Not only is the Monaco Grand Prix the most glamorous event on the motor racing calendar, it is also a living piece of F1 history. Drivers have gone to battle in the impossibly tight confines of the streets of Monte-Carlo since 1929.
Nine non-championship events were run at Monaco from 1929 to 1937, followed by a hiatus due to the worsening international situation and the outbreak of World War Two. Following this, the tenth Grand Prix de Monaco was run in 1948 and won by Giuseppe ‘Nino’ Farina in a Maserati.
Monaco hosted the second round of the first World Championship in 1950 and the race has been a permanent fixture since 1955. It has been the only true street circuit on the F1 calendar since 1991, when the unloved circuit in Pheonix, Arizona was dropped.
And, uniquely, the Grand Prix weekend that would ordinarily run from Friday to Sunday begins instead on Thursday. There is no activity on Friday as everyone heads for the casinos and the ultra-exclusive balls.
The early years
The first race was won by Juan Manuel Fangio, who displayed his legendary race savvy when, on the first lap, he noticed that the crowd was not watching the race, but looking further down the circuit. This was because a large wave had crashed into the harbour and flooded the track. Fangio immediately backed off. The rest of the pack raced on and a multiple collision ensured, taking out nine of the runners and leaving Fangio to lead home just six other drivers to the chequered flag.
The 1981 race was delayed due to water on an unlikely part of the track – the tunnel under Loews’ hotel.
The circuit configuration on which these early races were run was the same as that used for the early World Championship races from 1950 to 1972.
In 1955, Alberto Ascari crashed his Lancia-Ferrari into the harbour but survived with only minor injuries. Tragically, the Italian twice champion was killed only weeks later while testing a Ferrari sports car. Stirling Moss won brilliantly in 1961, holding off the menacing shark-nosed Ferraris of Richie Ginther, Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips in his nimble but under-powered Lotus-Climax.
In 1967 Ferrari driver Lorenzo Bandini lost his life after crashing into the hay bales at the chicane. The car burst into flames and the straw only fuelled the fire. This would be the last time the gruelling race was run to 100 laps, the 1968 event being cut to 80. Bandini had crashed on lap 81.
The track had undergone substantial changes when the teams arrived in 1973. A swimming pool had been built on part of the seafront, and the corresponding roads and circuit had been redrawn to go around it. This created another four corners (La Piscine) and the already slow average speed of the circuit was further reduced by replacement of the Gasworks hairpin with the even tighter La Rascasse. This meant that lap times, which had dropped from 1m 50s in 1950 to 1m 21s in 1972 on basically the same track, became 1m 26s on the revised circuit. The average lap speed dropped to just 130.3 kph (81.4 mph).
Crashes, retirements and flukes
Monaco has always been a race that produces a high rate of retirement. The large number of slow corners and short straights put particular strain on the transmission, and the slightest error from a driver can result in heavy impact with a wall.
In 1982 fuel consumption was a serious concern and a comedy of errors ensued as driver after driver retired just short of winning the race. Alain Prost crashed, Riccardo Patrese spun, Didier Pironi, Andrea de Cesaris and Derek Daly all ran out of fuel (and the latter was driving without a rear wing due to an earlier incident). Finally, Patrese managed to jump-start his car by rolling it down the hill towards the harbour and took his first race win.
Wet weather at Monaco can usually be relied upon to produce a surprise result. Jean Pierre Beltoise won in the wet for BRM in 1972, but it would be his only win. Olivier Panis also took his only win on a slippery track in 1996.
The 1981 race was delayed due to water on the most unlikely part of the track – in the tunnel under Loews’ hotel. A fire in the hotel had been doused by the local fire brigade on the morning of the race, and the water drenched the circuit.
Most memorably, Ayrton Senna nearly took his first ever win for the fledgling Toleman team in foul conditions in 1984. After Nigel Mansell hit the wall while leading, Senna picked off his illustrious rivals one by one and was reeling in race leader Prost when clerk of the course Jacky Ickx controversially stopped the race due to the terrible conditions.
Senna passed Prost after the two crossed the line and briefly thought he’d won. Further back, Stefan Bellof in the Tyrrell had been catching the pair of them, but the true extent of his talent was never realised as a sports car accident claimed his life the following year.
Senna, of course, went on to become the winningest driver at Monaco, with six victories from 1987-93. Although he inherited the first of his victories when Nigel Mansell retired while leading in 1987, he threw away a potential win in 1988 when he crashed at Portier. Senna’s sixth win in 1993 broke Graham Hill’s long-standing record of five wins from 1963-69. Michael Schumacher equalled Hill’s record in 2001, but a sixth win has continued to elude him. In 2004 he failed to finish due to a bizarre altercation with Juan Pablo Montoya during a safety car period while passing through the tunnel.
The modern circuit
Recent revisions to the Monaco circuit have been deeply contentious as barriers have been moved back and, in some places, removed altogether in the name of safety. In 1997 the entrance to La Piscine was opened up with the addition of new kerbs. Then in 2003 the barriers were removed from the inside of Sainte Devote and the outside of La Piscine, and the profile of La Rascasse was radically changed in the vain hope of creating a viable overtaking opportunity.
Despite the relatively slow speeds at Monaco compared to other tracks, it is one of the most dangerous circuits. It still offers little run-off space for errant drivers. This, however, is the very nature of its challenge and why it is so important to have at least one race like this at the pinnacle of motorsport.
The unique challenge of Monaco and the preposterous opulence of its inhabitants will probably guarantee its slot on the F1 calendar indefinitely. Martin Brundle once observed that some people in Formula One are â€œliterally sick with money.â€ The same could apply to Monaco. Hideously wasteful, expensive, dangerous – all that is good and bad about Formula One at the same time.