Monte Carlo remains the crown jewel of Formula One that every driver covets

Monaco GP an irresistible mix of opulence and a challenging circuit

There are great circuits and great venues and then there is Monte Carlo. The next stop on the Formula One calendar will be held in the richest square mile of Europe.

The track whips between burnished white buildings clinging to a vertiginous hillside that tumbles down to the sea before rushing through the harbour and under the Rainier’s royal palace.

This GP shouldn’t really exist. Especially not in this ‘woke’ modern world. It’s too tight, too cramped, too narrow, too dangerous.

And yet it does. In all its wonderful, insane, majesty. F1 cars hurtle through canyons of concrete at 290kph on a circuit double champion Nelson Piquet compared to riding a 1,000cc motorbike in your living room. Overtaking? Forget about it.

Race director Michael Masi doesn’t have to worry about the current track limits controversy. Metal crash barriers and concrete walls deliver instant judgment on those who stray even a few centimetres.

The track is so narrow and cars so wide, overtaking is next to impossible. So race day is usually a very high speed, humdrum, procession punctuated by the odd shower of carbon fibre and Kevlar.

The race is a spectacle but the event – the place – spectacular. It is the only place you could happen across Brad Pitt chatting to George Clooney or Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley walking hand in hand (as I have) allegedly mansion-hunting.

If you only do one Grand Prix in your life, it has to be Monte Carlo. The delight of walking the track daily after the action is over never grows old.

The smell of money jostles with the lingering odour of the sea and tree bark burnt by the endless sun. It is a world where $50m super yachts are 10 a penny. A world of Lamborghinis and Louboutin, Cartier and Cristal.

If Monaco is idolised by the fans, that goes triple for the drivers. Above, even, their home race, this is the one they all want to win.

For all he had achieved, in 2006 the mighty Michael Schumacher wanted to win (again) so badly he tried to cheat his way to pole only to be caught and thrown to the back of the grid.

I compare it to Zinedine Zidane’s infamous World Cup final headbutt: no matter how rich or famous you are, there are times when you are, once again, the small boy with his nose pressed against the window of the candy store.

And to win at Monaco, to thread the needle, is to sit on the shoulders of giants. The list of winners here is more exclusive than any other the clique, save the sport’s champions.

Never mind Sunday’s race, the greatest spectacle is Saturday qualifying as the cars dance over the kerbs at La Piscine.

Nowhere is pole so crucial. To sit on the very front spot at light’s out is to have one hand on the most treasured race trophy in motor racing.

And nowhere can a driver make as much a difference with his talent and nerve as at Monte Carlo. The fractions between championship contenders Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen on a single lap mean it will be down to who can get it done on the day.

Thankfully the tiresome sub-plot about tyres that has cost Red Bull two victories will be irrelevant as Pirelli have opted for other compounds.

But who cares? When did it make enthralling sport to know a race was decided, pretty much, by the tyres remaining after practice two or three days before?

The duo arrive in Monaco locked in a world title fight but coming from different places. The world champion has never achieved the Monaco dominance of his idol Ayrton Senna but has won three times.

For all his startling speed Verstappen, 11 years younger, has never even reached the podium. Although he starts as favourite given Red Bull's low speed aero superiority.

It’s no small irony that, in the background of a weekend so blatantly dedicated to opulence, teams will have further talks on cost savings.

They have already (supposedly) limited their annual spend to $145m and now want driver salaries topped at $30m per team.

Critics claim that a planet pock-marked with secret tax havens makes the idea unenforceable. Others point out it has already been achieved in America.

As you might imagine Hamilton, the sport’s biggest earner on $40m, is none too impressed. Nor are the next highest earners topping just over $20m – Max Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.

But in the upcoming discussion of relative value, is Hamilton really worth 20 times, say, George Russell, who could be hired for $2m? Fans would argue seven world titles says so.

It says much for the lure of Monte Carlo that, crucial as it is, decisive discussion among drivers will be shelved because they have bigger things on their mind just now – at least for the next four days.

Published: May 20, 2021 10:35 AM

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