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)|
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.
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.|
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 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.|
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.