The Monaco Grand Prix

So it's Monaco this weekend, and good luck to everyone who's going there. Unless you're one of the fans who come in by train on Sunday and grab the free but rather precarious positions on the cliff face overlooking the exit from the Rascasse, you can be sure that you'll have had your pockets emptied by the rapacious hotel and restaurant owners, most of whom - like all the genuine Mon©gasque residents - are descended from a long line of Italian pirates. Still, you can console yourself with the knowledge that by the time you go home you'll know how to pronounce the name of the place. It's 'MONNako,' not 'Mon-AHko,' don't you know?

I can't remember seeing too many Monaco GPs which were classic races in terms of hand-to-hand competition, and we all know that the nature of the circuit militates against close confrontation. Nevertheless, the majesty of the place seems to bring out the best in both drivers and teams. Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna always managed to pull out the stops here, and McLaren's Monaco record is something special, too. David Coulthard is a far from shabby performer in his home town, which could mean that his miserable season of unnecessary collisions is at last about to end, while many of us will be watching Felipe Massa to see if he can bring a bit of his Turkey/Bahrain magic to a place where there are so many solid objects lining the track. And can anyone explain to me why Frank Williams' cars have such an abject record here?

My first trip to Monaco for the GP was in 1968, at a time in my career when reporting F1 races was still a few years away. I spent most of the weekend in the F3 paddock, hobnobbing with drivers I knew from British circuits and discovering that not all of the continental chaps followed the rules as written by the FIA. Some of the French cars had exotic-smelling exhaust smoke and a few of the Italians had surprisingly big wings which didn't seem to attract the attention of the stewards, most of whose names ended with the letter 'i.' Some of the glamour which had first attracted me to the sport had faded by the time I got back to England.

On Sunday, after the F3 race, I had been allowed to swap my F3 credential for a ticket for the Grand Prix itself, although it was a poverty-spec entry-only pass. Not being in a grandstand, I could hardly see anything of the cars except a flash of the Tyrrell blue which told me that Johnny Servoz-Gavin had nosed, very briefly, into the lead. By then he had probably already hit the kerb which broke a wheel. Good bloke, Johnny. We had a couple of dinners together when he was racing in F2, and it was through him that I acquired some of the French phrases which almost got me arrested when I used them to French cops. He stopped racing soon after, having injured an eye while riding his dirt bike, and went off to become a hippy.

It's five years since I decided that the time had come for me to watch the Monaco GP on TV rather than in the Principality. The final straw came when I was asked a four-figure sum (Euros) for my half of the bill for the room in the one-star flop-house which I had been sharing for several years with my long-suffering travelling companion Dan Knutson, the only American press man who is full-time on the F1 beat. Believe it or not, but Dan has been commuting from Minneapolis to every championship GP for more than twenty years. My place in the dog-kennel of a room in the basement of that flop-house has now been passed on to his significant other, who still thinks that being ripped off by Mon©gasque restaurant owners for five days is somehow glamorous. Bless her.

Faithful readers of my column on this site (I know who you both are) will have to wait for my memoirs before they get all of the intimate detail about my travels to more than 500 GPs. At Monaco I was almost always too busy rushing about the place in search of stories to get up to anything seriously naughty, but that didn't necessarily apply to all my chums. The story I'm about to tell happened exactly 25 years ago, so I suppose it's old history now, even if all the details remain fresh in my memory.

The tale involves the young woman with whose affections I was toying at the time (much of the toying was mutual, as I recall), who had already accompanied me to several races and was seriously upset that she hadn't been able to wangle a trip to Monaco. On the Wednesday she got a message to me saying she'd managed to borrow a car and was heading south, accompanied by a girlfriend whom she'd phoned on the off-chance. On Thursday evening I got another message to say that the girls' car had blown a tyre somewhere on the autoroute and done an end-over-ender. Neither of them was hurt, but they were a bit shaken up and would I go to collect them, please?

Fortunately, Friday is the free day at Monaco, so I hired a rental car and headed north, earning some serious brownie points in the process. The second lady, however, presented something of a problem, having left London so hurriedly that she had no hotel reservation, no ticket and very little in the way of suitable clothing. That night, over dinner with an old friend of mine who happened to have a double room in the Hotel de Paris, that problem somehow resolved itself. More brownie points for the hack, this time from my mate ...

The following morning, qualifying day, my girlfriend and I presented ourselves at the Hotel de Paris at breakfast time and made our way to my wealthy chum's suite. A knock on the door roused a grunt from the other side, so in we went. There was just the one big bed, and it was hardly a surprise to find my friend reclining in it with his new sweetheart at his side. It came as something of a shock, however, to discover that there was a second gentleman in there, too. All three had wonderfully bashful looks on their faces, which suggested that something a lot more interesting than just sleeping had been taking place.

The names will remain secret for now, of course, given that the parties involved have all gone on to establish themselves in successful family and business life. My mate is still a close friend and the Extra Bloke visits half a dozen GPs every year. He and I don't have much to say, but we always exchange knowing looks. If I ever get down to writing those memoirs, I'll make sure he knows how much it will cost for him to remain anonymous.

There would certainly be a place in my autobiography for Archie Scott Brown, the extraordinarily plucky and gifted British driver who was killed when his Lister-Jaguar hit standing water in a sportscar race at Spa-Francorchamps on May 18, 1958, just over fifty years ago. He was chasing what would have been the 72nd victory of his career. It was good to see Archie's life remembered in the Daily Telegraph last week, with a delightful piece by his devoted autobiographer Robert Edwards, author of Archie and the Listers (ISBN 1-85260-469-7).

Like most fans of our sport, I was led to love it by my father. After we had been together to Aintree in 1955 to watch Roy Salvadori winning a non-championship F1 race in Gilbey Engineering's green Maserati 250F, I badgered Dad to take me to our other local circuit, glorious Oulton Park. It was there that I clapped eyes on Archie doing extraordinary things with a Lister. Alas, I can't remember the year, although I suspect it was 1956, when (as Robert Edwards records) the engine which Brian Lister had found for Archie's car was a Maserati six-cylinder. It wasn't running particularly well, and it is possible that the ignition timing had gone awry, because I will never forget the crackle on the over-run and the flames that flashed in the exhaust. Little did I know it, but my career in motorsport was probably forged in those flames.

Scott Brown had been born without a right hand, and I was aware that there had been some protests about the RAC's decision to issue him with a racing licence. Seeing him master that Lister dispelled any doubts in my schoolboy mind about his ability, but I admit that it wasn't until I bought Edwards' superbly readable book that I discovered the extent of his handicap. If you read only one book about motorsport this year, I implore you to make it Archie and the Listers. It brings back to life not just a wonderful driver but also an era in the sport when quick lap times were generated not by silly spiky objects scattered all over a car's bodywork but by the commitment and resourcefulness of the driver.

Incidentally, the high point of my farewell visit to Monaco five years ago was a meeting with that other boyhood hero of mine, Roy Salvadori, in the apartment where he and his wife spend the summer months. The encounter was organised for me by a mutual friend, one-time BRM manager (and retired farmer) Tim Parnell, who knows Roy well. Although I have been able to count a dozen or so World Champion drivers as good personal friends, I have to admit that meeting the gracious and elegant Salvadori was, for me, like being ushered into the presence of God. The offer of tea soon brought me down to earth.

To my great joy, there was more. Sitting on Roy's coffee table in a crystal cabinet was a big model of the green Maserati 250F that the great man had driven to victory in the first motor race I ever saw. How glad I am that I left the corporate world of accountancy behind me, because there would surely have been no magical moments like that if I had not followed my instincts and decided to make my living writing about racing.