John Burns of The New York Times wins the 2003 Ken Purdy Award

John Burns of The New York Times received the 2003 Ken Purdy Award for the following article, reprinted with his and The New York Times permission, from the May 12, 2002 edition of “The Sophisticated Traveler” section. John Burns of The New York Times wins the 2003 Ken Purdy Award.

April 7, 2003

John Burns of The New York Times received the 2003 Ken Purdy Award for the following article, reprinted with his and The New York Times permission, from the May 12, 2002 edition of “The Sophisticated Traveler” section.

May 12, 2002


By John F. Burns

It had been 30 years since i had heard it, surely the most sublime noise to enter the ear of sporting man. It came first as my wife, Jane, and I descended the narrow, winding streets of Monaco on an azure morning in late May last year. We were in an open-topped Renault Mégane rental car picked up the previous evening at the Cannes-Nice airport, some 12 miles along the coast. The traffic was backed up beside a sidewalk bistro, and the scent of freshly brewed café filtre was wafting into the road. Beside us, a procession of casual style, of handsome men and striking women, was walking briskly down toward the port, raising my sense of frustrated urgency.

The glorious sound came from far below, beside the harbor, a shriek of ripping steel echoing up through the principality’s granite-walled canyons. Eventually we reached a viewing spot on the corniche where I could pull onto the sidewalk and peer down through the high-rise condominiums and tax-haven offices that look out on the Mediterranean. There, only glimpsed at first in flashes of red and silver and white and blue and yellow, were Formula One racing machines darting through Monaco streets in a warm-up session — the divine madness, the sheer, magnificent insanity I had waited so long to see, and to hear, again.

I had first seen Grand Prix racing in Monaco as a boy in the 1950’s, and nothing in a lifetime as a foreign correspondent has ever quite matched it, at least as a sporting spectacle. Those distant years had been the heyday of men now legends in the sport, drivers — pilotes, to the French — like the Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio and the Italian Alberto Ascari and the Englishman Stirling Moss and the Californians, Phil Hill and Dan Gurney and Richie Ginther, who had breached what was then, and is once again, mostly a citadel of European and South American prowess. These icons with oil-streaked faces were never much known in the United States beyond aficionados, but to me, an English schoolboy, they seemed the epitome of glamour, skill and daring in the monochrome of postwar Europe.

Monaco, to many Americans, summons up images of Grace Kelly and her fairy-tale marriage to its then-and-still ruler, Prince Rainier. Others may think of the casino, the fabled spot where outcast Russian aristocrats, supposedly, were banned in the 1920’s after one too many of them cast himself, and his penury, off a veranda overlooking the sea. An excess of wealth and beauty, as well as of scandal, have long been Monaco’s hallmarks.

By legend, Monaco was one of the poorest places in Europe until 1865, when Prince Rainier’s great-great-grandfather, Prince Charles III, founded the casino on what was then a bare bluff above the sea. Even today, much of the principality, with a year-round population of around 30,000, has the air of a provincial town in France. Out of the race season, without a yacht, or a seat in the salon privé at the casino or a suite at the Hotel de Paris across the square, Monaco can have the feel of a theater after the crowds have gone home.

But in late May, it is the venue for one of the world’s richest parades. When the Formula One cars are off the circuit, the streets are reclaimed by a throng of the famous and wannabes, along with hoi polloi, who can enjoy the show simply by walking the 2.1-mile circuit or waiting for a table at the open-air cafes along the way. The superstars of the show are the Grand Prix drivers past and present, along with the film stars and the supermodels and others famous, mainly, for being famous.

As intriguing as the people is the set — the palm trees, the mimosa, the Belle Époque architecture of the Hotel de Paris and the casino, and the boutiques of Cartier and Chanel and Hermès and Kenzo and Prada. Our favorite retreat became the American Bar at the Hotel de Paris. Looking onto Casino Square, its rooms, we were told sniffily, are available ”on application only.” But the bar is open to anybody who can afford the $15 drinks.

Like many of the 210,000 spectators, we chose not to stay in Monaco, where a few nights in any hotel during race week can break the bank. Instead, we bought a package tour with a hotel room in Cannes. When that had a view over the rail yard, we wrote off the cost and checked into one of the many small, three-star hotels just behind the waterfront in Cannes, with clean, airy, $120-a-night rooms, balconies and breakfast in the garden.

