Those of a certain age will remember when, 52 years ago, the whole of France was brought to its knees, this time not by a virus but civil unrest, with strikes and riots throughout the country, unlike 2020, the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix did take place and two Auto Tradition contributors were there. Here are their recollections of ‘68 along with a couple of other anecdotes from that weekend gathered along the way.
`Firstly for all of you under the age of 50 a little background to these stories; Page & Moy were a travel company who during the 1960-80s specialised in package trips to motor race meetings and became the default travel providers for most enthusiasts and journalists alike. As this article illustrates, they were very resourceful and exceptional in their customer service. `
Roger Dixon recalls
Arriving at Nice airport on a Page & Moy package four days before the Sunday race I boarded my coach for the half hour journey along the beautiful Côte d’Azur coastline to Monaco, just managing to get into and then out of France before a spate of strikes gridlocked the entire country. Grand Prix entrant, journalist and heir to the Johnnie Walker whisky empire Rob Walker was not so fortunate.
Rob had decided to drive his Ferrari 250 Lusso GT from London to Paris where he and the Ferrari boarded the overnight train to Frejus expecting to arrive in the south of France early the next morning. Rob awoke that following morning to find that the strikers had struck and his train was marooned at a tiny country station somewhere in mid France, with the whole of the French rail system at a standstill. A makeshift ramp was eventually constructed using a double-deck car transporter to disembark the stranded vehicles; unfortunately, this arrangement did not suit Rob’s low-slung Ferrari. He was finally persuaded to attempt the manoeuvre after extra boards had been added to extend the ramp. Rob explained “It was a tricky decent and we came off the transporter engulfed in a cloud of clutch smoke, much to the pleasure of the onlookers, some 13½ hours after our arrival. Eventually we did get to Monaco and by then things had really become difficult. There were no buses or telephones outside France and petrol was scarce, then they cut the electricity, but typically French they always turned it back on at least an hour before meal-times.”
Rob’s Lotus 49 with Jo Siffert driving managed 3rd place on the grid but unfortunately retired from the race on lap 11 when the differential broke.
Once inside the Principality life carried on as normal-normal for Monaco and the Grand Prix weekend that is. Fifty-two years ago, it was still the highlight of F1 year with exotic cars at every corner, and pretty girls, back then wearing micro minis, enjoying its ambiance. Jackie Stewart had made the journey even though a broken wrist precluded him from competing. Stirling Moss and Fangio spent the weekend signing autographs. Many other celebrities could be seen dinning in those restaurants where `if you have to ask the price you won’t be able to afford it! ` All the Grand Prix and Formula 3 teams from the UK had managed complete their difficult journey through a crippled France. This Page & Moy punter was in for a good weekend.
Dan Gurney and his Eagle team didn’t experience such a smooth weekend. When during Thursday’s first practice session the oil pump drive failed on their `one and only` resident Eagle engine destroying the V12’s internals they were left high and dry. Dan’s only option was to travel along the coast into Italy from where he could phone the UK to request the team’s second engine-that was still on the dynamometer-be sent out. Mechanic Jo Ramirez takes up the story “We had to load it into our van and rush to the nearest aerodrome where a Cessna was waiting to fly it to Dan. It was a very small plane, so we had to take out all the seats to get it in. Once in the air the pilot was told due to the strike he couldn’t land at Nice so had to creep into a private airfield near Cannes with car headlight’s illuminating the runway.”
Unfortunately, all this effort did not bring reward as Saturday morning dawned wet and the weather stayed that way for most of the day, consequently there was little chance for improvement. Poor Dan Gurney just managed to squeeze onto the back of the grid using his ‘smuggled’ engine which then failed after nine laps of the race.
Contributor Keith Booker had a far more hair-raising weekend.
The 1968 Monaco Grand Prix was my first visit to an overseas race. I had booked a weekend package, flying from London Gatwick to Nice with the then fledgling Page & Moy Tours, spending some £30 of my savings. That might not seem like much now, but it was to me then! As the eagerly anticipated weekend approached it seemed that the Monaco Grand Prix may not happen at all as most of France was in the grip of a series of strikes and riots. Then news came through that Ferrari had withdrawn their entries. The omens did not look good.
