GLOBETROTTER

The rubbish tip gang, Dr. Chocolate and Willy Grover

The first time I went to the Monaco Grand Prix, life did not seem to be very glamorous. I was sleeping in a racing truck and my landlord was either Eddie Jordan or his bitter enemy (at the time) Gary Anderson. It was best to switch between the two so as to avoid being caught in the crossfire which had something to do with a supply of tires which one had purloined from the other. The Formula 3 paddock in those days might have been in the Principality but I doubt it. It felt more like Italy and it was a rubbish dump. But we were younger then and happy enough to be racing with the big boys of Formula 1 and so we accepted our lot in life. Most of the people who were there then are in F1 now or they have been and gone.

We were all mad but we shared the passion. There were no wheeler-dealing middle men or overly-tailored managers. There was never enough money and a lot of the drivers used to live in the trucks or camper vans. Those who stayed in hotels did not always manage to pay the bills and so could be seen sliding down drainpipes on Sunday mornings.

The Formula 3 rubbish tip was too far from the Monaco circuit to walk - unless you had an hour to spare - and so the only way to get back and forth was to hitch rides on the sidepods of the cars, in or on support vehicles or on trolleys which were towed behind any available vehicle.

And so one morning I arrived at the circuit riding on the bonnet of Mr. Anderson's car. The police did whistle a lot but they could not run fast enough to stop us. Gary then decided that it would be quite entertaining to see if he could make me fall off and so by the time we reached the chicane I was not sitting on the bonnet looking cool but rather lying across it, hanging on to the windscreen wipers and screaming at Gary to stop behaving like a lunatic. I distinctly remember in the Swimming Pool section there were people in the grandstands applauding the show. I do not think I was ever as happy to go into the Monaco pitlane as I was when we arrived that morning.

We have all got a little older since then. And now Eddie Jordan tries to forget that we knew each other back then, for fear that I will remember something bad about him. He has got rich and Gary has done well too. Their children have grown up and now make me feel old, and I have a wide-eyed kid of my own who I took for a tour of the paddock and tried to convince that Formula 1 cars are made in ovens.

Just like chocolate cakes. My son likes chocolate cakes but there was no way that he would believe that you put cars in ovens and bake them. And so I went to find someone impressive to tell my son that cars really are made that way. To a six-year-old Anderson is an impressive sight, a giant in search of a beanstalk. Yes, he said, looking down on the little fellow. Daddy is right. We cook the cars in big ovens. He nodded. You don't argue with Gary Anderson.

My little cynic also failed to believe that I knew a man called Dr. Chocolate and so off we went to Tabac Corner to find the good doctor's boat. Dr. Chocolate has done well in the cake trade and he always has a yacht in the harbor at Monaco where there is always a party going a storm. Dr. Chocolate is mad about Formula 1 and so he's a breath of fresh air compared to some folk in the paddock. He has the passion that we had back in the rubbish tip days and he has the boat. And why not drop by for a quick drink and tell the doctor a bit of the latest gossip. The really good stuff.

Is Williams going to drop Jenson Button for Juan-Pablo Montoya? he asked. Could Jenson be driving for Jaguar next year? Both stories were possible, I said. In F1 everything is possible. You just never know. You can never be sure. Things are announced and then never happen while other things happen and are never announced. This was highlighted again the other day by the Prost team which put out a press release stating that its technical director Alan Jenkins "has not resigned" as had been reported.

"Oh," said one my colleagues in the Press Room, where cynicism has been elevated to an art form. "He's out then."

The statement added that Jenkins would not be at the race that weekend. In the paddock there was some confusion amongst the French press. He is gone? They asked. Yes, I replied. He has been given "le dropkick". But, they said, look there is a statement from the team saying that he is not leaving.

"Eh bah non," I replied. "It does not say that. It says he did not resign. It does not say that he has not been fired. They are trying to disguise the fact that the team is in a state of civil war because it is a big weekend for sponsors or whatever. No lies have been told. You just have to read it carefully."

The truth and lies have become completely blurred in Formula 1 to such an extent that some team bosses do not seem to know the difference. A while back I was talking to Bernie Ecclestone about one team boss.

"Yes," he said with a steely glint in his eye. "When he says Good Morning I look at my watch to make sure."

There were lots of stories in the paddock at Monaco about teams being sold to new owners. There are, it seems, a lot of buyers out there and quite a few of them have money. Formula 1 will be better off without some of the current gang and will probably become a little more honest and a little more open under corporate management. The grey men may be duller than some of the current team bosses, but the fear of getting caught telling lies often pushes company men to tell the truth.

The funny thing is that the corporate men are rather keen on hiring wilder young men to drive the cars because they want their stars to have charisma and to stand out and not remark that "it is not appropriate for me to comment" when asked any question which has a word with three syllables in it.

Gerhard Berger was one of the rubbish tip gang and he is always good for a quote. At Monaco he remarked that BMW should pay Jenson Button's recent speeding fine because he had advertised the fact that a BMW diesel car can get up to 141mph. Within seconds the moralists in the Media Center were up on their soap boxes, preaching about how Button is a public figure and how he should behave in a more responsible manner.

Well, let me tell you a story...

The first thing I think about every year when I come to Monaco is a man called Willy Grover. I rarely even get close to Monaco before I think about him because on the way into the Principality one either passes through Beaulieu-sur-Mer where he used to live or one comes down from the autoroute and passes the bottom of the La Turbie hillclimb course, on which he starred on many occasions. And then you get down into the town itself and reach the hallowed tarmac where he would have made his name if he had not been such a secretive fellow. He won the first Monaco Grand Prix in 1929 but if you look through the record books you will not find the name. He called himself "Williams".

I have always found it fascinating that a racing driver would want to hide his real identity. Why is there a need for a secret? I suppose it is the journalist in me. Anyway, about 12 years ago I started casually researching the story of the first winner of the Monaco Grand Prix and the story grew and grew. I met his brother and discovered that I knew almost as much about "Williams" as he did. It was a very strange feeling. And over the years, it appears, I am the world's greatest expert on Willy Grover: Grand Prix driver and British secret agent.

One day when I get my act together the book I have written about him will be published and I will be able to go and research something else.

Mention "Williams" in an F1 paddock and everyone immediately starts talking about Button and Montoya and what Frank is going to do. And will the speeding story make a difference...

Well, consider this. Back in the 1920s Willy Grover and his wife Yvonne used to drive around Europe, going to and from the races. There were constantly frustrated by having to stop at all the railway crossings and so Grover would drive at high speed up to the barriers. He would then shout out "Duck!" to Yvonne and they would go straight through without stopping.

I met Grover's niece and she told me about the adventures of Willy and Yvonne had on the streets of Monaco.

"They would sometimes go driving in two cars," she said. "They used to jump all the red lights. And she would be stopped by the police because she was always in the second car.

"What about him?" she would complain. "Why don't you stop him?"

And the police would reply: "He is Williams, we don't stop Williams".

Yes, it was dangerous but it was colorful. Driving fast is not so different to sword-swallowing, fire-breathing and climbing mountains. If you know what you are doing then you will never be close to the limit. Perhaps, people argue, someone will womble into your path and cause an accident. Yes, perhaps but is it endangering life any more than those troglodyte twerps who disappear into caves and get lost and expect to be rescued. Or those who climb cliffs are have to be saved by brave men in helicopters.

Formula 1 is not the place to discuss right and wrong. Button paid his fine. End of story.

Besides, how can you take a sport seriously when they cook their cars like chocolate cakes?

Print Feature