Monaco: Atmosphere rich. A race with a heightened element of danger; a necessary act of juggling speed with precision. A competition won by the driver who can push to the absolute limits of speed and danger, passing walls so closely they are almost kissed. A race made enthralling by the challenge and risk involved. Masters of Monaco are those willing to take that risk. Due to its unforgiving, claustrophobic nature, it is the ultimate test of driver skill, particularly in the modern era of large run off areas. Comfort like this cannot be sought around the streets of Monte Carlo; there is no room for error. Monaco continues to hold a special place in every Formula One lover’s heart, however, it is the classic races that add that tinge of nostalgia, causing that flutter in the tummy, much like being in love.
With safety standards as high as they are today, the risk factor in terms of life lost is much reduced, but in Jackie Stewart’s era, the drivers were at the mercy of the wicked walls. Even the slightest tickle of these walls or barriers could spell disaster, sending cars spiraling out of the race. Film maker Roman Polanski’s ‘Weekend of a Champion’ provides a unique insight into the romance and intensity of a Formula One race at Monaco during this era, by following Tyrrell driver Jackie Stewart, as he commands the 1971 weekend and achieves his second victory around the famous streets.
The film opens by conveying the glamour of Monaco as Jackie and wife Helen, having just arrived at the track, walk to the pits among pre race, on track entertainment, intermingling with majorettes and marching bands, listening to the roaring of a fervent crowd and hungry photographers.
Cutting back to earlier in the weekend after the opening scene, Polanski is given a master class in how the legendary circuit should be driven; the correct lines to take and gears to use. As rain pelted the principality during Thursday practice, on board footage of Jackie Stewart nursing his newly rebuilt Tyrrell around the track, shifting gears manually, triggers that sense of nostalgia in the viewer. Nostalgia that intensifies as every corner is swept past.
Friday practice saw the Scotsman consistently fast during damp conditions and it was during this session that a touching scene between Stewart and his young team mate Francois Cevert is captured. Jackie hands down his secrets, revealing which gear to use for each corner and how to manage fuel. These are not secrets for any one’s ears as they briefly pause the master class to ensure they not overheard by others in the garage. It is during this conversation with his young protégé that a hint is given about his well hidden intention to retire from racing, “I think my energy’s gone, I think it has ceased.” “It hasn't ceased, but it might be getting to cease.”
Frenchman Cevert was intended to be heir to Stewart’s talents.
|Stewart and Cevert: Photo: autosport.com|
Discussion with Roman over breakfast on the Saturday reveals more enchanting Monaco facets. At that time, the race was started by Louis Chiron, an ex racing driver who stood on the track while the cars all filtered around him, fighting an age fuelled struggle to wave the flag effectively to signal the start of the race. Stewart explains that having been dropped previously due to this, Chiron was reinstated because he was an icon of Monte Carlo, a race unsurpassed for its unique character. Jackie’s description of effective braking in a smooth, caressing manner to protect rideheight is utterly alluring. This is a dreamy and amorous description of how to drive a Formula One car that is matched so perfectly to the romanticism of Monaco itself.
Despite being congratulated by Monaco Master Graham Hill on his pace during qualifying, and despite securing pole position, Jackie later reveals his worries for a wet race, “We are in no shape to compete.”
Indeed, on Sunday, amidst race preparations including painting of grid slots and erection of barriers, he is feeling intense and uptight. He admits to feeling more irritated than normal. This is Monaco, the race all drivers want to win. It is a true test of driver skill therefore carries the most prestige. Jackie Stewart desperately wanted to win this race. Passion like this brings a deluge of nerves and emotion.
Everything about this film is romantic: the classic era of racing, the legendary street circuit, Stewart’s descriptions of how to caress the car around the track, and woven through all of this, his relationship with his wife Helen, her fears for his safety and his secret plan to retire in order to secure a happy future for them both. The sparkle of Monaco is perhaps slightly jaded by the weather over the 1971 weekend, but the weather serves to symbolise Jackie’s intense, foreboding attitude caused by his passionate desire to win.
Monaco: A place that exudes romance; that incites passion, intensity and fervour. With that passion comes a pressure that only the very best will overcome.