The real star, of course, is the Grand Prix de Monaco, run almost every peacetime year since 1929, and those who have seen it know that it has no equal. Other cities, like Long Beach, Calif., Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia, have street races of a kind, but in Monaco the true challenge of street racing has survived — along narrow, fast-rising, fast-plunging roads that run from the harbor up to Casino Square, then down past bars and nightclubs to a hairpin bend, followed by a winding descent to the sea and a flat-out blast through an ill-lighted, curving tunnel and back out into daylight beside the Mediterranean.

The Monaco race is a grand anachronism, like tennis on grass at Wimbledon, or championship golf in the gusting seaside winds of St. Andrews, except absurdly more so. To understand something of what it is like, just listen to the drivers. Of the current group, one has described driving at Monaco as being like ”threading a jet fighter through the eye of a needle,” another as being akin to ”driving a go-cart at 150 miles an hour on ice.” To the purely rational mind, it makes not an ounce of sense: a starting lineup of 22 cars, shaped like cruise missiles with wheels, made of titanium and carbon fiber and every last high-tech, aerospace refinement, racing through the streets of a modern city at speeds, in last year’s race, that crested in the tunnel at 182.7 miles per hour.

But it is the sound, more than anything, that catches the heady mood of Monaco in the last days of May. Current Formula One cars, built to specifications set in Paris by the Fédération Internationale d’Automobiles, or F.I.A., the governing body of international motor sport, have 10-cylinder engines that produce, at the maximum, about 900 horsepower. These machines can accelerate from a standing start to 100 m.p.h. in fewer than three seconds, and decelerate, with huge carbon-fiber brakes, still faster. To hear them at Monaco, even from a mile or two away, is to listen to an angry, snarling swarm. It is something you either love or hate. For me, it has always been ecstasy most pure.

Jane was not so sure, and quickly bought a pair of earplugs from one of the souvenir stalls behind the harbor. I feared the racing, for her, would have little of the fascination it held for me. But soon enough, she, too, was leaping to her feet in a grandstand that overlooks a section of the racing circuit that runs about 1,000 yards from the tunnel out along the harborfront, then out of view back toward the pits. For her, it was not the shrieking sound of the engines that was transfixing so much as the sheer, shattering speed, especially through corners, something that not even a modern on-board television camera ever quite catches.

Monaco at Grand Prix time, though, is about a lot more than racing. Ever since I first saw it, in the days when drivers wore open-necked sports shirts and string-backed gloves, the race has served as the focal point for a gathering of Europe’s, and America’s, rich and famous. The fact that the race often is scheduled a week one side or the other of the Cannes Film Festival, as it was in 2001, means that it attracts its share of movie stars, and with them the assorted glitterati of the cinematic world. It was outside the main exhibition hall at Cannes, in the early 1960’s, that I saw Brigitte Bardot, alongside a corpulent, cigar-smoking man in a tiger-skin tuxedo.

If the racing defies the rational, so, too, does much that surrounds it. At few other places on earth is there as concentrated a display of outrageous wealth as can be seen in Monaco over the race weekend. The core of this exhibition is to be found in the harbor, packed row on row with magnificent motor yachts that preen and gleam, their freshly painted superstructures dazzling in the sun, their wooden decks polished, their staterooms bedecked each morning with vases of fresh jasmine blossoms and lilies, their captains and crew snappy and suntanned. On the upper decks of the largest are swimming pools, helicopters and speedboats.

The owners, or charterers, mostly, are titans like Gianni Agnelli of Fiat, owner of the Ferrari team that currently dominates Grand Prix racing. It is a rare boat that does not have its bevy of bikinied beauties, whose role, observed from the harborside and from what becomes the trackside during the race, appears to be to show the utmost indifference as they spread themselves out on every flat surface that catches the sun.

In this, and much else at Monaco, lies the challenge for those not privileged to board the yachts, or to hang around their necks the plasticized accreditation cards that give to Monaco, in race week, its own facsimile of a feudal court. As a reporter accredited to cover the race, I had a pass giving access to the pits and to the huge encampment of transporters that carry the racing cars, fold-out restaurants and thousands of tons of equipment that the Grand Prix teams and their camp-followers require. But that placed me only at the lower level of the weekend aristocracy, a liveried retainer much envied by the lesser folk who jostle from every vantage point to glimpse the show, but regarded with pitying contempt, too, no doubt, by the grandees with passes that identified them as personages of genuine importance, or at least of genuine wealth.

This aura of exclusion has made the experience of Grand Prix racing quite a bit less appealing than the world I first saw nearly 50 years ago. Then, the drivers seemed at once much larger, in character, and a great deal more accessible. They were also, far more often than nowadays, when safety has become a priority, quite quickly dead. Then, it was not unusual for two or three drivers to die each year, in heavy, front-engined cars with no seat belts that made every accident potentially fatal.

