x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Take a walk on the wilder side of life on Monte Carlo track

Join Gary Meenaghan in Monte Carlo as he goes on a deafening and terrifying trip trackside while the teams make their final preparations for the Monaco Grand Prix.

Jenson Button's McLaren-Mercedes enters the Monte Carlo tunnel on the Circuit de Monaco amid a cacophony of noise during the practice session yesterday. Paul Gilham / Getty Images
Jenson Button's McLaren-Mercedes enters the Monte Carlo tunnel on the Circuit de Monaco amid a cacophony of noise during the practice session yesterday. Paul Gilham / Getty Images

Here, pull on this photographer's tabard and come with me. We are going trackside at the Monaco Grand Prix.

And whatever you do, don't forget your earplugs – they will prove to be as essential as a replacement pair of underwear.

The Circuit de Monaco, with its claustrophobically close barriers and non-existent run-off areas, is anomalous on the Formula One calendar.

Like a high school bully, it seems to thrive on its dangerous reputation. For spectators in the stands, it provides engrossing entertainment. For drivers, it provides the ultimate driving test.

For people like us – with our all-access FIA tabards tied around our waists – it provides a chance to come within centimetres of instant death.

For all three parties, it is terrifyingly terrific.

Just look at Tunnel through Chicane into Tabac into Louis Chiron past the Swimming Pool and into La Piscine.

This famous section of the track provides a microcosm of what a great F1 circuit should offer: a high speed straight, a couple of quick twisting turns and more than one blind corner.

Jenson Button, a winner here in 2009, calls it the trickiest part of the track.

Michael Schumacher concedes it is probably too dangerous to be deemed legal.

"In a way, you could look at it with a big portion of irony with regards to the contradiction that, for so many years we have successfully campaigned for more track safety, and then we deliberately race in Monaco," Schumacher said.

"But in my view this is justifiable once a year, especially as the circuit is really so much fun to drive. Every time you go there, you just look forward to finally getting out and driving the track."

The potential for catastrophe is inescapable.

Ten cranes, two helicopters and 13 ambulances are on call this weekend.

More than 120 firefighters, dressed in orange jumpsuits, pepper the circuit's periphery, some carrying fire extinguishers, others holding cameras.

Some 3,600 tyres have been arranged at strategic points of the track to decrease the danger of accidents.

Thin chicken-wire barriers prevent debris from flying into the crowds.

And yet here we are, walking towards the tunnel from La Piscine as we await the first cars to take to the streets and mark the start of Free Practice One.

In the picturesque harbour, busy boats with names such as Leonida and Alter Ego bob calmly, producing a nautical tranquillity that is unnervingly reassuring.

As the first car – a Toro Rosso – flies past, shifting slightly to improve its entry into the apex, our hands reach for our ears.

Deafening.

But it is further up the incline and inside the tunnel that the visceral storm will truly arrive; where our senses will be smashed with all the force of a sledgehammer to the head.

Let's now enter and, as we enjoy the refuge from the baking sunshine, let's rest our legs against this thin metal barrier and wait. Await the pain.

Moments later, enveloped in darkness, the inescapable noise of an approaching vehicle threateningly grows.

Your pulse rises slightly, your hands move towards your ears and you reposition yourself against the barrier.

The car – a Ferrari – comes into sight, the noise becomes uncomfortable, your heart beats faster, your fingers press the yellow foam buds deeper into your ear canals and you question the logic of sitting on a safety barrier that the cars routinely graze.

Here it comes.

As the ultra-violent machine screams towards you, the ground begins to reverberate, the vibrations moving from the soles of your feet, up your legs, through your kidneys, into your chest, making your throat contract as your breathing quickens and your sunglasses shimmy their way down the bridge of your nose.

The noise has nowhere to go but through your body.

Now the barrier is shaking and you find yourself nonsensically considering that if you are going to be killed by a Formula One car, you would prefer it to be driven by one of the field's six world champions.

As the car whips past you in an instant, the dislodged air knocks you off the barrier before you can even contemplate reaching out and touching the driver's helmet. The noise is indescribable. Paralysing.

But then it is gone – the noise, the shudders, the fear – and, as a sense of relief flows over you like a Mediterranean shower, you realise you are smiling broadly.

It is unclear whether it is the joy of having witnessed so closely one of the world's finest pilots undergoing their ultimate challenge or merely the joy of being alive, but either way, the smile is there. At least until the next car arrives. Or until you realise your underwear needs changing.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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