Wednesday 29 January 2020

Motorsport: Monaco's streets paved with gold

There is no hiding place in the Monaco maelstrom for anyone who is less than great, writes David Kennedy

It's that time of the year again when Joe Public descends on Billionaires' Row -- known locally as Monaco -- to study the beautiful people. They come to witness how the caged rich kill time in the casinos of Monte Carlo, how specially imported ladies comfort them if they lose and, if they win, how they comfort them even more.

The weekend warriors gaze too at the opulent yachts as they bob gently in lapping waters, awaiting their owners' returns; the Bollinger on ice, the immaculately dressed crews pacing the decks of these floating gin palaces.

The seriously wealthy here ricochet from one fantasy to another, but like in Shakespeare's play The Life of Timon of Athens, some are caught up in a tornado of lavishness, lost in a vacuous search for validity.

Then, when the fans are all done gawping, they collect their pizzas and remember they've actually come to see some cars as they try and work out how the hell they'll get past the serious looking policemen with the white gloves, when they haven't so much as a valid ticket to their name. But in their skintness they're probably having more fun than the yacht owners because that is one of life's ironies.

Coming to Monaco is probably in one of those books about '1,000 things to do before you die' but it really should be in 'things to do next year' -- even if you're not into the whole 'F1 cars in a confined space' thing, as some Monaco residents definitely aren't.

This is seen as an interruption of their quiet enjoyment and they leg it out of Monaco and head for places like the Park Hotel in Kenmare where Francis and John Brennan run an exclusive retreat for refugees from that noise-torn principality, a sort of home from home without the hassle of trying to get to your place of residence on race weekend.

But look at what they're missing. It might be where class and crass collide in a cacophony of some would say vulgarity, but F1 cars on the streets of Monaco? Now that is a spectacle worthy of a pilgrimage.

And today the streets are paved with gold for a new master of Monaco. There is no hiding place here for anyone who is less than great. That is why of the 12 multiple Monaco winners -- who between them won 38 races -- only three failed to win a World Championship.

Ayrton Senna reigns supreme -- winning six times, followed by Michael Schumacher and Graham Hill on five. So Messrs Vettel, Webber, Hamilton, Button, Alonso, Massa, Kubica et al will try to emulate the great Schumacher who has returned to their midst, a living ghost of these streets who is now a less haunting a figure to this new generation whose scareometer is not so easily rattled. His star may have dimmed but his very real presence is a testimony to the fact that he does exist, even if he's in the rear view mirrors of some.

On the crest of a Spanish wave, Barcelona winner Mark Webber is one very relieved man. Beating his team-mate, Sebastian Vettel this season, has been up right there on his agenda. He won twice last year so he's no stranger to the podium. The stats may be stacked against him with Vettel having eight poles and six wins in 48 races and Webber three poles and three wins in 145 races. But Webber has pole position today in Monaco and his team-mate is third; they are looking strong.

The sensation of this street circuit though has been Robert Kubica. What a fabulous run he produced to finish second in qualifying. If he has any chance of victory this season, it must be here at Monaco.

Lewis Hamilton will start from fifth and he could be dangerous, in a good sense. Monaco demands an aggressive, bolshie, in-your-face rawness and he has that in abundance. He's not afraid to overtake even in the impossible-to-overtake-circuits like Monaco. But watch him try.

Ferrari may well throw up a few surprises, which would delight the hordes of Italians who cross the border to pay homage to their country's iconic symbol. Though Fernando Alonso is Spanish and Felipe Massa Brazilian, today they carry the blood of every Italian in their veins and the hope of millions in their hearts. But missing qualifying due to an accident in practice yesterday is an unmitigated disaster for Alonso as he starts the race from pit lane.

A few others could emerge from the woodwork of obscurity to shine their light on the second smallest country in the world. Robert Kubica is one, Nico Rosberg another.

The ticker-tape of team ranking is as changeable as the Dow Jones. Sure Red Bull has the confidence vote, especially after securing pole in Barcelona a full second ahead of McLaren, but it's not yet a fait accompli. Every week the championship table shifts up, down, down, up and instead of the passing of each Grand Prix bringing clarity, it brings opacity.

A few tenths are snatched by one team only to be lost in the following race when someone else comes up with a different upgrade. The fate is in the hands of the designers and every new change is keenly scrutinised by the opposition.

Schumacher showed his critics there is life in the old dog yet when Mercedes lengthened the car's wheelbase by 50mm thus increasing his odds of winning. To quote Gary Anderson: "He is now further away from the front wheels and this will give him more information about the car's balance." It certainly did, so much so he was quicker than team-mate Rosberg for the first time this season. Schumacher is said to like his cars 'pointy' which brings to mind that funny line from a Steve Martin movie called The Man With Two Brains. In it he recites his favourite

poem, "Pointy birds, oh pointy pointy, anoint my head anointy 'nointy," (You really have to see the film to get it.)

The seven-time world champion, whose critics anointed him (it worked), at least weren't as bad as the ones who gave him the last rites and suggested he retire. Will Monaco see his resurrection?

Button, Barrichello, Raikkonen, Massa, Webber and Rosberg completed the top six in Monaco last year. Whatever today's outcome you couldn't get more of a contrast with the race that follows it in two weeks, Turkey. Button, Webber, Vettel, Trulli, Rosberg, Massa, did the honours there, just for the record.

That name Button keeps popping up. But it's worth remembering one thing: the last 13 winners started either first, second or third place on the grid. Monaco is famous for its gambling, but when it comes to F1, history is your best barometer.

Meanwhile, followers of Ireland's Status GP3 team will be buoyed by the news they are leading the championship after the double-header which supported the Grand Prix in Barcelona.

In the talented hands of Canadian Rob Wickens, the Mickey Finn-sponsored car beat off formidable opposition, not least Nicolas Todt's ART team (son of ex-Ferrari team boss and current FIA President Jean) and Mark Webber's team (Arden). So Webber didn't win everything in Barcelona! Roll on Turkey.

David Kennedy is Setanta's F1


Monaco Grand Prix,

Setanta, BBC1, 12.45

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