A man walked up to the front desk of the massive, modernistic Loew's Monte Carlo Hotel Friday, waved his arm in the general direction of the Mediterranean, and asked if he could have a "room on that side," over-looking the sea.
The young clerk, in mod-cut powder blue blazer, was momentarily speechless. But recovering quickly he said, in a voice as pointed as his lapels, "Sir, we have not even a closet. We are fully booked. You cannot even have aroom."
Unless you are a duke who can bunk down at the palace with Grace and Rainier, a high roller at the casino, or just plain folks who made reservations months in advance, you cannot be choosy about you commodations in Monte Carlo the week of the Grand Prix of Monaco.
What you can find is what you get, but chances are it is prety good. Monte Carlo is high living anytime, but especilly on his four-day holiday weekend - the Feast of the Ascension - which is the traditional date for the most elegant event in the most elegant of sports, Formula One racing.
More than 200,000 people are expected to swarm the idyllic hills and terraces of this little principality Sunday to watch the 35th renewal of the "Race in the City."
The finest cars and drivers, the nobility of motor sports, will race 76 laps over the 3,584-yard circuit, for a total of 156 miles.
The circuit is one of the slowest - John Watson averaged only 82.8 miles per hour in his Brabham as he earned the pole with the fastest lap just before the conclusion of today's last practice session - but it has as much charm and character as the city from whose streets it is fashioned.
From the start-finish line on Boulevard Albert I, across from the red velvet royal box where Prince Rainier and Princess Grace will receive the winner and present the championship cup, the course is filled with curves and straightways, hairpins and chicanes that are familiar to racing buffs around the world.
Some take their names from structures that no longer exist, such as the "Station Hairpin."
Most are named for landmarks that remain - the Casino turn, for example, where drivers brake down to 90 m.p.h. for a lefthander between the casino and the Hotel de Paris, past celebrities who nibble a $75 lunch on the terrace.
The Monaco circuit is tricky, demanding and affords few places to pass, which is why the first grid position that Watson will share with Jody Scheckter in his wolf Ford is so important.
With the huge crowds practically at curbside and such features as a tunnel that can play disconcerting tricks with the eyes at high speed on a sunny day, Monaco should be a ridiculously dangerous circuit. But the relatively slow speeds and carefully attention to safety measures by the organizing Automobile Club de Monaco have kept catastrophes to a minimum.
There have been five fatalities, two of them in the only motorcycle race at Monaco. The last was in 1967, when Lorenzo Bandini crashed at the chicane and died five days later or horrifying burns he suffered because it too fire marshals 15 minutes to reach him.
Twice cars have hurtled into the harbour, but boats with frogmen and helicopters patrol the seaside sector of the circuit to be ready to avoid tragedy.
In all, this is a unique spectacle that combines Old World charm with modern technology. That is why every room in Monte Carlo and all the neighboring Riviera resorts are taken.
Prices for every good and service are raised, and hotel rooms are booked for four and five-day minimums. The 45-minute cab ride from Nice airport is 110 francs instead of the usual 90 (about $22 instead of $18). But no one particularly resents being fleeced.
Hundreds of people sleep in their cars or vans. Thousands of spectators will pour into town Sunday morning, filling bleacehers that are set up at every possible vantage point, hanging from trees, peering down from balconies and rooftops of ornate buildings in this most exquisite of cities.
Italians arrive by the trainload, crossing the border the lush green hill across the harbor filled with gently bobbing yachts, not far from the palace. They consume chianti and unfurl red-green-and-white Italian flags, cheering "Forza (let's go) Ferrari."
The two Italian drivers in the race, the sturday and hirsuite ex-motorcyclist Vittorio Bramvilla ("The Monza Gorilla") and Formula One rookie Riccardo Patrese, have little chance in their Surtees and Shadow, respectively.
Many of the Italians identify with Mario Andretti of Nzareth, Pa., born 37 years ago in Trieste, who will be going for his third consecutive world championship race victory in his JPS Lotus. He has won the U.S Grand Prix-West at Long Beach and the Spanish Grand Prix back-to-back to move up to second place behind Scheckter in the standings, 23-20. The winner here gets nine points, the runner-up six, the followers 4, 3, 2, and 1, but no American ever has won here and Andretti had a disappointing practice, finishing 10th.
In their hearts all Italians pull for team Ferrari, and thus for drivers Niki Lauda of Austria and Carlos Reutemann of Argentina. They would have won their second straight world title last year had Lauda not crashed, nearly fatally, in Germany and allowed the world title to go to James Hunt of England.
The weather this week has not befitted the traditional opening of the summer season on the Cote d'Azur. Instead of the golden sunshine that produces those celebrated all-over tans at St. Tropez, the skies have produced various shades of gray.
Ste. Devote, protectress of the principality who gives her name to the first turn of the circuit, must have been melancholy to produce so much drizzle.
