The Race That Never Was

This was a fun time a few years back. My brother and I went to Monaco on the French coast, and I got a chance to relive one of my favorite movies. Originally Go World Travel published the story along with a few photos. Then I posted it on the IgoUgo site. Here is a rehash:

The Principality of Monaco is the size of a large tomato patch, but it has the good fortune of being located on the stunning south coast of France. A robust tourism industry and one of the grandest and most famous gambling casinos in the world keeps Monaco solvent. Also, over a hundred years ago Monaco abolished all taxation, making it a tax haven for people who have amassed considerable wealth and intend to hold onto it.

Once a year Monaco also hosts the world’s most spectacular automobile race. Since 1929 Monaco has hosted the Monaco Grand Prix and its predecessors on a course that snakes through this tiny country’s winding streets. To emphasize just how winding, you may note that cars capable of topping 200 miles per hour are only able to average 88 miles per hour around the two-mile circuit. The race puts a premium on driving skill. Not only do drivers have to deal with a high-speed bend through a sea-side tunnel, but they also have to negotiate a grueling series of switchback turns down a winding street that keeps them busy working the controls full time. Buildings, stone retaining walls, and other accoutrements of civilization line the full length of the course. A minor mechanical malfunction or a momentary lapse of concentration anywhere, and a driver will find himself parked up against something solid. If ever there is a driver’s course in the world, this is it.

Famous as it is, however, the best known Monaco Grand Prix was a race that never happened.

In 1966 director John Frankenheimer followed the Formula I world championship racing season to film the movie Grand Prix. That year he brought his production crew to the races and filmed the action at some of the world’s top courses.

The movie cranks up with the starting of engines for the Monaco Grand Prix, and the first scenes follow the cars in a breath-taking chase through the streets of Monaco. The aerial shots, background set pieces, and views from on-car cameras in the first few minutes of the film give the viewer a virtual tour of this tiny country. Although time has not stood still in the 39 years since the movie was filmed here, today’s visitor will have no problem spotting Monaco’s principal attractions using scenes from the movie as a guide.

The race starts on Boulevard Albert 1st, where trees still line the right hand side, overlooking the harbor. Drivers gun their engines up the hill, quickly leaving the shade of the trees as they come onto Avenue d’Ostende and eventually turn left around the lavish Hotel de Paris and into the square in front of the casino.

In Casino Square, the course turns right, around the traffic circle, but you won’t be able to drive this exact route because it runs counter to normal traffic circulation. Also, they like to block off this section so wealthy patrons can park some of the most expensive cars in the world here in front of the hotel.

Leaving the square, the cars plunge headlong down the tree-shaded Avenue des Spélugues, with its famous gooseneck turns. In the distance of a few city blocks this quirky street takes the drivers from the highest point on the course almost down to sea level. On any other day a casual stroller can stop to examine the menus of restaurants and clubs that line the left side of the street. On race days steel barricades block the sidewalk, and these inviting places flash by too quickly to be noticed by the drivers.

Frankenheimer’s car-mounted cameras take the movie audience on a white-knuckles ride through here as the cars charge straight into a dead end at the bottom of the hill. At the last moment the course turns abruptly to the right, completely reversing direction before encountering another hairpin turn in front of the Monte Carlo Grand Hotel. Scenes from the movie show grim-faced drivers slaving over the controls as they continually shift gears and crank their steering wheels from lock to lock. Finally, the cars emerge from this maze and head toward the waterfront. Here the racers encounter what may be the most famous feature of this course.

Following Boulevard Louis II as it hugs the shoreline, the cars enter the notorious tunnel section. Monaco has a number of real tunnels that everywhere pierce its granite underpinnings, but this one is an artifact resulting from construction of the Monte Carlo Grand Hotel on the cliff side above.

These days, as in 1966, drivers emerge from the tunnel and streak along the water’s edge, running almost parallel to the uphill portion of the course. It’s here, along this sunlit roadway, that Frankenheimer’s fictional race has its dramatic conclusion.

Grand Prix stars American actor James Garner as one of the drivers, and the story line has Garner cast as a second fiddle member of the BRM racing team. His career is in decline, and he desperately needs a win. However, the other team driver, played by British actor Brian Bedford, is obviously favored by the team manager. Bedford gets the better car, while Garner’s character is plagued by gearbox problems in the race. As a result the two BRM cars mix it up along the waterfront, with disastrous results.

Garner’s BRM goes into the harbor while Bedford’s car crashes through a barricade and tries to climb the cliff face before falling back onto the street. As fans would know it, Garner is quickly rescued from the water, but his teammate is badly injured and misses the next two races.

And that’s about all viewers get to see of Monaco for the remainder of the movie, unless you count the scene where the BRM team owner angrily confronts a soaked Garner at the waterfront, cursing him out and firing him on the spot, thereby completing his disgrace and setting up the remainder of the story’s plot.

Observant visitors to Monaco will notice a number of changes since 1966. In the movie the cars pass through a picturesque stone arch as the Avenue des Spélugues heads toward the waterfront. This sentimental fixture has since been replaced by a modern concrete pier and beam span that opens up a view of the harbor.

