Why the Monaco Grand Prix Is Formula 1's Most Interesting Race

Matthew WalthertFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2014

Why the Monaco Grand Prix Is Formula 1's Most Interesting Race

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    Through the tunnel.
    Through the tunnel.Clive Mason/Getty Images

    Is the Monaco Grand Prix the most exciting race on the Formula One calendar every season? No, but what race is?

    Is it difficult to pass other cars on the principality's tight, winding streets? You bet—as it should be.

    Are there any grands prix that are more interesting than Monaco? No way!

    The tradition surrounding the race and its former winners, the ambience of the Cote d'Azur, the history of the circuit and the challenges it provides to drivers all make the Monaco Grand Prix appointment viewing each May.

    There are always lots of complaints about Monaco being a procession rather than a race (see, for example, this Sky Sports report after the 2012 race) and nine of the last 10 winners have started on pole, but the aforementioned elements more than make up for any lack of drama at the front.

    Now, let's examine each of those elements in more detail to see what makes Monaco unique and, quite often, spectacular.


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    The 1956 Monaco Grand Prix, won by Stirling Moss.
    The 1956 Monaco Grand Prix, won by Stirling Moss.Anonymous/Associated Press

    Monaco is the race every F1 driver wants to win, along with their home grand prix. Three-time world champion Nelson Piquet, who never won in the principality, once said, "victory there was worth two wins anywhere else," according to the The Australian Financial Review.

    Piquet is not alone among world champions in never having won the most famous race on the calendar. In fact, 14 of the 32 world champions never won the race as part of the F1 world championship (Nino Farina won it in 1948, two years before the modern championship began).

    The difficulty in winning the event, even for the sport's best drivers, only adds to its allure.

    Some men, though, were Monaco masters. Ayrton Senna won six times on the slow, twisty circuit, while Michael Schumacher and Graham Hill won five times each. Senna's great rival, Alain Prost, took four Monaco victories. Those four men have won one-third of the 60 world championship races held in Monaco.

    Among current drivers, only Fernando Alonso has more than one win in the principality. He won the races in 2006 and 2007, but he has only finished on the podium twice since then.

    The Monaco Grand Prix is considered part of the unofficial motorsport Triple Crown, along with the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Graham Hill is the only man to win all three, while active drivers Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya are only missing a Le Mans victory from their CVs.


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    Yachts in the harbour.
    Yachts in the harbour.Clive Mason/Getty Images

    No other race can compare to Monaco in terms of the beauty of its surroundings. Wedged between the natural beauty of the Mediterranean Sea and the Maritime Alps, the Circuit de Monaco winds through the tight streets of the principality.

    As the cars roar back and forth, celebrities and wannabe celebrities crowd the yachts and balconies for a glimpse.

    While most F1 races are held out in the countryside—sometimes near a metropolitan centre, often not—the Monaco Grand Prix is held right in the middle of a world-class city. Only Montreal, Melbourne and Singapore can compete in terms of convenience and proximity of the circuit to the off-track entertainment that helps make a grand prix weekend special.

    And Monaco is particularly well-known for its after-hours events. As the most glamourous race on the calendar, it attracts loads of sponsors and celebrities looking to host or enjoy a massive party.

    However, as nice as all the extras surrounding the race may be, the heart of the race is the historic circuit...

History of the Circuit

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    The famous hairpin: F1's slowest corner.
    The famous hairpin: F1's slowest corner.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

    The first Monaco Grand Prix was held in 1929 and the circuit today is very similar to the one used in that first race.

    The only major changes, aside from improvements to the crash barriers, have been the addition of the swimming pool section and an extension of the final turn complex. The original circuit was 3.18 km long and the changes have added just 160 metres to that distance.

    While the circuit's use since the earliest days of the championship is not unique—Silverstone and Monza can make similar claims—the Monte Carlo street circuit has remained truer to its original form than any other track from F1's first decade.

    You feel a real connection to the history of the sport watching the stars of today take the same corners, lap after lap, as the drivers you grew up watching, and as the drivers you may have only read about. While the cars, teams and drivers are constantly changing, the Circuit de Monaco is a constant, shining beacon for the sport.

    By now you may be thinking, "Sure, the history is cool and it's fun to see the celebrities, but the racing is sooooo boring." Let's think about that...

Challenges for Drivers

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    Felipe Massa crashes during qualifying for the 2013 race.
    Felipe Massa crashes during qualifying for the 2013 race.Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

    It is not impossible to overtake another car in Monaco, as Sergio Perez demonstrated a few times, with varying degrees of success, in the 2013 race. It is just very difficult.

    And that is how it should be.

    Loads of passing does not equal better racing. One of the most exciting sequences of this season—Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg's battle in Bahrain—involved no overtaking.

    As former driver Eddie Irvine once said, per Atlas F1:

    Loads of overtaking is boring. It's like fishing. You go fishing and you catch a fish every ten minutes and it's boring. But if you sit there all day and you catch a mega fish—and an overtaking manoeuvre now has to be mega, it isn't going to be easy—and you come back with stories that you caught a fish this size [indicates big fish] instead of this size [indicates small fish].

    With Monaco's relatively short straights, drivers cannot rely solely on the Drag Reduction System (DRS) to get past the car in front of them.

    The nature of the circuit means that there are virtually no run-off areas. At most other tracks, if you try a passing manoeuvre and miss, you can usually just run a bit wide and try again on the next lap. In Monaco, you need to really work for a pass and then risk your race—and maybe more—to make it stick.

    A small mistake in the principality usually ends with a car in the barriers.

    Another challenge for the drivers (and the cars) is the number of gear changes during the race; 48 per lap, according to F1 pundit James Allen. The lap time is around 80 seconds, so drivers are changing gears almost constantly.

    There are no long straights where the drivers can relax for a couple of seconds during the race. As former driver and current BBC commentator David Coulthard said during the broadcast of last year's race, "The tricky bit starts when you leave the garage and it continues until the race finishes."

    And that is how it should be.


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    Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

    The Circuit de Monaco was not designed for modern F1 cars. It may not have even been a great fit for cars in the 1950s. But the Monaco Grand Prix has endured due to a unique combination of tradition, ambience and a historical and challenging circuit.

    Perhaps the FIA said it best in its citation for the Gold Medal for Motor Sport it presented to Monaco's Prince Rainier in 2004. It reads, in part, that Monaco is "A triumph of speed and control, of precision and daring; around streets that forgive no error; that require relentless effort and concentration. No better place to demonstrate the talents of drivers like Moss, Fangio, Senna and Schumacher."

    Think about that the next time you are watching David Coulthard stuck behind an Arrows for 35 laps.


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