"Let me know what time you get in and I'll pick you up at the airport." To say that I was surprised at Marco's unexpected offer would be an understatement.
"No, no, it's fine: Milan isn’t playing tonight, so I don't need to watch the game..."
This time last year the Italians were out in force at our hotel as they watched Milan win the Champions League: my taxi pulled up just as Giorgio Pantano, Roberto Chinchero, all of the catering staff and Marco were screaming with joy after their team won the game, all of them running over to hug me as I paid the driver. This year there was one person in the bar as we walked in, looking on in disinterest as the two English teams prepared to take their penalties: we sat down and had a quick beer and quietly went to bed when the game was over.
These games don't seem as much fun when the Italians aren't in them.
The next day news from the outside world evaporated as usual as we caught up on the news that counts: paddock gossip. There were a few driver changes once again, with Christian Bakkerud returning and Andy Soucek moving back over to DPR, prompting one wag to conclude that the Spaniard was trying to collect as many different fleeces as possible as he went for the record of driving for the most teams in the paddock. Giorgio, who could give Andy a run in that competition, was also celebrating the fact that he was about to claim the record for most races in GP2 ("doesn't he already have that record?" someone asked in hospitality. "It sounds like he wants an excuse for a party every weekend...").
I was getting more than the usual attention in the paddock, too. "What the hell are you wearing?"
"It's called a kilt."
"I know what it is, but why are you wearing it?"
"I forgot to pack any trousers yesterday: luckily I had the safety kilt in my bag for just such a problem."
I hadn't realised just how many mechanics would be interested in the state of my under garments, or how much of a distraction it would prove to be: Ivone Pinton from Durango almost fell off his bike as he rode down towards the pitlane, while Didier wobbled on his scooter before regaining his composure, although that may have been a memory from the Celine Dion concert he attended with his wife the night before ("200 euros per ticket: now I know what that is worth. Is that the right word to use in English?" "Only if you're suggesting your money is worthless...").
Bruno Senna was somewhat perplexed by the whole thing: "Why are you wearing that? Did you lose a bet?"
"I must have been a bit drunk when I packed: I seem to have picked up my wife's clothes."
"You really need to shave your legs man: that's not attractive!"
"I have to say I'm quite happy to hear that Bruno, although I'm a little worried that you think I might be attractive to you with smoother legs..."
"No! That's not what I mean!"
The marshals held us at the gate for ages, all lined up like penguins on the march, while I tried to stop people from pulling my kilt up and avoided unusually positioned camera lenses: when the gates finally opened we swarmed in: the marshals yelled "Pilotes only!" and pushing everyone they didn't recognise (including some of the drivers) back. "Are you crazy?" Marco asked. "We have to be at the briefing in 5 minutes!" "Pilotes only!" "Not pilotes only: everyone!" Thankfully common sense eventually prevailed and they let us in before a small international incident broke out, and the teams were setting up in the pitlane, with free practice starting only 15 minutes late as a result.
The drivers were trying to be as calm as possible, but in Monaco that never lasts for a whole session, no matter what level of competition you're in. Jerome D'Ambrosio soon returned to the pits minus his left rear wheel, while Adam Carroll didn't manage to set a time as a result of Andreas Zuber trying to overtake him on the run down to Mirabeau, hitting the bump and spilling left into the Ulsterman and forcing him into the barriers. Both Campos drivers struggled at Ste Devote, with Ben Hanley stopping immediately after his big thump into the wall, while Vitaly Petrov limped all the way back around the track with a broken car as a result of his impact at the famous corner.
But up front it was Pastor Maldonado who, once again, was showing the field how to be quick around the Principality: he went faster on almost every lap to take the top spot by around half a second from teammate Zuber and Bruno Senna. Andreas smiled when he returned to the pits, but it didn't last long: a trip to the stewards gave him a fifteen place penalty on the grid for race one as a result of his collision with Adam, while Vitaly also picked up a five place penalty for delaying his competitors as he struggled to bring his car back to the pits.
Walking back to the pits there was a guy wearing a silver helmet up on the hill who was yelling through a megaphone at everyone down below. Previously he had been calling out constantly to Lewis Hamilton, but with the GP2 crew in the pitlane he had to widen his approach.
"Hey Scottish guy!"
Looking around I saw the sun glinting off his head and realised where the noise was coming from.
"Hey Scottish guy, where is your wallet?"
I pointed towards my sporran.
