Glamorous, glitzy and so gaudy.. Monaco's the ultimate F1 spectacle

Stars from Sinatra to Bieber, Prince Albert’s cocktail party, a £100,000-a-night hotel suite and 200,000 fans make Monaco the ultimate F1 spectacle… but the party is over for now

  • The harbour remains home to the planet’s greatest motor-racing spectacle 
  • The ‘haves and have-yachts’ usually spend £100m during their days of plenty
  • But coronavirus has struck and, for the first time since 1955, the race is off 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Of all the spots, in all the world, that would have been heaven to attend this weekend, the Monaco Grand Prix leads them all.

It is always best if someone else is picking up the tab. In fact, it is almost the only way to do it without breaking the bank at, well, Monte Carlo.

But every trip to that overpriced, cliched harbour of the gorgeous and the gaudy is worth it because it remains home to the planet’s greatest motor-racing spectacle.

British legend Stirling Moss joins the party with fashion model Liz Hooley in 1973

For this annual jamboree on the cramped principality, just over half the size of New York’s Central Park, marginally outstrips the Indianapolis 500 that usually takes place on the same day with its counter-charms of Gasoline Alley and American machismo.

Given his death last month, it is appropriate to recall Sir Stirling Moss, the first Briton to win at Monaco in 1956, to put his finger on this playground’s fusion of attractions. ‘Monaco,’ he said, pronouncing it Mu-narr-co, of course, ‘has always been the place of glamour.

‘All the pretty girls come over the road from Italy. You wave at them and blow kisses as you drive around. These things are all part and parcel of it. But you must be prepared to dabble on the boundary of disaster.’

He just found time around Loews hairpin for his salute to the blondes. His victory in 1961, the last of his three on the thin ribbon of road that would never meet health and safety criteria if it were starting today, was the one he rated highest of all his grand prix drives, as he held off the superior Ferraris lap after lap.

Yachts and spectators line the race track during the Monaco Grand Prix last year

Ayrton Senna, who won the race a record six times, produced a similarly astonishing performance in taking pole position 1.4 sec ahead of his second-placed McLaren team-mate Alain Prost in 1988.

Was it a lap at 100 per cent? David Coulthard, twice a winner, says that is impossible, given the dangers represented by the Armco barriers on the slowest but most testing track of the year.

‘It’s about knowing where you can push, about trying to maximise braking, hitting the apex and making a good exit,’ explained the Scot. ‘What you can’t do on this circuit is look away and back up again.’ In normal times, we would have followed Lewis Hamilton this weekend aiming for his fourth Monaco victory.

Instead, the world champion is lying low in America, away from his main address in the principality, which is still the tax haven home of most of the grid’s leading cast.

Coronavirus has struck and, for the first time since 1955, the race is cancelled. The cost to the local economy is some £100million — the amount the ‘haves and have-yachts’ usually spend during their days of plenty, as they compete to be heard above the scream of the engines. Glasses are clinked, deals are struck.

Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart hangs out with Princess Caroline in 1977

The grandes dames of hotels are the Hermitage and Hotel de Paris, right on Casino Square. The Churchill Suite at the Hotel de Paris goes for £100,000 a night on race weekends. But tonight, the party having died, an ordinary room is yours for £600. Chicken feed.

Few of the party crowd have access to the tunnel during the practice session, when, if they had, the streaking cars would rattle their senses from head to toe.

Another joy is to stand on the pit lane overlooking the swimming pool complex. There you see, close up, the dexterity of these machines, slowing and accelerating with two-fingers to physics.

Hamilton has known good days and bad in Monaco. He has won there in every formula, including the GP2 race in 2006 when he announced his incoming talent to a wider world. It was, however, the same place where, after driving way below his talents in 2011, he wondered aloud why the stewards had penalised him. ‘Maybe it’s because I’m black,’ he half-joked. ‘That’s what Ali G says.’

Riccardo Patrese celebrates his dramatic victory with Prince Rainier III in 1982

But that was a minor slip compared to the sporting deception when Michael Schumacher parked his car on the racing line at the Rascasse corner, impeding Fernando Alonso, whose pole lap he was trying to frustrate.

The Ferrari man protested his innocence. He always did. But Keke Rosberg, the 1982 world champion, convicted him as a ‘cheap cheat’.

The stewards took until late into the night to reach the obvious verdict. Schumacher was chucked to the back of the grid. He drove brilliantly the next day to finish fifth, on a track where it is meant to be impossible to overtake. That weekend in 2006 framed the worst and the best of him.

From the criminal to the tragic. In 1967, two years before Schumacher was born, another Ferrari driver, Lorenzo Bandini, crashed and died in his burning car.

Twelve editions before, Alberto Ascari, the double world champion, had overshot the chicane on the exit of the tunnel and careered into the sea. There was nobody to fish him out. He swam to safety. Four days later he died testing a sports car at Monza.

Lewis Hamilton has known good days and bad at Monaco with three victories under his belt

The glamour of Monaco was sharpened by the marriage in 1956 into the 13th century royal family of the Hollywood actress, Grace Kelly. ‘She was, as custom dictated, known as Her Serene Highness,’ Sir Jackie Stewart once noted of his friend. ‘And the title fitted her perfectly.’ Up in the Grimaldi Palace that overlooks the track, Rainier and Grace’s heir, Prince Albert, and his wife Princess Charlene host the Friday night cocktail party and the gala dinner after the race. Black tie and all that.

The rhythm of the Monte Carlo weekend is different from other grands prix, just as the panjandrums of the Automobile Club de Monaco like it: practice on Thursday, a day off on Friday for a bank holiday, before the usual qualifying on Saturday and race on Sunday.

A plethora of stars have attended across the years, from Sinatra to Bieber, heaven forfend!

Often, the glitterati have high-stepped their Jimmy Choo’s from the Cannes Film Festival to be out there on the packed grid, sashaying among the snazzy people before the lights go out. Every inch of escarpment and balcony is filled with craning necks, 200,000 in all.

An all-time favourite there was Graham Hill, the five-time winner they called ‘Mr Monaco’. Celebrating his win in 1965, he was singing so loudly in Rosie’s Bar that two gendarmes arrived to arrest him. He invited them in, bought them a beer, and the party went on.

But it is over for now. Yes, there are downsides to Monaco. Some pug-ugly buildings. The dodgy phone signals. A race that is often a procession. And, yes, it can be, as Lord Charteris remarked of the Duchess of York, ‘Vulgar, vulgar, vulgar!’ But, really, you can’t see those glitches clearly when you are under its spell.

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