Someone once famously described Formula 1 as “a symphony of violence,” and nowhere does the orchestra play louder than in Monaco. For one weekend a year, the Monaco Grand Prix offers a James Bond movie come to life, a tax haven the size of a state fairground dominated by shady linen-suited greasers idly exiting their supercars in front of the casino, and billionaire yacht parties featuring overly friendly “models” imported from Asia. The occasional carbon-fiber shredding is just part of the 450 Euro race-day admission.
No sport celebrates money more thoroughly than F1, and right now, no one has more money than Red Bull Racing, which won everything the last three seasons. Its frightening dynasty has become synonymous with the sport, and has allowed the world's foremost racing series to reinvent itself for modern times. Albert II may be Monaco’s prince, his face towering over the city on building-size photos like a benevolent deity, but on race weekend, Red Bull is its king.
Red Bull Racing’s roots go back to 1996, when F1 legend Jackie Stewart and his son Paul formed Stewart Grand Prix as an ill-conceived ego project. The team muddled along in the middle of the F1 pack for three seasons until Stewart sold the team to Ford, which renamed it Jaguar Racing and properly bollixed it, never winning the podium and never finishing higher than 7th in the Constructor’s Championship. The team’s biggest claim to glory arrived in its final season, when two mechanics won an inflatable donkey in a soft-drink giveaway for a Shrek movie and turned the donkey into an unofficial mascot.
In 2004, Red Bull put Jaguar Racing out of its misery, buying the team for a symbolic dollar in exchange for an agreement to pour $400 million into the business. No one took Red Bull seriously, branding them a “party team," but behind performance began to improve. With the signing of future champion Sebastian Vettel and engineering mastermind Adrian Newey, it began to improve a lot. Using a smoking Renault RS27 V-8 engine in its cars, Red Bull finished second in 2009, and then seized control of its destiny three races into 2010, giving birth to a dynasty.
This season, the team’s name has changed to Infiniti Red Bull Racing, as the sole luxury brand of the Renault-Nissan alliance has invested countless millions to become the “title partner” of the team. It’s going to be a big help, Rob Marshall, the chief designer of the team’s F1 cars, told me. “In the past, we didn’t have a big engineering company backing us,” he said. “We are a soft-drinks manufacturer. It’s not like we could phone up our bosses in Austria and ask them about new materials for X, Y, and zed. But now Infiniti can provide us with information and raw materials. They have an enormous apparatus we can tap into.”
Infiniti is trying to trade the enormous resources of the Renault-Nissan merger for the hope of gaining the imprimatur of global cool. They want to become a leading global luxury car brand, mentioned in the same breath as Mercedes, BMW, and Audi. As Andy Palmer, Infiniti’s executive vice-president told me, “there are plenty of pretenders in luxury, but they ones we covet are the Germans.”
Paradoxically, the only place on Earth where Infiniti has sizable market share, the United States, is also the corner of the globe where F1 is the least popular. Infiniti wants to win over the rest of the world. It has invested countless millions, and countless hours, on the proposition that Formula One will be its launcher.
“If you are just a sponsor,” said Andreas Sigl, Infiniti’s global director of Formula One, “it’s like paying for sex. We are a partner. We offer a lot more than money.”
Infiniti flew two dozen writers, including me, from all over the world to Monaco for the weekend, at considerable expense. They wanted to show off their shiny new F1 bauble, and they did so with great efficiency. But the scene seaside in Monaco showed they’re still living in Red Bull’s world.
Speaking of “paying for sex,” it’s impossible to describe the Monaco Grand Prix without talking about the Red Bull Energy Station, which has become the thumping hub of rich-person favor for the world’s most glamorous sporting weekend. The Energy Station, two stories of white steel and glass, makes an appearance at every European F1 event. But for Monaco, Red Bull adds a “terrace,” with an outdoor bar and comfortable white couches arranged around a pallet of fake grass, and, more impressively, an upstairs outdoor pool deck, with water that they keep crystal clear so you can see the Red Bull logo at the bottom. These components are assembled in Italy and then floated 40 miles down the coast, where they get parked in Monaco Harbor’s prime docking spot, within view of several sections of the track. An invitation to the Energy Station means that you’re the boss, or at least someone the boss deems worthy.
