Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, June 2, 2000

As Circus Comes to Monaco, Race Drivers Feel Nearly at Home

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
MONACO - This is a race that many who take part think simply should not exist.

There is something very strange about seeing, hearing and feeling the open-wheel, 800-horsepower winged-cars negotiate the 3.67 kilometer (2.09 miles) roller-coaster temporary track through the streets of this rich people's playground on the Mediterranean coast.

The 22 cars that rattled the windows of Monaco's luxurious apartment buildings during the practice sessions Thursday for the 58th Grand Prix of Monaco on Sunday look and function more like the private jet airplanes that some of the drivers own than the usual variety of car in the principality.

In image, at least, this most famous of all Formula One races fits in with the high-paced, high-priced lifestyle of Monaco. The only problem is that the narrow streets are not well suited to the extremely high pace of modern Formula One.

Nelson Piquet once compared racing in Monaco to ''driving a bicycle around your living room.'' If it is not exactly their living room, it is at least a backyard to more than half of the drivers, who make Monaco their home.

Mika Hakkinen, a local resident who won the race in 1998, said the fact that you are passing your favorite restaurant does not make it any easier to turn a fast lap.

Nevertheless, he should have impressed his neighbors Thursday after he set the fastest time of the day at 1 minute, 21.387 seconds around the track for an average speed of 149.065 kilometers per hour.

Never does the sport look more like a circus. The only thing missing at Monaco is a canvas roof to suspend over the amphitheater-like backdrop of the cliffs behind the city. Spectator bleachers, 700 tons of them, are set up wherever there is room around the city street circuit, and above those the apartments of the locals are often rented out for a first-class view from terraces. The yacht-filled harbor also becomes prime viewing real estate.

Formula One teams set up shop to sell merchandise throughout the town, and spectators arrive from their quarters in the other coastal towns of Cannes, Nice, and Menton, or across the border in Italy. They arrive by the trainload all day over the four days the circus is in town.

The race, which started in 1929, is quite unnatural in today's Formula One. Modern Grand Prix cars are designed for wide open tracks in the countryside with large safety run-off areas in case of a spinout.

Monaco is the smallest track in the 17-race season, and the slowest, although the fastest drivers can reach average speeds of about 150 kilometers per hour on some laps.

It is also one of the most dangerous tracks. The guardrails define the edge of the track and dictate the limits, and drivers, driving at the very limits, frequently rub against them.

''Mistakes not only cost you time,'' said Michael Schumacher, who has won the race four times, ''but they usually mean an accident when normally you would only end up in the gravel.''

Michael's brother, Ralf, found that out Thursday morning as he spun off just before entering the long tunnel by the edge of the sea. He hit the barrier and destroyed his front suspension after completing only three full laps.

His team, Williams, one of the top three in the sport has never had very much luck in Monaco, winning the race only twice, but not since 1983.

Patrick Head, the Williams technical director, said Thursday that the team had led the Monaco race many times but that things had gone wrong, such as mechanical breakdowns and driving errors. ''It's a different race than the others, but it's a big challenge and it gives a lot of satisfaction if you get it all right,'' he said.

The Williams car is one of those that have sprouted extra wings for the race, as the cars try to increase the aerodynamic downforce that pushes them to the low-speed track for extra traction, like upside down airplane wings.

''It's all about keeping the back end on the track,'' said Richard Stanford, the race team manager at Williams. He also voiced the opinion of many who face the challenge of working in the restrained, unnatural conditions of an ancient city's streets rather than a modern multimillion-dollar racetrack when he said, ''If it was up to me, we wouldn't even be here.''

That is not the way the diners of the famous Rascasse restaurant over the track corner of the same name feel when they are within touching distance of the drivers as they make their way from the paddock to the pit-lane along a temporary scaffolding staircase next to the restaurant.

''I can hardly restrain myself,'' said one of the female diners standing by the open window just after Michael Schumacher passed within inches after lunch Thursday.

Finally, after the cold weather of the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in Germany two weeks ago and the rain at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, the sun of the Cote d'Azur is a welcome change to everyone, although not, perhaps, to the car tires, as the track temperature rose to 42 degrees centigrade (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit) on Thursday.

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