Adam Cooper's Monaco Postcard

One of the great privileges of being an F1 journalist is that, like the photographers, we are granted access to the trackside. However, not everyone takes advantage of this perk. Those who prefer to sit and watch the TV screens in the press room at Monaco miss out on the most fun they can have standing up

Adam Cooper's Monaco Postcard

For me, the traditional Thursday trek is a must. As practice gets underway the thing to do is to head from the paddock to Rascasse, the Swimming Pool section, round Tabac, and along the harbourside to the Chicane. This is all great viewing, but just an appetiser compared to what comes next.

From the back of the Chicane you head under the grandstand scaffolding and then take some concrete steps that lead back up to the trackside. Turn right, and you arrive at the exit of the tunnel.

TV pictures and still photographs can never properly capture the experience, and neither alas can words. I don't think the speed of the cars or angle of the bend is much different from the pit straight, but what makes the difference is the claustrophobic feeling the roof and walls provide. As every car passes, the deafening engine noise sends vibrations through your body, and the ground shakes. Drivers say it's "easy flat", but there's a constant realisation that if somebody does lose it, bits and pieces will come sailing over the barrier at 160mph. In Grand Prix, the Jean-Pierre Sarti character admitted that drivers need a certain "absence of imagination," or they would never step into a car. The same is required when you are walking round Monaco.

It's a lot safer now; over the past couple of years the barrier has grown higher, and the lower half is very solid concrete rather than more flexible metal. Bizarrely, there are some vending machines here; as well as providing a little protection as you peer round at appraoching cars, this is also a handy place to grab a beverage as you compose your thoughts.

From the tunnel you take some stairs down to a pedestrian underpass - this being Monaco, it is lined with marble and mirrors rather than bare concrete and the litter of discarded fast food packaging. A lift then takes you up to the rear of the Casino. Walk past a couple of very exclusive banks, and take a short escalator up, and you arrive at the entry to Massenet.

This is the left hander on the approach to Casino Square. It's a bit of a weird one, because on TV it doesn't really come across as being anything special - most people don't even know that it has a name.

But stand there in person, and you see that it is a mighty challenge, requiring an awful lot of commitment from the drivers as they turn in. You can see whose quick and who isn't.

On Thursday morning I bumped into former F1 racer Christian Danner, out doing some hand-on research for his TV commentary job. As we watched the cars flash up the hill from Ste Devote - much steeper in real life that you might imagine - I reminded him of one of the less glorious episodes in his career. Back in 1987 at this very spot Michele Alboreto was launched over the back of Danner's car in one of the most spectacular Monaco accidents of recent times. During handy silences between passing cars he filled me in on the story.

"I was on old tyres in a free practice session. Alboreto went for a gap that wasn't there. It was a big accident. The gearbox went over the barrier, and he ended up sitting in the tub over there. There was fire and everything..."

Poor Danner was made the scapegoat, and was summarily excluded from the rest of the meeting by clerk of the course Jacky Ickx.

"The only one who stood up for me was Ayrton Senna. He was following us, and he said, no, it was Alboreto's fault. He actually went to the trouble of issuing a statement. Jacky Ickx still excluded me, but what Ayrton said made a big difference to me, personally at least."

It was indeed a lucky escape for Michele, the marshals, and F1 in general. There has long been a fear that one day a car will clear a barrier, and this was the closest we've come. But hearing a tale like that when standing behind the very same piece of guardrail is a bit like discussing air crashes while cruising on a 747.

From there you can walk round to the grassy 'island' in front of the Casino. You can cross a footbridge to the outside, or as I usually do, wait for the lunch break and wander across the track. There's an hour to kill, during which you can head off into the nearby streets to find a bite to eat, before you fight your way back through the security checks.

The outside of Casino Square is a must. It looks great in photos, it looks fantastic on TV, but to stand there and see the cars sweeping over the brow reminds you why you grew to love this sport in the first place. In qualifying this is a sensational spot, but even in Thursday free practice you see drivers pushing the limits, tails whipping out.

After a while it's time to walk down the hill to Mirabeau. This short, bumpy straight is one of the oddest stretches of track; no marshals stand on this section, as it is considered rather dangerous. But the doors and windows of most of the bars and restaurants either side of the Tip Top are open, and staff, friends and other hangers-on sit just a couple of metres from the passing cars.

This year they have been given a little protection thanks to the addition of debris fencing on top of the barrier. Previously when walking down this hill you felt you were taking your life in your hands. Even now if you stop to have a quick look back up the hill you make sure you step back into a doorway. Just in case.

You soon arrive at Mirabeau, scene of many spectacular collisions in past races. As you circumnavigate the end of the escape road you get a fantastic head-on view as the cars plunge down the hill. But you don't want to stand there for more than a couple of minutes...

Move round towards the exit and you experience the amazing sight of the cars lifting their inside front wheels, just as they pass under the little bit of shade provided by the trees in the adjacent park. For a split second they head right at you.

If you turn round and look over the wall at the drop behind, you can see the cars head through the first Portier righthander. That's if you can find a gap in the army of photographers; this is where they get that familiar overhead shot of the cars with two wheels up on the red and white painted kerb. Germany's Rainer Schlegelmilch has made it his trademark, capturing every car at every race since 1974. Sure enough, he was there on Thursday morning. "Make sure you don't miss somebody", I said. He didn't see the funny side...

It's very slippery at Portier, and even the smoothest drivers look a little ragged as they disappear out of view. It's a 30 metre walk down to the inside of what we used to know as Loews, and to earlier generations was the Station Hairpin. Now it's supposed to be called the Grand, because the hotel behind it changed its name last year.

This is as about as close as you can ever get to a moving F1 car. You can almost reach out and touch the wheels as they very nearly come to a stop at this first gear obstacle. You can see into cockpits, glimpse the lights on the dash behind twirling arms. But while the corner itself requires a gentle touch, it's followed by an immediate burst of power, Punters who can afford a hotel room overlooking the track get a first class view, much like what you see on TV, but nothing beats being on the inside.

The Monaco commentary is split between four languages, and occasionally during brief lulls you hear tantalising snippets of the English version, usually along the lines of " the barrier at Rascasse. He's out of the car and he's OK...". You're left wondering who on earth the guilty party was.

As the end of the session approaches, there's only one place you want to be. So you walk back up the hill to Mirabeau, round the back of the escape road, and head back up the hill for a final spell at Casino Square.

As the last few minutes tick by, you can really see who's trying hard. You soon know if Jean Alesi has improved his position, because the French commentator's voice goes up an octave or two, but most of the time you're in the dark as to what's happening. And then suddenly it's 2pm and the session is over. Peace descends on Monaco, apart from the occasional rumble of a tow truck heading by, and you can finally hear the times, see if they reflect your own opinions on who was trying hardest. There are only two problems. One is that you have to wait two days before the cars come out again. The second is that it's a long walk back to the paddock

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