Going once, going twice…going to the Historic Grand Prix

Sir Stirling Moss
Sir Stirling Moss

My foray into car racing came during the Monaco Grand Prix in 2005 when the Star Wars franchise took over to promote “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”. Red Bull’s set up in the paddock came complete with Stormtroopers, R2D2 and CP30, while the team’s race cars sported Star Wars liveries.

In addition to interviewing George Lucas for “People Magazine” over lattés on race morning near Rascasse corner, I was privy to all the free food and drink services throughout the day, and, most appreciatively, toilets (I indulged in one too many Red Bulls).

With revving engines and the smell of burning tyres, testosterone was pumping through my system so excitedly that by race day’s end I was certain I’d grown a full beard. Thankfully, this was not the case, but I remember observing the metal grandstands, fans squished together crisping in the afternoon sun and having to pay for concessions, and thought it all so uncivilised. If I couldn’t go to the Monaco GP in style, I wouldn’t go.

See also: The ultimate Monaco Grand Prix survival guide

Truth be told, I thought the same for Historic Grand Prix. Why bother? Well, today I answered my own question.

My introduction to the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique, the biannual race that celebrates its 10th edition this weekend, started with yesterday’s Press Breakfast at the 7th Credit Suisse Historic Racing Forum, in their new Credit Suisse Drivers Club.

Discussing the subject “Manufacturers versus Privateers”, media from across the globe were entertained by a panel of former F1 drivers: Jochen Mass, Alain de Cadenet, Ray Mollock, Emanuele Pirro and the legendary Sir Stirling Moss, who on this day 60 years ago, three weeks after Grace Kelly’s fairy tale marriage to Prince Rainier III, won the 1956 Monaco Grand Prix for the Officine Alfieri Maserati team.

A brief black and white clip of the victory played to thunderous applause from the room.

The hour-long dialogue – which in previous years included the topics “Is historic racing better than Formula 1” and “Is the spirit of historic racing under threat” – started with Pirro’s question about the future of racing, will it become a sport for technology or a sport for man?

As I listened to this group of veterans talk about today’s overly-complicated manufactured cars and how today’s drivers are paid to win to justify the investment, it became clear that while the panel’s faces are more lined and their bodies have aged, the memories of racing for these men is as fresh as a win last week. And the undisputed admiration and comradeship amongst them stems not simply from a love of racing, but a love of cars also. Their generation with their coloured helmets bobbing and exposed, built the cars, mastered the cars, and celebrated the cars.

“Forced into retirement” four years ago at the age of 83, Sir Stirling weighed in on the then-versus-now question. “I would not swap my era for now. I had the pleasure of 600 races because I loved doing it. There’s no pleasure, exhilaration or fun nowadays.

Driver input those days was more by the driver. In 1961, there were 100 laps at the Monaco Grand Prix. I’d see the driver behind me, and every lap, I’d say to myself, ‘I’m going to try to do a perfect lap’. At the same time I have to make it look like I wasn’t working too hard, so I’d give a thumbs up to the driver behind while I was actually clenched on the ground.”

He added, with his distinctive humour, “Monaco is such an intimate course. Every lap I’d blow a kiss to the woman with the pale pink lipstick … it never went anywhere though…”

Alain de Cadenet – who released the film “Pistons Passions Pleasures, A Sicilian Dream: The Story of the Greatest Road Race in History” last October (and also has been quoted saying, “I drove Le Mans at 230mph … with only one working eye”) – summed up the sentiment best by asking the audience in closing “Do you prefer today’s racing?” Not a single hand was raised.

RM Sotheby’s Chief Operating Officer, Alain Squindo
RM Sotheby’s Chief Operating Officer, Alain Squindo

As I left, making my way over to preview RM Sotheby’s car auction, I likened the impressive toughness of this death-defying crew of racers to French Resistance fighters, bound together by the times, and all for a love of something greater than themselves. Next stop on my Historic Grand Prix lap was a meeting with RM Sotheby’s Chief Operating Officer, Alain Squindo, at Le Sporting, who discussed the May 14 auction.

