It’s come to something when one of Formula 1’s leading lights says he’s falling out of love with the sport because drivers “all sound like lawyers” and aren’t allowed to say what they think.
But I know what Sebastian Vettel meant in the wake of his controversial penalty at the Canadian Grand Prix. Once a die-hard F1 fan, I’ve also fallen out of love with the sport, put off by the increasingly tactics-led nature of the races and the parade of whining brats and personality vacuums that occupy the drivers’ seats.
Still, a couple of weeks ahead of Canada’s rule book-based drama, I took up the rare chance to attend a live grand prix to see if I could be lured back into the fold of F1 fans. Surely, if any race could turn me back onto the sport it would be the utterly unique experience that is Monaco.
Repulsive and intoxicating
The Circuit de Monaco, winding its way through the tiny coastal principality is one of the most iconic in motorsport. Even the names of the corners are evocative – La Rascasse, Sainte Devote, Mirabeau – conjuring up images of the greats like Moss, Senna and Hill threading their flimsy cars heroically down the narrow twists and turns.
Accompanying the one-off nature of the circuit is the unrivalled glitz and glamour associated with this playground of the rich and famous. Everywhere you turn are the beautiful people making sure they’re seen.
To a scruffy hack used to slumming it in the cheap seats it’s an alien world of designer labels, plastic surgery, luxury yachts and conspicuous consumption. An endless parade of small tenders transport the great and good from their private yachts to the trackside moorings, helicopters buzz in and out depositing their VIPs at the heliport and nothing is too gaudy or ostentatious.
It is at once repulsive and strangely intoxicating, and is all part of what makes the Monaco GP more than just another motor race.
But it is still a race, and one the fans take seriously. They crowd every balcony, stand, dockside boat and hillside to watch, and cheer the moment any driver shows their face around the pits or track.
Cars v canapes
I was there as a guest of Ferrari title sponsor Mission Winnow – the nebulous alter-ego of tobacco giant Philip Morris International – and up in the posh seats there wasn’t quite that level of fandom – no-one was tweeting drivers good luck messages to see their name on the giant trackside screen – yet the cars and action still exerted a hypnotic pull on people.
Even for guests who were clearly there for the lifestyle rather than the racing, the moment the cars headed out of the pits everyone put down their canapes and crowded the balcony edge to watch the track.
And despite my loss of love for the sport, the instant Lewis Hamilton fired up his car and headed out for qualifying, the hairs on my arms stood up. There is something stirring about the sight and sound of an F1 car being driven in anger that is hard to quantify or equal.
The current engines aren’t a match for the V12 screamers of yesteryear but at hard throttle they still sound awesome – a combination of mechanical roar and unnatural sci-fi howl as the KERS kicks in.
And the pace of the cars as they flash by in the Riviera sunshine is a reminder of the undoubted skill of the drivers. Seeing half a dozen cars pile into La Rascasse, fighting for space under braking reminds you of the high-stakes nature of the sport.
Bland corporate mouthpieces
Yet, the drivers’ pre-race tribute to the recently deceased Niki Lauda was a poignant reminder of an era where individuality still reigned rather than the bland corporate mouthpieces we’re now saddled with.
Today’s drivers still take huge risks, driving at up to 180mph on urban streets, but a lot of the verve of the sport seems to have disappeared.
The rare moments of on-track drama – Max Verstappen driving into both McLarens, Charles Leclerc’s spin at Rascassse – felt far more interesting viewed in the flesh than they would watching on TV but much of the race was a procession dictated by pit lane calculations.
Bad maths is bad for the fans
Being a guest of a team’s sponsor meant exclusive access, including observing the embarrassed exchange between Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto and his drivers at the sponsors’ dinner, where he apologised to Vettel for the cars’ lack of performance and for the poor maths that dumped hometown hero Leclerc out in round one of qualifying.
For a fan of racing, results shouldn’t be about teams getting their sums wrong but sadly F1 races still seem to be dictated by strategy and sums rather than on-track heroics. Even in Canada, where there was on-track controversy, the eventual result was decided away from the circuit after the cars had been parked.
In Monaco, Hamilton spent two-thirds of the race whining about how awful his tyres were yet he still won the race. Verstappen did get close – too close on lap 76 – but never really looked like making a pass and further down the field things weren’t much more competitive.
The bland post-race interviews at Monaco just confirmed my fears that despite the skill on-track and behind the scenes F1 is just too sanitised and predictable to be truly engaging.
Monaco is a contradiction. It’s possibly the worst race to watch because of the lack of overtaking opportunities. Yet it’s also the most thrilling to experience, with a character and buzz inextricably linked to its unique setting.
The number of people filling the trackside grandstands, balconies and boats is evidence of the continued appeal of F1. Yet it left me unconvinced.
As a spectacle, F1 in Monaco is unrivalled and irresistible but as a sport it remains dominated by anodyne drivers and a dearth of drama.
While races are settled by bad maths and pit strategy rather than drivers going wheel to wheel on the track I’m afraid I’ll remain unconvinced that F1 truly is the pinnacle of motorsport.