Monaco by night: a petrolhead’s dream

| 5 Apr 2016

Not long ago, the former principal of a Formula One team was interviewed for an article about drivers’ contracts. The conversation turned to the fact that many of them take advantage of certain places’ relaxed attitudes to income tax.

“It makes you wonder,” he said, “exactly how much these people need. There isn’t an amount in the world, for example, that would get me to live in Monaco.”

I recently visited the Principality for the first time, and I will admit that I could see his point. Much of it was covered with high-rise flats – all of which, no doubt, cost several million Euros each – and it seemed that the rest was a building site.

Here and there were hints of how Monaco must have been 50 or 60 years ago. Across the harbour, for example, along from the Grimaldi palace, stands a collection of elegant older houses, looking down over the vast yachts.

Whatever the place’s aesthetic shortcomings, for a motorsport fan it is somewhere that you simply have to visit.

After dinner, therefore, I ignored the fact that it was 11pm, raining and windy, and set off to walk the famous circuit.

Two things strike you: first, how compact the place is. And second, the gradient. I started in Casino Square, and hadn’t appreciated how steeply the road fell away from there down to the hairpin at Mirabeau. 

It is impossible to look back up this stretch and not picture Jochen Rindt’s Lotus 49 coming down the hill at the most spectacular angles during his inspired chase of Jack Brabham in 1970. 

Still the road continues to drop, through what used to be the Station Hairpin, was then Loews, and is now probably ‘Turn 5’ or something equally romantic.

Finally you reach the seafront at Portiers, the innocuous right-hander at which Ayrton Senna threw away the 1988 Grand Prix. After crashing his McLaren out of a comfortable lead, he went straight to his nearby apartment. It was some hours before team personnel were able to reach him.

From there, you walk through the tunnel – much extended, of course, since the track’s early days. Here lies another surprise. Watch onboard footage and you might be under the impression that this sections gently curves beneath the hotel above. 

Do not be fooled – the final part is a serious right-hander, and it’s hard to believe that the cars are coming through here absolutely flat-out.

A final drop to the new chicane, and the circuit becomes rather more difficult to follow due to parked cars and whatever passes for everyday life here. On foot, you can do it, walking towards Tabac past the super-yachts – one of which was equipped with a matching Mini Moke for on-shore use.

This is the section that has changed the most over the years. It used to be that the cars went down one side of the row of trees that still stands near the harbour front, did a sharp right at the Gasworks Hairpin, then drove up the other side. 

Now, they jink left-right, right-left on reclaimed land and head along to the Rascasse, which that night was blasting out loud music in competition with the temporary bars that had popped up nearby. 

Up at the final corner of the lap is a statue to Juan Manuel Fangio. At the other end of the start-finish straight stands one to William Grover-Williams, winner of the first Grand Prix here in 1929. Neither would recognise their surroundings now.

The last stretch for me is from Ste Devote up to Casino Square. Until you’ve walked up it, it’s hard to comprehend how steep it is. Martin Brundle once said that, in the days of 1500bhp turbo engines, it felt as if you were being fired into the clouds as you charged up the hill, looking straight at the sky.

And at the top, where cars are reaching 170mph, they flick right, towards the casino and the left-hander at Massenet. It is an awe-inspiring place to stand; what it must feel like in an F1 car beggars belief. 

Even if the challenge of Monaco must have fundamentally changed with the invention of the semi-automatic gearbox, and therefore the ability for a driver to keep both hands on the wheel, the sheer pace of a modern car in these claustrophobic surroundings must compensate. There is simply nowhere to go, no room to make a mistake. 

It is an absurd place in which to hold a Grand Prix – Nelson Piquet once likened it to riding your bicycle around your living room – but I’m delighted that the circuit survives among the sterile ‘facilities’ at Sochi, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi.

However little interest I can summon in modern Formula One, I have a suspicion that watching Hamilton, Vettel and co on maximum attack at the top of the hill, or at the exit of the tunnel, or the Swimming Pool, would remind even a hardened cynic why they fell in love with motor racing in the first place.