If, in 2018, you came up with the idea of a grand prix on the streets of Monte Carlo, you’d be laughed out of the room. Possibly out of the country. It’s an insane idea.
The streets are too narrow, the buildings too close. There’s no space for a pitlane, definitely no space for a paddock and absolutely positively nowhere for the hundreds of thousands of fans who would throng the tiny Principality to marvel at the spectacle. Impossible. Couldn’t happen.
And yet here we are...
And this is part of the charm of the Monaco Grand Prix. It’s crazy. It’s like hosting the Champions’ League final at the North Pole, or playing snooker on the Moon. It’s as if someone sat down and thought ‘now, where’s most inappropriate place to race fast cars?’
This – probably – wasn’t always the case. When the race made its debut in 1929 (as a tourist lure – like so many modern-day races) it may have seemed eminently sensible. Back then the circuit – which really hasn’t changed a great deal – was being lapped at an average speed of 50mph – but over the intervening nine decades, average speeds have doubled. It’s the lowest-speed race on the calendar – but it feels like the fastest.
As a spectator, it’s the closest you’ll get to a Formula One track. There are places where the grandstands are so close you can almost touch the car – but that works both ways: drivers will talk about the temptation to high-five photographers as they skirt the walls at 200mph.
It’s the drivers who enjoy Monaco most. The race is the biggest test of skill they ever face – and they do like a challenge. The rush of driving preposterously quickly through streets that really aren’t suitable for an F1 car makes them light up like a pinball machine. Everyone has a favourite corner – though consensus converges on Tabac and the first part of the Swimming Pool – not-entirely coincidentally the fastest corners on the circuit.
Our memories of Monaco are particularly happy. David Coulthard, one of the undisputed masters of Monaco, gave us our first ever podium at this circuit, back in 2006. We’ve picked up another nine since then, including a hat-trick of victories between 2010-2012. Sebastian Vettel’s win in 2011 was the filling in a Mark Webber sandwich. There’s a small band of drivers who just get Monaco, and Mark was definitely in that group. Daniel Ricciardo puts it down to having the confidence and self-belief required to get the car right up close to the barriers.
“There are simply some drivers that have that aggressive style and are willing to put it to the limit,” says Dan. “If you have the confidence, you want to get closer to the wall. If you don’t, you edge further away. That’s where the difference shows: the drivers that are happy getting closer to the wall and comfortable being there, they’re the ones that are good on street circuits.
I think it really brings out the top drivers. Or at least the drivers that are confident at that time. You can see it on track: there’s a visual difference that’s easily visible on a street course but very hard to spot on an open circuit. I like that.”
Daniel should be on the winners list in Monaco. He took a brilliant, brilliant pole position in 2016. His first, and so far, only start from P1. He managed the getaway and looked comfortable in his first stint, only for the team to have a disaster in the pitstop, with no tyres ready to go on the car. Daniel’s inherited a couple of victories when other teams have had a bad day at the office, so what goes around comes around – but we’re aware how much a Monaco victory would mean for both of our guys.
How did it go wrong? Well, there’s no excuses – but the peculiarity that is the Monaco Grand Prix played its part. A breakdown in communication struck at just the wrong moment. The pitwall can’t see the garage at this circuit – because there isn’t a pitwall, as such. Rather, the race engineers and senior management have their ‘pitbox’ crammed into a room above the garage. If chaos is going to strike anywhere, it’s going to strike in Monaco. Drama at this race pretty much comes as standard.
The crew approach the weekend with mixed feelings. For the Energy Station crew, it’s the busiest week of the year, with our supersized floating motorhome receiving three times the normal number of guests, and barely a moment to waste. It’s not much different in the garage. There’s no space to work, (and, if you’re really unlucky in your allocation, there’s every chance of sharing what little space there is with a couple of tree branches, for which holes are carefully cut into the floors and sides of the pit building), and it’s a long slog back and forth to the motorhome. On the other hand, there’s the pleasure of being able to walk to work – and however busy you are, the feeling on Sunday night after a victory just can’t be beaten.