Monaco. A Principality, City State, Micro State even. With over 38,000 residents, only 9000 of them being born in and from Monaco, and measuring only 2.1 km2, you would not expect such a small area to be host to one of the richest countries in the world. Monaco is a magical place with casinos, tax dodgers, and opulence that skirts the line to almost being decadent. And it is in Monaco that one of the most prestigious, well known, and oldest Grand Prix races is held. Join Grid Talk as we discuss The History of the Monaco Grand Prix.
The Monaco Grand Prix predates Formula One itself, in fact. Sponsored by Prince Louis II of Monaco, the first Grand Prix was held in 1929. Its existence was originally a means of upgrading the status of the Monaco Automobile Club. In its then-current form, it was classified as a small, regional club. The ACM wanted national status. In order to qualify for such a thing, it needed to be host to a major motoring event. Before 1929, the precursor to the Monaco Grand Prix was ‘The Rally of Monte Carlo’. When the ACM applied to the French authorities for national status in 1928, they were refused because the rally used other countries’ roads. And so, in 1929, they developed the street circuit we all know and love.
That first race was won by William Grover-Williams (no relation to the carmaker of the same name) in a Bugatti Type 35-B. As an invitation-only event, the inaugural Grand Prix had cars from Mercedes, Bugatti (as mentioned), Alfa Romeo, and Maserati, to name a few of them. The race gained Grand Prix status in 1933, and over the years, it grew in stature, becoming a part of the European championship in 1936. Early drivers would become famous, or infamous, in these pre-F1 days, including Rudolf Caracciola, Luigi Fagioli, and Manfred von Brauchitsch. All three of these men competing in the European Championship.
Post War and the Early Days of F1
The first Monaco Grand Prix to be held after World War Two was not until 1948; due to financial constraints. By then, the FIA was formed and had redefined the definition of Grand Prix racing itself. That 1948 race was won by the first Formula One Champion, one Nino Farina. And in 1950, the first year that the modern-day Formula One championship was held, Monaco hosted the first win of Argentine racing driver, and future five-time Formula One World Champion, Juan Manuel Fangio.
By the 1960s, Monaco was a fixture of the F1 calendar. It was also during the ’60s that saw the coronation of the man they called ‘The King of Monaco’. Graham Hill won 5 of the races in that decade, with his 1969 win being the last of his Formula One World Championship wins. Other notable winners that decade were fellow F1 champions Jackie Stewart and Denny Hulme.
During the 1970s, cars were becoming more powerful, and small tracks were becoming more dangerous. Thanks to the crusade by Jackie Stewart, track safety started becoming more important during the 1970s. Some races were even cancelled due to safety concerns. Monaco, however, survived. The addition of Armco barriers in 1969 ended an era where Grand Prix races in the city-state were only held without additional safety. In a time where cars would often crash, burst into flames, or go into crowds of spectators, or even all three, the crusade for safety was something that needed to happen, Changes to the track in 1972 and 1973, the first in Monaco’s history, were also crucial in increasing driver and spectator safety.
It was also during the 1970s that collective bargaining in Formula One became prevalent. With Monaco by now being a key race in the championship, men such as Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosely (then only acting as team owners) would often come to the FIA and threaten to boycott the Grand Prix if demands were not met. They would also canvas the ACM, who still organised the Monaco Grand Prix (and do so to this day). Specific demands included increasing the number of cars that could compete in Monaco from 18 to 26. Had the ACM not agreed, the 1972 Monaco Grand Prix may have been cancelled.
The Prost vs. Senna era
Moving to the 1980s, Monaco was dominated by two racers. Aryton Senna and Alain Prost. That itself could be the slogan for Formula One during this time period, as both men would be consistently in the world championship picture for those 9 years. Between 1984 and 1993, these two men would win every Monaco Grand Prix, Prost winning his first in 1984, and Senna winning his first in 1987 (the first Monaco Grand Prix won by an automatic). And during this period, Senna would finally take the crown from Graham Hill and become the new King of Monaco. Senna’s dramatic 1993 win of the Monaco Grand Prix saw him win 6 races at that track, despite strong challenges from Alain Prost and the still relatively new but promising driver, Mr M. Schumacher. As of 2021, Senna still holds the most wins at Monaco and retains his rightful place as the King Emeritus of the Monaco Grand Prix.
However, about a year later, in 1994, The King of Monaco was dead. The 1994 Monaco Grand Prix took place two weeks after that tragic 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, which saw Roland Ratzenburger and Aryton Senna both pass away in circumstances that we all wish could have been avoided. The race was notable for another scary crash, though thankfully not one that would be fatal. Karl Wendlinger would crash his Sauber after exiting the tunnel, hitting the wall sideways with considerable force. Wendlinger’s head struck a water-filled barrier within the metal crash barrier. While he would survive, this was pretty much the end of his career.
Monaco: 1996 to now
The last 25 years of Formula One in Monaco have proven to be as dramatic and as noteworthy as the races of the 65 years I covered up to this point. 1996’s Monaco Grand Prix is notorious for finishing with only 3 cars out of the 22 that had qualified for the race (although 7 were classified due to completing 90% of the race or more). The last 25 years have also seen Mr Michael Schumacher win 5 races at Monaco, tying with Graham Hill’s record. A potential 6th victory would have been on the cards during 2006’s Monaco Grand Prix had Schumi not had his times deleted for stopping near the end of qualifying(ostensibly having car failure on the Rascasse Hairpin). Despite an appeal, the FIA ordered him to start from 22nd.
However, my favourite memory of Monaco? When Kimi Raikkonen retired his McLaren during the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix, what do you think he did? Did he walk back to the paddock, tail between his legs? No, he walked away from the track, got onto his yacht, and proceeded to party with his friends. Legendary.
During 2020, for the first time since 1954, we saw the Monaco Grand Prix not run as part of the F1 calendar, due to its COVID 19 related cancellation. We will be seeing our first race back at Monaco this Sunday
What about the Future?
Nelson Piquet once famously said that driving a Formula One car around the Monaco circuit was like riding a bicycle around your living room. However, a victory at Monaco was worth two victories anywhere else. And this rings true. Honestly, for today’s Formula One cars, with them being so fast, so powerful, so aggressive, a track like Monaco is not suited for them. However, that has been the case for many years now. Monaco’s status as a premier track is solely based on its history and heritage and being such an anachronism.
Its status as one of the premier races to be a part of makes it a part of the holy trinity that is ‘The Triple Crown of motor racing. Should you win the Monaco Grand Prix, Le Manns, and the Indy 500, you would achieve this feat. Only one racing driver has, and that was Graham Hill, with Juan Pablo Montoya and Fernando Alonso both tied at winning two of the three races in the crown, respectively. Not even Michael Schumacher attempted the Triple crown.
What will the future be for Monaco, however? Despite its quirks and anachronisms, I don’t want to see it go from Formula One. The sight of an F1 car racing through the normal roads of a principality, with spectators watching from boats and yachts, is special. It’s too big to go now.