The 1972 Monaco Grand Prix was in many ways a strange affair. It produced the debut victory for a man who would never win again and the circuit was in a state of flux.
When Prince Rainier and his entourage arrived in their cars during practice on Sunday, they were waved onto the circuit with scarcely a thought for the circulating drivers…
Monte-Carlo that year was cold and stinking wet – exactly the elements that rob the glamorous venue of its lustre. But it did produce an unusual and memorable race.
Jackie Stewart had won the world championship for a second time in 1971. But the following season by the time of the fourth round he was exhausted and unwell.
Aside from the publicity demands placed on the world champion Stewart had been drawn into a bitter wrangle over the safety of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit where many other F1 drivers had competed in a 1000km sports car race the week before.
It was only after the Monaco race that Stewart discovered he had a bleeding stomach ulcer, which drained him of his energy.
Other drivers missed Monaco entirely. It clashed with the Indianapolis 500, so Ferrari’s Mario Andretti was away, as was McLaren’s Peter Revson.
Carlos Reutemann was also absent and so Emerson Fittipaldi’s brother Wilson took over the spare Brabham to make his second world championship start.
The circuit also saw some changes. The track was still basically in the same configuration it had been when it first held a world championship round in 1955.
But, as a one-off, the pits had been moved to the harbour front. The entrance to the present-day harbour chicane served as the pit lane entry. A separate chicane further down the track slowed the cars into Tabac.
This was unfortunate for spectators who’d bought seats overlooking the start/finish line who could no longer see the pit lane.
But as the race started no-one could see very much of anything. It rained on the final practice session on Saturday and it poured on Sunday – so much so that an extra practice session was put on, which was when Prince Rainier made his ill-timed arrival.
Fittipaldi had pole but it was Jean-Pierre Beltoise who surged into the lead at the start from fourth – guaranteeing himself the only view of the track that was free from spray.
Fittipaldi fell behind Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari and could see so little that when Regazzoni went straight on at the chicane Fittipaldi blindly followed him and Jacky Ickx passed the pair for second.
Beltoise held the lead for every single one of the race’s 80 laps. This came as something of a surprise especially as Ickx behind him was a renowned wet-weather expert.
There were two scares for Beltoise’s BRM. He lost the back end of the car at Portier but caught the slide – just – and continued. Then at the Station Hairpin (where the station had been demolished and Loews Hotel was being built) he barged into Tim Schenken as he lapped the Surtees driver.
Water logging became a problem for many drivers, including Beltoise and Ickx. Stewart suffered too, and it choked his Tyrrell’s Cosworth engine so badly that the Scotsman lost third place to Fittipaldi and was lapped twice in the late stages of the race.
The race ran its full distance which, in the days before the two hour rule, took 2hr 25m 54.7s. Yet despite the persistent rain, which periodically grew in intensity to further soak the track, only six of the 25 starters crashed out.
One of those was Peter Gethin who hit the new chicane, and while the marshals recoved the wreckage the field was re-directed through the escape road instead.
Beltoise’s win was his only career F1 victory. At the time it was a considerable relief after his bitter 1971 season, when he had been involved in a crash at the Buenos Aires 1000km that killed Ignazio Giunti.
It would also be the last win for BRM. The team had optimistically fielded five cars in 1972 having introduced Marlboro sponsorship to Formula 1.
Ickx finished second but Fittipaldi, third, took over the lead of the drivers’ championship from Denny Hulme. Later that year he would win his first championship, becoming the youngest driver to do so until Fernando Alonso broke his record 33 years later.