Revving it up at a Riviera party

back page: a weekend at the Monaco grand prix
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The noise begins at 9.01am, a fantastic, angry buzzing, an unearthly crescendo of whining, interspersed by feral barks, like a flock of mutant dentists' drills invading a sawmill. Gradually it settles into a more generalised clamour, like a giant wind rushing through a lot of spooky trees announcing the end of the world. And you can't see what is causing it. As you stand looking across the horseshoe bowl of Monte Carlo, across the streamlined turrets of yachts, powerboats and what looks like a posh designer car ferry in Monaco harbour, as you gaze at the terracotta roofs of the ancient principality, the Lego penthouses perched on the cliff edge, the Fifties hotels with their overpopulated balconies and the waves crashing softly on to the shore of this Bakelite Riviera, there is no sign of a car anywhere. The Formula One machines are racing around the main roads of the city, but the view is occluded by guard rails and metal shutters to all but ticket-holders. Between the look of the place and the sound you're hearing, there is no connection. It's like watching a film with the wrong soundtrack.

In the harbour, the boys on South Paw, an elegant pounds 1.9m white yacht, are recovering from the previous night's excesses. They are nine middle- aged businessmen from Birmingham, who have hired this glamorous craft for five days from its Caribbean owner, stuffed it with food, drink and party paraphernalia, and got stuck in. Last night, they were entertained by a brace of cheesy chanteurs with a Hammond organ.

The nine friends, convened by Tony Hewitt, a food manufacturer who supplies chocolaty bits 'n' pieces to motorway service stations, drank champagne, beer and white wine (red might stain the carpets, and is banned), ate solid Black Country fare of hot dogs ("Fancy a sausage roll?"),and sang Sixties classics with ferocious energy.

Halfway through "Mr Tambourine Man" they were visited by Johnny Herbert, the legendary British racing driver, who chatted agreeably and managed to avoid the advances of a predatory young thing from The Mirror. "It may sound a lot, pounds 35,000 for five days," said Tony ruefully, "but split between nine of us, it works out at only four grand a head. Although some of the lads have told their wives it's pounds 750 ..."

These are the Monaco pilgrims, drawn every year to the second-smallest independent state in Europe (after the Vatican) for the most glamorous of the racing season's 17 grands prix. It is also, by general consent, a venue that is wholly unsuitable for modern Formula One racing. Since the race is in the streets, there is nowhere spectators can get a complete view. The roads are so narrow that there's no room to overtake (one driver, trying to pass Niki Lauda at Casino Square some years ago, narrowly avoided crashing into the main lobby of the Hotel de Paris). And every corner of the twisty route which the world's top drivers must navigate 78 times is a potential death trap. Asked how he tended to approach the lethal La Rascasse hairpin bend, the veteran Bertrand Gachot replied, "As if I was parking the car ...".

But the Monaco Grand Prix is about more than cars. A big-time sponsor such as Fosters, the lager people now owned by Scottish & Newcastle, might be accused of insensitivity if they linked up directly with the cars and racers (drink plus driving?); but it's the atmosphere of Euro-glitzy style, the miasma of expensive, lotus-eating fun that's worth buying into.

For their dispensation of untold millions of dollars they got a lot of signage. You hear a lot about signage - the placing of massive company names on mile-high banners strung across the roadway at any juncture where the world's television cameras may be pointing. And they get the ineffable pleasure of entertaining 27 German wholesalers to dinner at Loews Hotel, where Lamborghinis perch outside on the forecourt like metallic prostitutes, fingered, fondled and fancied by all, while inside the flotsam of backpackers, car-nuts and transcontinental seducers wanders up and down the hall between the Le Truffe restaurant and the casino in endless passeggiata.

"It doesn't come cheap," said Scottish & Newcastle's cigar-chewing commercial director, Alex Nicoll. "They won't let you book for one or two nights, it's got to be all five or nothing. And since the standard room rate in Monaco is pounds 400 ... frankly, taking your clients over to the Melbourne Grand Prix is a better deal."

