Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred, then another thousand, then a second hundred, then yet another thousand more, then another hundred…’ The verses of Gaius Valerius Catullus, the first-century BC Latin poet, conjure up for all of us the magic of that moment when our lips touch those of the person we love. However, if we talk about kisses with a Formula One driver in the context of his work (because in private he will surely have the same reactions as us mere mortals) the first thing that will occur to him will be the kisses he exchanges with the guard rails of Monaco. These steel barriers are gently brushed against innumerable times over the course of a race weekend; they are the extreme limit you need to go up against if you want to make a difference on the most fascinating and, at the same time, most absurd track on the glittering F1 calendar. In order to get this circuit to reveal its secrets, we sought out someone who knows every inch of this track inside out, someone who has been over it thousands of times: on foot, perhaps hand in hand with his partner, on a bicycle, in a car stuck in the traffic, and inside the cockpit of a racing car at 300km/h. The driver in question is Felipe Massa, for many years now a resident of the Principality of Monaco, who accompanied us all around the Principality in a Ferrari California HS, together with his wife Rafaela.
‘The track is very narrow so you always pass very close to the safety barriers; every now and again we touch them, just slightly, just like when you give a kiss or a caress’, Massa says. ‘This race isn’t very demanding from the physical point of view because there aren’t any fast corners and the average speed is pretty low. But it’s really stressful from the mental point of view. You can’t make any mistakes; you pay a heavy price for the slightest error. Here you need more brains than brawn. It’s certainly true that the perfect lap, the one that gets you pole position, gives you a unique satisfaction. It’s an indescribable feeling.’ And then you need to repeat this faultless lap dozens of times, with the track changing due to the residue of rubber the cars leave behind and, sometimes because there’s a rainstorm. And you have to repeat it at full tilt with the car getting lighter as the fuel is burned up and then the tyres deteriorate. The only thing that never, absolutely never, changes is those high guard rails, those steel blades that mark off the track and that offer themselves up temptingly to an exchange of kisses and caresses with the cars’ huge tyres; and sometimes, although it’s best to avoid this, to painful collisions that signal the end of the dream. For Massa, the Monaco Grand Prix is his second “home” race, after the one at Interlagos, the circuit in the suburbs of São Paulo that hosts the Brazil Grand Prix. ‘I’m lucky. I don’t think there are any other drivers who can say they have two home races, two Grands Prix where, once they leave the track, they can go and sleep in their own bed and not in a hotel room,’ the Brazilian says. ‘They are two completely different places, but I like them both very much.’ Two months away from the race, Monaco is already making its seasonal transformation to take on the appearance of an F1 track. ‘The city changes so much for the Grand Prix, it almost becomes unrecognisable’, says Massa. ‘Not only can you no longer manage to find a bed in a hotel but even the restaurants, of whatever class, become practically impossible to get in to. Not to mention the prices, which rocket. The traffic goes crazy, partly because some of the streets are closed or are only open for a few hours a day. And then there are the guardrails that completely change the look of the streets.
‘When I’m on the track wrapped up in a fast lap I’m concentrating too hard to think about where I am. But maybe at the end of a drive, on the last lap, I’ll realise I’m in the city where I live and once again see the places where I might stop to buy a newspaper, or have an ice cream, or I might pass by a restaurant where I like to go with my family and friends.’Between many stops to greet friends or simply to chat with his many fans (Massa is very popular with his fellow citizens) we asked the Ferrari driver to tell us about the most demanding and difficult places on the Monaco track. ‘To be honest, no single corner is more or less difficult than another,’ Massa replies. ‘Some say the tunnel is difficult but I think that’s the result of “televisual” perception; in reality, for those of us on the track the change from dark to light is no more of a problem than is the width of the track. ‘In fact, the trickiest point is the start, because all of us together are trying to enter the first corner, the church of Sainte Dévote corner, and it’s very easy indeed to make contact with another car, so you run the risk of ruining the whole weekend after only a few metres. Position on the starting grid is never as important for the end result as it is in this race. It’s not the KERS and DRS that matter: overtaking in a race is always a challenge, even when your performance gives you a second’s advantage.’ When you go over the course in your head, the long run up the climb that leads to the Casino doesn’t allow for any attempts at overtaking. At one time, before brakes were made of carbon, it was possible to try your luck at the end of the descent after the Hotel de Paris, on the right-hand Mirabeau corner. But look out if you let yourself be tempted by the former Railway Station hairpin, which then became the Hotel Loews hairpin and is today known as the Hotel Fairmont, since the railway station was moved underground to create space for apartment blocks. Here, with the cars almost slowing down to a stop, there seems to be at least some room. However, very soon afterwards there can be contact, which is often fatal. Descending towards the tunnel there’s no chance to try; everyone is insingle file, with no way out. The only place to make an attempt, very risky but the only one possible, is where everyone brakes hard before the Port Chicane.
Here the cars reach maximum speed, but it’s also easy to carry on straight ahead with, the risk of ending up in the safety barriers. There’s not even a chance at Tabac, at the Swimming Pool or at La Rascasse. Everyone’s in a line up to here. Then there’s the delusion when everyone brakes after the straight, at the Sainte Dévote church that Massa recalled. But once again, times have changed: with today’s brakes there’s no way of trying and, if one does, there’s a danger of paying a very high price.
Massa has got a taste for the job and shows no signs stopping, and so we begin another circuit. Is he already sizing things up for qualification on 26 May? ‘No, calm down’, he replies, smiling at Rafaela and us. ‘The roads are always busy and it’s difficult to go more than 60km/h, just like in the pit lane. So I want to make the most of the California and enjoy my adopted city: top down, sun, sea views. When I’m racing here, three days a year, none of this exists. The only view is those: the guardrails...’ Massa must have given so many kisses to these guardrails during his nine appearances (so far) in the Monaco Grand Prix. And who knows how many he may have exchanged with Rafaela in precisely the same places on the circuit. But only Catullus would be able to tell us something about those kisses...
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine 17 issue May 2012