MONACO, 16 MAY 2004

A WEEKEND TO REMEMBER

The 2004 edition of the historic Grand Prix in Monaco was probably the best one yet – it certainly was for our small team. It certainly represented unfinished business as far as I was concerned having exited the tunnel on the third lap in 2002 with only three wheels still attached to the car!

Held every two years the weekend before the F1 circus arrives in town this invitation only event is one of the most prestigious events on the historic racing calendar. Despite being horrendously expensive from start to finish – it is Monte Carlo after all - the clamour to get a car accepted for this weekend starts almost as soon as the last one finishes.

The event re-creates the Monaco races from the first Grand Prix in 1929 until the F1 machines of 1977. Unlike other historic race meetings only car types and models that actually raced in Monaco are eligible which of course restricts matters greatly. The vast majority of cars racing are pukka Grand Prix cars from various periods and every event includes the smaller Formula Junior cousins, which is of course as it was at the time. In 1952 Monaco hosted a sports cars race for the only time and so this year this group of cars were represented – C-Type Jaguars and the like.

For 2004 we were running in the front engined Formula Junior race with the Huffaker (aka BMC Mk1). The cars were divided into three classes based on engine types – Fiat motors mostly powering a hoard of red cars such as Stranguellinis and Volpinis, Ford engines as usually fitted to Lola Mk2s and an “other engines” class. This is where we came in, running the smallest engine in the race – a 998cc BMC – with at least 20BHP less than the bigger 1100cc lumps. However we had run well in our only outing with the car at Cadwell Park and so were quietly confident of showing well in our class if not in the overall classification.

The track at Monaco is of course legendary and remains an anachronism in todays sterile F1 world. Charging around tight and twisting streets up and down (very steep) hills with no gravel traps or safety run off areas is of course complete madness -and that is without mentioning the added features of the tunnel and harbour! The course remains almost as it was in 1929 although there are barriers now and of course one or two chicanes. The street tarmac is very slippy from ordinary traffic use and the white lines become lethal trip wires for the unwise or unwary should it rain. Rain heavily it does in Monaco on a very regular basis and this year was no exception.

The “Juniors” always led the way in period being the first out in practice and on race day. So it is in the modern version and at 8am on Saturday we wheeled out the car from the pit garage for Fernando Alonso’s F1 Renault – the pits are all prepared for the following week’s GP – to see how are little car would fare. The track would clearly be treacherous being first out, although it had been washed at first light, so this was not a time for heroics. The trick at Monaco is to avoid the scenery and get back safely to fight another day because any collision will almost certainly result in damage that cannot be fixed there and then.

As I pulled out of the pit lane to start my first lap – spots of rain on the visor!! Not the most encouraging start but thankfully no more appeared until the very last lap – a lucky break for all concerned. The first few laps revealed a few things. First the car was very skittish indeed, wanting to hang its tail out at every possible opportunity. Second, it seemed to quite like the circuit being short in wheelbase and therefore quite nimble. Third, Monaco is not a place to have lots of cars on the track at one time and even for us old timers the traffic is a big, big problem. Trying too hard at the tight swimming pool chicane on my second lap I managed an elegant 360o spin – just testing!! I was really struggling with slower cars in front for the first few laps so coming out of the tunnel I slowed right down until my mirrors began to fill with anxious drivers. This gave me a bit of a gap and I set off to see what was possible.

At Monaco the drivers have the rather strange sensation of being able to see the huge TV screens erected for the F1 race. You can actually see them quite well in a few places – going up the hill to Casino Square and coming out of the swimming pool area for example. Imagine my surprise therefore to see my name at the top of the time list as I came round! Something must be wrong or everyone else was stuck in traffic and this will not last for long were the obvious thoughts but time would tell.

Out came the chequered flap for the end of the first session and the time sheets went up – second overall behind the very rapid Robin London and his Ford powered Lola and a time of just over 2’10”. Just behind me was the ominous presence of Joe Colosacco – a professional race driver over from the US driving a very rapid Stranguellini. Our car had run faultlessly with excellent brakes and no overheating – and of course no damage.

Sir Stirling Moss dropped in for a chat over lunch and recommended reducing the tyre pressures for the second session – he reckoned it would reduce the oversteer and was trying this for his own car. Who am I to argue with this Monaco legend so two pounds down round it was!

In order to avoid the traffic we made sure we were close to the front of the queue for the start of the afternoon session. This was the one that mattered for the race as most people reckoned they would go faster second time around. The car certainly felt a little more stable and we had a good run. This time I decided to change into top gear for the front straight and the tunnel and it certainly helped. For the first time ever I held my breath and took the tunnel flat – no lift at all – and it worked! The session finished and my time was down by almost 5 seconds and I was third on the grid. Maybe we were genuinely quick after all. Joe Colasacco was on pole with Robin Longdon second as expected.

Race day dawned clear and very hot – even at the start time of 10am. As the cars drew up on the grid I angled my car slightly to point at the gap between the two cars in front – ever the optimist! As the lights went green Robin Longdon got a flyer and went past the red car – followed by your truly into second place. Blasting up the hill for the first time into Casino Square I told myself not to do anything stupid this early on. However it was Robin who lost the car comprehensively exiting Casino and he spun into the barrier – I was in the lead at Monaco! This was certainly unexpected but quite an experience. I managed to hold off Joe for two laps before his greater power got a run on me out of the tunnel and I was helpless to stop him coming past going into the chicane.

Now I had another problem – the very rapid Ford powered U2 of Eric Justesen from Denmark was all over the back of me trying to get past. Everyone knows it is difficult to pass at Monaco especially if the car in front doesn’t help. Stirling Moss had told me in advance where to position the car to “block” the guy behind and this is exactly what I did – down the inside to Mirabeau, over on the left into Ste Devote etc etc. Finally Eric decided on a major lunge into the tunnel chicane. Thankfully I saw him coming and just squeezed him enough to make it impossible and he backed right off deciding discretion was the best course.

For the last few laps I caught up Joe and sat waiting for him to trip over a backmarker and then nip into the lead. However he is too good a driver for such mistakes and took a well deserved victory. Hardly believing what was happening I came in second with the third placed finished out of sight. The slowing down laps was an incredible experience with packed grandstands and crowds waving. The first three cars then drew up in front of the Royal box where we received our trophies and magnums of champagne – just like the big boys. This was truly my best racing experience.

The car never missed a beat which is testimony to the work done by the team and Don Haldenby in particular. Its nearly 50 years since Don was in Monaco as a F1 mechanic and he was delighted with the whole event – who wouldn’t be. All the sponsors should also be delighted and many grateful thanks to them for their support. The trophies will take pride of place at home as we come back down to earth and head to sunny Snetterton in June.

 

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