Perhaps the best description of the Monaco Grand Prix came from Nelson Piquet, World Champion driver in 1981 and 1983. The Brazilian playboy said it was like ‘riding a bicycle around your living room,’ referring to the impossibly tight nature of this most famous of street circuits. But Piquet also added, tellingly, that ‘a win at Monaco was worth two at any other circuit.’
Nelson was probably being conservative. Many would consider a Grand Prix victory at Monaco the equal of winning a World Championship. It’s not just the fact that it’s a street circuit. The whole place reeks of history, of glamour, unspeakable wealth and danger, too.
Run on the same streets around the tiny principality of Monte Carlo since 1929, this is the oldest surviving Grand Prix race track in the world. And even in 1929 the track was criticised for being ‘too dangerous.’ In those days there were no crash barriers, just straw bales to prevent cars from crashing into street lamps, trees, and even the famous Monaco harbour. If that seems like a schoolboy fantasy, it should be remembered that on two occasions, cars did fly out of control into the water. Formula One’s first double World Champion, Alberto Ascari, did this in 1955, and a decade later his spectacular feat was emulated by Australian Paul Hawkins. Both drivers survived, thanks to the efforts of Monaco harbour police stationed in boats handily close to the race track.
But the real challenge of Monaco these days, with its perimeters guarded by Armco railings, is the fact that it allows absolutely no margin for error. The slightest lapse in concentration sees the car into the wall and out of the race. This has happened to even the best drivers in the world, such as Michael Schumacher, and to Ayrton Senna, who famously crashed out of a huge lead in 1988 when he was over 30 seconds ahead of his great rival, Alain Prost.
Ayrton Senna shrugged that off to win every single Monaco Grand for the next five years, and along with his 1987 victory in a Lotus, he became the only man ever to win the Monaco Grand Prix six times. Senna’s lap in qualifying for the 1989 race – when he was nearly two seconds a lap quicker than Alain Prost – represents what is arguably the most compelling film coverage of an F1 car in action. In those days drivers had to change gear manually, and seeing Senna catch a slide on opposite lock with one hand and snatch a higher gear at the same time with his other hand simply takes your breath away.
Not everyone gets it right. The much-lauded Max Verstappen made a mess of last year’s Monaco by crashing in practice and having to start way down the grid, and if you don’t start on pole at Monaco, you are already on the back foot. But that didn’t stop Max’s 2018 team mate, Daniel Ricciardo, from winning the world’s most famous Grand Prix, and the likeable Ozzie celebrated by belly-flopping into a swimming pool with his full Red Bull race suit and boots!
That’s the other aspect about Monaco that is so appealing. It is so real! It is run in an old-world city, complete with stone walls, a harbour filled with superyachts, and a tunnel that forces drivers to adjust their eye-apertures to cope with near darkness and blazing sunlit within fractions of a second. All that adds to the tantalising sense of danger and glamour, and on race weekend you are just as likely to bump into Beyoncé or Justin Bieber as you are to share a beer with one of the world’s motoring greats, such as South African F1 and road car designer, Gordon Murray.
Last year both Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso criticised the race as ‘boring,’ referring to the fact that the famous street circuit is so narrow that it makes it almost impossible to overtake. That’s a valid criticism, but it should be noted that these two superstars were grumbling in a year when neither of them had won the race. You can bet your last pair of Gucci loafers that they would have been grinning from ear to ear like Daniel Ricciardo, if they had won.
For me, the race may be processional, but it is never free of tension, simply because it is so easy to make the slightest mistake that can put a car into the barriers. And although it is one of the tracks with the slowest average lap speed on the calendar, one should never forget that the cars are still approaching 300 km/h through the tunnel, with just metres to get the braking right for the notoriously difficult chicane that follows. It’s the intense concentration needed to run at the front at Monaco that separates the average drivers from the great ones.
Defining moments at Monaco
1. Ayrton Senna’s qualifying lap for the 1989 event in his manual-shift McLaren Honda.
2. Senna and Nigel Mansell fighting for the lead in the final laps of the 1992 race. Senna won by 0.2 of a second in an inferior car.
3. Michal Schumacher simulated a driver error in final qualifying in 2006, thus preventing rival Fernando Alonso from taking pole position. ‘He park-a-da car!’ ranted Fernando’s team boss, Flavio Briatore to global television audiences.
4. Alberto Ascari and Paul Hawkins ‘parking’ their cars in the Monaco harbour. Those incidents were recreated in the famous 1966 John Frankenheimer movie, Grand Prix.
5. Clerk of the Course Jackie Ickx waving the chequered flag after just 31 laps of pouring rain to stop the 1984 race, and prevent the fast-closing Ayrton Senna from passing Alain Prost for the victory. Ickx lost his Clerk of Course license for waving the flag without consulting the stewards.