Nostalgia: The Sights and Sounds of Monaco

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Nostalgia: The Sights and Sounds of Monaco

Monaco has long been one of the most respected circuits on the Formula 1 calendar, not only for the extreme technical difficulty of the track but also the extravagance, beauty and glamour by which the fans and citizens of Monte Carlo live.  It is the ultimate in what is commonly referred to as a lifestyle of excess and lavishness.  Multi-million dollar yachts, exclusive clubs and restaurants, and a night life second to none make the small island country a hot spot for the rich and famous.

On May 25th, the F1 circus once again touches down in the breath-taking city of Monte Carlo for the 2008 running of the Grand Prix de Monaco.  I'm reminded of a young up-and-coming photographer who got to experience the sights, smells and sounds of Monte Carlo firsthand and in a way that most people do not.  Please note that the following contains sexual situations.  It's a fantastic story, but you've been warned.

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La Rascasse restaurant faces out onto the penultimate turn before the start/finish straight.  I don't know what the food's like, but try getting a table over a race weekend -- you'll find the Eurotrash beat you to the reservation by about twelve months.

A high fence protects the diners from flying tyres and suspension bars, in case of an accident.  Men sit at tables and drink champagne, and girls stand pressed against the fence, with their fingers poking through.  The men watch the girls.  The girls have arms so slender that (if they could stand to risk such slender arms) they could reach through the chain links and touch the carbon fibre bodywork of the cars as they pass by.

Over on the other side of the track, on the outside of the turn, there is a small grandstand.  This, by contrast, is one of the least desirable spots to follow the Grand Prix.  Here you see the Rascasse corner for what it is: a slow corner, with no real view of the cars' approach or retreat.  The grandstand spectators won't see an overtaking move, unless it is the passing of a backmarker.  They won't see a bounce over a chicane, or a feint left, or a jink right, or a late brake.  Instead, they will see an unvarying procession of high-speed vehicles moving at a sluggish pace, and they will see the diners at Rascasse.

Finally, there is a narrow strip between La Rascasse and the grandstand.  No-man's land as far as the public is concerned, the strip runs the entire length of the Monaco circuit.  It is there to service the race marshals and medics and fire crews and journalists.  It also allows drivers who have crashed their ride to walk back to the paddock.

To stand here, you must first sign a piece of paper that says you take full responsibility for any harm that befalls you in this exposed position.  Only an Armco barrier separates the strip from the track itself.  Lean against the low metal guard, and be warned that if a car so much as clips the Armco the force of the vibration could break your ribs.

This is where I stood: a safe step back from the Armco, my back to the grandstand, facing the track and La Rascasse.

La Rascasse.  The guys watching the girls watching the cars pass by.

The guy was young, late twenties, blond, well-built, wearing a blue yachting blazer, and sitting at one of the most coveted tables, as close to the track as the restaurant could manage.  The girl beside him was tall, brown-haired, and gold-skinned.  She was maybe twenty-one or twenty-two, with a Spanish look about her.  Her fingers poked through the chain-link fence.

A very pretty girl, exceptionally pretty even for young Eurotrash, so I raised my camera and started taking photos.

Using a fairly slow shutter speed, I was looking for a shot where she would be in focus, but the McLarens or Jordans passing a few feet in front of her would be a blur.  The Saturday pre-qualifying practice session isn't good for much except picking up these local colour shots.

The girl saw me taking her picture.  I zoomed in a little on her and she pouted outrageously and looked surprised.  I took a few more pictures, zooming in further so that the cars were pretty much cut out of the frame.  She squirmed and wriggled and showed me a full range of facial expressions.  Why are you taking my photo?  Oh, I feel shy.  Surely you don't think I'm so pretty?  Oh, you do.  Now I'm embarrassed.  Now I'm angry.  But I forgive you.  Here's my smile.  She was as comfortable with a camera as that.

Stirling Moss would wave to pretty girls in pink lipstick as he controlled a four-wheel drift out of Casino Square.  The four-wheel drift of Stirling Moss was a move that even Fangio envied.  The lateral momentum of the car kept it from contact with the barriers not with the brake, but with the accelerator.  A beautiful thing. The wheel turned in opposite lock, turned against the corner's natural direction.  To drive a car that fast in that way seems to be unnatural.

