Monaco GP: The jewel in the F1 crown
- All eyes on Sunday’s race will be on a track where horsepower is not the king, the driver is.
Monaco is synonymous with casinos, luxury yachts and being a tax haven. The second smallest country in the world - with an area of less than 2.1 square kilometres - after Vatican City, it is home to some of the world’s richest, most powerful and influential individuals.
Even though there are less than 40,000 residents, Monaco is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
However, during one weekend of the year, the population of the principality triples - at times quadruples - with people pouring in to attend the most sought-after event of the year - the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix.
Along with Indy500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Monaco GP comprises what is called the ‘triple crown of motorsport’. Graham Hill, also known as Mr Monaco, is the only driver to have won all three. The race returns to the calendar after its cancellation last year - for the first time since 1954 - due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Stickler for tradition
Organised by the Automobile Club de Monaco, the race maintains its distinct character with track specifications remaining largely unchanged since William Grover-Williams won in his Bugatti in the first-ever Monaco GP in 1929. That was 21 years before the first Formula 1 world championship.
The event is also renowned for sticking to tradition. It is the only race where the two traditional Friday practice sessions are advanced to Thursday as Fridays generally have drivers walking the ramp, top F1 personnel mingling with sponsors’ representatives and the Who’s Who from the world of glamour. Traditionally, the race is held around the Ascension Day weekend with Friday, as a day of rest, being a holiday.
‘Riding bicycle in your living room’
It takes about six weeks (and three weeks to be dismantled) to build the unique 3.34km tight and twisty, up and down Circuit de Monaco, cramped into the wards of Monte Carlo, La Condamine and the famed harbour with its million dollar yachts. Three-time world champion Nelson Piquet once described the track as “riding a bicycle around your living room”.
Using the principality’s arterial roads, it is the only track that does not adhere to the international automobile federation’s (FIA) mandated 305km minimum race distance.
Despite being the shortest circuit, Monaco is unique as it has from the slowest corner in F1 - Fairmont hairpin taken at less than 50kmph - to one of the quickest - the tunnel (under a hotel) at close to 300kmph. The tunnel is difficult to negotiate because drivers have to adjust their vision with the switch from light to dark and back to light again in seconds.
With elevation changes, narrow chicanes, merciless barriers, lack of run-off areas with overtaking virtually considered impossible, drivers face the most unique and demanding challenges at this circuit, winding around the cliffs and the promenade of Monaco.
With barely any straights and more than 4,000 gear shifts during a race, drivers can’t relax as one small mistake and the unforgiving barriers will crush the chassis of the car.
That makes it one of the most perilous races in the world but one enjoyed by celebrities from bars, luxurious hotels, apartment balconies and million dollar yachts in the French Riviera sunshine. Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion and 2005 Monaco GP winner, saw the rest of the race from a yacht in the harbour after a mechanical issue took his McLaren out of the race in 2006.
It is because of these reasons that winning in the streets of Monte Carlo is considered more than a regular victory. “A win here is worth two anywhere else,” Piquet had once said, his quote embellished by 1996 world champion Damon Hill’s statement: “Monaco is the track that separates the men from the boys.”
Monaco is possibly also the ultimate test of driver’s skills because horsepower is not king here. With short straights and more corners, dependence on the vehicle’s acceleration and top seed reduces significantly and increases the importance of the person at the wheel. Perhaps that is why the late Ayrton Senna, a three-time world champion and regarded by many as the greatest-ever driver, was known as the King of Monaco, winning a record six times. Hill and Michael Schumacher won five each.
Can Lewis Hamilton win his fourth race, and 99th overall, in the principality or will Max Verstappen stop the Briton on Sunday? The Ferraris too are also looking pacey topping the timesheets in practice on Thursday. Can Charles Leclerc become the second Monegasque to win his home race since Louis Chiron in 1931 and win the jewel of the crown of F1?
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