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The Limitations, and Thrills, of the Monaco Grand Prix

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Ask a Grand Prix driver whether Monaco is worthy of its place on the Formula 1 calendar, and the answer will usually be yes.

That’s even though the Grand Prix can often be less than thrilling. The track is so narrow and the cars so big that drivers rarely can pass, or overtake, each other. In the Formula E race there in April, drivers were able to overtake almost 200 times in their smaller cars. In last year’s Grand Prix there were 22 overtakes, which can make the race processional.

Compared with 30 years ago, cars are about three feet longer and 600 pounds heavier, making them difficult to maneuver around the narrow streets of Monaco. Still, the race has a mystique.

“For me, Monaco is the most iconic race of the season,” Charles Leclerc of Ferrari said. “Obviously, I’m Monégasque, so I’m biased, but it’s the race that made me dream of becoming a Formula 1 driver.

“The qualifying effort on Saturday is incredible. None of the racetracks come close to what we feel on that qualifying lap, and how precise you need to be, how brave you need to be. It’s something I really enjoy as a driver.”

Monaco has history. This weekend’s Grand Prix marks the 95th anniversary of its first race, in 1929. Its layout, a circuit described by Nelson Piquet, a three-time champion in the 1980s, as “like riding a bicycle around your living room,” has altered little over time.

The configuration has 19 corners over about two miles. Reaching speeds up to 180 miles per hour, drivers completing a perfect qualifying lap, in which they are on the track alone, racing against the clock, is the ultimate challenge.

“As a driver, for me, qualifying in Monaco is the most exciting and the biggest rush of adrenaline of the whole season,” Oscar Piastri, a McLaren driver, said. “Trying to get it right around there and brush the walls, that’s one of the most exciting things you can do in a racecar.”

The race itself is still a challenge. Over 78 laps, with almost 1,500 corners, there is no respite. To win in Monaco, Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes, a seven-time champion, said in 2010 that “the driver with the biggest talent” and guts should generally do well, “if he has the car.”

The problem with Monaco is there is no room to expand the track to aid overtaking. Ideas to alter it have been discussed over the years, but there have been no changes.

So the variables for overtaking are confined to strategy, an accident or rain, which has often created a spectacle that has affected strategy and resulted in accidents.

“Can it be better in terms of overtaking on a Sunday? Yes,” Leclerc said. He has qualified on pole position twice but failed to win his home race. “However, I think it’s more down to the cars getting heavier and bigger throughout the years, which I’m sure once this is tackled, hopefully soon, then we’ll have better racing on Sunday in Monaco.”

Michel Boeri, president of the Automobile Club de Monaco, the promoters of the Grand Prix, said that despite the near century-old heritage of the race, it was unique.

“From the start, in 1929, we didn’t have a choice but to do things differently because of the topography of our tiny 700-year-old principality, situated between the mountains on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other,” Boeri said in an interview. “Monaco is half the size of New York’s Central Park.

“But where else can you race around buildings and yachts at 180 miles per hour, on streets where the speed limit is 30? It’s a challenge and exciting for the drivers, and it’s an unforgettable experience for the spectators who get to watch the cars up close.”

In 2021, a Formula 1 survey of 167,000 people from 187 countries, conducted by the research company Nielsen, in partnership with the Motorsport Network, highlighted Monaco’s popularity, emerging as the fan favorite. That was no surprise to Boeri.

“When people around the world think of golf, they think of the Masters in Augusta,” he said. “When they think of tennis, it’s Wimbledon. When it comes to Formula 1, it’s Monaco that comes to mind.

“The Monaco Grand Prix is a classic, and like good wine, it takes years to become a classic. For the fans, it is the unmissable race of the F1 calendar.”

Monaco may lean on its history, but it has to remain relevant to Formula 1. The arrival of the Las Vegas and Miami Grands Prix in recent years, and the spectacular nature of those events, has placed new demands on the automobile club to keep pace.

“We keep investing year after year,” Boeri said. “We have an international standard control tower, new pits, a new princely lodge for the podium ceremony, the track is resurfaced every three years, and this year we’ll be inaugurating additional V.I.P. facilities at the entrance of the pit lane with a 360-degree view of the circuit.”

“I read the promoters of the Las Vegas Grand Prix said they envisioned their event as the Monaco of North America,” Boeri said. “That made us happy.

“We are also happy to see new events around the world on the F1 calendar. New promoters sometimes call us to ask for advice on how to organize a Grand Prix in their city, so we gladly share our expertise, just like we look at what is done elsewhere to stay up-to-date.”

The lack of overtaking is an unavoidable problem at Monaco. Still, Boeri said, “I would say that when there is an overtake, it is always a memorable moment. It takes skill and bravery to overtake around Monaco in Formula 1.”

At Ferrari’s headquarters in Maranello, Italy, the cars dating from Alain Prost, who drove for the team in 1990-91, are displayed. Frédéric Vasseur, the Ferrari team principal, said the difference in size, from then to now, was considerable and affected racing.

“For me, qualifying at Monaco is the most exciting lap of the season, but we can’t change it, we can’t try to improve it to help with overtaking,” he said in an interview. “For sure, at some stage, a lot of the historic tracks, like Monaco, Budapest, will become too small. It’s for another discussion, but I think we have to go back to more agile cars.”

Vasseur said Monaco “is still worthy of its place on the calendar.”

Daniel Ricciardo, a Visa Cash App RB driver, offered a different perspective as to why Monaco is important.

“As a driver, being in Monaco, you feel like a superstar,” he said. “It’s the one place where you think, ‘I’m doing something pretty awesome.’ It’s a place where you really appreciate the job you have.

“There is an aura that surrounds the event, the race, and qualifying in Monaco is one of the most intense feelings we get as a driver. Sunday is maybe a little different, it’s a complete change of tempo. Sunday isn’t perfect by any means, but the event on Saturday still gives it enough.”

In 2022, the automobile club signed a three-year extension to continue to host the race. In 2025, it will have to prove itself again.

Boeri said he was confident that the club would sign a new contract.

“What would be the interest for both parties to refuse a new deal for the future? It would be a waste for F1, for us and the fans.”