But a few raindrops are insufficent to dampen the spirit of Monte Carlo, where only the croupiers wear stern expressions.
The Mediterranean is still as blue as the heavens on a heavenly day. Unlike Las Vegas, it has the look and feel of old money - money that has land attached to it, and castles on the land. But it is not stuffy. The clubs are open to everbody, and the price is not clear.
Especially this week the place has a carnival atmosphere, a festive spirit that catches on from the first glimpse of the forthy coastline.
During the grandest of the Grand Prix, Monaco is the Upper East Side of the sporting world. There must be more stunning women per square inch here than anywhere else, many of them displaying beautiful clothes in minimal amounts.
Stylish suits mix in the same room with vinyl racing jackets, jeans, Goodyear caps. The logos of Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior clash but co-exist with "Champion" and "Texaco."
Camp fashion here this year is American baseball shirts for women, a style which has replaced the bowling shirt and university sweatshirt.
And there are celebrities to be seen. Friday night Joe DiMaggio sat on the bar of Leow's Casino with Cart Gowdy, Pete Rozelle and a few other friends.
Saturday. The final practice session for Formula One cars and the running of two companion races for Formula Three (little brother of Formula One) and European Renault. At dawn the clouds hung on the hills like Spanish moss, and rain fell, sometimes heavily, past 11 a.m.
Nevertheless the day provided a feast for the sense, even before the circuit had dried enough to allow crews to replace the grooved rain tires with bad one for dry roads.
The streets were closed at 7 a.m., a lous speaker announcing the "fermature." While most of the Monte Carlo slept, this shrill voice pierced the morning mist: "Attention, attention," and then an announcement.
At Le Bambi, a few doors down from the Automobile Club offices, early risers dunked croissants in their coffee, or breakfasted on German-style peace cake, gooey and delicious. Fresh strawberries arrived by the crateful at 8 a.m., so big they had to be cut in quarters for serving. The discarded boxes, red-blotched and fragrant, signaled to passersby the goodies awaiting inside.
Down in the pits, crews changed the tires that are a foot wide and look like they belong to small steamrollers. Each team is set up in trailers and tents that contain their equipment, and the precious cars under sraps. Crew members live in adjacent campers.
Later the crews will work without a word, so thoroughly do they know their jobs, but now, tinkering with the most expensive and sophisticated of automotive machiner, they converse in the sort of verbal shorthand that develops in any skilled trade.
At 8:15 there was a steady downpour but even so the stands started to fill up, and there were so many colourful umbrellas one could only think this must be Cherbourg.
Shortly before 9, there is the unmistakeable roar that singals that sart of practice. Is there a man-made sound, save the take-off of the Concorde, this frighening? From a distance you hear it in perspective - approach, acceleration, shifting of gears, braking. But from immediately beside the track it exploses, vibrating the eardrums and tickling the throat.
By 11:45, the rain has stopped and a hazy sun shines even though the tops of the hills are still in clouds. Vendours set up their tables: pizza, pate sandwiches, cold drinks, all appetizing but a trifle overpriced.
Many people prefer to go the local shops and buy some cheese, could cuts, bread, and fresh fruit - a bountiful harvest worthy of thanksgiving.
Later, with ths sun out in full force, the pits are bustling. Mechanics weild wrenches, screwdrivers and other implements with loving care.
Three-time world champion, Jackie Stewart, in navy windbreaker and his familiar corduroy cap, still draws big crowd sand photographers as he flits around commentating for ABC-TV.
For the fourth year ABC is filming the race with 15 cameramne and will a segment to be aired on "Wide World of Sports" next weekend. They do not videotape the French TV feed because, an ABC man explains, the coverage is not up the network's standards, the French director not quikc enough to follow the leaders.
Why doesn't ABC originate the picture and give it to the French?
"Politics. Protocol. They wouldn't hear of it," says the ABC man disdainfully.
Meanwhile rumor has it that the ABC producer is spending most of his time preparing for the arrival of boss Roone Arledge, arranging for a chauffeured limousine to meet his private Lear jet. The chief's suite at the Mirabeau has been re'decorated into veritable botannical garden.
Gendarmes in uniform and "controleurs" in orange jumpsuits derect the masses of people who are in the pits because they wear armbands says "potographenss" "pressen" "invite d'Honneur," "radio," "service," "cinema," "assistance," "orginisation," or "reanimateur" (first aid person . . . literally, one who reanimates.)
One cannot possibly excape, either, the splashes of sponsorship that underwrite the most expensive equipment in spots. Trade names of tires, sparkplugs, petroleum products are everywhere, as are tram sponsors. Hohn Player, Marlboro, Rothmans, Elf, Martini, Copersucar . . . they jump from stickers, patches and logos on everthing that moves, and Most stationary objects.
And by the way, do you have a room overlooking the Meditterranean?