Squindo, a history major from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C, is in charge of all operations – the logistics, the PR, marketing, travelling with 45 staff members – that relate to putting the event on.

Unlike a conventional auction house with a sales room, the industry gravitates towards existing classic cars events, like the Historic Grand Prix on Sunday or, another major event for RM Sotheby’s, the Pebble Beach auction in California. “We fill a select number of spots, we sell only 800 cars a year in six to eight auctions, with an average price pointing well into the six-figures with many multi-million dollar transactions.”

Squindo has been with RM Sotheby’s for nine years and says he loves the travel and interacting with clients in their hobby and their passion. “They race and collect cars, travelling with their families and so it’s a joy to deal with happy people.” One of his personal highlights came last year, when he and his team pulled off the most viable collector car sale in history, selling a record-breaking $172.9 million over two days in Monterey, California.

“Fine Art for RM Sotheby’s is a very traditional and elegant English approach that suits them extremely well,” Squindo explains. “But the car auction business as we know it in North America started in the Midwest, in California, as a very fast-paced, no-reserve style and we have blended the two approaches, maintaining professionalism and discretion.”

The same criteria that apply to art apply equally well to cars: rarity, provenance, condition and basic appearance.

“The best way to know what car is going to be attractive at a point in time,” Squindo says, “is to ask the question ‘What did the gentleman in the bidding room have hanging as a poster on his childhood bedroom wall?’ In 2016, for these guys growing up in the

Eighties, it was Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis – they are buying the car they lusted after as a child.”

Saturday’s auction, with some 500 bidders attending, will offer 105 sports, racing and coach-built automobiles, including the ultra-rare 1968 Ferrari 275 GTS/4 NART Spider (expected to fetch between €19 and €23 million), and Italy’s famed Quattroruote Collection. The 2014 Historic Monaco Grand Prix auction had !41 million in sales.

Monaco is one of the Meccas for motorcars, with an essentially captive audience with the Historic Grand Prix and serious collectors. A typical buyer (and seller) profile is 55 to 65, a mostly male market from North American and Europe.

“A car auction, at least ours in particular, is slightly different,” Squindo feels, “because they are tremendously entertaining. Quite frequently it’s a very full auction room, an engaging auctioneer, there are a few cocktails, people from around the world with Caster Oil in their blood … it’s tremendously electric.”

What really makes an auction though he says is a great bidding war, for a car that will never be available again, and two people battle back and forth. “The engagement is international because you have eight people on the phone desk fielding calls from North America, Russia and Asia in concert with internet bidding. This is getting stronger and we have the same financial credentials in advance but we do at times shut off internet bidding at very high dollar value, because we like to physically interact with the bidder. We take steps to ensure internet bidding is safe and every bid is valid.”

Squindo mentions that they are the largest team in the industry, with more specialists than anyone else and with a larger marketing team, all in-house. They don’t simply advertise their 100 cars; their specialists actively make the calls to find buyers.

The reason the auction is a preferred way of selling is because “you create a real moment in time for thirty seconds”, where if you have a once-in-a-lifetime car that’s exposed to 1000 people, 8 people on the telephone desk, people are forced to raise the paddle, in that room, in ten seconds.

Squindo graciously excused himself and set off to his next appointment with a group of investment bankers.

If, like Alain Squindo, seeing the Historic Grand Prix satisfies a life goal, there are still tickets left for race day Sunday. Otherwise, preview of RM Sotheby’s auction is open to the public Saturday May13, 9 am to 4 pm.

PHOTOS: Top, Sir Stirling Moss sitting today on the same car that 60 years ago spectacularly won the 1956 Monaco Grand Prix

MIDDLE:Alain Squindo, Sotheby’s Chief Operating Officer on site at Le Sporting for the biennial collector car auction.

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