A hundred dollars? In Monaco? Surely that will buy little more than a candy bar to gnaw on while counting Ferraris. Actually, it will buy three hours of Formula One up close. If you know how to spend it. Here’s our guide for 2013.
The key to get your money’s worth in Monaco is to know what you’re looking for in motor racing. Unlike a ball game, a motor race is impossible to follow when you’re watching it live. The tracks are just too long.
Before Monaco, I’d been to exactly one race in my life, the 2007 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was an epiphany, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced, but it wasn’t until a day later that I found out how the #2 Audi lost the lead on Sunday morning. Out there on France’s chilly West coast, it was all about existing for a day in a great bubble of noise and watching the glow of brake discs at dusk.
If you want to follow a race, don’t go. Watch it on TV. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in hearing just how brutal an F1 car sounds like, how effortlessly it toys with the laws of physics under braking and acceleration, get a ticket and watch it live. You won’t have a sense of how the race unfolds, but you’ll experience it on another level.
Tickets to see the Grand Prix in Monaco cost several hundred dollars, where “several” is a euphemism for “expect about a candy bar’s worth of change from a grand”. You’re almost better off hooking up with some friends and going on Airbnb to find an apartment with a balcony to rent for the weekend but that will still run to around $500 per person. And you’ll still get little sense of the race.
The trick is to get a ticket to see Thursday free practice. There are three practice sessions before qualifying, of 90 minutes each, and two of them are on the same day. You’ll see the same cars at the same speeds on the same track taking the same corner, only for very little money. So when Jalopnik’s secret correspondent Natalie Polgar and I realized a few weeks ago that we’d be visiting friends in Italy at the end of May, we bought two tickets at €75 (~$100) a head for access to the grandstand on Casino Square, with a view on the rather tricky Casino corner and the downhill straight to Mirabeau Haute. If you’re also interested in seeing very rich and very thin European girls emerge bleary-eyed from suites at the Hotel de Paris when the engines are fired up, this same grandstand will do double duty.
On TV, a single corner of a single track looks pretty boring. Up close, viewed from the grandstands, it’s a kaleidoscope of variety. A ninety-minute practice session flies by in an instant when you’re geeking out on the various approaches to this one single corner. There were rookies with little experience on the circuit, like Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo, who tried at least five or six different lines before settling on one and perfecting that. There was Michael Schumacher in his Mercedes, who must have driven thousands of laps of Monaco in his long career, and he never wavered a millimeter from his line. There was Fernando Alonso, a fabulous talent in a dog of a car, who produced great times in spite of visibly wrestling with his Ferrari, downshifting twice before the corner (nobody else took Casino like that). There were the poor HRT’s, mostly there to show that there is such a thing as a slow and terrible Formula One car. There was Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren, whose line was fluid and wildly original, completely unlike anyone else’s. Jenson Button, driving the same car, drove an entirely different line, hitting the apex as close to the D of a DHL ad as possible, all with eerie precision.
Then there’s the noise, the crazy, violent noise, which echoes and clatters in the natural amphitheater of Monaco Harbor. It makes you wish you’d brought earplugs and makes you glad you didn’t.
The greatest thing comes in the evening. At 7 PM on each day of the racing weekend, the marshalls open the track to city traffic. Natalie and I raced up to the train station, grabbed her little banged-up Fiat from the parking garage (parking was a reasonable $35 for the whole day), and proceeded to follow in the footsteps of pretty much everyone who’s ever counted in Formula One.
We passed two Ferraris on the start-finish straight in the shadow of the same Mediterranean pines known from countless photos, turned right at Sainte Devote, made the steep climb up Beau Rivage, took a detour at Massenet, then got out of the car to see just how close Button’s McLaren was to the Armco. It wasn’t hard to investigate. Tire marks were all over the place, the closest less than ten inches from the wall, which means that, taking into account the shape of a tire and that of a car, his front wing was barely over an inch from the barrier. On lap after lap after lap.
So it turns out that Formula One is pretty fantastic from up close. And that while Monaco may be a blast from the past, there’s something to be said for watching Formula One cars racing in a city, their exhaust fumes mixing with the riot of scents that’s a late spring day on the Mediterranean. If you’re in Europe next May? Go. Ticket vendor Gootickets is already selling ticket for the 2013 race.
Photos by Mark Thompson and Paul Gilham/Getty Images