Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On Sunday morning, race day, we were turned away from the grandstand gate for the beers in our bag. We resolved to walk around town and drink them all. We gravitated toward the wall that stretched across a street to block the track from view. The second GP2 race of the weekend was taking place and we could hear the screams of the cars beating against the plywood from the other side. If you got up close you could see through little cracks and gaps; blurs of color flashing by in an instant: red, white, blue, yellow, black. It was almost better to watch the race this way. The mystery was intensified.

We walked up some steps along the wall that turned back into the steep face of the city. Here you could see above the wall a bit; you could see entire cars in a patch between the trees and guardrails. A boy, hands pressed against his ears, sat watching from his father's shoulders.

We finally took our seats at the top of the stands facing out into the harbor. Behind us we could see the front stretch of the track between pine branches, and a little farther down the balcony of the Automobile Club de Monaco where the old-money rich and the well-connected basked in their ennui, undeserving, as always, of their view. In front the track was lined on the outside by gleaming white yachts and on the inside by the many-colored hoi polloi. Wisps of clouds hung in the sky and the sonorous voice of the track announcer droned on intoxicatingly, his Monégasque accent thick as motor oil.

Races begin in satisfying rhythm: every minute or two the lead car suddenly emerges from the farthest corner you can see. The field follows, often trailing by a few lengths. The entire procession roars past in anger but in order, for the most part. This is reassuring. The blue car's behind the red car, like it was before. The black car's catching up. You have just enough time to notice the discrepancies with the lap before: The white car passed the yellow car! Where did the green car go? And soon the back marker straggles past, its engine whining lonesomely as it disappears around the bend. Now there's just a distant hum echoing off the hills or buildings. And then there's silence. And suddenly, it all happens again.

Then races devolve into chaos and delirium as pit stops are made, slower cars are lapped, and accidents and penalties occur. It's hard to maintain the running order; cars are jumbled up, flying past in a ceaseless, shifting stream of gaps and blurry colors. And whereas the start is reassuring, this is beautiful.

Our disorientation in the middle race was intensified by our panoramic view. We were surrounded by mad sound: cars blinking by behind us before we knew they'd passed in front; cars roaring out of the pits into the fray; every momentary attenuation in the engine din filled by the glossolalia pouring out of the PA. Finally the noise subsided and a deep, dissonant chord swelled up to take its place: all the boats in the harbor blowing their horns in a collective exhalation. The race was over.

The period after a race is melancholy. The sudden quiet, stark and eerie, has a bereaving effect. Something was alive and now it's gone. We fought it with good cheer and resolved not to shuffle off morosely to the train station this time. We went to a bar where people were drinking on the street. We hung out with an odd, solitary man with a perpetual smile on his face and two cockney blokes who had flown in for the day. They loved Jenson Button.

"What about Hamilton?" I asked.

"He's a bit... arrogant, ain't he?" one replied.

I came to Lewis's defense but there wasn't much to say to them. It was clear they were happy to have their golden boy. Their white boy. But they were agreeable enough in spite of this.

By the time we left the bar, the track was open. We entered it right behind the start/finish line. I imagined a deep and resonant vibration emanating from beneath my feet, echoes of races past. Some team trucks were parked to the side: Toyota, Red Bull. I peered inside one to find a spotlessly clean, high-tech lab workbench covered with bewildering tools and instruments.

We continued to walk the track, around Sainte Devote, up the hill to Massenet, back in front of the casino where we'd been for qualifying the day before, down the hill and around Mirabeau (where Lewis Hamilton crashed during qualifying), and down to the most famous and beautiful corner in all of racing, the Grand Hotel Hairpin. We wandered into the hotel and briefly considered having a drink in the bar with windows overlooking the sea but the cocktail prices shocked us to the very core of our souls. Sara went to the ladies' room and I waited for her outside. As she walked out she spotted Robert Kubica, her favorite driver, in street clothes, talking to some friends. We shook his hand and chatted with him. "This is your lucky day," one of his friends said upon hearing that he was Sara's favorite driver. "It's her lucky day but it's not his lucky day," I said. Kubica's car was terrible all weekend – he qualified 18th and retired with brake problems. We said goodbye, shook hands again, and I told him I hoped his car got better. "So do I," he said.