For so long an anachronism, the Monaco Grand Prix, Formula One’s self-titled jewel in the crown, is a faded facsimile of its former glory. Time is not yet up for this classic meeting but there is increasingly a feeling that without change there may be a time out for the race on the streets of Monte Carlo.
Grands prix have been held here since 1929 and the race was in the inaugural F1 championship in 1950; it has been almost ever-present since. The unique challenge, a relentless test of physical and above all mental strength to thread the needle through looming barriers ready to punish anything but inch-perfect precision, has long been adored by drivers as the ultimate trial.
It was embraced by fans as a spectacle, a chance to see the cars close up; to observe bravery and verve writ large against the constant threat of the unforgiving nature of a genuine street circuit, and watch them not only master the track but duel each other in doing so.
Perhaps more than anything else the Monaco Grand Prix has been promoted by F1 and its organisers, the Automobile Club de Monaco (ACM), as the season’s most glamorous race. It is presented as a catwalk for the rich and famous, the place to see and be seen, to do deals and for F1 to sell itself in the yachts lining the marina.
To that end the meeting has long enjoyed a singular relationship with the sport. It has paid the lowest race hosting fees and been allowed to sell its own sponsorship trackside, rather than using F1’s partners. Monaco is paying a peppercorn rent while Silverstone, which has long been pulling in more than 100,000 fans on race day, had almost been bankrupted by the hosting fees charged under Bernie Ecclestone’s reign.
Yet F1 has long moved on in every respect. In 1971, when Jackie Stewart won in Monaco, his friend Roman Polanski made a film of the weekend. It successfully captured the majesty of the challenge on track and the atmosphere of the time with Ringo Starr and Grace Kelly sashaying in and out of shot. The cars were light and small enough to race. Ronnie Peterson started in eighth and finished second. It demanded perfection but it was possible.
Monaco’s heyday did not last, however. James Hunt was scathing about the race. “The Monaco Grand Prix is really just an exhibition in which the unfortunate drivers are asked to perform and it still exists only for the benefit of the sponsors who want to show off in the ‘glamorous’ atmosphere,” he told his biographer, Gerald Donaldson. “They should have a parade instead. Then all the cars could parade around like the idiotic ‘jetset’ posers who are thicker on the ground at Monaco than anywhere else in the world.”
His words ring true now more than ever. Even some races regarded as classics only highlighted the increasing unsuitability of modern cars for racing at Monaco. In 1992, when Nigel Mansell gave Ayrton Senna the lead after taking new tyres late in the race, he emerged on fresh rubber and was two seconds a lap quicker than the Brazilian. He caught him with three laps to go but Senna held him off.
Much is made of their duel, with Mansell ducking and diving to try to find a way through, but in truth even with a car two seconds a lap quicker they could have raced on for longer and Mansell would have remained frustrated. Last year there was one overtake in 78 laps.
This year passing is likely to be all but impossible, as Lewis Hamilton noted. “We all know what kind of race it is,” he said. “It’s all about qualifying. So Saturday is the day. On Sunday, unless you luck-in with a bit of strategy, there’s not many overtakes here. Now the cars are bigger and heavier, and there probably won’t be any more. It’ll be the same.”
The glamour too, such as it is, is tawdry and faded, tainted by the presence of Russian oligarchs and their vulgar yachts, by the irradiated, orange-glow tans of the super-rich.
The drivers, it must be stressed, unanimously still love the challenge. “Without Monaco for me it’s not F1,” said Ferrari’s Monégasque driver Charles Leclerc. “There’s no track that comes close to the adrenaline we get in Monaco, and for me it’s part of F1 history and should stay in F1.”
He reflects a view held widely but there is a bigger picture. “We accommodate Monaco because of its heritage and because of its history. That’s it,” said the Red Bull principal, Christian Horner. “I think that you’ve got to evolve. If you stand still, then you’re going backwards.”
Monaco has been standing still for decades. To be fair there is nothing quite like seeing an F1 car up close within the confines of this track. The proximity and sense of jeopardy is like no other. Yet here too there are smoke and mirrors.
The media who wax lyrical about what an extraordinary sensory experience it is are afforded a view that normal fans will never have, even in the grandstands. Most fans are not even trackside; almost all of them watch on television, where the visceral sense of speed and noise is lost and the race often swiftly descends into a procession punctuated by discussion of whether tyre strategy will play a part. A spoiler: it rarely does.
Even Monaco’s part in F1’s commercial success is yesterday’s news. F1 no longer needs the race to keep the coffers full. The days of sponsorship being reliant on being entertained on a yacht in Monaco are coming to an end. Should it need them, the sport has viable alternatives for destination meetings to do business. This year’s race in Miami was targeted at a corporate audience, and proved successful in doing so.
The ACM is one of the least communicative of all F1’s race promoters and inevitably declined a request from the Observer to discuss Monaco’s future.
But change is surely coming in some form. Monaco’s contract is up this year but the ACM has insisted a new deal will be done. F1 too expects a new contract to be agreed but what form it takes remains to be decided. The sport has more venues pursuing a race than it has space on the calendar.
There are 22 races this season with a cap of up to 24. Having some meetings alternate with one another over two years has been mooted, with Monaco in the frame, as is changing the circuit in Monte Carlo – a difficult task but one which F1 is known to want to investigate – and a serious renegotiation of the previous financial arrangements.
The heritage is glorious, the challenge remains like no other. But change on some level seems inevitable if only in its relationship with F1 itself, where Monaco’s special status is surely over.