All weekend, the Energy Station was the place to be seen, and also to eat free plates of prosciutto and melon. Celebrities flowed through like semi-premium champagne. After the qualifiying races on Saturday, a staggeringly drunk Jeremy Clarkson blundered around the terrace, blowing wafts of cigarette smoke in people’s faces. One of my colleagues asked to pose for a picture. “In a minute,” he said, but that minute never came, as he chose instead to bear-hug a TV anchor and then stumble off toward a yacht party. Conversely, Michael Douglas, fresh off an acting trophy at Cannes, stopped by for a quiet lunchtime beer. On Sunday morning, David Hasselhoff appeared with a plastic woman, flexing his still-impressive biceps for the photographers. And all around them lounged beautiful men and women in flawlessly pressed clothing, dangling their pampered toes into the waters, looking blase and nonchalant and literally eating cake, barely stirring even as Red Bull stunt bikers and parkour jumpers did flips off the bar. Somehow Red Bull, with its cheap little suppository cans full of liquid crack, has become the ironic epitome of high-flying Cote d’Azur style.
The Energy Station looks even more impressive compared with the hospitality areas of F1’s 11 other racing teams, which sit in a line along the F1 paddock walk, forced to face the Red Bull wealthcraft carrier to remind them of their station. Small groups of employees sat inside, looking as lonely as figures in an Edward Hopper painting. At the very end, the Marussia display was little more than the RV big enough for an opening band on a stadium tour.
Bernie Ecclestone, the all-powerful boss of F1, hands out paddock privileges like candy to his teams, controlling them via access. The more paddock passes you get, the more sponsors you can woo. At the far end of the paddock area, Ecclestone had set up his own modest two-story trailer, shiny black with blacked-out windows to match his black heart, that looked like it hadn’t had a redesign since 1986, much like Eccelstone himself.
One afternoon, as we got a paddock tour, Eccelstone emerged from the trailer, wearing all black, his white hair as disrupted as Andy Warhol’s. He held a sheaf of papers. The Imperial Death March played behind him.
“Hi there, Bernie,” said the Infiniti PR guy who had allowed us access to the secret area.
Eccelstone just mumbled. I felt lucky to escape without a bolt of force lightning.
Later, around midnight, the party gathered its own dark forces at the Energy Center. Men with fauxhawks and deep orange tans stood around the fringes holding drinks, while gaggles of rich moms on holiday danced in circles and took selfies. A sexy Eurasian lady stood on a chair and ground her ivory-colored hot pants toward people’s faces. I was at the party for three hours and the “Ibiza” DJ played "Around The World" twice, and worse, a club remix of "Titanium" once. But this is what high status buys you, a 3 a.m. DJ party with unlimited Singha beer, rosé wine and trays of cocktails spiked with Red Bull.
“Where are the drugs?” I shouted desperately to the editor of a French lifestyle magazine. “I need drugs!”
“You Americans always want to smoke pot and jump in the pool,” he said, disdainfully.”
“And you Europeans only want to drink and smoke cheap cigarettes,” I said.
“That is because we are shy,” he said.
I went back to the bar, accompanied by a friendly Canadian writer and one of our seemingly endless team of Infiniti and Red Bull PR minders.
“This party isn’t as crazy as I thought it would be,” the hack said to the flack. “Yeah?” the flack said. “Well, maybe you’d rather watch the Monaco Grand Prix at home on TV like 300 million other people.”
No thank you. We wandered back to the pool area carrying a tray of drinks. Somewhere, a glass broke. Elsewhere, clothes came off and people jumped into the pool. A boil of fauxhawks began jumping in a circle, not caring what kind of schmutz they got on their linen suits.
“Grand Prix!” they shouted. “Grand Prix! Grand Prix!"
Watching the Monaco Grand Prix live is an act of imagination. The race corners so narrowly that you can barely fit two Citroens side-by-side, much less the broad-tired bullets that compete in Formula One. There’s a few feet for passing, and no turn-outs, so cars are running up each other’s backsides constantly, crunching carbon on the guardrails.