Also, shots from the movie show cars entering the tunnel through a stone arch set in a cliff face, but today there is no doubt the road is simply darting beneath the hotel.

What looked like a tunnel in 1966 now takes on the appearance of a parking garage, which isn’t far from true. The tunnel has been considerably lengthened by the construction of the hotel, and a stroll along this stretch confirms the parking garage image.

In addition, they have built a large swimming pool complex in the middle of the waterfront section. The pool facility extends into the harbor, and cars now detour around it. The famous hairpin turn at the end of the course is gone, as well. Scenes from the film show the cars doubling completely back to the right around a traffic barricade as they exit the waterfront section and start the climb toward Casino Square. These days cars leaving the waterfront proceed almost to the row of government buildings along Quai Antoine 1st and hook to the right around the Café Grand Prix.

Here, today’s drivers also pass close by a life-size bronze of the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio and his Mercedes Benz racing car. A sunny afternoon will find tourists posing for photographs alongside this racing icon and affectionately touching it, despite a posted sign that cautions against doing so.

Grand Prix was an immediate hit with racing fans when it came out, despite its somewhat syrupy story line. Not only does it feature dramatic racing footage shot at five famous race courses, but recognizable faces appear, playing the parts of other drivers.

All the actors, except Bedford, did their own driving for the movie, and a number of well-known drivers played either themselves or fictional characters. American drivers Richie Ginther, Dan Gurney, and Phil Hill appear. British racing star Jim Clark played himself, and the fictional character of Bob Turner was played by Graham Hill. A slew of other famous drivers participated, uncredited, in the filming. Even Fangio, retired by then, worked as a driver.

The story of “the race that wasn’t” would not be complete without mentioning the terrible irony that transpired the following year. In 1967, while the film was playing in theaters, many of the same participants were back competing in Monaco. Up and coming Italian driver Lorenzo Bandini was one of Frankenheimer’s uncredited drivers in 1966, and in 1967 he was leading the Monaco Grand Prix in a team Ferrari when disaster struck. To complete the irony, Bandini crashed at the same spot as James Garner’s fictional crash of the year before.

From Avenue d’Ostende above there is a street that branches off and drops down to the waterfront. This street flows directly into the waterfront portion of the course, but in the opposite direction to the race traffic. Race cars have to jog to the left to avoid this street entrance, and this creates the course’s famous chicane. It’s a real test of drivers’ attention to detail as they brake from their highest speed of the day and strive to weave through the gap created by the offset.

Bandini’s Ferrari failed to straighten out when exiting the chicane, and it plowed into the hay bales that lined the dock side. In the movie, James Garner’s crashed through the hay bales and sailed off into the water. Bandini, however, met reality in the form of a solid obstruction. The car flipped and burned for an intolerable period of time before rescuers could arrive to extinguish the fire and right the car. By then the driver had been horribly burned, and he died a few days later, so far the only fatality in the history of the Monaco Grand Prix.

As a great fan of the movie, I long dreamed of visiting Monaco and retracing the famous scenes. Besides that, having been born in the small town of Tolar, Texas, I had endured my share of small-town jokes. Now, much later in life, I had a hankering to see a country that was smaller even than Tolar.

And so it is. A quick geographical fact check shows that all of Monaco covers just 0.76 square miles while Tolar covers 0.90 square miles out on the Texas prairie. Of course, Monaco is built on a steep slope, so most likely if you laid it all out flat like Tolar, Monaco would be just as large.

Monaco is also a bigger tourist draw than Tolar. So it was that my brother and I, two boys from Tolar, dropped by with our wives to check it out. No contest. Monaco beats Tolar hands down.

To the new visitor it becomes immediately apparent why its Stone Age inhabitants, and subsequently the Grimaldi family, chose this site as their base. In those days it was so difficult to get here that the first line of defense probably consisted of hiding the road signs. Even after the casino was built in 1863 patrons had to be transported in along a mule trail.

What really opened Monaco up to visitors was the completion of a rail connection to nearby Nice, and these days there are also a number of ways to get there by road. You can take the A8 toll highway in France and get off at the Monaco exit, or you can take the scenic route. Driving out through the suburbs of Nice on N7 or N98 you will find helpful signs to keep you on the correct route. Once out of Nice the choice of routes dwindles precipitously, and there’s no question of getting lost. It’s either go to Monaco or else look for some place to turn the car around.

In Nice the N98 coast road is “La Promenade,” where it serves all the beachfront properties. It’s also the first street you encounter when leaving the Nice airport, and you can follow it directly to Monaco, about 11 miles (17-18 km) outside the city. On the way to Monaco N98 twists along the cliffs and through the picturesque towns of Villefranche sur Mer and Bealieu sur Mer. This route is particularly painless and offers some of the most spectacular scenery on the French Riviera. We observed that Tolar has nothing to compare.

