An azure blue sea, a near guarantee of glorious sunshine and that unique light quality, so beloved by professional and amateur snappers the world over (although the former understand its value and the latter find replication all but impossible elsewhere), are primary attractions. Yet, the month of May, as Europe shuffles out of vernal slumbers, is always Monaco GP month.
The boats of all sizes and classes gather in the harbour, at a hefty price tag, to offer their all-over tanned occupants a prime grandstand seat. The view upwards and above the parades of restaurants and high-end shops is steep and never-ending, as you squint at the granite mountains, just visible above yellow ochre and off-white tower blocks, with their red pantile-clustered roofs. Just to qualify for a resident’s permit demands a useful few millions in the bank and car fans do not even look at the myriad red Ferraris, amber Lamborghinis, electric blue Bugattis and the occasional snuffling, snorting Pagoni Zonda, because they are ten-a-cent on the streets of the Principality.
Of course, Monte Carlo, the area within which Monaco resides, is as famous as Beverley Hills, the Hamptons or North Miami, for its draw to the glitterati, and this independent state delivers its guile in spades. It was His Serene Highness Rainier III, who died in 2005, following a long and largely happy reign of 56 years, who brought international fame to the Grimaldi family home, when he married American actress, Grace Kelly. Rainier had taken his small state from bankruptcy to tax-free haven during his reign. It is little wonder that this tiny Principality would gain recognition several thousand miles away in North America, at a level it has never relinquished, now that Prince Albert runs the family show.
// Circuit Of The Brave
No street circuit is ever going to offer the run-off areas and safety addenda demanded by modern Grand Prix circuit management, let alone the Drivers‘ Safety Lobby. Yet, whether running through a wide open car park, or on the byways of a public park, nothing can compare with the narrowness and close proximity of buildings and pathways of a street circuit. Most of the former public road courses now cease to exist, especially in built-up areas. Especially to F1 drivers. Barcelona. Bordeaux. Pau. Berlin et alia.
The course at Monaco rises from the start-line and ‘pits’ area on the Boulevard Albert 1er, prior to taking the fast uphill right-hander at St Devote, following the tourist signs towards the Casino Square. I say fast, because a charging army of F1 cars barrelling into the near-90 degrees corner is one of the most thrilling race openers of them all, even at a ‘dawdling’ 70mph. As a spectator, you need your wits about you. As a driver, shutting your eyes is not an answer. Just before the famous Casino is a long left-hander (Massanet), before the bumpy plunge down the Avenue des Beaux Arts.
Although now known as the Fairmont Hotel, just downhill from Mirabeau, for many years it was Loew’s Hotel and, to aficionados, that is the name it retains (I still have the ashtray in my possession, sorry). It is notable for being the slowest left-hand hairpin bend in Formula One (29mph), notorious for the innumerable clashes that have taken place there, usually between the front-running teams, as they battled for the impossible overtakes and positions, Senna versus Prost, Schumacher dicing with Hakkinen, Hill head-to-head with Stewart, surrounded by high walls and the suspension muscling red-and-white kerbstones.
How far the mighty have to fall is still open to question, as the sequence continues through the double right-hander at Portier, where Ayrton Senna famously ran out of road on his race-winning final laps in the 1988 event. With an unassailable lead of more than 30 seconds over his Gallic team-mate, Alain Prost, he made an uncharacteristic miscalculation and struck the barriers of the second turn, with retirement force.
As the cars enter the tunnel section below the Fairmont, the aerodynamic forces change, a peculiarity of Mediterranean air blasting through this unique feature. Sitting above the tunnel, you can hear the whoosh of the Bernoulli Effect, above the machine-gun rev-limiters and the yowling of the race engines. It might be the only time that such silent scientific principles can display, in classroom-defining style, an otherwise bamboozling measure.
Sadly, only a select group of trackside marshals ever gets to see it first-hand. It is amazing that the drivers can maintain any control at all, at around 165mph, negotiating a shiny tarmac ribbon and a right-hand bend simultaneously, while accelerating blindly, the natural light lost and coruscating shadows generating confusingly craven images reflected off the inner walls of a square-edged tube. Upwards of 30 per cent of the aerodynamic benefits required for any other section of this circuit are lost. It is terrifying. It is also magical and, much as they might make complaining noises, nobody decries Monaco for its uniqueness.
Returning instantly to bright after-lunch sunlight, the road plummets downhill to the left-right chicane at the entrance to the harbour area. Last year, Sergio Perez felt the collapsible crush of the tyre barrier, which awaits the unsettled as they scrabble onto the brake pedal, downshifting furiously to negotiate the flick illegally across the kerbs, while feeling the wide tyres writhe on the cambered tarmac. Those brave or opportune enough will use this tiny strip of roadway to effect an overtake, as it is one of the very few passing places anywhere at Monaco.