"Hey Scottish guy, pull your skirt down: I don't want to see your hairy legs!"
I laughed along with everyone around me.
"Hey Scottish guy, you won't get any grid girls dressed like that!"
I pointed towards my sporran.
Pastor was back on top in qualifying later that afternoon: the Venezuelan was pushing hard all through the session (a little too hard on his first flying lap, where he went off at Ste Devote but stayed off the wall, unlike Andy Soucek who found the barriers before he could set a time), and just scraped onto pole after Bruno and Mike Conway pushed him hard for the top spot. The session was blighted by yellow flags, markers of mistakes for Ho-Pin Tung and Marcello Puglisi, while Adrian Valles went one further and prompted a red flag for his accident at Ste Devote with 3 minutes to go: no one was able to achieve anything in such a small period of time after the track re-opened, and the Spaniard kept his fourth position on the grid.
"I know this circuit very well," Pastor noted, "and I've won for the last two years in World Series and GP2, so this year I was very confident. I think it's a magic circuit, because there is a lot of history here in Monte Carlo. I enjoy the laps: every lap here I enjoy 100% in the car. I stayed very calm and waited for my chance, and when I had a clean lap with no traffic I pushed well, not at the limit - I never take any risk here - and the laps were coming easily."
"I got only one real clear lap today," Bruno reflected, "and that was good enough for second, but I'm pretty sure that if I had another lap with the second set we could have gone a lot quicker. My lap, where I put some sectors together, was really good, but I'm pretty sure there was more time left there. P2 is not too bad though, and it's very possible to win from there."
"You've just got to take the chances when you do get a clear lap," Mike smirked, "and you know how hard you have to push, how close you have to get to each barrier: even on your quickest lap you're sliding all over the place, but that seems to be the quickest way to get a time out of it: just boot it out of all the corners and slide it! It really pulls you, some of the kerbs are angled up and they pull you up if you just kiss it too quick. It's cool though!"
What was a little less cool was the number of drivers who were called to see the stewards the next morning: 15 to be precise. After the red flag in qualifying most of the drivers drove down the pitlane looking for the chance to head the queue back on track, and a lot of them were restarted just before the green lights went on, which technically counts as working on the car. We wondered whether it was possible to give all of them a penalty ("how would you work out the order with that many cars?" "You start Zuber 2 laps down and work from there…") but, with Alastair waiting downstairs to get the photos when they returned we soon found out what happened ("we all got a bollocking, and now we can go racing").
Paolo Coloni had ambitions for the first race that were somewhat ahead of reality: "You know, if Adam wins today I am going to wear your kilt onto the podium" he laughed as we ate lunch in hospitality. It wasn't a wish I shared: "Adam, you know I love it when you win, but not today: firstly I don't want to see Paolo in a kilt, and secondly no one wants to see me without one..."
Soon enough it was time for the race: the mechanics crawled all over the cars like bees in a hive, all of them looking for the one thing they could fix which would mean the difference between glory and disaster on the tight circuit. But there's only so much you can do in the pitlane, and a few minutes later they had to let the drivers go and see what happens.
Senna made a perfect start, Pastor didn't, and the Brazilian immediately owned a lead that he would not give up for anyone. The Venezuelan had to forcefully hold onto second from a fast charging Conway, but the top two were in a class of their own from thereon: nobody was able to run at their pace and a huge gap opened up as Pastor pushed with all his might while Bruno denied him all the way round the track.
But then the mayhem came. Sebastien Buemi stuck his nose inside Pantano at Mirabeau, a position into which it had no right to be: the pair collided and the Italian was spun around and stopped, Buemi retired almost immediately after losing his rear wing, Romain Grosjean and Ho-Pin Tung also came together, with the Frenchman breaking his suspension for his troubles, while teammate Luca Filippi broke his front wing on the back of Adam Carroll. The resultant traffic jam blocked the circuit: Senna and Maldonado were somehow able to thread the needle when they came back around, while everyone else had to try and find their own way through the mess.
It meant that the gap the Brazilian had eked out was reduced to almost nothing, with the remaining laps fought out at a fever pitch: Senna crossed the line just 0.6 seconds ahead of his rival to claim the win, while Conway was tapped into a spin after a collision with Javier Villa on the last lap, dropping to 8th (every driver below that position was lapped as a result of the Mirabeau accident) and handing a podium finish to an incredulous Karun Chandhok.
