Welcome to the ultimate test of driver skill. A venue which is as uncompromising as they come. Welcome to Monaco.
One of several street circuits, Monaco is possibly the most glamorous locations that Formula 1 visits. The small principality of Monte Carlo has hosted a race since 1929, becoming a staple of the European racing circuit during the 1930s. The course has undergone several minor modifications over time, but by and large what F1 cars race at today is the same as it was back then – it is after all, hard to redevelop the winding roads of a heavily built up city!
Sainte Devote has changed a bit, and the Nouvelle Chicane has undergone alterations, whilst the complex of turns 13-16 didn’t exist. What used to be a tight hairpin at the end is now a slightly more elaborate set of corners. Now as then, Monaco leaves no margin for error.
Where to begin? Virtually the entire course can claim some of the most intense curves and corners in Formula 1. From the initial sprint to the right-hander that is turn 1, to the fast dash uphill along Beau Rivage, then on to the fast Massenet curve and Casino, Monaco is covered in landmarks, and challenges. Naturally I cannot speak as a racing driver, but merely tackling this circuit on F1 games is hair-raising enough! Pushing as fast as possible up Beau Rivage, with cold hard barriers either side of the car, requires incredible confidence, not to mention precision.
It’s something which remains true all over the track. Mirabeau Haute is a tight right-hander that starts to send you downhill, but before that you have to dive to the right and then back to the right to take the corner, owing to a large bump in the road – a reminder that Monaco is a road circuit. Drivers will sometimes try to dive down the inside line here, only to lose a bit of front wing.
Cars will often jostle and bump into each other around the infamous Grand Hotel Hairpin, which continues to keep drivers going downhill, before Mirabeau Bas (where Michael Schumacher binned his car into the wall in the chaotic 1996 race) and up to Portier (where Ayrton Senna binned it in 1988, having utterly dominated the race until that point). Cars then enter the tunnel, a unique feature of any Formula 1 race track, and hurtle through here before emerging into the light and having to break very hard into the Nouvelle Chicane. This is one of the very few run-off areas, so a mistake here is not necessarily as bad as elsewhere, though not by much.
The sequence of turns 12 through 17 is another relatively fast section of track with unyielding barriers either side, making it another test of nerve. Swinging out of it, you come to the final set of corners, and you’re back to the start/finish straight.
There’s a theme here. Confidence. Nerve. Precision. Add to that concentration. Monaco does not forgive lapses the way other, purpose-built venues do. There are no big run-off areas like in Abu Dhabi, or even gravel traps like at Silverstone and Monza. Make a mistake at one of these tracks and you might be able to rejoin the race – make a mistake at Monaco and if you are lucky you’re limping back to the pits with damage. Yet despite the challenge, Monaco has not claimed as many lives as other venues. This is quite remarkable, given the potential for a serious impact.
Famous races? Just a few…
Not a race I watched live (let’s put it this way, I was probably too busy sucking on my toes), but one I’ve learned a lot about (and I recently watched a replay of it). To call it a crazy race would be to undersell it. It was tinged with pain (it was the first race following the death of the talented Giles Villeneuve) and it saw absolute madness descend late on. Alain Prost, leading for Renault, made a rare mistake and crashed on lap 74, promoting Ricciardo Patrese to the lead, only for Patrese’s Brabham to spin on lap 75 and stall. This put the Ferrari of Didier Pironi ahead, but he ran out of fuel on the final lap! Andrea de Cesaris, driving for Alfa Romeo, then also ran out of fuel behind Pironi.
Derek Daly of Williams should then have picked up the mantle, but he damaged his gearbox and his car seized, which meant Patrese, who had managed to bump-start his Brabham, went on to cross the line and take the win. It was one of the strangest endings to a race in Formula 1 history, and fitting that it would take place at Monaco.
1988 – the best and worst for Ayrton Senna
The late and great Brazilian Ayrton Senna is the most successful Formula 1 driver at Monaco, winning there a record six times. He had won at the race in 1987 for Lotus, and now he was competing hard for the world champion against Prost, his McLaren teammate. In qualifying Senna would produce what has been described as the ‘lap of life’, taking pole by 1.427 seconds from Prost. To out-qualify the talented Frenchman by such a margin left jaws agap. Senna had comprehensively laid down a marker.
Come the race itself it was unsurprisingly Senna who led into turn 1, and from there he built up a comfortable lead. Prost had ended up stuck behind the Ferrari of Gerhard Berger, allowing Senna to lead by 50 seconds by the time Prost got by on lap 54. The two would trade fastest laps for a time (Prost knew Senna would desire the fastest lap), until Ron Dennis (the team principal) came on the radio and asked Senna to slow down, not wanting to risk an easy 1-2 result.
Senna did slow, but along the line he lost focus, misjudged the Portier corner, and put his nose into the barrier, damaging the car and putting himself out of the race. It was a lesson for Senna, a reminder that winning at all costs carried risk. He had become overconfident and cocky on a track that punished such traits.
I remember this race very well. Nigel Mansell, driving for Williams, had won the first five rounds of the season in convincing fashion, and he had put his car on pole for Monaco. His teammate Patrese lined up alongside him, but at the start Senna got past and into second in his McLaren. Mansell pulled ahead, establishing a comfortable cushion, and he looked set for his first Monaco win, until on lap 70 a loose wheel nut forced him to slow down and pit. The time he lost saw Senna take the lead, but Mansell, in a superior car and on fresh tyres, chased Senna down and hounded him for the final three laps. It was nail-biting, as Mansell was right on Senna’s gearbox, but Monaco is all about track position – passing is exceptionally hard, and Mansell just could not find a way by.
The abiding memory of this race is that 21 cars started, and by the end of the first five laps, only 13 were still running. Notable accidents in wet conditions included Michael Schumacher, Jos Verstappen and Rubens Barrichello. A string of other accidents and mechanical failures put out of the race Damon Hill, Martin Brundle, and in fact nearly every single driver, with only three classified finishers at the end of the two-hour time limit for a grand prix! Olivier Panis, driving for the unfancied Ligier team, collected the team’s one and only victory in 15 seasons, as well as being the only win Panis himself would ever take.
I can provide more examples, but I’ll stop there. There are simply too many, which is ironic as Monaco can have a reputation as being dull and processional (2013, I’m looking at you). One thing is certain – every race at Monaco requires absolute focus, and it remains the ultimate test of nerve.