By Dan Knutson
Thursday, June 5, 2003
Despite the best efforts of those on mass strikes all over France, I managed to make it to the Monaco Grand Prix and back home again.
The Monaco Grand Prix usually ends up being held on the same weekend as the Indianapolis 500, but luckily this year Monaco was scheduled for the Sunday after Indy so I was able to attend both races. For a fan of open-wheel racing, for any racing fan, it doesn’t get any better than this. The three most famous, historic and legendary races in the world are the Indy 500, the Monaco Grand Prix and the Le Mans 24 Hours.
They’ve been racing at Indy since 1909 (the first “500” was in 1911), at Monaco since 1929 and at Le Mans since 1923. To get to attend two of these illustrious races on back-to-back weekends was a memorable treat.
I stood down on the main straight of the Brickyard for all the pre-race festivities and soaked up the incredible atmosphere along with several hundred thousand fans. Of all the celebrities on hand, boxing legend Muhammad Ali got one of the biggest cheers from the crowd. Then I watched 33 cars roar by the Yard of Bricks as the 87th Indy 500 got underway. And 500 miles later, I saw Marlboro Team Penske driver Gil de Ferran narrowly beat his teammate, Helio Castroneves. All in all, it was a great day.
By 5 a.m. Monday morning, I was at the Indianapolis airport for the flight home where I spent just four hours before heading back to the airport for the flight to Europe. I landed in Frankfurt at 6 a.m. on Tuesday to discover that my connecting flight to Nice, France, had been canceled.
France has been crippled by strikes recently as people there are protesting for more pension and a shorter workweek. Fortunately, I did get on a flight at noon. Ours was one of the few planes to make it in that day.
There are fewer parties and dinners – for us journalists anyway – than there used to be at Monaco, but I did go to a couple. On Thursday evening, Toyota held a reception for the 30 or so journalists and photographers who have attended more than 300 Grands Prix. We stood around on the rear deck of a huge yacht, nibbled canapés, sipped champagne and for an hour or so acted like the rich and famous.
Panasonic Toyota drivers Olivier Panis and Cristiano da Matta dropped by to say hi. When the press got together for a group photo, Panis turned the camera, so to speak, and for a change he took our picture. Race drivers like to do things fast, so he planted his finger on the button and the motor drive, accompanied by rapid flashes, and zoomed off a couple dozen shots in a few seconds.
Later on, I talked to da Matta about this year’s Indy 500. It’s a race he really wants to win. I told him about the atmosphere on Race Day at Indy, and he said: “You know, a lot of people in Europe just don’t understand just what an incredible race Indy is.”
One night, I attended a party thrown by Grand Prix Tours and the BMW WilliamsF1 team that was held at the Grand (formerly Loews) Hotel. The hotel overlooks the famous hairpin on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. Our party was held in a room with a huge glass wall overlooking the glittering sea and the famous backdrop of Monaco.
We were also basically standing over the tunnel that comprises part of the track. The next day, I donned a photographer’s vest that got me trackside access and walked along almost the entire circuit. Being inside the tunnel was almost unbearable. Even though I wore foam ear plugs and insulated ear “defender” headphones, the noise inside the tunnel was overwhelming as the cars screamed through there at 170 mph with engines wound out to 18,000 rpm.
Monaco attracted its usual array of celebrities, but I didn’t recognize most of them. One guy surrounded by photographers looked familiar.
“Who’s that?” I asked somebody standing nearby.
Turns out it was actor Wesley Snipes.
Like Indy, this year’s Monaco Grand Prix was a close-fought race with a fraction of a second separating first and second.
Juan Pablo Montoya won this year’s Monaco Grand Prix in his Williams-BMW just ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s West McLaren-Mercedes. Montoya and the late Graham Hill are the only two drivers to have won the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500.
“Winning in Monaco is very special, as there is no other race like this in Formula One,” Montoya said. “It is a bit like winning the Indy 500 in the U.S.A. Monaco is the most special race you can win (in F1), and being the only street course in the championship it is very special. It is a great atmosphere: it is a bit different to every other race and to win here is fantastic.”
Monaco specialist Michael Schumacher finished third this year in his Ferrari. He crossed the line just 1.7 seconds behind Montoya. Had Jarno Trulli not held him up early in the race, Schumacher may well have won his sixth Monaco Grand Prix.
To avoid the rush, I usually leave Monaco on the Tuesday rather than the Monday after the race. This year, however, that backfired on me as more strikes were staged on Tuesday. Planes, trains, buses … almost nothing was moving.
Well, if you have to be stuck somewhere for an extra day, Monaco is not too bad a place to be! I finally made it out Wednesday, but some of my colleagues weren’t so lucky as they got to the Monaco train station to find the ticket office closed and the trains to Paris canceled.
I got home late Wednesday night, 29 hours late. This year’s Indy 500 and Monaco Grand Prix had indeed been memorable races for me.