25 May, 2012

The Magic of Monaco

As we get ready to begin the most important weekend of the motor sports calendar, who can blame me for being too excited to sleep?  Aside from watching the Indy 500 on Sunday, I plan on getting up tomorrow morning at 4am to watch the final Formula 1 practice from Monaco, going back to sleep an hour later, then getting up at 7am to watch qualifying.  Such is the difficult life of a die-hard American F1 fan, but you certainly will not hear me complaining.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I'm thrilled to do it.  I'm beyond ecstatic to witness every moment I can from the Côte d'Azur, whether it be over the internet, television or Twitter.  Why does this Grand Prix get my heart racing more than any other (possibly excluding Spa), though?

There are many reasons to count against Monaco for being an awesome race to watch.  Some past races have been outright boring.  The track is as narrow as the room I'm currently occupying, and overtaking is supposedly impossible.  At less than two miles per lap, the circuit is far from modern F1 venues in both circuit length and safety, and the cars barely average 100mph over those 2.075 miles.  What makes the Monaco Grand Prix so fascinating, then?

I'll start with my background to the race.  As I've mentioned before, I was first introduced to the sport by my father who had been a passive fan since the 1950s (in the early days the occasional "Wide World of Sports" was the only F1 exposure Americans like him received).  The first race he ever saw covered on American television, broadcast in black and white on the television in his childhood home, was the Monaco Grand Prix.  He remembers seeing Stirling Moss and Graham Hill climb the podium over the ensuing years.  He remembers the early days of the tunnel and the many names of the hairpin.  He also remembers the cars that landed in the harbor ten years apart as well as the horrific death of Lorenzo Bandini broadcast live, the flames of his boiling Ferrari fed by the wash of the television helicopter's blades.

My father has seen a little of everything over the years, and he thought it was my turn.  He woke me up early one Sunday morning because he thought I would appreciate the technical nature of the sport and the extreme talent of the drivers.  That morning was the Monaco Grand Prix, barely a few laps old.


Jenson Button about to enter the tunnel (2012 Monaco Grand Prix practice)
Of course I had no knowledge of the drivers, the location or the history of the race, but I was beyond awestruck.  I won't go into why I was blown away by the sport (I could fill a long blog with that), but part of the allure was this whimsical location:  A tiny principality situated on the French Riveira, the epitome of old world opulence and modern glamour, contrasted by these sleek, sexy hypercars that seemingly defied physics.  Seeing the cars blast past the historic casino or traverse the harborside, meters away from the Mediterranean was something so alien from any other form of racing.  I was immediately hooked.

As I've come to immerse myself in every aspect of Formula 1, one facet that I cannot overlook is history.  Always a fan of the tradition, stories and ghosts that surround such events, Monte Carlo has a bit of everything.  The race has been run on virtually the same roads since 1929, which isn't hard to discern through the grainy footage of those early Monaco Grands Prix.  The track was a treacherous one when it was first defined.  Its mixture of road surfaces and vulnerability to the Mediterranean's changing weather was a perfect way to test cars and drivers alike, and even 80 years ago there was little room for error within its narrow streets.
The inaugural Monaco race in 1929.  The location of the above photo of Button
can be seen in the upper right corner of this picture.
As the cars grew faster and the principality thrived, the face of the Grand Prix changed in some ways.  Racing was dangerous, the drivers were a mix of aristocrats and mechanics, and Monaco soon gained importance in the international motor sports scene.  One could see a little bit of everything in this tiny principality's races.  By 1936 the race was a part of the European championship and helped pioneer the use of lap time-based qualifying (rather than the balloting procedures used in the early races).  The Regenmeister Rudy Caracciola won that year for Mercedes-Benz.

By the official start of the Formula One World Championship, it saw Juan Manuel Fangio secure his first F1 win (in 1950, and he would win again later that decade).  Stirling Moss, the British legend, won three times on the Monte Carlo streets, although an overall Championship always eluded him.  Jackie Stewart won thrice here, too, as well as a slew of one-off victors whose racing immortality was wrought by the twisty streets of the Monegasques.


Graham Hill won five Monaco GPs.
The statistics that always sit in my mind, though, are the drivers who have won at Monaco more than any others---a virtual "Who's Who" of timeless champions.  Only a dozen drivers in history have ever won here more than once.  Alain Prost earned four Monaco wins during the 1980s.  Almost a third of two-time World Champion Graham Hill's F1 victories came here; his record five wins earned him the nickname "Mr. Monaco," although others merely called him "The King."  His record stood for decades, and is now tied by seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher (who, shockingly at the time, did not win the first Monaco race I ever watched).  For me, though, the jaw-dropping statistic that resonates is the number of times Ayrton Senna found the top step of the podium here:  Six.  That record includes five straight victories, only broken one year by Prost.

I found it very interesting hearing Michael Schumacher talk this weekend about his memories at this circuit.  He was asked about his favorite moment, and the first that came to mind was in 1994.  It was that year, he reminisced, that he first experienced "flow" in a race car---the otherworldly moment when you lose consciousness of the world around you, when every inch of the car's carbon fiber skin becomes an extension of your own.  It was in Monte Carlo that he first experienced it, and he'll never forget that moment.


Rudolf Caracciola at the hairpin in the first Monaco race in '29.
He would win here in 1936 for Mercedes Benz.
This may bring back the words of Senna from years before, popularly known nowadays for the voice-over they provide during his pole laps in qualifying.  He spoke of the spiritual moment when he was no longer driving the car with effort, it was just happening.  It was automatic and flawless.  Few drivers truly experience this, although many will claim to have tasted it briefly.  For those who are genuine, the fickle circuit rewards them greatly.

This is another aspect of the race that fascinates me.  To succeed at Monaco, you have to be perfect.  Any incapacity, carelessness or neglect will be punished by the guardrails that now patrol the circuit's extremities. The corners approach so quickly that a driver can never afford to be "behind the car" as he drives.  The incessant bumps and greasy pavement require the utmost feel for the car and management of the tires.  And the layout demands entirely new parts to be machined in European factories and baked in multimillion-dollar autoclaves.
Modern cars at the same hairpin as above.
If anything, the challenge of the Monaco Grand Prix seems perfectly suited to test the F1 circus.  Remember, though, this is a track that is relatively unchanged since 1929.  Eighty-three years ago, Grand Prix planners had no notion of downforce, 700+ horsepower and carbon fiber.  The track was designed to test the drivers and cars of that age.

Somehow the ingredients were just right.  Somehow a race was created that was perfect enough to throw the biggest of loops at the cars and drivers of yesterday and today.  Yes, the circuit in Monte Carlo is extremely out of place compared to the rest of the F1 calendar, but the Grand Prix is a welcome anachronism that exists outside of the rest of Formula 1's guidelines and norms.  It's the perfect mix of high society, the latest technology, plenty of prestige and history.  Drivers may win on brand new $1 billion circuits in faraway lands where speeds reach 210mph, but every driver out there would give it up for a win in  the narrow streets of Monaco.  To reach the top step of the podium here (where you will receive your trophy in the royal family's skybox) means you have tested your mettle and supreme driving talent and have been deemed worthy by the racing gods.  Your name will forever rest beside Senna, Schumacher, Hill, Fangio and others under the heading of "Monaco Grand Prix winners".  Simply put, there's nothing like it in Formula 1 or anywhere else in motor sport.

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