The girl's blond boyfriend saw the direction my camera was pointed, and he smiled too.  He liked me taking photos of his girlfriend because that's what she was there for, and that's why he was sitting at Rascasse.  He put down his wine glass -- not champagne, I noticed blankly -- and reached up to his girlfriend's white shirt.  With an easy motion, his popped two of the buttons and tugged the shirt open, and a single tanned breast appeared.

I was momentarily flustered.  Now I've really got a photo -- flustered like that.  I wondered if anyone else had noticed the girl's exposed breast and zoomed out the lens again, willing a car to pop into the frame.

Come on, I prayed.  I need a car for this.  I don't care who's driving it: for this girl, I need a streak of car in the frame.

But none appeared.  Not even a lame Prost, not even a limping Minardi.  The track was quiet and the pit-lane full.

Don't cover up, I prayed.

She didn't.  Instead, without so much as a glance at her boyfriend, who was now looking up at her with quizzical amusement, the girl pulled open the other side of her shirt.  Now with both her breasts fully exposed, she tilted her head provocatively and continued to gaze straight at my camera.

Not having much choice, I took a couple of shots of her and the empty road.  But it was as good as useless next to the photo it could be.

No other photographers were elbowing beside me or jockeying for position because there were no other photographers.  Nothing happens at Rascasse - we use the corner to leave the paddock and access other parts of the circuit, where things do happen.  The first corner, where cars crash; the opening of the tunnel, where cars flash into the shadowed entrance; the chiccane past the exit of the tunnel, where cars brake too late and bounce the kerbs or collide; the swimming pool, where the cars appear to be aiming directly at the camera lens until -- at the last moment -- they jink right and then left into the short straight-the short straight that leads to Rascasse.  Good for nothing but local colour.

The lower lip of the viewfinder was pressed hard into my cheekbone.  The girl had undone the top button of her jeans and her smile had faded, replaced with a look of vague concentration.  She slipped her left hand inside her waistband, her fly pulled open a little.  The girl's knuckles began to move discreetly.  I couldn't capture a movement like that on camera.  I had to concentrate on what I could capture.

In 1988, Ayrton Senna led the first sixty-six laps of Monaco, from pole position on the grid.  On lap sixty-seven, he lost concentration just before the entrance of the tunnel and clipped the Armco, breaking no one's ribs but ending his race.

Monaco is unforgiving.  Overtaking is nearly impossible, the slowest corner on the track can bring the cars to a near standstill.  These cars are designed to drive fast, not crawl around sloping hairpins.  Even the start/finish straight has a curve in it.

She's going to make herself orgasm, I realised.  I could see that from the tension that was forming around her mouth.  And the boy, I think, could see it too, because he put his hand against the small of her back.  For support or encouragement -- it was the hand he had used to unbutton her shirt.

I wondered how many exposures I had left on my roll of film.  There was no point in switching to my back-up camera, because it had a wide-angle lens fitted and with the distance of the track between us, the girl and her flat brown stomach would as good as vanish.

So if I was to change the lens, I might as well change film.  But trying to jam in a new roll would be the interruption that snapped this elastic moment.  If it wasn't the hurried motion, it would be the revelation that I had eyes behind the lens.

I guessed I had three shots left.  Instinct, a thousand previously changed rolls, the internal clock and counting system that lets me set an alarm for seven thirty, and wakes me up at seven twenty-five.

The girl, but no car.

Late May is when the F1 calendar hits Monaco.  When the coastal sky is blue and cloudless, the May sun beats down hot enough to burn.  That's why the older Eurotrash women have faces as cracked as Monte Carlo's harbour walls, wrinkles meshed around their eyes and mouths like the chain-link fences that protect them from flying tyres and suspension bars.

I could feel the sun on me.  My t-shirt was stuck to my back and I could feel the strap of my camera bag shifting on my shoulder, sliding on the sweat.

The movement of the girl's knuckles had become less delicate and, although the direction of her gaze had remained steady, her focus on me was now indistinct.  She used her free hand to widen the opening in her fly, and shifted her feet, fractionally moving her legs further apart.

I took the first of my three remaining shots.  In the corner of the frame, I caught the boyfriend at exactly the moment his eyes flicked in my direction.

The shutter reopened and the viewfinder cleared.  The boy was looking at me with his eyebrows raised and one finger held up in the universal signal of pause.  I don't know why, but the gesture made me hold my breath.  A moment later, I heard the faint sound of an engine, accelerating.  A car was leaving the pit-lane.

The boy's eyebrows raised higher, and his mouth spread into a grin.  Turning back to the girl, he said something to her or whispered something to her, and she responded, in kind, by biting her lower lip.

