Living it up with Sir Cliff at the Monaco Grand Prix
I had never been to the south of France. I had never been to the glamorous Riviera. But recently I put that right by heading off on a day trip to the Monaco Grand Prix.
In the last few years of course, I've been heavily involved in Formula One, meeting drivers and cars and attending some fairly impressive events. But presenting Star Sports coverage of the championship meant being tied to the studio on race day, and ever since I left the channel I've been intending to get up close and trackside for a race. I managed that with interest in the Principality.
Having agreed to be a guest speaker for a hospitality company, I found myself being flown into Nice airport. A coach took us on the leisurely ride along the lower corniche, hugging the hills and small harbours until we arrived in Monaco. It was hard to believe there was a grand prix on at first, but as we strolled towards the famous harbour, the stalls selling hats and flags and shirts started to spring up on every square and street corner. Given the prices being asked, I satisfied myself with a vintage postcard.
Just as we were getting close to our hospitality venue, everyone was stopped for 10 minutes by the white-shirted Monaco gendarmerie. Obviously someone very important was coming through. Naturally I assumed it was Bernie Ecclestone, but it turned out to be Prince Albert. Imagine being so important that you don't have to worry about the colour of traffic lights or indeed anything else being on the road. I bet Michael Schumacher dreams of that after his weekend in Monaco.
Our hospitality suite couldn't have been in a better location. The first floor room overlooked the paddock, with the famous old harbour as the backdrop. You could hang your head out and spot F1's great and good almost at will - Sir Frank Williams being wheeled to the pits before the race, while afterwards there were more drivers than you could shake a stick at, as well as the big boss (Max Mosley, not Prince Albert).
As luck would have it, I was able to get down to Rascasse for the start of the race. This you may remember was the infamous hairpin where Schumacher 'parked' his car in qualifying and was sent to the back of the grid for his troubles. A wag had unfurled a banner on the other side of the track that read, 'Achtung - parking at Rascasse costs 21 places'. The thing that makes Monaco a problem for the drivers makes it inspirational for the spectators. It's cramped and noisy and frankly you couldn't get much closer to the drivers unless you sat on their laps. We were on the inside of the hairpin at what is normally a cafe. People were having their lunch at tables adorned with silver cutlery and crisp white tablecloths as the cars ripped by no more than two metres away.
Luckily earplugs came with compliments. As the cars accelerated out of the hairpin (so close you could almost peer into the cockpit), the noise was only matched by the vibration through every fibre of your body. It was only there and then that I appreciated the raw violent power of the F1 car and just how skilled - and brave - drivers have to be.
Halfway through the race I wandered back to the hospitality suite, watching the race on TV as the sound of proceedings echoed in the windows from the harbour behind. There was a surreal moment when Mark Webber's car expired in a pall of smoke. Switching my gaze from TV to the far side of the harbour, the smoke was visible, as were the bobbing heads of marshals running down the hill to help. Race over, we walked out the door and my brother almost clattered into Cliff Richard, which made his day (my brother's, not Sir Cliff's). It was that kind of weird day, and it summed up why Monaco is a must if you are a F1 fan. You are bound to see interesting people, and after the race you are in the centre of one of the most pleasant places on earth.
After our close shave with the 'Peter Pan of pop', we retired to look at impossibly large yachts and people in impossibly large sunglasses - oh and one last sighting, a glum looking Jenson Button outside David Coulthard's hotel.