Nigel Roebuck

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Legends: 1968 Monaco GP

Unless you’re of a ceratin age the name of Daniel Cohn-Bendit will mean nothing to you. Back in May 1968, though, it meant a great deal to me, for it was threatening my first visit to the Monaco Grand Prix. In those days students were rebellious, and in France M Cohn-Bendit was their leader. The country was in a state of political upheaval, beset by riots, by what amounted to a general strike. Nothing, in other words, was normal — including the transport system.

Getting there was straightforward enough. I had booked a Page & Moy trip and flew from Luton to Nice on the Wednesday. All was fine until I had installed myself in the Hotel Alexandra and began to explore; only then did it become clear that the situation was worsening. By the end of the week France was closed.

From one point of view at least, that was distinctly satisfactory, for a great many folk had cancelled their plans to attend the race. Consequently, you could have dinner anywhere without needing to book a table days in advance, and — hard to believe, but true — the grandstands were virtually empty for the practice days; you could wander round the circuit and watch from wherever you wished. I wasn’t in the business back then, so didn’t have a pass, yet I had a better view of the Monaco Grand Prix than at any time since.

Back in 1968, I thought Monaco a magical world. There was barely a skyscraper to be seen, and it still had an Edwardian feel. And the track, of course, was as it had been since the first race in 1929. Well, almost. There had been one change for ’68. The year before, Lorenzo Bandini had crashed at the Chicane, and it was by any standards an obscene accident, inept and under-equipped marshals taking an age to rescue a man trapped in a car upside down and on fire.

Bandini died from his bums three days later. His was a seminal accident, coming at a time when safety was rarely discussed. The morning after the race some drivers had a meeting with the organisers, and among their demands was that guard rail should replace straw bales along the harbour. This was duly done, and the Chicane itself was considerably tightened.

Another consequence of Bandini’s accident was that Enzo declined to enter any cars for the 1968 race, which left Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx with a weekend off. Ken Tyrrell, casting about for a temporary replacement for Jackie Stewart (injured in an F2 accident at Jarama), asked Ferrari if Amon could drive his Matra-Ford at Monaco. Enzo declined, so Johnny Servoz-Gavin — French, young, quick, wild — was handed his Fl debut.

But it was another Matra which initially grabbed my attention that weekend. On the Thursday morning I was stirred from slumber by a sound I had never heard before — a scream more shrill and primeval than any Ferrari. It was the Matra V12, the works car with the elongated exhausts, and it was making its first public appearance, albeit some hours before the first practice session. How so? Well, the engineers wanted to give the engine a blast, and a request to run the car up and down the harbour’s front was duly granted. Things like that were possible once upon a time.

It was, however, the Ford-powered Matra which excelled that weekend. Servoz-Gavin may have been a playboy first, a racing driver second, but there was no doubt that his natural ability in a car was very high. He was glorious to watch in Ken’s Matra, although hardly smooth and elegant like Stewart because, as he said, he didn’t have the time in the car, the familiarity with it, to think about anything but raw speed.

On Saturday morning, when it was wet and treacherous, he was 2sec quicker than anyone else and, later in the day, with conditions now dry, he qualified second to Graham Hill. What’s more, he beat Hill away from the grid on Sunday and had the glorious experience of leading his first race lap in an F1 car. Hill ran second — but not too close, for experience and guile told him that maybe this newcomer might drop it, and he had no wish to be involved.

On the fourth lap, comfortably in front, Servoz suddenly slowed before Tabac and came into the pits, his left-rear suspension broken. To this day, he maintains he had not hit anything, but Amon, spectating at the Chicane, said the Matra had undoubtedly clipped the Armco barrier at its exit.

Whatever, the Matra was out and Ken Tyrrell was finding it very hard to smile. Hill, meantime, moved into a lead he was to keep all the way to the flag. Behind him, though, there was mayhem in the early laps, and the attrition rate, even by Monaco standards, was astonishing. Back then, only 16 cars were allowed to start, and by the 17th lap, 11 were gone from the scene, six of them trashed.

I watched from the grandstand at what was known as Station Hairpin; even though the station was long gone the Loews Hotel, mercifully, had still to be built. In front of the stand were straw bales, and to its left a somewhat truncated escape road, in the middle of which a photographer insisted on lying. No-one told him to move — it was his life to risk if he wished.

There were no guard rails, either, at the exit of Mirabeau, the corner before, and a bunch of people hung about on the pavement, taking pictures. They moved finally down to the inside of the hairpin itself — and not more than a minute later Pedro Rodriguez’s BRM went off the road and clouted the wall exactly at the point at which they’d been standing. Pedro hopped from his wrecked car, then ambled down to join them, swinging his helmet as he did so.

By the 30-lap mark, only five cars were still running. Remarkably, there were to be no further retirements, and that was just as well, for if Richard Attwood’s BRM had gone out, the race would have been soporific. As it was, Attwood, making a return to F1 after three years away, got faster and faster as the afternoon wore on, to the point that Hill was never able to relax. At the finish the Lotus was but 2.2sec to the good.

Behind Hill and Attwood were the tardy but reliable Cooper-BRMs of Lodovico Scarfiotti and Lucien Bianchi, followed by the McLaren of reigning world champion Denny Hulme. He had pitted his McLaren on lap 42 because of a broken driveshaft, but instead of retiring the car there and then, team manager Teddy Mayer put the mechanics to work. After 9min, Denny was on his way again, and the points for fifth were his.

It was not by any stretch a memorable Monaco GP, but it was my first, and I savoured every minute, not least the celebrations at the Tip-Top Bar that evening. Graham and Bette in time-honoured style came down there after the gala at the Hotel de Paris and stayed until the early hours. Wonder when a Monaco GP winner last spent the evening with the fans?

In fact, I had to leave the Tip-Top long before Graham did. The original plan had been to fly home the next day, but by now Nice airport was shut, surrounded by pickets, and so alternative arrangements had to be made. Looking back, it was all rather cloak-and-dagger. Fearing that militants might barricade the roads, the Page & Moy people decided that we should slip across the French-Italian border in a fleet of coaches late on Sunday night, and hope to make it to Genoa airport. Everything worked out, but then followed an interminable wait for a flight to England, and any exhilaration there may have been in the Graham Greene part of the journey was dispelled by the far less exotic charms of Luton airport in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Fortunately, I was still on a high: I was 22 and had been to the Monaco Grand Prix. In spite of the best efforts of M Cohn-Bendit