From a supercar joyride down the drowsy, sun-splashed roads of Provence to the high-octane, Champagne-fuelled mayhem of the Monaco Grand Prix, a new bucket-list driving tour kicks into high gear
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It’s the kind of flawless, dazzlingly bright day the riviera is famous for: Sunrays seep through the Mediterranean making it glow like Murano glass, and palm trees—swishy and super-model tall—dapple the Beaux-Arts boulevards in veils of shade. Celeb-studded superyachts clog Port Hercules, bouncing off each other like bath toys, and the traffic along the corniche road above Monte-Carlo sulks to a crawl.
“It’s the Grand Prix,” shrugs my taxi driver, in that oh-so-French, what-did-you-expect way. He’s right, of course; but it’s not just any Grand Prix. Fuelled by a new wave of fandom care of Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive documentary series, plus a post-pandemic Roaring 2020s attitude, this year’s event is at full fever pitch among the beau monde. Everyone—from movie stars to moguls, princes of finance to real-life princes—want in on the action.
In the history of the iconic Monaco Grand Prix, which dates back to the 1920s and is as much about what happens on the track as what happens off of it, there have never been more applications for yacht berths. I’m told that over 175 yachts didn’t make the cut this year, including (allegedly) ex-F1 and Ferrari driver Kimi Räikkönen’s.
One that did make the cut? My destination: MV Friendship, a pearly-white, 173-foot Oceano superyacht, docked off Quai Rainier III and chartered by Ultimate Driving Tours. With 15 years of experience crafting luxe driving holidays and motorsport experiences all over the world, it’s safe to say that Ultimate Driving Tours know their stuff, so of course they were going to magicked-up a yacht, regardless of this year’s challenges (which are too lengthy to get into here, and may or may not involve an Eastern European billionaire; an impounded vessel; and a last-minute change-of-plans from the Prince of Monaco himself).
“We say yes, and then figure it out afterwards,” director and COO Julie Hunter tells me, once I finally fight through the traffic and make it aboard the superyacht. Hunter, alongside Ultimate Driving Tours’ director and CEO Anthony Moss, have not only figured it out but have also made it look easy—a real feat when dealing with such unpreceded demand for this event, as well as across their business. “At the moment, we’re sitting at 120 per cent of 2019, and it’s only May; so, I would estimate that by the end of the year, we’ll be up around 150 per cent,” says Hunter.
This year, Ultimate Driving Tours is hosting 120 guests aboard the yacht, making this their biggest Monaco Grand Prix event yet. Plus, there are the waiting lists, for not only this event but also their newest driving tour, Le Grand Tour Provence.
The new Le Grand Tour Provence consists of the Monaco Grand Prix yacht experience, as well as a two-day drive through the startlingly pretty Provençal countryside, which can be done either pre- or post-Monaco. If the two days of driving aren’t enough for you, there are longer tours to consider, as well as add-ons, like track days driving genuine ex-Formula 1 cars.
I put my driving skills to the test in the pre-Monaco tour alongside fourteen other guests. You wouldn’t know Le Grand Tour Provence was new in any way. From the moment I arrived in Provence, I witnessed our seven-person team (one staff for every two guests) operate with balletic elegance and precision. Crises are dealt with behind the scenes and any inconveniences—from the minor to the major—are resolved “as if by magic” (a favourite phrase of event operations lead and NASCAR driver Alex Sedgwick).
The drives work like this: For our group of fourteen there are seven supercars, and we all get a turn in each car. We drive in a convoy with a lead car and a sweeping car, both driven by staff. The guesswork and annoyances get taken out of the equation, so that all you have to do is enjoy yourself. The lead car—on my tour, event leader and bona fide star rally driver Dean Herridge—tells us over the radio when other cars are approaching or when the road narrows, and a sweep vehicle at the back of the convoy ensures no one gets lost.
I immediately fall in love (and who wouldn’t?) with the showy Lamborghini Huracán EVO Spyder in a glossy scarlet red that practically taunts “look at me!” in a sexy, thick-as-mascarpone Italian accent. It’s made for the often-empty, stop-sign-free roads of Aix-en-Provence, gripping the heat-baked pavement and growling through carved-out mountain tunnels like a lioness in a bad mood. How do I say “come home with me” in Italian?
The drives are incredible—thrilling but also deliciously serene. Me and my driving partner tie scarves under our chins à la Grace Kelly and blast Bad Bunny through the sound system. This is not F1. This is a joyride. After we drive each car for about an hour, we stop to swap vehicles and revive ourselves with velvety expressos in charming cafes straight out of van Gogh paintings. You don’t even have to order your own coffee; the team makes sure they’re already there and waiting for you. Nights are spent in achingly romantic châteaus, all ivy-wrapped and vineyard-fringed, where we drink flowery, flirty rosés and nibble our way through multi-course Michelin meals. We go to bed at reasonable hours. Everyone is completely worn-out from churning through around 250 kilometres of tarmac each day.
When we part ways with our supercars and head to Monaco, there is a distinct vibe shift: Under the screeching glare of glitz in Monte-Carlo and with the thrumming energy of the race, the laid-back, leisurely vibes of Provence all but sizzle away like a puddle in the sun. Here, I drink piscines (Champagne on ice; totally de rigueur in these parts), while trying not to openly gawk at Naomi Campbell on the neighbouring yacht. A guy moans about dropping €2k on a bottle of Clase Azul at Buddha-Bar, as Conor McGregor slithers passed in his custom Verde Gea Lamborghini speedboat, sleek and gleaming as a poisonous snake. There’s plenty of noise: live bands belt out killer renditions of Springsteen and Led Zeppelin; laughing groups of fast friends down frosty pink mojitos and devour plates of briny oysters, balancing atop mountains of crushed ice; and the race cars—the race cars!—swarm down the Nouvelle Chicane with all the buzzing fury of murder hornets.
Despite the sunny weather earlier that day, the heavens open right before the start of this year’s Grand Prix. It makes for an exciting run—despite the delay. Red Bull’s Sergio Perez wins his first race of 2022, just one second ahead of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, and all the yachts sound their horns in a celebratory cacophony that you can feel vibrating deep under your breastbone. After the race, the music is once again cranked. Out yacht all but starts to sink under the Roman feast of gourmet food pouring out from the kitchen. The rainclouds flitter off and the light changes. Suddenly, it’s the kind of pink-tinged, glittery evening the riviera is famous for, and the weather is perfect once again—as if by magic.