What has happened to Grand Prix racing, of course, is no different than what has happened to most other sports. Stirling Moss, now in his 70’s, and widely regarded as the greatest driver never to win the world driver’s championship, said that the most he ever earned in any year was about $25,000. The current world champion, Michael Schumacher of Germany, is said to earn $25 million a year with Ferrari, and to double or even triple that with commercial endorsements.

Monaco is the jewel in the Grand Prix crown, the ultimate showcase for a sport that some might say encapsulates the derangement of the modern world. Gazing out at the billion-dollar show — the yachts glittering in the harbor, the $2,500-a-night hotel suites overlooking the circuit, the Champagne coolers and the bowls of chilled caviar, the on-board parties mixing movie stars and corporate executives with celebrities like Sean Combs — who now calls himself P. Diddy — it was not hard to think of other worlds that collapsed because they became islands of outrageous indulgence in a world that is mostly poor.

But these envious thoughts ignored the lesson learned, and relearned, as a foreign correspondent — that being an outsider, too, can be a privilege, bestowing a freedom of conscience, and perspective, denied to the advantaged. And the show is there for all to see, as much fun for the excluded, in its way, as for those with the Champagne. So Jane and I, gawking and chuckling and murmuring our disapproval, had a perfectly splendid time, reassuring ourselves, or so we pretended, that the pampered life of the yacht dweller would never have done for us.

What remained, and nothing in the harbor could disguise it, was the reality — the astonishing, breathtaking beauty — of what occurred on the track. In 1929, an Englishman named William Grover won the inaugural race in a Bugatti, on virtually the same circuit, in a few minutes under four hours, at an average speed of about 50 m.p.h.

In 2001, Michael Schumacher, running almost the same distance, was spraying the victor’s Champagne, for the fifth time in nine years, in 13 minutes under two hours, with an average speed of 91.3 m.p.h. The 32-year-old German had delivered what tens of thousands of people crowded at every vantage point on the hillsides below the palace — and in grandstands and apartment balconies and hotel verandas all around the circuit — had come to see: the furtherance of Schumacher’s legend as the most successful Grand Prix driver of all time.

For me, the race swept away the last murmurings of discontent at what has become of my boyhood passion. Michael Schumacher may lack some of the élan of a Juan Manuel Fangio or a Stirling Moss, but the mastery of his art is undeniable, the pleasure of watching him, in a class above all others, just the same. When the checkered flag fell, and the horns of a score of yachts greeted the winner on his slow passage back to the pits around the harbor, the joy of being there was just as I remembered it the first time, so many years before.

Monaco is barely 20 minutes’ drive from the border with Italy, where Formula One and Ferrari stir wild passions in the fans they call the tifosi, the ones with the kind of ranting madness once associated with typhus. My own chance to express passion behind the wheel came when Lapo Elkann, a 24-year-old grandson of Gianni Agnelli, invited me to tour the Ferrari factory at Maranello, just outside the north-central Italian city of Modena, a few days after the race.

At Maranello, Lapo arranged a morning’s solo run for me in the nearby mountains in a $161,000 canary-yellow, drophead Ferrari 360 Spider. It was the moment of a lifetime, and I fluffed it. It wasn’t the driving that was the problem, for I had raced Austin Healeys and Porsches. The problem was in my sense of myself as an impostor, and my fear that every villager I passed knew it, and laughed. Only once or twice did I unleash the full power of the eight-cylinder engine, and the kick in the back felt like a shuttle launch. After an hour of driving a 185-mile-an-hour thoroughbred at speeds that rarely crept above 50, I drove back through the factory gates and parked, less exhilarated than relieved that I hadn’t bent Mr. Ferrari’s magnificent motor.

Returning to England, I felt that I had come as close to heaven as any tifoso has a right to expect. So I’ll be back in Monaco this year, and every year after, as often as I can manage it. Look for me in the American Bar at the Hotel de Paris in Casino Square, nursing a $15 screwdriver for as long as a man of modest means can manage it, and straining to overhear the oily-rag stories told by anciens pilotes like Stirling Moss and Phil Hill and, one day, if his luck stays with him, Michael Schumacher. The woman at the table will be Jane, still complaining about the noise but hooked now, as even she admits, on the astonishing machines, and the brave men, that make that incomparable sound of ripping, shrieking steel.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company