If you are not up to driving you can catch the SNCF rail line from Nice. The line follows close by N98, passing through Villefranche and Bealieu. In Monaco the train drops you off only a few blocks from the casino. Beyond Monaco the rail line connects to nearby Menton in France, and Ventimiglia and San Remo in Italy.

If you are a couple of guys from Tolar, Texas, Monaco is a real hoot to visit. Actually, it’s a real hoot no matter where you’re from, but I don’t necessarily recommend staying there. As expected, hotel rates in Monaco are kind of steep, much like the countryside, and you can find cheaper accommodations a short drive away. Save the difference and drop some cash at the Casino.

A one-way SNCF train ticket from Nice costs 3.10 Euros and up per person with trains about every half hour. If you drive you can also stop along the way and take photos. Both N7 and N98 have a number of scenic places to pull off. Once in Monaco we were able to park our rent car in the pier garage at the cost of eight Euros for the better part of a day.

If you choose, eating in Monaco can also be quite painless. Being plain folk from Tolar, we were especially partial to an establishment called Shangri.la, along Boulevard Albert 1st. Here we spent a few Euros each for sandwiches and sodas while sitting around an outdoor table and enjoying one of the most expensive views in the world. Don’t expect to eat here during race week, however. Shangri.la is a temporary wooden establishment that probably gets carted away once a year to make room for some high-price grandstand seating.

You can come and see all the racing action for yourself, but you need to plan ahead. On the Internet a number of concerns hawk race packets for the coming season. I recommend the official site at http://www.monaco.mc/monaco/gprix/ as a place to start your search.

I also recommend the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) Web site at http://www.imdb.com/ as a good source for additional information about the movie. A Blu-ray disk is available on Amazon. See the link above. Here are some photos:

The Monaco Grand Prix, and the movie, start here on Boulevard Albert 1st. The cars charge up this tree-lined street and begin a two-mile-long chase through one of the most challenging courses in road racing.

At the top of their climb, the racers pass in front of the fabulous Monte Carlo Casino. On quieter days tourists pose beside some of the most expensive cars in the world parked in front of the Hotel de Paris.

Leaving the Casino Square, the cars plunge downhill along Avenue des Spélugues. A quiet park and a row of restaurants and clubs line the first two blocks, but then the street turns quirky, with some of the tightest turns on any championship course.

Avenue des Spélugues changes direction again as it continues its plunge to the waterfront. Imagine taking a 900-hp car through here just as fast as you would care to go.

In front of the Monte Carlo Grand Hotel, Avenue des Spélugues does a complete 180 and continues on downward.

Exiting the hairpin turn by the Monte Carlo Grand Hotel, the drivers face yet another blind turn as they head straight for a retaining wall.

Twisting and turning, it’s down, down, down toward the waterfront in the Monaco Grand Prix.

Unfortunately, the medieval-style stone arch is now gone, replaced by a modern concrete truss that carries street traffic across the Avenue des Spélugues.

Also gone is the stone arch entrance to the tunnel. The “tunnel” is now revealed to be a modern building complex built out from the cliff above and covering the lower section of the race course.

The “tunnel” is longer now than it was in 1966, and it is mostly open on the left to reveal the harbor beyond.

 

What Bandini saw. By the waterfront the street must jog to the left to go around this entrance from another street. On race day the drivers brake hard just after reaching their top speed on the course. With amazing concentration, they thread through this narrow gap in a blur of wheels and flashing color.

Almost home, the cars now round the Grand Prix Café and head back up Boulevard Albert 1st toward the finish line.

Across from the Grand Prix Café, legendary driver Juan Manuel Fangio stands frozen forever in bronze, next to his Mercedes Benz race car. He won the race here in 1950 and again in 1957. In 1966 he drove one of the race cars for John Frankenheimer in making the movie Grand Prix. He retired from racing in 1958 and died at the age of 84 in 1995.

You don’t have to spend well to eat well in Monaco. Two boys from Tolar, Texas, enjoyed one of the most expensive views in the world for the price of sandwiches and sodas here at Shangri.la, a knockdown eatery alongside the Boulevard Albert 1st.

Monaco positively drips money. Only 16% of the population is native Monégasque. The rest are French, Italians, and others who come here to escape taxation. Photos of Monaco make the principality appear to be larger than it is. That’s because a lot of what is built up around its two harbors really belongs to adjacent French towns.

Tolar, Texas, on the other hand, doesn’t drip much of anything, except when it rains, and that’s not often. You sort of feel Clint Eastwood should be in this picture somewhere.

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3 thoughts on “The Race That Never Was

  1. Pingback: Bad Movie Wednesday | Skeptical Analysis

  2. One of your greatest columns. You worked hard to put it together and it shows.
    By the way, if you have a chance try to pick me out of a crowd scene standing around a race car in the paddock at Brands Hatch. I had hair and was wearing dark sunglasses, but right up against where Yves Montand (I think) was jawing angrily with somebody else. I can’t get that picture here.

    • I wrote it originally for an on-line travel site. I wanted to make it about the race, being published on the movie’s 40th anniversary. The editor made sure it was about the locale. You will see brother Kieth in one of the photos.

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