at Monaco Grands Prix

Over dinner and a few beers a couple of weeks ago at the amazingly inexpensive little country hotel where we stay for the Spanish GP, my mate Dan Knutson and I were reflecting on the delights of the Monaco GP. It is an utterly ridiculous race, of course, usually involving processions and no racing at all, but it is also the only circuit in the world where everyone (and that includes you the spectator) can get close enough to an angry single-seater to remind ourselves why motor racing is such a viscerally wonderful sport. Unfortunately, the hoteliers and restaurateurs of the Principality made exactly the same discovery, probably when our own William Grover-Williams won the first race in 1929, and every year since then they have unfailingly jacked up their prices to ever more disgraceful heights. We love Monaco and we hate it in equal proportions, but as even Bernie has recognised (he doesn't take a penny in cash from the organisers), without it the whole of F1 would be the poorer.

My mate Dan is unique among racing people. Although we can probably expect a few Yanks spouting their suddenly acquired F1 expertise to arrive on the scene when the Charlotte-based US F1 operation fields two cars next year, he is currently the only American covering GP races full-time. With the sort of flight costs that a Minneapolis-based freelance like him has to find, Dan has developed a nose for budget-priced accommodation.

For more than 20 years at Monaco we shared a room in one of the two cheapest hotels in the Principality, although I bailed out five years ago having concluded that 35 Monaco GPs was enough in any man's lifetime. Let me repeat here, though, that anyone who loves F1 racing should go to this event at least once in his or her life, just to feel the ground shake when one of our heroes gets into the throttle. For pay-as-you-go journalists like us, though, Monaco is far and away the most expensive stop on the European tour. We work for stony-hearted editors who refuse to compensate their contributors for the spiraling travel costs imposed by Bernie's profitable but ultimately unsustainable forays into Asia and the Arabian desert. Nevertheless, until now Dan has held on to our hotel near the station, insisting that the Hotel de France was the right place to be, given that it is located within spitting distance of the pits.

Not any more, though. This year, financial pips squeaking in protest at last, Dan is also quitting the Principality. He'll be moving out to a freshly discovered flophouse in Beaulieu and travelling in each day by train. As he says, that almost certainly means the French railwaymen will choose this weekend to go on strike and he's fully expecting to find himself stranded at some stage.

Forty-one years ago, when I first attended the Monaco GP as part of the Motoring News crew, we stayed at a charming little ten-room hotel just over the French border in Cap d'Ail. I later inherited squatter's rights at the place, until some time in the Eighties when the first Mrs Hack and I foolishly invited our friend Jo Ramirez over to dinner one night. Jo is a proper bloke and it's a very long time since he left his home in Mexico to twirl spanners for the racing Rodriguez brothers, but he can also be a bit of a bandit, which is probably why he ended up working for McLaren, the team to which he would remain loyal until retiring five or six years ago. You've probably guessed what happened after that dinner. Jo's devotion to McLaren overwhelmed his friendship towards us, and when we tried to book in for the following year's Monaco, we were informed that our secret gem of a hotel had been block-booked. By McLaren. Grrrr ...

None of my memories of Monaco -- at least none of the ones that can be recounted here -- are as amazing as those I treasure of my first visit, in 1968. As I have mentioned here before, that was the year when France was in the throes of yet another revolution, with students taking over the streets and virtually every business closing down. When Dan Gurney broke yet another Weslake V12 engine in first qualifying and his Eagle team tried to bring in a spare on Friday night, the bolshevik cadres at Nice airport refused to light up a runway. This called for united action, so a gang of F1 people drove out and we lined up our cars to provide a midnight flare path for a little plane flying in from England. As far as I can remember, Dan was running well for a few laps in the race until some minor component on "our" engine let him down.

That year's race was won, for the fourth time, by Graham Hill. It was Graham's second win following the death of his Lotus partner Jim Clark just six weeks earlier, and a third victory would give him his second championship at the end of the year. As soon as Graham had completed his victory lap, I joined the crowds who invaded the track, and walked up the hill away from the old Station hairpin (now named after whichever casino owns the hotel there this week). I was horrified to find the gutter running with a sticky red liquid, and immediately feared the worst for Pedro Rodriguez, who I knew had crashed there on the first lap. Then someone informed me that the red stuff wasn't blood but some fancy Shell oil which had gushed out of the Mexican's BRM when an oil cooler was ripped off in the shunt.

You don't have to look far into the history of Monaco and its GP to realise that it stands alone among sporting contests for glamour and spectacle. I've watched tennis on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, I've enjoyed a test match at the Sydney Cricket Ground, and I've seen the home team winning at Yankee Stadium. I've even England being walloped by Brazil at Wembley, though (more accurately) I heard the match, because my expensive seat was right behind a metal pillar. Another good reason to stay well away from football.

Not one of those sporting events, though, can compare with the heart-stopping shake-in-your-boots anticipation of the last few moments before the start at Monaco. I admit that things sometimes tail off after the first couple of laps, although pit stops have given it an element of unpredictability which keeps the fans in their seats. The event tends, rightly, to have favoured the softy-softly tactics of the smoothy-chops drivers like Prost and Senna, so the memories that stand out for me involve the attack dogs like Gilles Villeneuve and Jean Alesi. If I had to pick out just one supreme Monaco performance, it would be the sight of Keke Rosberg wrestling with an agricultural Theodore in qualifying for the 1978 race, holding the thing on opposite lock all the way through Casino Square with its Cosworth engine unwaveringly at maximum revs all the way.

Good grief, that's 31 years ago ...

On a more romantic note, I once tried to get married at Monaco. This admittedly hair-brained plan was inspired by an incident a couple of years earlier, when I'd driven down from England. A fellow journalist, Ian Phillips, asked me to take him out to Nice airport on Friday in order to pick up a new girlfriend who seemed a bit keen on him. So keen, in fact, that Ian persuaded a yachtsman who was also a film cameraman, John Tully, to let him tie the knot on board. It's an old tradition that a sea captain can perform a marriage ceremony, and I liked the idea so much that I asked Nelson Piquet to do the same for me and my betrothed on board his sailing ship on the spare Friday before the 1982 race.

Nelson wisely backed out of the deal, refusing (as he made clear with a typical gesture) to be the man who put the noose around my neck, obliging us to make alternative arrangements at the Chelsea Register Office a few months later. I have to report that neither marriage stood the test of time, although I suspect that the failure of the two unions had nothing to do with the haste in which we attempted to have them formalised on the high seas.

The extraordinary thing about this story is that the blokes involved have all remained reasonably friendly. Ian Phillips went on from being a journalist to being the official amanuensis to Eddie Jordan as Commercial Director at Jordan right from the beginning of 1991 and making a profitable living out of dissuading his boss from jumping to conclusions that he might later regret. John Tully, whose film company has captured on film almost everything that Marlboro-sponsored racing cars and drivers have achieved over the last 30 years and more, still has a very nice yacht. It has a permanent mooring in the spectacular harbour of Mahon, capital of the island of Menorca where the Brunette and I make our summer home.

John also has an agreeable summer home near Mahon, overlooking the same splendid harbour. One of his sitting rooms is equipped with a delightful flat-screen TV on which I hope to be following this weekend's events from Monaco. Over a few cool glasses, I'm sure we'll have lots to talk about ...