By Matt Bishop, England
F1 Racing Editor in Chief
Amidst the politics, controversy, manipulation, and negotiations, the Monaco Grand Prix reminds us what Formula One is really all about. Matt Bishop looks forward to the upcoming weekend
"Of course, this is all off the record," says the Formula One grandee, looking over his shoulder to check if he's being overheard. So you switch off your Dictaphone, you smile conspiratorially, you say, "Okay, go ahead"... and you listen even harder than you were listening before.
Sometimes the ensuing peroration is pure dynamite - a series of revelations you knew nothing about and now cannot report unless you can find a genuinely independent source to back them up, this time on the record. And if you can't find such a source, you can end up very frustrated indeed, because you've given the grandee your word. And a good hack's word is his bond.
Just as often, though, what the F1 grandee wants to tell you - be it Bernie Ecclestone, Max Mosley, Jean Todt, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis or whoever - is a snippet so trifling, and so damn' arcane, that it would probably interest only about 43-or-so people out of Planet Earth's ever-growing population of some 6.5 billion - perhaps fewer. This is one of Sir Frank's favourite tricks, to be, er, frank.
It usually goes something like this:
Frank: Off the record, er, erm, and I do stress this is off the record, right?
Hack: No problem, Frank, I understand.
Frank: It's a very sensitive issue, so I'll have to be absolutely sure that it won't appear in your magazine or on some bloody website, okay?
Hack: No problem.
Frank: Well, er, erm... [a pause]... it's a Concorde Agreement thing, okay?
Frank: Well, the thing is, er... [another, longer, pause]... erm, er, not everything Max says about Article 7.2 Appendix 324 Clause 653.6 Section 8c Part 2.6 amounts to a statement with which Patrick and I would want to describe ourselves as in total accord.
Hack: [A pause]... Oh right. Thanks for that, Frank. I'll bear that in mind.
[Hold the front page. Not.]
Sometimes, though, but this is rare, an F1 grandee tells you something on the record - which you can assume it is if (a) it isn't politically, commercially or technically sensitive, and (b) if the dreaded "off the record" disclaimer hasn't been uttered - which is genuinely noteworthy or revealing or, possibly, both.
And on the morning of Sunday April 3, in the Bahrain paddock, Ron Dennis did exactly that.
"Things haven't started too well for you this year, have they, Ron," I began, "but your car seems to have genuine pace. How do you think you'll shape up over the next few races?"
"I reckon we'll be pretty competitive at Imola, where you need a car that can ride kerbs efficiently, and we hope to be very strong at Barcelona, which is a real test of a car's inherent downforce levels and overall aero efficiency."
"And Monaco, Ron? What about Monaco?"
"Monaco... ah, Monaco is all about... [a pause, a grin]... the drivers."
And that remark, ladeez 'n' gennelmen, I regarded then and still regard now as a breath of fresh air in an F1 world now at risk of being dominated by technical, commercial and/or political sensitivities, off-the-record briefings, (Chinese) whispers, gossip, slander, libel, spin (yes, increasingly, spin) and so on. Because, lest we forget, though F1 is undoubtedly about all those things, it's also about white knuckles; it's also about big balls; it's also about brave men putting their cojones on the line because that's what they were born to do.
It's about Alex Wurz giving it everything and more in Thursday practice, neat yet banzai, on a circuit he hasn't driven for five long years, just days after having hit the wall at Paul Ricard at 208mph (yes, 335km/h).
It's about Juan Pablo Montoya yanking on and off the opposite lock in the same session as his McLaren MP4-20 fishtails down the hill to Mirabeau on the oily, diesel-streaked, unrubbered-in tarmac, his still-tender shoulder twingeing all the while, his right foot never flinching from the loud pedal.
It's about Giancarlo Fisichella leaving no margin - no margin at all - in his desperate efforts to rein in the increasingly irrepressible Fernando Alonso on the circuit that he, Fisi, loves more than any other.
It's about Michael Schumacher putting to the back of his mind the knowledge that's he's 36, and has greying hair and two kids and more money than he could spend in a thousand years, and caning his F2005 to within an inch of its life... and to within half an inch of the unforgiving Armco.
And it's about Vitantonio Liuzzi and Tiago Monteiro and Narain Karthikeyan and Christijan Albers and Patrick Friesacher driving a Grand Prix car at Monte Carlo for the very first time - doing the near-impossible, doing what Nelson Piquet famously likened to riding a bicycle in a bathroom - and doing it in front of hundreds of millions of ultra-critical viewers who are all ready to damn them as no-hopers if they do one of two things: (a) touch the wall or (b) drop a couple of tenths over the most testing couple of miles that any modern-era F1 driver will ever be asked to conquer.
And it's about why we all fell in love with the sport in the first place.
So forget about the FIA Court of Appeal. Forget about Max Mosley. Forget, if you dare, about even Bernie Ecclestone. Forget about the yachts and the beautiful people. Forget about the Murcielagos double-parked outside the Casino, forget about the 50-Euro espressos, forget about everything except this: remember that Monaco is the place that reminds us all, every year, that F1 remains the most wonderful sport - yes, sport - in the world.
PS: Shame Mika Hakkinen won't be racing an F1 car in his 'home' town this year, though, innit? Did you clock the result of last weekend's DTM race at Spa? He got the pole, in the wet, in only his third-ever DTM race, after three years spent pruning his roses, and followed that with emphatic, glorious, riotous victory the following day. I call that mighty. Bet you do, too.