Over at the Paddock Club, a clearing house of sponsors, corporate entertaining and businesslike schmoozing, a man with a droopy moustache is tinkling "I Got You Under My Skin" on the white baby grand. On the television monitors, the Canadian driver Villeneuve, the Finnish Hakkonen and the British boy David Coulthard, whose complicated love life was celebrated in the tabloids all last week, are racing laps to win the crucial "pole position". Next to me sit Martin and Joan from Dubai, where they run a couple of bars mostly servicing the American navy and who are therefore a valuable client of Fosters. Staying at the super-exclusive Cap Martin hotel, they are half-appalled and half-impressed by their fellow guests, a party of 25 business types, mostly Irish living in England, who have rented, among other things, a black Rolls Corniche convertible, a Bentley Turbo and a Ferrari.

"One's a dentist, one's a merchant banker and there's one who says he's a construction worker in New York," says Joan suspiciously. "They said they had enough drink with them to last for three weeks. I don't know how they've lasted this long. You see them arriving back at the hotel just when we're coming down to breakfast. With these little French girls ..."

Also at the table are Andrew and Sam from Australia, who won a free trip to Monaco by drawing two aces at blackjack in a Melbourne casino. They are ecstatic about the place, the drivers, the noise, the harbour, the lights in the hills at night, the gorgeousness of the Cote d'Azur, even the taste of the excessively slimy lump of pan-fried foie gras with arugola and apples in front of them - although they too have reservations about the German Ferrari Club at their hotel, with their obligatory trophy babes. Everyone, it seems, is sweetly concerned about the famously dignified Monagesque paradise turning into a licensed knocking shop.

The highlight of the pre-race engagements is the pit walkabout, in which privileged entertainees get to stroll along the line of stripped-down cars that will soon be competing for glory. Villeneuve's Renault is a big draw, but the crowd jostle most energetically for pictures beside Schumacher's Ferrari. Close up, it is a tiny, insubstantial object, apparently made of two-ply tin, its subcutaneous hide a tidy arrangement of black wiring; by comparison, Frentzen's Sauber is a horrible intestinal mess of large and small colons, with the word HYPE emblazoned on the side.

The mechanics are far from the grease-monkeys and oil-rag dispensers you'd expect; immaculate in Cerruti red and white shirts and shorts with dinky red socks, they tweak and fiddle with the dewheeled and eviscerated machines like gay American paramedics.

Eddie Irvine strides by, impossibly handsome in his Marlboro cap and shades. Damon Hill stands among his mechanics, thin-faced and nervy-looking, pulling his nose, wondering when his run of bad luck with the Arrows team will end. A couple of thirtysomething Schumacher wannabes stand around in mustard overalls, sweating visibly. Skinny matadors, transformed by Darth Vader helmets into macrocephalic samurai, they are (a little self- consciously) the essence of warlike posing.

The air is thick with testosterone. Fat and broken-veined credit analysts from Esher and Surbiton queue up to pose with a brace of Japanese babes in hot pants under an umbrella saying: "Avex Group". Piles of fat black tyres are wheeled by, some bald (dry weather), some pitted and scored (wet). The chequered flag is only hours away.

On the hills above Monaco, a crowd of ticketless opportunists is waiting for the action, a sea of red Ferrari baseball caps interrupted by Union flags (Hill, Coulthard, Irvine) and Maple Leafs (Villeneuve).

The roads are closed until 6pm. No taxi will take you anywhere for hours. You must walk the streets, past the crush in the Rue Grimaldi, past the children in their fashion accessory earphones, past the beaming and legless arbitrageurs on the poop of the yachts moored beside the Nouvelle Chicane, right across the city until you reach one of several high private vantage points leased per diem by the Page & Moy events organisers.

It turns out that they have hired the good yacht Southpaw for the duration of the race, from Mr Hewitt and his Brummie friends. It has cost them half what it costs Hewitt to lease the boat. Jesus, someone says, what a crowd of operators ...