"You have to wear a kilt more often!" Bruno laughed afterwards when I finally found him in the middle of a scrum of well-wishers, "You've brought me good luck at last!"
"We can talk about a sponsorship arrangement later if you'd like! So, Bruno Senna, race winner at Monaco: how does that sound?"
"That sounds pretty good: that sounds pretty surreal, actually! It's surreal in terms of you don't expect to be winning every race, but we came here and I was very confident on what I could do, the team did a great, great job since the start: we were spot on in testing, spot on in qualifying, we were consistent and quick. Whereas in other races I didn't get the results we deserved on performance this time we did: I was quickest here and I was consistent, so it's a good win."
"At the beginning I wheel-spinned a lot at the start," Pastor wistfully admitted, "so Senna was faster than me, and I tried to push but he was faster than me anyway. After the pitstop we were absolutely faster than him and I caught him, but it's very difficult to overtake here: when we changed to the new tyres the car changed completely and was much better, better and quicker. But anyway it's good: good for the points, good to just be racing in Monaco, third race on the podium. It's all good, and I'm quite happy."
"I was making 1.6, 1.7 seconds a lap on Mike," Karun laughed, wearing a grin from ear to ear that nothing would remove." I was really catching him. Then I don't know what happened: Javi says that Mike braked early at the tunnel, but I have no idea because I didn't see anything, I just came out of the tunnel and all I saw was Javi in the middle of the road and Mike sideways, so I had a freaking good laugh for the rest of the lap, all the way to the line! I have to say that fourth was what I was aiming for, but third is a nice little bonus! It's Monaco, I got a podium: happy days."
There wasn't much joy in either the Racing Engineering or ART garages: Giorgio could see his championship lead evaporating, Javi was called up to the stewards and handed a ten place penalty for race two despite his protests of innocence, while Romain and Luca were inside the truck trying to come to terms with their misfortune. The Italian in particular had a tough race: moved up one spot at the start, lost three or four when the anti-stall kicked in during his stop, broke his front wing, suspension arm and brake air inlet in the melee, stopped again and came out last, then watched his brake catch fire just before losing his brakes and being pitched into the wall at Ste Devote.
Which meant he probably didn't need me telling him I was going to the Red Bull party on their floating palace. "You're going to that? Is that the big party? I really want to come too: I think I need to have something good to think about today!"
"You should come along then."
"Maybe, but I kind of have to do this race tomorrow, not that I've got much to look forward to! Have some fun for me, but don't tell me about it if it's too good, okay?"
So I won't be writing much about the party, then.
The next day we had a photo shoot with all of the drivers, and Al got to order us all about for a bit, but otherwise we were all just waiting for the second race. It was a strange atmosphere: we'd never had a second race in Monaco before, and it felt as though no one really wanted to have it, that we'd all rather be elsewhere. Other than Mike Conway of course, who had now cooled down after the previous day's incident to realise what an opportunity he had presented to him.
At the start he wasn't going to hang around: the Briton was easily faster than his teammate off the line to lead the pack up the hill, or at least those who made it around the first turn. Roldan Rodriguez was slow off the line which bunched up the field, with Adrian Valles cutting inside him to get past but a fast starting Andreas Zuber having to stop again in a hurry meant Christian Bakkerud had nowhere to go but over his wheels, flying spectacularly through the air before coming down to earth with a bump, although thankfully not damaging his back in the process, while Pastor pushed wide and squeezed Karun into the wall, with the pair bouncing back across the road and into the opposite barrier, prompting the safety car to come out for the first time that weekend.
Andreas came out with a new wing just as the rest of the field was released, waiting just inside Ste Devote until they were all past and he could get going again. Mike set fastest lap after fastest lap as he build a big gap back to Ho-Pin until Giorgio and Marcello Puglisi came together at the new chicane (with Alberto Valerio seemingly spinning out in sympathy for his teammate at Casino Square), calling forth the safety car once again. Mike stormed off once again at the restart, building a 20 second cushion over his teammate, whose rear mirrors were full of Alvaro Parente's Super Nova until they saw the chequered flag.
It was a popular result, and Mike had soon disappeared after spraying the champagne, whether to the F1 paddock or the boat where his Mum watched the race with Lewis Hamilton's Mum I know not. Monaco has a tendency to be like that, and the rest of us went straight back to the paddock to finish our jobs before we got thrown out so the F1 trucks could park there, or to get ready for the best the town had to offer later that night.