What the Monaco GP is like on the ground: Playing padel with Le Mans winners and meeting F1 drivers on yachts

Sam Cooper
Charles Leclerc in Monaco

Charles Leclerc made 200,000 people’s day on Sunday

Watching Monaco on the TV gives the impression that it is the suavest event going. Where water is swapped for champagne and caviar for sandwiches but depending on your bank balance, the reality can be quite different.

Sadly my financial health does not give me access to private jets and helicopters so my trip began on Wednesday with an early morning easyJet flight from London to Nice, the nearest airport to the principality. After picking up my rental car, it was time for a drive to the hotel where the media can pick up their accreditation ahead of the weekend’s race.

As you might expect, the drive from Nice Airport across the French riviera to the border of Monaco was one of the most picturesque you could hope for but my particular problem of driving not only on the other side of the car but the other side of the road meant my experience was more focused on just trying to avoid a crash with the Ferraris, McLarens and Lamborginhins that surrounded me.

Arriving into the narrow streets in the rather large vehicle I had been given meant I came up close and personal with the moped drivers who are even madder than the F1 pilots. At one point I saw one moped carrying a man, his child and a dog weaving through heavy traffic.

It was not my first time in Monaco but was my first during a race week and it is hard to describe just how much the whole country is geared up towards the event. Images of Max Verstappen modelling his Tag Heuer were on almost every bus stop, Ferrari and Charles Leclerc flags hung from every window, George Russell was on adverts as was Bono. Even Victor Martins was on display in the airport.

It makes sense after all. Other than Silverstone or Monza, it is hard to think of a place more associated with F1 than Monaco and the unique aspect of the place means you can be walking the track just a few hours after the day’s running is over.

Every shop is selling some kind of F1 memorabilia or clothing item. Pop up stands for every team run along the pavements and almost everyone you see is wearing some kind of merchandise for their favourite team.

Having started from the casino, I walked down to the harbour which was like entering into a different world, one of extreme wealth and opulence.

Yachts bigger than most houses are moored, paying several hundred thousand of euros for the privilege, and the world’s most rich and famous are dining one on one off several floors of their chosen vessel. The fan areas are less glamorous. Temporarily erected grandstands are a mesh of metal with very little passing space to walk under if your seat happens to be at the other end.

The paddock meanwhile is on the Quai Antoine Ier with all the teams’ hospitality buildings parked tightly together. Well nearly all of them.

Red Bull don’t really do half measures and to call their Energy Station a hospitality unit would be to downplay it. For a start, it is a boat, not that you would be able to tell once you’re onboard, and the RB20 and VCARB 01 are on the deck for those with the right coloured lanyard to take pictures with. To the left is a stage where fans can watch the action while the iconic swimming pool is on the top floor.

But the first thing I noticed when I walked on was a ramp leading to the RB20. My initial thought was this was for a skateboarder to flip over but having just finished listening to Daniel Ricciardo speak, it became apparent what it was really there for.

German trails rider Adrian Guggemos fired up his motorbike and as I looked over, Sky Sports’ Craig Slater was lying down with the back wheel of the bike bouncing from either side of his head. It was this image that perhaps best summed up the madness of Monaco.

Spending enough time out in the marina will have you believing that all of Monaco is like that, indeed one person on one of the yachts asked me if the media centre was similarly kitted out, but the reality is quite different. For a start, it is a mission to even find the place.

After arriving up the back of the building, you go down several flights of stairs, past some very expensive restaurants, squeeze by the fans hoping to catch a glimpse of a driver before arriving at a door with MEDIA CENTRE written in green letters.

Formula 1 is an odd sport to report on in that you quite often can’t see the action from your desk. In Monaco this was no different with just one window right at the back giving you a glimpse of Rascasse. For the rest of it, you were relying on some rather small TV screens (which also turned off halfway through FP2 as their auto-shutdown function kicked in).

And this is more the reality of working as a journalist at a grand prix. The glitz and the glamour tends to be saved for those who have paid for it while you spend the majority of your time inside trying to get some work done.

There are also logistical challenges. Getting the train in every morning meant being packed in and even the two storey trains did not provide for much breathing space. Once you arrived in Monaco, you heard more whistles from the local police than you would at a football match and every day I would have my bag searched three times before making it to my desk.

Even inside the paddock you were not spared and an overly eager security guard at the Red Bull boat had half the F1 media waiting on the marina as he had not been told Christian Horner was about to have a media session.

But after you’ve overcome the stress of it all, there are truly some mad moments that leave you asking ‘Did that really just happen?’

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One of those came on Thursday when a padel tournament was arranged at the nearby centre and whilst we played against Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen, Lance Stroll was playing on the next court for what we were told was his second visit of the day.

The next morning, a friend of a friend managed to get me on one of the yachts in the harbour where Johnny Herbert was a guest. To say it was luxurious would be an understatement and even the bathrooms were bigger than my London flat.

Next door was Lawrence Stroll’s Faith, the biggest boat in the harbour stretching out across 96.55-metre or in other terms, 1/5th of the pit lane straight. And perhaps the strangest thing of all is that for the majority of the people on the boat, you can’t even see the action.

Monaco’s relationship with F1 means that while the country controls this marina, stepping a couple yards forward will have you in F1 territory and again, without the right lanyard, you’re going nowhere.

As the days went by, the number of celebrities began to increase. Liverpool player Virgil van Dijk was there along with his team-mate and Alpine co-owner Trent Alexander Arnold.

By now you will have seen that Kylian Mbappe, who used to play just a short trip down the road, was also there and I am told that his namesake Cillian Murphy was also there but I did not ever see the Oppenheimer star.

 

The days are also extremely long and by the time you head back for the train station, you feel as exhausted as if you had just driven the race itself with that fatigue only growing as the days pass.

But Sunday felt different. Leclerc’s victory felt like a victory for the country and you could tell just about every fan there was rooting for him, even if they were wearing another team’s colours.

As he started his final lap and as he came towards the swimming pool section, every boat in the harbour rang out their horn in recognition of their hero. Of a lifelong dream being accomplished before their eyes. Fans walked home that evening draped in Monégasque flags, car horns blared as they drove down the various narrow streets.

Boarding my heavily delayed easyJet flight (which also happened to be the flight Haas including team boss Ayao Komatsu) were catching, felt like going back into the normal world after five days in the madness. Luton airport was perhaps the harshest wake up to reality you could hope for but it did allow for a moment of reflection on what I had just experienced.

Yes the complaints about Monaco’s racing are valid and yes the organisation of the event certainly needs some work but actually being there felt like an experience every F1 fan must do at least once in their life. Heroes have been made on these streets and on Sunday, one more was added to the list.

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