Auto connoisseur Simon de Burton explains the heritage and the magic of Monaco’s iconic auto races.
If you’ve ever wondered when “British racing green” came to be so named, it was in April 1929 when half-French, half-English daredevil, special agent and sports-car driver William Grover-Williams took his place on the second row of the grid in a dark green Bugatti Type 35B for the first Grand Prix around the streets of Monte Carlo.
Entered as plain W Williams under the British flag, he completed the requisite 100 laps in three hours and 56 minutes to take the laurels ahead of fellow Bugatti driver Georges Bouriano, and third-placing Rudolf Caracciola — who had been widely tipped to win in his mighty Mercedes-Benz SSK.
The thrilling sight of 16 cars being raced on narrow, winding streets before a glinting Mediterranean backdrop for a prize of 100,000 francs — put up by tobacco tycoon Anthony Nogars — took an already exciting spectator sport to an entirely new level, enabling the crowds to see, smell, hear and feel the action in a more intimate way than ever before.
Along with the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Monaco Grand Prix is one of the “must-see” races in the motorsport calendar. Despite the arrival of glitzy upstarts such as the nocturnal Singapore Grand Prix (also a waterside race), many Formula One fans still believe that Monte Carlo wins in the glamour stakes. Where else do F1 cars pass within feet of the shop fronts of Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Chanel and the like?
But the Monaco Grand Prix of today is, of course, a rather different event from the one in which Grover-Williams competed. For a start, there are far fewer opportunities for overtaking these days, simply because modern F1 cars are so blindingly fast that appropriate passing gaps on the narrow streets come and go in the blink of an eye.
Furthermore, Monaco Circuit was never designed to be a race track, meaning the opportunities to see the cars in action are relatively few and far between since no sooner have they emerged from behind one building than they disappear behind another or round a corner in the tiny principality that measures just three miles long by half as wide.
But the facts speak for themselves: Monaco was, is and probably always will be, the place that’s best associated with Formula One racing more than any other — and everyone who is anyone wants to be there during the month of May when the race takes place. There are, for example, few sounds to match an F1 car blasting through the famous tunnel at full chat, while the sight of the contenders slowing to crawling pace as they round the extremely tight Rascasse corner makes for an almost surreal moment in an otherwise lightning-paced event.
Indeed, the kudos of simply being at Monaco is such that it has become an event beloved of corporates, with the biggest yachts and the finest hotels being booked well in advance (sometimes years ahead) in order to schmooze clients with the best experiences they could hope for.
But for those who want to attend privately in the best possible style, it’s probably wise to employ the services of a Monaco “fixer” who knows where to get you in, and how to get you in there. UK-based Halcyon Events, for example, is run by two former racing drivers — Chris Buncombe and Richard Williams — who have long-established connections in the F1 world, allowing them impressive behind-the-scenes access.
Firms such as Halcyon will prepare full race weekend itineraries for clients that range from tours of the principality to visits to the team’s pit garages. They also will make restaurant reservations, arrange vehicle transfers (getting from point A to point B around the time of the race is decidedly problematic). The Monaco Grand Prix is, of course, more famous for its post-race partying than any other event on the motorsport calendar. Many regard the best event as being the Amber Lounge party, which takes place at the Meridian Beach hotel and is attended by many F1 drivers, team managers, supermodels and other VIPs. A table for eight guests can cost upwards of $25,000.
Perhaps one of the best ways to enjoy the race is by private yacht, as yacht tenders can easily cruise the port while the streets are tied up with racing. Northrop & Johnson’s charter brokers are readily available to assist you with chartering a yacht for this iconic event and, once aboard, everything else is taken care of — from booking tables at the hottest parties (perhaps at the famous Rascasse restaurant, which is party central the night before race day) to creating a relaxing onboard spa day to recuperate from all of the fun.
If, however, you prefer the idea of the slightly more relaxed and elegant pace of the Monaco Grand Prix as it used to be, don’t despair. It’s still possible to enjoy that, too, thanks to the existence of the biennial Grand Prix de Monaco Historique. Instigated in 1997 to capture the growing interest in historic motorsport, this race takes place a fortnight before the modern Grand Prix in order to take advantage of the circuit preparation and facilities. Organized by the prestigious Automobile Club de Monaco (ACM), it is attracting ever-larger spectators as the years go by. The 2016 edition will be the nineteenth and will feature seven different races during the weekend of May 13 to 15 for nine different classes of car, ranging from pre-1939 ‘voiturettes’ to Formula One cars of the 1970s.
But make no mistake; this isn’t a slow-moving event for old crocks. Not only are the majority of cars taking part highly-tuned, purpose-built racers, they often provide much more action
than the “moderns” because they are considerably more difficult to handle than their 21st-century contemporaries. Many of the drivers are former stars that are invited back to the circuit to compete and contribute to the classic atmosphere. As a result, the event invariably provides two days of action-packed racing on the legendary street circuit and is far more “spectator friendly” than the modern Grand Prix, which takes place two weeks later.
One of the major sponsors of the “historic” is watch brand Chopard, which has had a presence at the event since 2004. For each occasion it creates a series of special Grand Prix de Monaco Historique wristwatches, one of which is awarded to each of the seven class winners with the remainder going on general sale.
“Many people think the historic event is more entertaining than the modern race — you can get closer to the cars, visit the pits, mingle with the drivers and generally feel in touch with the atmosphere,” says Chopard co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, who was introduced to the event by his close friend Jacky Ickx, the celebrated, multi-Le Mans-winning racing driver.
“It was Jacky who connected us with the organizers, the Automobile Club de Monaco. I would love to take part one day, but neither he nor my wife will allow it,” says Scheufele whimsically. “They both think it’s too dangerous.”
If the celebrated image of Australian privateer Paul Hawkins crashing his Lotus into the Monaco Harbour during the 1965 Grand Prix is anything to go by, Ickx and Mrs. Scheufele are probably quite right.