Ferraris and an Oligarch

By Carole O’Malley Gaunt

“You need to put the sound of a Ferrari, a Porsche, or a McLaren engine in the sound system. When the driver starts the car, he turns a dial and can pick out whatever engine noise he wants that day.” Accosting a board member of a European car maker in a Florida post office, my husband was half-jokingly pitching his brainchild with, atypical for him, enthusiasm.

Two weeks earlier, we had witnessed the celebrated Formula One Grand Prix in Monaco, which may have been the genesis of the thinking behind the creativity sparking his automotive must-have, the pick-your-engine sounds. (If my husband had tried to hustle his “gizmo” to the Russian oligarch who shared our table at the Ferrari Club, he might have had better luck. More on that.)

We were seasoned Grand Prix attendees, I a little grudgingly. In any long-term marriage there are deals: He gets the Formula One; I get the south of France. Although the Ferrari Club tent looked out on the Monaco marina, jam-packed with extraordinary mega-yachts that had cruised in for the race days, my husband couldn’t help but ogle the Rivas, the Ferraris of power boats, lining the marina’s docks.

This year, the timing of the Grand Prix coincided with the Cannes Film Festival, which may explain the surprise drop-in by Antonio Banderas and his entourage to the Ferrari tent. For the GQ set, the actor was wearing a fitted navy sport coat, a tie-dyed dark crewneck T-shirt, and slim-legged ripped jeans, from which the toes of spotless camel-colored boots peeked. His handler, in her Ferrari signature-colored red jumpsuit, reported when questioned that Antonio did not own a Ferrari, but she quickly added, “He is thinking about it.”

The waitstaff served the three-course meal with its “gastronomic” aspirations, nearly tripping over themselves in servicing the special requests of the attendees as if we were all Monegasque members of the Grimaldi family. No water glass was ever empty. But try as the caterer might, the food could never be the high point, not when Fernando Alonso, the movie-star handsome, dark-haired Spaniard and Formula One champion driver, took the stage during the dessert course. Responding to questions about the car’s tires, fuel, the engine, and his pole position, Alonso was unnaturally calm, especially considering that in less than an hour he was about to drive the twists and turns of the 78 laps, clocking an average speed of over 140 miles per hour while weaving among the 19 other drivers, all hell-bent on winning.

A half-dozen or so well-placed wide-screen televisions were scattered throughout the tent, but the best viewing of the race was in the grandstand seats that faced the race road and the pits where teams of deadly serious technicians changed sets of tires in what seemed like milliseconds. This year, the engine noise abated somewhat as Formula One officials tried to “go green,” leaving some “can’t get enough of the engine noise” fans to grumble accordingly. The cars flashed by.

So who was there? At our table, randomly assigned, we sat with a heavily tattooed Finnish couple, celebrating his 40th birthday and Christmas. The rest of the table was made up of a Russian group — husband, wife, his son, and either staff or family members. The wife who sat next to me spoke perfect English, which always frustrates me, with my failure to acquire language skills. Old enough to be her mother, I struck up enough of a rapport with her that on the final day Olga and her husband invited us to a post-race celebration at which they had taken a table. Since the party began at midnight — we’re not that hip — we declined. Yes, I know. Still kicking selves.

And on that perfect Sunday in late May, Alonso finished fourth. And much to my surprise, I am becoming, of all things, a fan.

Stateside again, my husband, no sentimentalist, drapes our Grand Prix badges over a glass he won in a car show for his 1958 Jaguar in what he jokingly refers to as his “trophy room.” He now has a growing collection of Grand Prix badges.

Carole O’Malley Gaunt is the author of “Hungry Hill,” a memoir. She lives part time in Sag Harbor.