Motorhead: Monaco still the season’s pinnacle
The times are a-changing in Formula One, but the annual visit to Monte Carlo is still the highlight of the sport’s calendar.
Already this year five drivers racing for five different teams have taken the chequered flag. In the new era of ‘raw egg’-like Pirelli tyres (to quote Michael Schumacher), and overtaking assisted by KERS and DRS, almost anything seems possible – and any racer can have his day.
So where, then, in this era of competitive racing, does the Monaco Grand Prix fit in? It is a track which by optical illusion seems to narrow by the year, with the drivers demonstrating incredible skill to merely avoid slamming the car into the barriers.
There will be no DRS zone in the tunnel for safety reasons – and wisely so – but again that marks the Grand Prix out as different from the rest of the calendar.
Put simply, there’s only so much that can be done to facilitate overtaking on the streets of Monaco.
There were just 22 passing moves for position in 2011 across 78 laps of racing – fewer than anywhere else, and just a fraction of the overtaking numbers for the likes of less popular races like Shanghai (97) and Istanbul (123).
Does that make Monaco a relic? Yes, probably it does – but Formula One just wouldn’t be the same without it.
To touch on an idea raised earlier in the year on these pages, backdrop matters in Formula One. The Bahrain Grand Prix was a fascinating race, but one bereft of atmosphere, played out to a sparse crowd – a contest that may as well have taken place in a bubble.
Monaco is an event, choc-full of the pageantry and glitz which go hand-in-hand with the sport. The race looks spectacular, and appearances do count in Formula One.
The circuit may render overtaking nightmarishly tricky, but its twists and turns are irresistibly iconic. Is there any sequence of corners better known in the sport than the Mirabeau? Perhaps – but only if it’s the chicane that confronts the drivers when they exit the tunnel and leads into the swimming pool turns. History matters, and these corners are steeped in it.
And to Motorhead’s mind the results strike the right balance between marking out the best drivers and throwing up the occasional surprise.
The man many hold up as the most talented in the history of the sport, Ayrton Senna, was at his best here, winning the Grand Prix six times, while seven-times world champion Schumacher has won five races in Monaco to date, as many as the legendary Graham Hill in the 1960s.
Most drivers love it here, although there are notable dissenters. Consider the words of Vitaly Petrov from a couple of years ago:
"Driving at Monaco means nothing to me,” he said, "I don't feel anything about the history."
Perhaps a more balanced view comes from Sergio Perez, a man who would be well within his rights to dismiss the circuit after a horror crash on the track last season. And yet Perez loves the track regardless.
"This grand prix is the most special one for me," Perez said. "I have been waiting to race in the Monaco GP all my life and, of course, after what happened last year I am looking forward to it even more.
"I strongly believe on this track the driver can make more of a difference than on any other track.”
The safety concerns at Monaco, which does not find it as easy as purpose-built circuits to incorporate safety reforms, is a far more serious argument against Petrov’s stony-faced dismissal of the race’s history. But Perez’s take on Monaco is fascinating. He articulates the passion most drivers have for the circuit very well, and he also points to another aspect of what should make the Monaco Grand Prix a special occasion: it’s where drivers have their best chance to showcase their talents without all the credit going to the car.
Anyone who saw Senna’s 1992 victory, holding off the clearly quicker Nigel Mansell in a traction-controlled Williams, would surely attest to that.
For every Petrov, there’s 20 drivers who look at the track the same way as Perez and Lewis Hamilton:
"Monte Carlo is a place where every driver wants to win,” said Hamilton, “but achieving it is so satisfying because you know you've conquered one of the toughest circuits in motorsport."
And Hamilton’s point is perhaps the most prescient. Monaco might be an anachronism, and the racing might not compete with some of what you’ll find at other tracks this year, but could you imagine F1 without a visit to the principality?