First lap out, taking it slow on the cool tyres, it would take over a minute and a half for the car to reach us.

The girl's mouth opened wide and she gasped.  Then her hips bucked forward once, in a prelude to her little death.  A reflex action: all it took was a slight tightening of my grip on the camera, and I had accidentally taken the second of my three remaining photographs.

In France, they call it petit mort.  Little death-everyone knows that.  Eskimos have an infinite number of words for snow; if a butterfly flaps its wings then a hole appears in the ozone layer; when the French orgasm they think they're dying.

Only two racers have died at Monaco.  In 1952, Luigi Fagioli entered the tunnel in his Mercedes, but he didn't come out the other side.  Somewhere in the half-lit right-hand curve, he lost control. His tyres lost grip, he ran wide, and he smashed into a stone balustrade.  A decade and a half later, Lorenzo Bandini rolled his ride as he tried to negotiate the chicane.  The car landed upside down on the straw bales that used to act as track barriers, and caught fire.  Bandini was trapped and died later from his burns.

The accident happened on the eighty-first lap of a hundred-lap race.  The following year, the Monaco circuit was reduced to eighty laps-as if it was the extra lap that had killed Bandini.  Maybe it was, because no one has been killed since.

As the car left the tunnel, halfway around the circuit, thirty or so seconds away from where I stood, there was a sudden increase in the volume of the engine noise.  The girl's hips bucked again and the boy looked back at me, and mouthed the make of the car.

From close by, the car engines sound like someone channelling an electric drill from your gut, up your neck, into your mind.  Take your earplugs out, and you'll lose balance.  The noise will make you sway drunkenly on the heels of your feet and you'll reach out a hand to steady yourself.

Experts, tifosi, engineers and old hands-they can easily distinguish one car from another, just from the engine noise.  But there is one engine that everybody knows.  If you've heard it once, you will always recognise it if you hear it again.  The engine noise is like a signature.  I once heard an Italian journalist describe it as a machine gun firing through a vapour of blood.

The boy had mouthed "Ferrari".  I heard the roar of the crowd in the grandstand behind me.  They were calling out for the car that was coming, not the girl.

The Ferrari had exited the pit-lane and gave a little burst on the accelerator up to the first corner, then turned right into the zig-zag ascent to Casino Square.  Out of Casino Square and past the grandstand roar, the road dropped again, almost as steeply as it climbed.  A hard brake into a hard right, and the Ferrari was coasting towards Lowes, Monaco's famous hairpin, the slowest corner on the Grand Prix calendar.  Here, during a race, cars at the back of a pack will sometimes come to a standstill as they wait for the front-runners to clear the succession of slow turns that bring the circuit to the sea-front, and the tunnel.

In the tunnel, the Ferrari had opened up, putting a little heat in the tyres, rocketing past the concrete balustrades that had killed Fagioli.

Out of the tunnel, the engine had abruptly ripped across the harbour, then faded as the car slowed for the chicane.

Around the chicane, back on the power, passing the rows of multimillion-dollar yachts and their champagne deck parties.

Left, into the swimming pool complex.

Left again, the yachts here obscured by another grandstand.

Then right.

Then left.

Short burst on the power.

Slow, for...

Rascasse!

Stirling Moss used to wave at pretty girls in pink lipstick.  But the driver of the Ferrari crashed.

Monaco is full of stories.

The first winner of the race, in 1929, was entered only as "Williams".  Some legends describe him as a wealthy amateur, others as a humble chauffeur.  But his real name was William Grover and he drove for the Bugatti team. 

Half-English and half-French, Grover enlisted as a driver in the Royal Army corps where his bilingual ability led to him being recruited by Special Operations in 1942.  He was trained as an undercover agent and parachuted back into France, where he landed near the Le Mans circuit.  In Paris, he set up a sabotage network and recruited two more racers, French drivers Benoist and Wimille.

In 1943 the network was discovered.  Grover was tortured by the Gestapo, then executed.  Benoist escaped but was recaptured in 1944, and died at Buchenwald.

I don't know what happened to Wimille.

But I did get the photo.

The girl clutches the fence with her free hand, head back, back arched.  The boy half rises out of his seat.  A diner looks towards the two of them as if he is only just comprehending what the girl has been doing.  And another diner turns towards the foreground, where a Ferrari loses its back end in a cloud of burning rubber.

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