungry, we pleaded in vain for cabins. Arriving in Dover at dawn, we roared into London, parked on the kerb at Kings Cross and pushed out the ladies, together with their suitcases. We'd cleaned them out of their holiday money, so God knows how they managed to buy train tickets.

The first year I had a full credential at Monaco was 1971. Incredible to relate, my red leather arm band permitted me to walk all around the circuit during the race, the only restriction being that crossing the track was strictly forbidden. There was very little guardrail then, so both journalists and photographers were able to use the pavement (sidewalk to Americans). It was only when Jacky Ickx's Ferrari almost ran over my foot at the inside of Mirabeau that I realised just how dangerous this was. It was only a few years later, at this same point, that James Hunt and Hans Stuck had a clash of wheels which sent Stuck's March climbing the garden wall on the right-hand side of the track. If I had been walking there, I would certainly have been killed ...

Perhaps fortunately, I was able to abandon watching from the trackside some years later when the BBC invited me to sit alongside Murray Walker as his lap-charter and race spotter. In the first few years of the BBC's F1 coverage it was decided that Murray would do his homework in the paddock on Friday and Saturday, flying back to London in order to commentate on the video which arrived by satellite. Although he was not happy about this arrangement, he recognised that the poor facilities for TV commentators at the circuit made it necessary.

Eventually Murray was allowed to stay at Monaco for the whole weekend and do his coverage from track-side. The facilities were still very rudimentary, in fact the commentators had to use an open-air area because the Automobile Club de Monaco couldn't be bothered to put up any cabins. Needless to say, it rained, which had an interesting effect on the TV monitors. Some of them blew up in a cloud of sparks, while ours just stopped working. Even though I kept my lap-chart going, we were too far from the track for Murray to see any of the action.

So, stuck without a monitor and with no sign of our pictures being restored, Murray had to improvise. Ever the professional, he called for the producer's phone and ducked under the table, from where he commentated on what was happening with the help of an anchorman in London who was phoning through what he could see on his monitor in Shepherd's Bush.

You can say what you like about Murray's style of commentating, but you won't ever catch me criticising him for a lack of professionalism ...

Working for the BBC became really interesting when James Hunt was recruited soon after he had retired from driving part-way through the 1979 season. James never failed to get in the party atmosphere at Monaco, as Murray and I discovered in the minutes leading up to the 1983 race. In accordance with ACM rules, we had been in our places for an hour or so before the start, and there had been a few rain showers while we waited.

James arrived, as usual, with moments to spare. As the field headed off on the formation lap, I asked him if he'd had a chance to check who was starting on wets and who on intermediates.

"No," he announced groggily, "I've been having lunch."

But surely he had glanced at the cars as he came across the grid, I nervously suggested.

"Doods," he mumbled, "I've never reported this race sober yet, and I have no intention of starting to do so now ..."

Naturally, Murray Walker hated this irresponsible approach. For many years the two of them despised each other, a situation which surprisingly few viewers seemed to pick up. Murray had to bite his lip, of course, not least because Hunt was a favourite of the producer. Unlike Murray, he actually dared to analyse what was happening and to point out driving mistakes which Murray either missed or preferred not to emphasise.

Nevertheless, Murray was able to get his own back when James disappeared for a few minutes, as he often did, to smoke one of his famously unlabelled cigarettes.

"James has left the box," Murray would intone, "in order to study the far side of the circuit."

At Monaco, of course, that was impossible. Except that James Hunt had probably climbed aboard his personal Cloud Number Nine and was surveying whatever he wanted to see.

I'm told it couldn't happen anymore ...

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