Monaco’s cars and money
MAY 30 — I’m not really a fan of motor racing — in fact, in my more pedantic moods I’d argue that an everyday activity such as driving a car shouldn’t even be classified as a sport — but I would happily admit there’s something special about the Monaco Grand Prix.
Like tennis at Wimbledon, golf at Augusta and horse racing at Kentucky, the race around the narrow and twisting streets of the outrageously wealthy French principality is one of those sporting occasions where the result is of secondary importance to the overall cultural experience.
Much more than just a race, the Monaco Grand Prix is a prestigious social event, attracting the rich and famous from all walks of life and from all over the world, who board their private jets to the south of France to drink champagne, to see, to be seen and to network.
Securing an invite to the hottest and most exclusive boat parties are the number one priority. Once onboard, safely ensconced in the luxury of a fabulously-appointed multi-million dollar private yacht, you might catch a glimpse of Bono schmoozing with Liz Hurley, or Quentin Tarantino shooting the breeze with Tiger Woods.
You might even, if you remember to tear yourself away from the caviar canapés, see some motor racing. But that’s not the point; the point is simply to be there — or to be at the party near there, at least.
I have been to the principality on several occasions, and it manages to be simultaneously a uniquely beguiling and morally repellent place.
The pavements are clean enough to eat your dinner off — no street-side beggars here, thank you very much. Ostentatious and gleaming displays of unimaginable wealth parade themselves every time you turn a corner: here a designer jewellery outlet, there an improbably expensive restaurant.
One side of the bay is dominated by the ragged rock of Monaco itself, centred on the Royal Palace of Prince Albert and his family. Some of the tiny backstreets, just a few yards away from the palace and its soldier guards in their comically pristine white uniforms, are actually surprisingly unpretentious. But that’s rare. Everywhere else, the money hits you constantly between the eyes.
That’s particularly the case when you cross the harbour and mount the opposing hill towards Monte Carlo. At the summit, you are greeted by the casino. Implacable and grand, the stately building encapsulates everything you need to know about this small part of the world; if you had to pick one symbol to define Monaco, the casino is it.
How many fortunes have been squandered inside those marbled halls? How many millionaire tax evaders have frittered away their inheritances on the roulette tables?
For anyone with a social conscience, so much about Monaco-Monte Carlo is repugnant. The money, the cars, the clothes, the casino, the palace... they speak of a land where only the very rich are welcome. Normal people need not apply.
Yet somehow, it still manages to possess an undeniable charm. The wealth of the place seems effortless and natural; Monaco knows what it is, and is perfectly at ease with that role. It doesn’t try to sell itself to the outside world or justify its existence.
If Monaco was in the more commercially-focussed United States, it would surely be horrendously crass and vulgar; in France, it manages to be elegantly sophisticated.
The physical setting certainly helps. The gently curving bay, surrounded on all sides by wooded mountainsides, is spectacularly beautiful, and the sunshine glistening on the gently rippling Mediterranean waters help to make it an exhilarating, thrilling place to visit, however much you might be disturbed by the morality of the money that built it and sustains it.
And this makes it a perfect match for Formula One motor car racing, because no other sport is so elitist, so out of the reach of ordinary people.
With just a relatively small amount of disposable income, I could very easily go to my nearest sports shop and buy exactly the same football as the one manipulated by Lionel Messi and David Beckham, or purchase a set of the very same tennis balls as those propelled through the air by Novak Djokovic. My chances of getting behind the wheel of a Formula One car? Not going to happen.
But the sight and sound of these carefully honed machines careering around the street circuit of Monaco creates an exciting experience, even for a non-petrolhead like me. The cars are unlike anything you or I will ever drive, and active participation in the sport is an unattainable dream for everyone except the smallest number of people, but it is still a dazzling spectacle.
It’s the same with the town of Monaco. You can visit and walk the streets, and maybe splash out on a meal in a restaurant, just to give yourself a small taste of life in the upper circles of society. But actually living there is a privilege reserved for an elite group of very wealthy individuals — if you have to ask how much a property costs, you probably can’t afford it (around RM12 million for a one-bedroom apartment, by the way).
The sport of Formula One motor racing and the town of Monaco-Monte Carlo were made for each other. They are the perfect dancing partners for a display of flamboyant wealth, and the inevitably accompanying throng of celebrities and millionaire tycoons act as the ideal accessories. Long may they be happy together — just don’t let the ordinary people too close.
Oh, I nearly forgot: this year’s Monaco Grand Prix took place on Sunday and was won by Mark Webber. But that doesn’t really matter. It’s not about the race; it’s about the show.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.