From here, the site of an infamous watery plunge by Alberto Ascari in the 1955 race, it is a short but rapid blast to Tabac and then the swimming pool complex and among the hottest spectating seats in the house. With the end of a lap looming, driver frustrations are clear. There is a guarantee of nose-to-tail excitement and, unless you own or have access to a very large cruiser moored in the harbour, only a trackside seat will give you the intimacy with seared brake linings, tortured Michelins and the inevitable warmed and blistered rubble that gathers off the racing line.
Next is the tight-right of La Rascasse, followed by the final corner of Virage, which is actually named ‘Virage Antony Noghes’ after the organiser of the first ever Monaco GP. It is tricky to negotiate, because the racing cars are thrown off-line by its camber change, to kiss the Armco barrier at the start of the main straight and smear the Michelin logo monochromically across its dull alloy finish. Apart from the final blast across the line, that is it. A solitary lap around Monaco.
// Engineering Change
Naturally, each racing car must undergo an immense series of changes to suit the Monegasque circuit. The drivers must endure ordinarily spine-jarring restricted suspension movement but it would not work at all on Monaco’s streets. They are far too rough and designed for family cars, trucks and buses throughout the other 51 weekends of the year. The surface of the roads is typically southern European, with a shiny top coat that behaves like glass in torrential downpours, of which there are a few.
Apart from softening the dampers and spring-rates, the ride height has to be adjusted upwards, to stop the corrosive effects of tarmac on the below-chassis ‘planks’. Subjected to intense scrutiny at other GPs, a certain leeway is granted to the teams at Monaco, partly because of the sheer showmanship of this landmark event but also because of the changing cambers and kerb heights on the tortuous and height-challenging course.
Special gearing is required for the race transmissions, to provide as much advantage as possible on the slowest circuit of the F1 calendar. By the same token, steering lock is also increased, to accommodate the full applications required for both the left-hand Fairmont (Loew’s) Hairpin and the right-hooker at Rascasse. High down-force is considered essential for the unique location, as much to provide stability under hard braking, as well as for the occasional bursts of harsh acceleration. Most cornering speeds are so low as to negate the effects of F1-conventional aerodynamics. These are unique set-ups for Monaco and involve far greater technical complexity than for any other purpose-built circuit.
Also bear in mind that, while most Formula One races have the benefits of a deep pit lane, to which the various team engineers have unrivalled access to their cars and service trucks on the other side, there is no such arrangement at Monaco. Much like the cliff-edge properties in several parts of the Principality, the pit lane is perched precariously and temporarily above the swimming pool, in an area normally reserved for hotel parking across the main boulevard.
Preparation and team parking is at a nearby multi-storey car park, which also has as much restricted accessibility as getting from the A8 autoroute, descending through various tunnels from the Nice to Menton section of highway (in both senses of the word), via numerous hairpin bends, down to Monaco at sea level. There is always a sense of occasion reaching this otherwise unrestricted location.
Of course, the local shopkeepers know how to charge and Monaco is renowned for being particularly expensive, especially so around May time and the Monaco Grand Prix. The teams have to plan well in advance to secure accommodation and their treasured parking slots. It is just as well that so many Formula One drivers have convenient pied-à-terre in Monte Carlo. Even so, most of them chopper into the place, the helicopter base being a modest stroll around the bay from Monaco Harbour. Several own or have access to pleasure vessels moored in the bay, which are moved conveniently to more expedient slots as May approaches.
As with the teams, the local roads department has its work cut out for around six weeks prior to the race taking place. Traffic circles and flower-beds have to be unbolted from the road surface and removed to a storage site. While some of the red and white sections of kerbing remain as permanent fixtures, additional sections need to be secured in place. The crash barriers need to be erected and both safety and recovery areas considered carefully.
In conjunction with the TV companies and the media, appropriate ‘Press Only’ areas need to be sectioned off, to ensure that cameras, both stills and television, can gain unbridled access and the best possible shooting angles during the race itself. The various ticket-only stands need to be erected and public walkways created. Actually, six weeks is fairly quick but, with 83 years’ worth of practice, if the people of Monaco cannot work the oracle by now, to ensure that the wondrous Monaco Grand Prix can take place at all, there would be something seriously wrong.
It takes just three weeks to return the Monaco streets to their normal purpose of providing access for the bronzed and sauntering pedestrians, the street café visitors and the usual dense traffic-flow of stuttering Gallic micro-cars, hordes of diesel-powered Peugeots, Citroens and Renaults and the inevitable V8, V10, V12 and V16 supercar paraphernalia, which usually agglomerates up at Casino Square, a prime location for the ‘I-Spy’ set.
May month is Monaco, plus a few weeks either side of that late-spring, early-summer racing weekend that gathers crowds from far and wide to its millionaires’ playground. There is no apparent fuss. It knows that it is unique. It also knows that it is the most-loved, most eagerly anticipated and most watched of all of the Grand Prix events. Rain or shine, it is THE event that epitomises the long history of Formula One to perfection.