Monaco Grand Prix: the name alone conjures images of champagne, speedy cars, big money and dashing, daring drivers. This May, under the bright French Riviera sunshine, I captured all this and more, on an unusual and privileged event photographer commission. However, most of the exclusive photos that I took behind the scenes of the race can never be seen.
If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you
My client was one of the main sponsors of the Monaco Grand Prix. The guests invited there by this top-tier financial services provider represented the cream of the company’s global wealth crop (my term, not theirs) and it was made very clear to me as photographer, that invitees’ identities must be protected at all costs. Our contract gave my (not-to-be-named) client exclusive usage of the images and I signed an NDA months before the event, but even this was not enough. After delivery of the photographs, I was to immediately delete all the files – and provide assurance in writing that I had done so. I believe this is an unusual requirement for a photographer – the first time I’d heard of it anyway.
The main photographer brief was all about capturing the guests, especially the select few (the cream of the cream of the crop) who were participating in a range of rather extraordinary experiences that had been organised for them. However, what I can post here is fairly limited. What I can show: a selfie of me, the race track and a couple of fast cars. What I can’t show: the man who was rushed into the pit lane minutes before the Grand Prix to sign his name in a fat silver marker on the car that was to win the race; the concentration on the guest’s face who’d been invited to sit in the driver’s seat during the pit stop tyre change practice, minutes before the qualifying race began (he had his own Formula One car at home ‘for fun’, but this was clearly much more fun still); former world champion driver Nico Rosberg in paroxysms of giggles, sharing jokes with guests over a bucket of champagne; or a pneumatic beauty in the tightest red dress imaginable, smoking one of the biggest cigars I’ve ever seen. Sorry.
The Monaco Grand Prix itself might last a mere couple of hours, but the track (which takes 6 weeks to set up in the roads of Monte Carlo) is the focus of a three-day extravaganza of qualifiers, side races and parties. With a budget running into six figures, my client provided the best conditions imaginable in which to enjoy the event. Guests were transferred by speedboat from where they were staying (at one of Monte Carlo’s finest, many-starred hotels) to the VIP track-side venue. There, lounging on pristine white couches, they could follow the races with the in-the-room pro race commentator, or take a couple of steps with a cold drink in hand to sit at the open-air bar, and look directly down onto the track. In the stands below us, people who’d paid upwards of 1000 € a ticket cooked in the sun and shuffled around on small plastic seats.
With my ears safely plugged (it goes without saying that noise levels were considerable) and my neck decorated with a range of badges, I was rushed through all levels of security by various members of my client’s team, to accompany each VIP on the next ‘experience’. The ‘partner’ race team provided extraordinary access to their garage in the pit lane, right up to minutes before the start of the race. If the scores of busy mechanics were irritated or concerned by the proximity of champagne-fuelled day-trippers to the vehicle they’d fine-tuned to win one of the world’s best known Formula One races, they did a good job of hiding it.
Hair-raising circuit tour
Until this May, my experience of the Monaco Grand Prix (and indeed Formula One in general) had been limited to once eating cake with a friend in her flat high above Monte Carlo on race day, mostly ignoring the TV commentary, and grumbling about the noise floating up from the Principality to her open windows. My knowledge, however, grew exponentially this year. Among my discoveries were the following:
- The winner of the Grand Prix is generally decided by the outcome of the qualifying race the day before. People rarely overtake in Monaco so, accidents aside, the Grand Prix is actually quite predictable (a Formula One car-owning guest patiently explained this to me, and he should know)
- Secret things (winning formulas?) are written on a piece of paper that mechanics carry around with them on a clipboard while fine-tuning their cars, and they don’t want a photographer to see this. In fact, these mechanics get very uptight indeed if a photographer has a potential line of sight
- Formula One steering wheels don’t resemble steering wheels at all, instead they look (to me) like gaming units. With a screen, levers and array of colourful knobs, they are placed in the car just before the race, and removed afterwards
- The Paddock is not a paddock. There is nothing remotely green about it and you can’t see any cars there
- The Monaco Grand Prix involves driving 78 laps of the same 3 km-or-so circuit
- Doing this leaves you feeling quite dizzy by the end of a race (I could’ve guessed this but David Coulthard confirmed)
I didn’t do 78 laps myself, but I did go around the track a couple of times, in not-very-speedy cars, and that was enough. We still went at triple or quadruple the speeds at which I’d normally drive on the same roads, and one of those trips was significantly more nerve-wracking than the other. The guest (who’d apparently been enjoying some bubbly beforehand) asked for the sunroof to be opened, so that she could enjoy her circuit upright and shrieking. I (who’d had no bubbly at all), in order to fulfil my photographer duty, had no choice but to hang out of the backseat window to capture proceedings. The driver seemed to take all this as a cue to accelerate. The shrieking guest’s husband and his grip on my waistband seemed a tenuous safety assurance as I battled G-force to lean up and take pictures of her, soaring past the crowds on the circuit’s famous bends.
The circuit tour was all over in the space of a couple of minutes. My face took significantly longer to re-arrange itself (and my hair longer still).
€40 million car
After the races were over and the sun got lower over the Cote d’Azur, the evening fun began. Karl Lagerfeld’s South of France retreat, the villa where he stayed on and off during the last 15 years of his life, made a suitable venue for the finest soirée that my client hosted. On Saturday night, on the private promontory at the far end of the Monte Carlo Bay, chauffeurs delivered immaculately-clad guests two-by-two to the garden entrance of this sumptuous residence. My lighting set-up, placed just to one side of the red carpet, made for only a minimal detour on the way down to the lawn for any guests that wished for a portrait (they all did). Thanks to star assistant ‘Rebecca Junior’ for all her help with this part.
Present among the guests, for conversation and casual selfie purposes, were some of the great and good of the Formula One world. Nico Rosberg (read about a portrait shoot in Monaco I did with him last year) gave a jolly speech and stayed on for plenty of mingling. Lewis Hamilton’s appearance was shorter, but he was graciously excused since he had a Grand Prix to focus on and win the next day (if I were favourite to race in an international championship, I imagine I’d have more important things to do the night before, but I guess he had his reasons for coming). David Coulthard, who’d already given a smooth speech the evening before, just leaned nonchalantly against the bar, deftly balancing a cocktail glass in his hand.
Indoors, paintings of cars by perhaps the world’s best known pop artist had been flown in from galleries around the world. Outdoors, the selfsame cars that featured in these 60s and 70s works of art had also been located, flown in (such collector’s cars are not driven) and were displayed around the grounds.
Fortunately it was after photographing it, that I heard what the centrepiece, a silver vintage racing car, was worth. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have leaned over it to get a nice close-up of the dashboard (below). Not only was it worth 40 million euros (which, when that was announced, caused a small breath of surprise, even among this particular crowd), it was entirely uninsurable. This explained the rather intense attention the ‘carguard’ had been giving me. It is true that photographers have heavy metallic cameras swinging from their shoulders, more than capable of dinging the bodywork of a car in a moment of inattention. Retrospectively, I, with no more than fairly standard insurance coverage myself, could share his concern.