x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Monaco the place where Formula One dreams line the streets

Especially for the four French drivers in the field, as the Principality is as close to a home grand prix as they will get. Gary Meenaghan reports.

Marussia driver Jules Bianchi remembers coming to the Monaco Grand Prix as a child and thinking that he would one day be a driver in the event.
Marussia driver Jules Bianchi remembers coming to the Monaco Grand Prix as a child and thinking that he would one day be a driver in the event.

MONTE CARLO // It is 1999 and a young boy from Nice is sitting with his family at the swimming pool section of Circuit de Monaco.

Surrounded by enchanted fans and captivated by the high-speed hijinks being played out by the likes of Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher on the streets he knows so well, it is easy to see why this nine year old might feel inspired.

"One day, I will race on these roads too," thinks the little boy clad in Ferrari merchandise.

Fourteen years later and Jules Bianchi's dream has come true.

Marussia's rookie driver on Thursday took to Monte Carlo's serpentine street circuit from behind the wheel of an F1 car, completing 61 laps during the opening day of the Monaco Grand Prix. Naturally he emerged enthused.

"When I was young, I was watching Formula One and that was my life, because I was racing in go-karts," he said.

"Coming here to Monaco with my family to watch a race was something special, it was like a dream to maybe one day drive on this track. I didn't expect that.

"Now I'm here, it's a special moment for me and it felt great to get out there, but when you are driving, you are focused on what you are doing, not the fans or the outside.

"For sure, when you get out of the car, you can say you have achieved your dream, but when you're in the car, you focus on the task at hand."

Bianchi, 23, is not the only French driver to find inspiration from the streets of the nearby Principality.

Charles Pic, born 350km up the road in Montelimar, attended his first grand prix in Monaco in 1995, finding himself so enamoured by the speed and fearlessness of the drivers that he attended again the following year, while adding to his annual pilgrimage a trip to Magny-Cours for the French Grand Prix.

"I first came here to watch the grand prix when I was five," he said from his Caterham motorhome, perched on the edge of Monaco Harbour and overlooking an impressive array of super-yachts.

"I don't remember much about the actual race and the winner, but I know the next year, when I was six, this man here won and I was supporting him."

"This man here" happens to be Olivier Panis, the last Frenchman to win in Monte Carlo, and a guest of Caterham.

Neither Pic nor Bianchi are likely to end their country's drought this year - although both have shown sufficient promise to indicate they might one day.

Instead, they will be embroiled in their own race at the back of the field where Marussia and Caterham are enjoying a tete-a-tete of their own.

Bianchi started the season impressively, finishing the opening race in Melbourne in 15th and following up with an even more impressive performance in Malaysia, finishing 13th on a circuit where he had no previous experience.

In recent races, however, Pic and Caterham have taken the initiative with Tony Fernandes's green-and-gold marque, out-pacing their rivals in Bahrain and Spain.

"Caterham are a bit in front, but we saw in Barcelona that we were quicker in the race pace - so that's positive for this race," Bianchi said. "Anyway, here it's a bit special, so we will see; we will have a good fight with them."

Bianchi and Pic are both understandably keen to perform in what is as close to a home race as possible for Frenchmen competing in a 19-round championship that no longer features a French Grand Prix.

Jean-Eric Vergne of Toro Rosso and Romain Grosjean of Lotus complete a quartet of French representatives this weekend.

"Monaco is not like a normal race," Pic said.

"It is special because it is close to France and it is great for the French fans and the French drivers, too, of course. When we are in Spain, Alonso gets more support; when we are in the UK, the British drivers get more support and here is the same.

"Of course, this is not really my home race, because it is Monaco, not France, but it very close and is always a great race."

In the grandstand during free practice, French tricolours were few in number, yet there was one young boy who caught the eye.

Wearing Ferrari-branded ear-protection, he watched excitedly as F1's elite field flew past.

As well as petroleum, burning rubber and overpowering perfume, it should not be forgotten that, this weekend possibly more than any other, inspiration also lingers in the air.




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