We’ve seen a lot of things in Monaco, but a riot surrounding our paddock was a new one for all of us.
We were enjoying a coffee and the slow wind up to the day on Wednesday morning when suddenly we heard yelling coming from downstairs, and looking over the balustrade of the carpark we called home we saw a horde of young kids running past the entrance, worrying the security guards as they threw flour and eggs around on their way to the tunnel which links us to the principality.
As we were supposed to take the race winners photographs in a few minutes we were a bit worried, but Charles Leclerc turned up and laughed at our concerned faces. “Don’t worry, it’s just MNM. It’s kids from my school: they do this every year.”
“You did this too?”
“Oh yes, it’s a tradition now. They run around Monaco making a mess, and end up by jumping off the pier and into the sea.”
“Right where we were going to do the photoshoot, you mean.”
“You might need another option.”
We had another option, but as it meant making racing drivers walk up a lot of stairs we weren’t too sure about it. But when Nobu turned up and looked at all of the students covered in goo he was more than happy to walk upstairs to the amphitheatre, even if Charles was less keen. But once they got there they were soon admiring the view as Zak the photographer set up, with the local driver pointing out his school and where he lives to the Japanese man before we got started.
Charles had a one off helmet and suit for his debut at his home circuit – surprisingly he had never raced here before, despite catching a bus to school on the circuit on most days while growing up in Monaco. “Are we going to have loads of people coming up to you all weekend?” I asked, wanting to know how much our workload would increase.
“Oh no, no one recognises me around here, don’t worry” he assured, just before a man and his trainer who had been working out nearby came over and asked “Excusez-moi, vous êtes Charles Leclerc? Bonne chance pour la course ce weekend !”
We headed back for a bite to eat and for Johnny Cecotto’s quick fire interview, which ran a lot longer than you’d assume, before heading over to the pitlane for the drivers briefing. We were all standing around outside waiting for the team bosses to finish and watching Davide Valsecchi and Jacques Villeneuve talking to camera for Sky Italia when it occurred to me that they could interview all the future stars live, starting with Luca Ghiotto.
“No, they don’t really talk to us much,” he sighed. “They asked me to come over a lot in GP3, because I was winning all the time. It was right after the races, with the suit and trophy. But now, not so much…”
The next day everyone was in the paddock nice and early, including most of the GP3 grid: they might not be racing, but clearly they weren’t going to miss out on the unique atmosphere in the principality. And, just possibly, the parties.
Free practice came and went pretty quickly, with Leclerc leading the way: the bus lane might not be on the racing line, but he seemed to have caught on pretty well. Just behind him was Sergio Canamasas, who had spent a bit of time in the Dallara sim the week before to good effect, and Oliver Rowland, who was looking for a way to break the Monaco hoodoo which has seen him struggle for results every time he had raced on the fabled circuit.
Qualifying was split into two groups as usual here, odds and evens, to try to minimise the damage to laptimes by traffic: the practice session could have been very different, with the DAMS pair of Rowland and Nicholas Latifi in particular looking fast but unable to put a whole lap together. Leclerc was on fire in Group A, with Rowland hanging on a couple of tenths back, while Alexander Albon dominated Group B ahead of Artem Markelov, but missed the top spot by just one hundredth, merely a blink.
Leclerc was delighted to be on pole in front of his home crowd, setting up the first part of what he hoped would be a famous weekend for him, but the others were just as happy with their work around the tight circuit. “How did you find it, doing a quick lap round here?” Rowland asked as we headed from the paddock to the press conference afterwards.
“It was pretty amazing!” gushed Albon, clearly replaying the lap in his mind.
“Actually the first one, just to be safe, was not so good,” Leclerc disagreed, “but the second one, when you really push and can maybe go into the wall, that was incredible…”
Because Monaco exists in some weird Mobius strip regarding time, the Feature Race seemed to occur about 10 minutes later, with all the cars and trolleys waiting up on Avenue de la Quarantine and most of the drivers boxed into some metal stairs waiting to be allowed into the pitlane before the door was finally unlocked and we all flooded in.
Apart from Leclerc, who was still upstairs having his photo taken with a lot of local kids and thanking all the well-wishers who had popped out of their flats nearby to say hello.
The pitlane is so small compared to anywhere else, and so full of people, most of them with nothing to do other than take selfies. Eventually the security guards shooed them away as the teams concentrated on their last minute routines while the drivers stretched and tried not to look concerned that the biggest moment of their racing careers was about to open.
Everyone squeezed onto the grid, changing tyres and looking at their rivals choices before the siren sounded and we all prepared for the race. All the front runners were on primes, as expected, with Luca Ghiotto in P8 and Gustav Malja in P11 the first runners rolling the dice on options. Leclerc held everyone off at the start, and that looked to be the biggest part of his race done as the field headed up the hill in single file before their local guide.
