Formula E Grand Prix

Prince’s Palace of Monaco, photo released into public domain by  Berthold Werner

Prince’s Palace of Monaco, photo released into public domain by Berthold Werner

 
Monte Carlo harbor

Monte Carlo harbor

Formula E Grand Prix

Let me start at the beginning.[i] We landed in Paris from a red eye flight, caught a second jet to Nice, then shuffled onto a bus, so to get stalled in the traffic heading for Monte Carlo, all in the space of ten hours. The bus driver kept swearing in French at the traffic, and I learned some new ones. As we stumbled off the bus at the quay a host of smiling crew greeted us and we boarded the cruise ship. The ship was sailing for St. Tropez in the evening, so we had the rest of the day to explore Monte Carlo.

I don’t recommend a walking tour of Monte Carlo during the Formula E Grand Prix week; it’s not for the faint of heart. To begin with, the city is vertically challenged with narrow, twisting streets like an irregular spider web first laid out in medieval times with sidewalks added as afterthoughts. One simply isn’t expected to be on foot too far in Monte Carlo. Cobblestone gives way to brick, and concrete in the newer parts, so enterprising pedestrians must “screw their courage to the sticking place” and boldly set out, and that’s on a non-eventful day.

But we discovered during race week, there were no sidewalks to be found on the racecourse. The racecourse itself lay between the quay and the city. The minimal sidewalks that do exist were occupied right to the curb by bleachers, crash barriers, ads for Johnnie Walker and TAG Heuer draped along the racecourse, so reaching one’s favorite Fendi store was near impossible, unless you were an Italian with a death wish.

From a brief stay years before, my memory of Monte Carlo was that the place held few trees, no grass for a dog to pee on and minimal open space. It was built in the crevices and on the sides of mountains. In that regard it’s not too different from the nearby Italian Riviera towns. But then, the principality’s ruling family, the Grimaldis have their own casino and a Hollywood star in the family, and they’ve taken excellent care of the brand. The gilded sheen laid over Monte Carlo reminds one of Los Vegas, minus the desert.

In Monte Carlo there seem to be two species, the perennially beautiful flaunting ridiculous wealth, and the commoners who lust for the same. One gets the impression they should only encourage persons with private drivers to come to Monte Carlo. Pedestrians? Why would anyone want to walk?

Above the yachts at left, the top of the bleachers are just visible in the background. The blue ‘stripe’ at right are more bleachers

Above the yachts at left, the top of the bleachers are just visible in the background. The blue ‘stripe’ at right are more bleachers

On the day after the race, getting from the cruise ship quay to Avenue d’Ostende was a challenge. The street runs parallel to the harbor, and to gain it we navigated a serpentine route of chain-link fences, scaffolding, forklifts, tractor trailers and pallets galore, like passing through the circus grounds in daylight hours. All just to reach the main drag (pun intended) used for a straight-of-way on the racecourse. From there, one walked the racecourse itself, hoping to survive the man-boys driving their daddies’ Ferraris and Maseratis reenacting the race of their dreams. And the Ducatis blew past in full-out racing mode, mixing testosterone and adrenalin in a roar. It’s a European tradition and a form of population control.

With no apparent irony, Visit Monte Carlo states, “The eagerly anticipated race will take place on Monaco’s famous Grand Prix circuit, which includes… highlights such as the famous ‘hairpin’ bend. It will also take in the principality’s other iconic sights including the Casino Monte-Carlo, the world-famous marina with its luxurious super yachts moored next to the new Yacht Club de Monaco for the first time. Designed by Sir Norman Foster, the sleek and contemporary flagship building is… another symbol of Monaco’s eco-friendly future being designed to strict to HQE (Haute Qualité Environmentale) standards.”

The very ordinary strip glass affair lit like trays on a yacht seen to left is Monte Carlo’s version of an ecologically friendly yacht club.

The very ordinary strip glass affair lit like trays on a yacht seen to left is Monte Carlo’s version of an ecologically friendly yacht club.

You rock, Sir Norm! Keep that yacht club from becoming irrelevant.

If saving the planet involves glass palaces and the likes of electric cars tearing through the streets, then the future’s already lost. If preserving the ecology of Europe depends on extravagant wealthy, the implication for those lacking the necessary euros is sobering. It’s gluttonous, this peculiar fixation living on more than one can ever expect to consume. And the most peculiar part is how fascinated the remaining 99% appear to be, judging from the time spent in speculation.

The Caesars of Rome invented bread and circus. Pacifying the masses was a oft-practiced skill in those times. It might well date to the Neanderthal. Professional sports such as Formula 1 racing is but the latest form. For the race participants, the challenge of pushing beyond limits feed their ambition. The audience tastes only a hint of that passion, still they glory in their chosen heroes, thrilled to grant the victors the laurel wreaths.

Yet fascinations can easily morph to darker views in times when the disparity between haves and have-nots have grown intolerable. The obvious risk is societal collapse. The granddaddy of them all, the fall of the Roman Empire has been taught as an object lesson to grade school children since the founding of the American colonies. Western culture has gone through this cycle many times before and there’s no guarantee it isn’t happening again. Admittedly a pessimistic view, but it feels much like what Marie Antoinette and Czar Nicholas’ family came to rue. Less obviously perhaps, it is a pure waste of time, the one commodity no amount of gold can create. Ostentatious wealth may smooth the trip, but it brings little enlightenment.

On the massif overlooking the harbor cum racecourse sits the Prince’s Palace. Back in the 13th Century when the Grimaldis first set out from Genoa shopping for real estate, survival was all about holding the high ground. They’ve held Monaco ever since, at times just barely. In the ceaseless waves of armies marching across Europe, that fact seems surprising.

The sole ceremonial guard marches back and forth for the tourists, not unlike Buckingham Palace. It’s a small principality, so they only need one.


If being part of this spectacle teaches anything it is how things remain the same. Back on board the ship, waiting to be cast off, I sat on our two-person balcony taking nighttime shots and marveling at the scene spread to the dark mass of mountains.

Night falls over the harbor

Night falls over the harbor

i The ‘E’ in Formula E Grand Prix means the race cars are electric.  The race was held May 9.  The main event is coming shortly on May 26.