FThe self-proclaimed jewel in the Formula 1 crown, the Monaco Grand Prix is a lackluster reflection of its former glory. It’s not yet time for this classic, but there is a growing feeling that without changes there might be a hiatus from racing on the streets of Monte Carlo.
The Grand Prix has been held here since 1929 and the race formed part of the first F1 Championship in 1950; Since then it has been almost always there. The unique challenge, a relentless test of physical toughness and, most importantly, mental toughness to get the needle through looming obstacles ready to punish anything but perfect accuracy, has long been revered by riders as the ultimate test.
Fans greeted it as a sight, and a chance to see the cars up close; To witness the bravery and ingenuity in the face of the constant threat of the unforgiving nature of the true street track, and to watch them not only master the track, but compete in the process.
Perhaps more than anything else, the Monaco Grand Prix has been described as the most spectacular race of the season by Formula 1 and its organisers, the Automobile Club de Monaco (ACM). It presents itself as a viewing platform for the rich and famous, a place to see and be seen, do business, and an F1 to sell themselves on the yachts lined up along the marina.
For this reason, the meeting had a unique relationship with the sport for a long time. She paid the lowest fees for the host races and was allowed to sell her own sponsorship in the track rather than using F1 partners. Monaco pays peppercorn rent, while Silverstone, which has long attracted more than 100,000 fans on race day, has almost gone bankrupt due to hosting fees charged under Bernie Ecclestone.
But F1 has long developed in all respects. When Jackie Stewart won Monaco in 1971, his friend Roman Polanski made a movie on the weekend. She successfully captured the grandeur of the challenge on the track and the atmosphere at the time as Ringo Starr and Grace Kelly filmed in and out of the frame. The cars were light and small enough to race. Ronnie Peterson started eighth and finished second. It required perfection, but it was possible.
However, the heyday of Monaco did not last. James Hunt was scathing about the race. He told biographer Gerald Donaldson: “The Monaco Grand Prix is really just a fair where the unlucky drivers are invited to parade and still only exists for the benefit of patrons who want to show off in the ‘glamorous’ atmosphere…” They should have a parade instead. And then all the cars can roam like a stupid ‘jet group’ laying as low to the ground in Monaco as anywhere else in the world.”
His words sounded more true now than ever. Even some of the races considered classics only underscore the growing unsuitability of modern cars for racing in Monaco. When Nigel Mansell handed the lead to Ayrton Senna in 1992 after installing new tires late in the race, he came out on new rubber and was two seconds faster than the Brazilian. He caught him three laps to go but Cena stopped him.
A lot of their duels were made, with Mansell flailing and diving to find a way, but the truth is that even with a car two seconds faster per lap, they could have gone longer and Mansell was frustrated. Last year, there was an overtaking maneuver at 78 laps.
This year may be next to impossible, as Lewis Hamilton noted. “We all know the type of race,” he said. “It’s all about qualifying. So Saturday is the day. There’s not a lot of overtaking here on Sunday unless you’re lucky with a bit of strategy. Now the cars are bigger and heavier and there probably won’t be more. It will be the same.”
Even as glamorous as it is comically and faded, the presence of the Russian oligarchs and their vulgar yachts is tinged with the bright orange hues of the rich.
It must be said that the drivers still love the unanimous challenge. “Without Monaco, this is not Formula 1 for me,” said Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in Monaco. “No track comes close to the adrenaline we get in Monaco and for me it’s part of the history of Formula One and he should stay in Formula One.”
It reflects a widespread view, but there is a bigger picture. “We host Monaco for its heritage and history. Christian Horner, president of Red Bull, said: “I think you have to keep improving. If you stand still, you walk backwards.”
Monaco has been resilient for decades. To be fair, there’s nothing quite like seeing an F1 car up close and personal on the field. Closeness and a sense of danger are incomparable. But here, too, there is smoke and mirrors.
The media, concerned with the extraordinary sensory experience, will present a view that ordinary fans would not get, even in the stands. Most fans aren’t even at the racetrack; Almost everyone watches it on TV, where the deep sense of speed and noise is lost and the race often descends quickly into a procession punctuated by debates over whether tire strategy matters. Spoiler: It rarely happens.
Monaco’s share of the commercial success of Formula 1 is also a thing of the past. F1 you no longer need to race to keep the coffers full. The days when sponsorship depended on entertainment on a yacht in Monaco are coming to an end. When you need it, the sport has viable alternatives to target meetings to do business. This year’s race in Miami, targeting a corporate audience, has proven successful.
ACM is one of the least connected organizers of Formula 1 racing and has inevitably rejected a request from the Observer to discuss the future of Monaco.
But change will surely come in some form. Monaco’s contract expires this year but ACM has insisted on signing a new agreement. F1 also expects a new contract, but the format is yet to be decided. Sports have more places to watch the race than those on the calendar.
There are 22 races this season, with a maximum of 24. A few meetings were discussed, alternating over two years, with Monaco in the frame, as was a change of course in Monte Carlo – a difficult task but one of which F1 has been known to want to investigate – and a serious renegotiation of previous financial arrangements.
The legacy is glorious, and the challenge remains like no other. But change on some level seems inevitable, even if only in his relationship with F1 itself, where Monaco’s special status has certainly come to an end.