The magic of Monaco, small hotels, big boats, silly hats and spies

Years ago when we were all a little younger, quite a lot of the current Formula 1 folk were involved in the European Formula 3 Championship. We were a happy-go-lucky gang who went from race to race with heads full of dreams and pockets full of nothing.

Fifteen years later I guess that many of our dreams have come true: Gerhard Berger is a multimillionaire and now runs the BMW F1 program after a great career as an F1 driver; Gary Anderson is the technical director of Stewart; I ended up where I wanted to be; and Eddie Jordan - who was still climbing down drainpipes at hotels in foreign parts to avoid having to pay bills when I first met him - is filthy rich and has a life of private jets, autographs and vast motor cruisers.

I remember quite distinctly the first words EJ ever addressed to me. Sadly I cannot reveal them in full because mothers would be covering the ears of their children and nuns would be fainting. In essence, however, the conversation went as follows:

"What the **** are you doing here?"

"I'm sorry?"

"What the **** are you doing here?! Do you know how many ***king people in this ***king pitlane have got ***king university degrees?"

"Um, no."

"Well, I'll ***king tell you. There is you and the ***king car designer. That is it. So, what the **** are you doing here?"

"I came to report motor races."


Over the years Eddie's use of the English language has not much improved. His conversation is always spiced with words which do not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary although if they were to produce a dictionary of swear words, Eddie could have the job writing it.

None of the old racing gang from European Formula 3 days ever dreamed that Eddie would make it into the diplomatic service. And thus there was considerable amusement at Monaco when EJ was named a "Tourism Sporting Ambassador" by the Irish government.

To start with Eddie does not look like a diplomat. His rock star beard and designer glasses would seem out of place at genteel garden parties. His speeches are usually short and abusive. The only thing that EJ and the average member of the diplomatic service have in common is that they can ooze charm if they want to and they share a taste for pink champagne...

On the night of the announcement - more by luck than judgement - Eddie hosted a party at the Monaco Yacht Club and the British press ran a comb through its collective hair (what there is of it) and trooped down to the harbour for a very pleasant evening of wine and amusing company. In days gone by the annual Jordan press bash was held in a low dive in Brazil and everyone has a wild time as a result of the local hooch.

But that sort of behavior would have been out of place at the Yacht Club. In his speech that evening His Excellency Edmund Jordan did for the most part manage to restrain himself and used only one non-diplomatic expression. No nuns had to be carried from the room.

Eddie explained that his job is to lure people to Ireland - the Island of Sport. Damon Hill quipped that he thought that Eddie should have been put in charge of the Irish Navy given the size of his new motor cruiser, which was berthed in Monaco harbour for the weekend. After dinner we went to have a look at the boat. Out on the quayside Monaco was at its most magical, as it always is after dark during Grand Prix week. The boats were all lit up and the lapping of the waves on the hulls mixed with distant laughter and music. It was what the dream of Monaco is all about. Across the harbour were the few remaining belle epoque villas which have survived but are now dwarfed by the ever-increasing number of Monaco tower blocks.

I have always felt that this spoils the place and I love to drop along the coast to little towns which have stayed much more like they used to be in their heyday. My favorite is Beaulieu-sur-mer, where the Kings and Emperors used to stay at an exclusive hotel called La Reserve and everyone else had to make do with the Hotel Bristol.

If I ever became a millionaire - which is highly unlikely - I think I would stay at La Reserve rather than hanging out in the glitzy - and more expensive - Monte Carlo hotels. Alas, the magic of Monaco is such that there are far too many beautiful people and mobile phonies to fill the great hotels - no matter what the cost - and so normal folk have to make do. Many F1 people have been driven out of Monaco by the cost and the rest of us have to pay an absolute fortune to share your room with a family of cockroaches and a shower that drips at night but will never spout forth when you want it to.

For years I stayed at such places until I had the good fortune to stumble on a small, unglamorous little family-run hotel within five minutes walk of the paddock. It is small, noisy and the plumbing leaves much to be desired but it is cheap and cheerful and they treat you like one of the family.

This is such a gem that once you are in it, you do not change and at breakfast, if you have a good memory for faces, you can spot old F1 drivers from the 1960s who are still staying there. Bookings go on year after year and the only vacancies come when someone dies...

This is the real face of Monaco but that does not stop the world retaining the image of being the place where James Bond plays the blackjack tables and chases Russian spylets around bedrooms at the Hotel de Paris.

There was some talk this year of spies in the F1 paddock with a German newspaper revealing that Ferrari is using technology supplied by Mossad - the Israeli secret service - to scramble its radio messages.

I have been wondering for a few years about how much fun one could have if real spying techniques were used in the F1 paddock. One could bug the motorhomes, pay informers and employ shadows to follow the big players around. You could have banks of computers with faces of important people so that you would never when a big deal was going down.

Which brings me to the subject of my hat.

At races I wear a baseball hat to avoid sunburn, rain, snow or whatever. The choice of this item is always difficult because if you wear one with a sponsor logo, other teams immediately assume - in their paranoia - that you are working for the opposition. In the past I have sometimes worn neutral racing caps such as those supplied by Goodyear. I suppose I could wear a Bridgestone cap this year but last winter while I was pottering about in a large antique warehouse near Cannery Row in Monterey, California, I stumbled on the perfect hat. It features a rather grand badge, topped by an eagle and the words "Central Intelligence Agency". I concluded that as my job in the F1 paddock is fundamentally to gather information that this would be an amusing hat to wear and so I bought it. Naturally this led to hundreds of comments at the first few races that the words journalist and intelligence are totally unrelated. No-one, of course, took the cap seriously...

...until I bumped into an American at Monaco.

He looked at the hat, thought for a second and asked:

"Are you really?"

"Well, I am a spy," I said, "But I don't work for the CIA. I work for me... And this is a very busy weekend for spying."

Why? Because Monaco is the dealmaking capital of Grand Prix racing. There is more business done at this race than at any other with the top executives of big corporations always willing to go to glamorous Monaco rather than a soggy Spa or mundane Magny-Cours. Keeping track of all these heavy-hitters is not easy even if you know they are there. Often they want to keep a low profile.

A few years ago I remember walking past someone in the paddock and thinking: "I know that man. He is important." I racked my brain for two days trying to put a name to the face but it was several weeks before someone whispered that Michael Eisner, the boss of Disney had been in the paddock at the Nurburgring.

Spying on the dealmakers is never easy because you never know where the next meeting is going to take place. A few years ago I was walking through Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris when I glanced through the window of the airport hotel and witnessed a meeting between Alain Prost and Adrian Reynard. It was just luck that I was in the right place at the right time. No-one believed the story - everyone involved denied it - but I KNEW it had happened... It is always best to know that you are right and not have to guess.

The big dealmakers in F1 have only one thing in common. They all know Bernie Ecclestone. And so at Monaco I concluded that the best thing to do was to keep a close eye on Mr. E. The only trouble is that you have to be a bit subtle or else he would have worked out what you are doing and would have changed his habits.

Fortunately at Monaco I had the good fortune to know someone who always has a very big boat which is moored nearest to the paddock entrance from the harbour side. This is conveniently located right next to Mr. Ecclestone's motorhome so I could see who was coming and going while sipping cool white wine and hiding under my CIA hat.

All I need is a little Russian spylet...

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