A great many things are changing in Formula One, so much so there’s a modicum of pleasure in stepping onto the rock solid foundation that is the Monaco Grand Prix. This is the F1 World Championship getting back to its roots.
Monaco was the second race on the original calendar in 1950, though the grand prix itself has origins in the 1920s. William Grover-Williams won for Bugatti in 1929 on the instantly recognisable Circuit de Monaco, which is both a blessing and a curse.
A blessing because F1’s rich history is a calling card. There’s something utterly mesmerising in the continuity of a race held in the same place through the generations. It’s possible to wander through Loews or Ste. Devote every morning, and imagine Moss or Senna, doing the same – which isn’t something that can be said of most circuits: even Monza, Silverstone and Spa, the other survivors of that 1950 season, don’t retain quite the same resonance.
So, what’s not to like about this? It’s simply a problem that the circuit configuration has stood still while the racing machinery has not. At most circuits, a pace advantage of 1-2 seconds is going to be enough to get alongside on a straight and attempt an overtaking move: at Monaco it needs around four seconds, or a mistake or a moment of magic – but probably all three. Our victory last year was wonderful – but Daniel Ricciardo being able to hold onto the lead with his car suffering an engine issue for half the race really brings home how very, very difficult a place Monaco is to hold a modern motor race.
This is not to say it isn’t exciting – quite the opposite in fact. For spectators, it’s a wonderful location: more than anywhere else, the grand prix is the town and the town in the grand prix: the two become impossible to separate and the festival atmosphere is wonderful. It’s also the race where the cars and the fans are in closest proximity. There are places around the circuit where the noise is truly staggering.
For drivers, it’s the ultimate one-lap circuit. Qualifying on Saturday afternoon is fraught. Starting position is more important here than anywhere else, so absolutely nothing is left on the table – but at the same time, stray a millimetre off the line and there’s a wall to rub; more than a millimetre and it’s a wall to hit. That wouldn’t be so fearsome if this were nice, grippy, circuit tarmac – but it isn’t: it’s a slippery, dusty street course. From outside the car, corners like Tabac and the Swimming Pool entry maybe don’t have the same stock as Copse, Degner or Pouhon because they don’t have the massively high-speeds – but talk to a driver and these are the heart-in-the-mouth corners – threading the needle stuff with absolutely no room for error. Doing it perfectly 78 times in a row on Sunday is incredibly challenging; doing it once on Saturday absolutely flat-out is something else.
Monaco is definitely one of our favourite places in the whole world, with many of our greatest days taking place on the streets of the Principality. David Coulthard – twice a Monaco winner – gave us our first trophy here, finishing third in 2006. Of a slightly more modern vintage, we won the race three years in a row, with Mark Webber in 2010 and 2012 sandwiching a 2011 victory for Sebastian Vettel. All of those victories came from pole position. We also grabbed the fastest lap in 2010 (Seb), 2011 (Mark) and 2013 (Seb).
Pickings have been slim in recent years, but we’ve always had faith in our chassis and, at a low speed circuit like Monaco, there’s more of an even contest between horsepower and aero, and we’ve usually been more competitive here than anywhere else. Daniel – definitely a Monaco specialist – took fastest lap in 2015, and pole position in 2016 and last year. 2016, through no fault of his own, he finished second. Last year’s victory was cathartic in the extreme. And while his race was remarkable, perhaps more so was Max’s effort, taking fastest lap while rising from last on the grid to a points finish in P9 at the flag. It is possible to overtake in Monaco – but you’ve got to be very brave.