But when Latifi stopped in the tunnel on lap 7, the only part of the circuit that can’t be accessed by a crane, it turned the race on its head: the option runners had a free stop and took advantage, and Albon decided to risk running for the remainder of the race on the option tyre for the advantage that track position gives on the twisty circuit, emerging just ahead of Ghiotto.
Leclerc tore away from Rowland, Matsushita and Markelov at the restart and was soon building a big gap as he tried to overturn the advantage Albon was banking on: he was getting away well, but it seemed unlikely that the gap would ever be quite enough to hold the lead. The Monegasque driver eventually came in on lap 22, hoping for the best, but unfortunately it was just as Louis Delétraz and Robert Visiou came together at Mirabeau, prompting another safety car period and handing a free stop to the rivals he just left.
Rowland led Matsushita and Markelov into the pits, with the Russian jumping the Japanese driver on the way out, and the trio emerging just ahead of the slowed Leclerc, who had even worse news on the next lap as he had to retire due to a loose nut on his suspension. The TV cameras caught every part of his heartbreak at his unravelled plans before he regained himself and went around to hug and shake hands with everyone in the team, who were just as gutted at the failure to claim a race that they all thought was in the bag.
The top three escaped when the safety car returned to the pits, easily leading the rest of the field away as Rowland overturned his hoodoo for a famous win in Monaco. The Briton, who is never usually short of a word or two, was strangely quiet as we walked back along the front straight on the way to the press conference, with all of the fans walking down to the catch fencing to applaud the three drivers for their day’s work.
“It’s been a while coming!” he laughed once we’d finally made it to the media centre. “Obviously it feels great, and to be honest I didn’t expect it so much after the start because it was quite processional, but the safety cars can cause anything around here! To win here is mega special: every year I’ve been here I’ve been slightly unlucky, whether it was last year in GP2 or previously, and even in karting I seized here with 2 laps to go when I was leading!
“It’s never been that kind before but I think today repaid me, but right now I can’t explain how good it feels to win this…”
Back in the paddock we were writing up everything as the catering crew laid out the dinner in front of us (the glamour of Monaco can sometimes seems remote when your office is a table behind the buffet in a windswept and cold carpark, surprisingly) when Nabil Jeffri arrived, looking for something to eat. “At least here I’m P1!” he laughed as we chatted about his race, which allowed Ralph Boschung to get ahead of him and up the line first. Nabil suddenly turned, smiling: “I had pretty bad start, to be honest…”
The Sprint Race didn’t have the heat of the Feature, coming later in the day as it did, but it lacked none of the appeal for the drivers: any Monaco win looks good on the CV, and the first half dozen drivers were all dreaming of how it would feel. But the Rapax guys, who filled out the front row, had the best chances to live it, even though their team were quietly worried about the potential to lose a famous result.
“We’ve never had a 1-2 in our history,” technical director Marco Galuppi noted on the way to the grid, “and in a place like this, it would mean so much. But everyone wants to win here, and the walls are so close…”
He needn’t have worried: poleman Cecotto made a good start but teammate Nyck De Vries made a better one, running around the outside of the Venezuelan but leaving him plenty of room to follow through at Ste Devote, before sprinting away for what looked to be a pretty processional victory. Behind him Cecotto had his mirrors full of the fast charging pair Gustav Malja and Luca Ghiotto: the latter two were clearly faster, but Cecotto used all of his experience to deny the pair as he rounded out a Rapax 1-2 on the podium, with Malja alongside them.
After the race Nyck was relieved but delighted, Johnny was depressed, Gustav was quietly happy, and Marco looked like he was going to faint in between bursts of cheering ecstatically for his two charges on the podium. Walking through the pitlane to the press conference Nyck was as quiet as Oliver had been the day before, soaking everything in for the mental hard drive, while Johnny clearly wasn’t ready to be told that a podium in Monaco is a good thing, so I wandered back with Gustav, who greeted everyone happily as we walked.
“It’s like that old line about the Olympics,” I suggested. “The gold medallist is more relieved than happy, the silver medallist is gutted to have missed the win, and the bronze medallist is the happiest of everyone because he is just pleased to be up there.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly right!” he laughed. “I’m just really so happy to get a result here, after the start of the season we’ve had!” We pushed through the press conference before heading back to the paddock, and I walked with Malja once again: just like every driver, once the excitement wears off he was already bored with the situation. “This is what sucks about getting the podium,” he smirked, “we have to walk all the way back. If you’re P4/5, you get a lift with the team.”
“Okay, do you want to swap with Ghiotto?”
We got back to the paddock with the teams already in full tear down mode, as they have to pack everything away and be out of the carpark on Saturday night to allow more F1 trucks to fill it up. The tear down is always pretty fast – everyone is ready to head home after a race weekend – but the added speed required in Monaco adds a degree of difficulty not found anywhere else. With the trucks removed it always looks a bit like a riot had gone through.
But apparently that’s not a problem for the Monegasques: they’re more than used to that around here.