It was an odd feeling. Having spent my entire life wanting to race around the streets of Monaco, five seconds before the impossible dream was about to come true I’d have swapped my seat for almost any other in the world. The stocks on the village green to be pelted with rotten fruit? Show me the way.
Sitting on the grid waiting for the lights to go out is the worst feeling in any motor race, but to do so at the impossibly narrow circuit at Monaco, in someone else’s multi-million pound racing car, with 40 other cars snarling and snapping around you is as intimidating an experience as I’ve known in 20 years of racing.
«My» car was a Jaguar C-type, the actual car that came sixth at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1952, the only year in which it has ever been held for sports cars rather than Formula One machinery. Later that year Stirling Moss used it to win the first race by a car using disc brakes. Because it has never been modified, it is uncompetitive which, combined with my fear of this place, explains why I’ve qualified in the middle of the grid. Another C-type, prepared to the limit of what is allowable and driven by a professional racing driver, is on pole.
I run through a lap in my head, trying to remember the topography of each corner, but the names keep getting in the way. You don’t have turns 1 to 15 here as you do at any number of faceless, featureless modern tracks: here you have St Devote, Massenet, Casino Square, Mirabeau and Portier, names bearing the stench of history and the very same corners through which William Grover-Williams drove his Bugatti to victory in the very first Monaco Grand Prix in 1929.
Apart from where the track now diverts around a swimming pool built on reclaimed land in the 1970s, the circuit has never changed. In modern F1, that makes it unique.
As is the challenge it poses. Overcook a corner on a normal track and there’s a kerb, some grass, a large run-off area and probably some gravel to beat before you stand any chance of actually hitting something. Here where the track stops, the barrier starts. The slightest mistake is reflected not in a commensurately slower lap time, but very public, very expensive ignominy.
I try to comfort myself and think of Lewis and co who do this for real. The task I face seems daunting, yet their wide, open wheel race cars are so much faster than mine they’ll lap the circuit in almost half the time. I can’t imagine that.
The lights go out and I make a timid start. There are twice the number of cars in this race as they have in F1 and I have no desire to become involved in the world’s most expensive pile up. Cars dart right and left across the Jaguar’s beautiful prow as I try to avoid trouble that, in the end, never comes.
The view of this track afforded by in car shots on television is remarkable, but what they can never convey is either the gradient or narrowness of the circuit. The climb up to Casino Square is exhausting on foot and the plunge from there down to the tunnel pure torture for ancient braking systems. As for the width, in places it’s no wider than a typical B-road, but populated by more than 40 cars, most worth seven figures and all doing more than 100mph while trying to overtake each other.
It’s hard to name the biggest challenge because there are no easy corners here, but I guess the tunnel scared me most because it’s here the C-type reaches its highest speed simultaneously cranked over, right on the limit of adhesion. You are never, ever going to have a small accident in here.
Yet even here, confidence grows. Halfway through a race I didn’t want to start, I am throwing the Jaguar between the barriers with all the speed and panache I can muster. I overtake an Aston Martin that had nipped past at the start and had held me up ever since and set about trying to dispatch Alain de Cadenet in a mechanically almost identical C-type. I manage it on the penultimate lap only because the one difference between the two cars is his has drum brakes that had grown hot and tired while mine has discs that did not.
I was surprised to the point of incredulity to see the flag. It seemed like five minutes rather than half an hour had passed. Thanks to my lousy start I finished one place lower than I’d started, somewhere in the middle of the pack. But that hardly mattered: I had been afforded a glimpse of the greatest street circuit in the world and from a position of impossible privilege.
Most importantly I’d taken the old Jaguar back to Monaco for the first time in 62 years and after a weekend’s practice, qualifying and racing, I was able to hand it back to its owner without a mark on her body and in perfect mechanical condition. Given where we were and what we’d been doing, that was victory enough for me.
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