No matter where you sit, 98 percent of the action eludes you completely. Even from my post last weekend — more or less smack in the middle of the main grandstand, 15 rows up — I could only get a little taste. For a few seconds, I heard the priapic shriek of the F1 cars. Then they would hurtle by like beams of light and go up a hill, and I went back to watching the TV screen for a couple of minutes. Still, it was the best spot. From my vantage, I could see the paddocks, where the most important action takes place. In this symphony of violence, if your tire changes are longer than a chord, you lose.
Race day dawned cloudless and perfect. The waters of Monaco Harbor beamed in their cerulean splendor, almost as brightly as Cameron Diaz’s smile as she walked the pit lanes, waving at the crowd with good-humored flirtation. Over at the Energy Station, the air was confident but not particularly cocky. On Saturday, the Mercedes AMG Petronas team had claimed the pole thanks to Monaco resident Nico Rosberg. The rest of the top four spots were occupied by his teammate Lewis Hamilton, followed by Vettel and Mark Webber, the two Red Bull drivers, who had been feuding in recent weeks. “It’s gonna be a tough one,” oily team principal Christian Horner told the gathered hacks before the race. “We’ll have to work our way around the Mercedes, like it’s a game of chess.”
But Horner refused to augur victory. “The last time I made a prediction,” he said, “I had to jump naked into the swimming pool.”
I went to the grandstand for the start, boiling in the sun like a display-case ham. The race started, the cars wailing from the paddocks like angry dragons. Nothing happened for two dozen laps, and then, Monaco reared itself. Ferrari driver Felipe Massa hit the wall, forcing him out of the car and into a cozy neck brace, capping a horrible weekend for him that had included several technical malfunctions during qualifying.
The “safety car” came out, and the rest of the pack followed it around like it was Miss Clavel while crews cleaned up Massa’s mess on the track. The race proceeded eventfully after that, as Monaco's annual melodrama played out. Cars caught on fire and splintered each other apart. One of the inconsequential Marussia machines got shredded against the rail, stopping the race for nearly half an hour. Meanwhile, the TV coverage touted an exciting “battle for 8th.” There were more crashes, reducing the active roster to 16, but nothing really changed at the front of the pack. In the sun, the crowd wilted.
Then, in a brief moment of excitement, Lewis Hamilton had a pit stop that went about a half-second longer than it should have, dropping him to fourth place, allowing Vettel and Webber to move up. But Rosberg continued to find an edge at the front of the pack, driving flawlessly. With about 20 laps to go, Vettel drew close, cutting Rosberg’s lead to under two seconds. On another track, he might have stood a chance, but in Monaco, the house always wins. At around lap 70, Vettel and Webber both let off the gas, content to take the points garnered from the runner-up spots. At the post-race press conference, Vettel sounded a little bitter, implying that Rosberg had slowed things down deliberately. "Usually you expect two silver arrows in front of you,” he said, “and there were two buses today going for a cruise.”
Though Rosberg got the deserved trophy, 30 years to the month after his car-racing father had won in Monaco, Infiniti Red Bull Racing claimed the ultimate bloodless triumph, as they continued their march toward a fourth straight championship. There was hooting and honking in the stands, and a wild celebration in the Mercedes paddock. Champagne was sprayed. The orchestra played "Deutschland Uber Alles," that song the rest of Europe never tires of hearing, for Vettel, and then, in a nice touch, the Monaco anthem, which sounds like something from "The Mouse That Roared," for local boy Rosberg.
At the Infiniti Energy Station, there was blasé applause. The pink-shirted swells casually tossed 100-Euro notes into the sea. Within two hours, the station would be dismantled and moved along to the next station on the Infiniti Red Bull Racing Team’s Triumph Of The Will tour. We were hustled onto one of Red Bull’s vast fleet of luxury speedboats, deployed to avoid Monaco’s rather desperate street-traffic situation. A well-heeled British couple sat on the boat, looking rather sorry to leave.
“Back to real life,” the woman said.
The harbor receded behind us in colorful splendor.
This is my real life, I thought. And to get it, I’d only had to cash in a helping of my integrity. Still, it beat watching the Monaco Grand Prix at home on television, like 300 million other people. That's no way to take in a symphony.