There’s a lot to lap up in Monaco! This Formula One race is probably the most famous of its kind in the calendar and definitely the most glamorous.
Run on the streets of the Principality, currently ruled by Prince Albert II who succeeded his father Prince Rainier III in 2005, the race – organised by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) – is part of motorsport’s Triple Crown in keeping with the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Indianapolis 500.
And British drivers, in particular, have carved their name in Monaco’s hall of fame most notably London-born racing driver, Graham Hill, known as ‘Mr Monaco’ in recognition of five glorious victories. He’s also the only man to have achieved the Triple Crown.
But records are there to be broken, especially in F1 racing, and Hill’s envious record at Monaco was usurped by Brazilian super ace, Ayrton Senna, who took the chequered flag a half-dozen times which included five back-to-back wins between 1989 and 1993.
The history of the Monaco Grand Prix stretches back to the Roaring Twenties and the first race in the Principality (14th April 1929) was organised by cigarette magnate Antony Noghès under the auspices of the Automobile Club de Monaco. It was won by William Grover-Williams driving a Bugatti who pocketed prize money of 100,000 French francs. An interesting character, he served in the Second World War working as a special agent for the Special Operations Executive (a British-based intelligence organisation) inside France. Arrested by the intelligence agency of the Nazi Party towards the end of the war, he was executed at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1945.
The race, in actual fact, originally formed part of the pre-Second World War European Championship and became incorporated into the F1 World Drivers’ Championship in 1950. Italian-born driver, Giuseppe ‘Nino’ Farina, driving for the Alfa Romeo team, took the honours that year becoming F1’s first World Champion.
But the first driver to actually win multiple championships was Alberto Ascari in 1952 and 1953 driving a Lancia while those winning three races in a row fall to Graham Hill, 1963-65 (BRM), Alain Prost, 1984-86 (McLaren) and Ayrton Senna, 1989-91 (McLaren) although Senna’s first victory at Monaco was in 1987 driving for Colin Chapman’s Norfolk-based Team Lotus. He also took the chequered flag in two straight wins in 1992 and 1993 (again for McLaren). Nico Rosberg – son of Finnish 1982 Formula One World Champion, Keke Rosberg – joins this illustrious club after winning the 2015 Monaco Grand Prix thus making it three in a row driving for the Mercedes team beating his arch rival and teammate, Lewis Hamilton, because of a bungled pit stop that caught Hamilton out.
A couple of years after Ascari’s success, luck, as it so often does, turned sour. When leading the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix his car spun furiously off the track finishing up in the harbour. Thankfully, quick-thinking frogmen fetched him out and he was stretchered to hospital with nothing more than a few minor scratches and suffering from shock. His miraculous escape, however, was short-lived as he was killed testing a sports Ferrari at Monza only four days after the Monaco incident.
Lots of sports people are superstitious, I guess, but none more so than Ascari who harboured a deep superstitious nature. He avoided black cats, for instance, and refused to allow anyone to touch his briefcase containing his racing gear such as his lucky blue helmet and T-shirt. He was also fastidious about unlucky numbers and ‘26’ is reckoned to be one of them. And on the day he was killed it was on the 26th of the month at the age of 36. Ironically, his father, Antonio – who won the inaugural Belgian Grand Prix in 1925 at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps – was killed on the same day of the month at the same age while leading the French Grand Prix in 1925 driving an Alfa Romeo P2 in the first race at the new Autodrome de Montlhéry south of Paris. Alberto was seven years old at the time.
Ascari was an extremely popular figure in motorsport and more than a million people lined the streets of Milan for his funeral. His great Argentinian-born rival, Juan Manuel Fangio – nicknamed El Chueco or El Maestro – lamented: ‘I’ve lost my greatest opponent.’ So distraught, though, was Gianni Lancia that he decided to pack in motor racing altogether and handed his team to Ferrari. Ironically, three days before Ascari died, he confided to a friend: ‘I never want my children to become too fond of me because one day I might not come back.’
Fangio, in fact, won the first Monaco Grand Prix in 1950 and although the race did not take place again until 1955 it has remained a permanent fixture on F1’s racing calendar ever since. Bernie Ecclestone (F1’s supremo) announced in 2010 that a ten-year deal had been reached with the race organisers thereby keeping the Monaco race on the calendar until at least 2020.
Interestingly, Monaco’s the only event not to feature a podium as the celebrations are held on the steps of the royal box with Mumm champagne flowing like water. It’s also the only event to hold its practice day on the Thursday preceding the race allowing the roads to be opened to the public on the Friday.
And because the race is held on a narrow street course with many elevation changes and tight corners as well as a tunnel it makes Le circuit de Monaco one of the most demanding of all tracks in Formula One. In spite of the relatively low-average speeds, it’s a dangerous place in which to race and Monaco’s the only Grand Prix that does not adhere to the FIA’s mandated 305 kilometres (190 miles) minimum race distance.
The Belgian-Dutch racing driver, Max Verstappen, son of Johannes (Jos the Boss) Verstappen, found how tight the circuit was in 2014 – his rookie year in Formula One driving for the Scuderia Toro Rosso team – when he shot straight into a tyre bank at the dangerous corner of Sainte Dévote (named after the patron saint of Monaco and, indeed, of Corsica) in a mistimed overtaking manoeuvre on Swiss-born, Lotus driver, Romain Grosjean, who, incidentally, has just been appointed F1 ambassador to G H Mumm, the official champagne of the Formula One Championship. This is the first time the brand – instantly recognisable by its distinctive jeroboam of G H Mumm Cordon Rouge – has appointed an F1 driver in this role. Good luck Grosjean! Champagne all round! Mumm, of course!
Dangerous or not there are two drivers who threw caution to the wind and soaked up danger like no other dominating Monaco between the years 1984 and 1993 – Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. Fierce and brutal competitors, they were both immensely popular in Monaco and following Senna’s victory in the 1987 race (driving for Team Lotus) his popularity was amplified when he was arrested for riding a motorcycle without wearing a crash helmet. He was immediately released after police discovered who their charge was.
A champion fighter through and through, Senna was a driver without limits and drove for Team Lotus from 1985 to 1987. He won Monaco more times than any other driver notching up six victories and winning five consecutive races between 1989 and 1993 while Michael Schumacher notched up five victories matching Graham Hill’s record. However, in 2006, Schumacher attracted widespread criticism when he spun his car deliberately blocking the track at La Rascasse, the slowest corner in F1 racing, thus preventing Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber – who were both following and on flying laps – from out-qualifying him.
It’s a famous corner and Miss X and I witnessed Schumacher’s shenanigans. We were dumbfounded in disbelief that a driver of his calibre could do such a mean and unsporting-like act. But he did! Yellow flags were waved but his competitors were not able to beat his time thereby handing him pole position. Although Schumacher claimed it was a genuine accident, the FIA disagreed and demoted him to the back of the grid.
La Rascasse itself takes cars into a short straight before the last turn of the Monaco circuit (the former ‘Gazometer’ turn) a few metres from the start-finish line. It was renamed ‘Virage Antony Noghès’ in honour of the man who organised the first Monaco Grand Prix in 1929. A man of the track, he also helped to create the Monte Carlo Rally and even suggested the international adoption of the chequered flag to end races.
The last word goes to Brazilian-born triple Formula One World Champion, Nelson Piquet. He was fond of saying that racing at Monaco was like trying to cycle round your living room and that a win here was worth two wins anywhere else. I doubt if anyone would argue with that.
By Tony Cooper, freelance travel and sports writer