My flight in a turboprop DC6B landed in Nice a little later than scheduled but in time to be transferred by coach to Monaco for the Saturday qualifying. I had pre-booked a seat in the grandstand at the Station Hairpin for race day (cost £5) and being a little reluctant to get myself lost around Monte Carlo’s confusing streets I opted to buy a Saturday ticket in the same stand.
Two first impressions of F1 at Monaco really stood out. Just how close to the action it was possible to get as a spectator, especially at certain points of the track where the bridges are built every year, and how the much louder than expected engine noises reverberated around the narrow streets. The famous Monaco sun may have been absent, but all the other ingredients were definitely present, including plenty to please the eye other than cars!
Saturday was both exciting and terrifying for me. Exciting because I was at last at Monaco but terrifying because of what was to follow in the evening. Hotel accommodation in Nice was included in the package and I teamed up with another enthusiast to walk a few streets away from the hotel to find a place to eat. We were disturbed to see an angry mob gathering in the streets and relieved to find a quiet restaurant.
From our table at the back we were unaware of just how serious things were becoming outside until we stepped onto the pavement only to flatten ourselves against the wall as a couple of armoured vehicles followed by riot police filled the narrow street. A crowd entered the restaurant we had just left so we felt our safest option was to find a police station, which, surprisingly, we came across in a few minutes. This became our place of sanctuary for an hour or so until things quietened down, and we were able to make our way back to our hotel. Surely race day would be an anti-climax!
By one quarter distance of the Grand Prix there had been eleven retirements and for a time there were only three cars circulating in this race of attrition.
Five cars were eventually classified but Richard Attwood’s spirited pursuit of Graham Hill kept us entertained. I have a clear recollection of Jack Brabham coming to a halt in front of me with a broken radius rod and of Pedro Rodrigeuz slamming the Mirabeau wall so hard I feared he was going clear over the top and onto the track below. Occasionally an English-speaking commentator would grab the microphone and at about three quarters distance he made the announcement that all on my Page and Moy tour should make their way back to their coach immediately for an earlier than scheduled transfer to Nice airport.
We were told that air traffic control at Nice airport and throughout French airspace was going on strike at nightfall and we had to take off before everything closed down. The coach driver clearly relished a challenge and he took us along the Cote de Azur as if he was in the GP itself. At last we reached Nice airport, which was in near darkness, ushered from the coach and straight up the steps of our aircraft. The captain made the announcement that we passengers had a choice. He could leave us stranded in a strike-bound country or he could take off illegally. By a show of hands, the decision was made to take off, without any lighting on the aircraft or on the runway and apparently without official clearance.
Nice airport jutted straight out to sea and how the pilot knew when he had reached the end of the runway I’ll never know. The aircraft climbed steeply and once level the cabin lights were turned on and champagne served in celebration! The flight took twice as long as scheduled as we had to fly over the sea rather than the French mainland. The talk onboard was mostly about how we may have witnessed the very last Monaco GP.
Back at work the next morning I was greeted with a cheery “did you have a good weekend? What did you do?” “Yes, thanks, nothing much”, was all this seventeen-year-old could bring himself to say!
Roger Dixon’s journey home was not laced with Champagne.
Getting home for me was quite different. I was booked on the Monday Page & Moy flight from Nice, that didn’t happen instead we were bussed to Genoa and flown back Dan-Air to Gatwick, the main problem being I had left from Luton!
Fortunatly unlike Covis-19 French civil unrest did not infect the rest of the World and the 1968 Grand Prix season continued albeit forever changed by the Lotus upgrades sported on Graham Hill’s victoriuos car. Upon reflection, what could have been the most boring of races, with only five classified finishers, turned out to have a tense finale as Richard Attwood made a race of it, before crowning his career with a win at Le Mans two years later. Ferrari’s absence was most likely caused by their habitual desire to concentrate on preparations for Le Mans during the first half of the season. There was also the matter of Lorenzo Bandini’s crash at the chicane only a year earlier and Ferrari’s belief that Monaco was unsafe. Graham Hill’s Lotus 49 presage the way for tobacco sponsorship that dominated the sport for years to come and the front nose flaps and turned-up tail of the 49 that day led the way for aerodynamic appendages. All-in all, a memorable weekend, despite everything!