Believe The Hype, Nothing Is Like The Grand Prix de Monaco Historique
Photography by Will Broadhead
Monaco. The mere utterance of the name evokes thoughts of glamour, celebrity, and exclusivity. The tiny principality on the Cote D’Azure is held in extra special reverence by the planet’s petrolheads though, and for us it conjures up two simple words; Grand Prix.
Of course, those words in unison evoke memories and feelings much greater than their monosyllables, and when coupled with Monte-Carlo an altogether different excitement takes hold. Since its first running in 1929, the GP held on the Circuit de Monaco has been creating heroes and villains as drivers have raced between the walls and buildings at ever increasing speeds, to conquer the treacherous and narrow streets that make up the route of the ultimate road course.
As historic race tracks go, the Circuit de Monte Carlo can rival the best of them, from the battles of pre-war cars, to the post-war modern Formula One championship days and even sports car racing—the has entertained an incredible list of drivers and constructors. To recognize and celebrate this illustrious history and as a marked pointer of the popularity of historic racing, the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique was conceived by the Automobile Club de Monaco, and this past weekend I was lucky enough to be part of the many thousands of fans that enjoyed the 11th edition of this unique spectacle of sport.
Across the weekend seven different grids (made up of over 180 grand prix cars) took to the hallowed streets to race the famous undulations and curves; Sainte Devote, Casino Square, Portier, La Rascasse. Each turn has its own history. The classes for the historic running would represent the top-level racing that has occurred here across the track’s history, from the first pre-war cars through to the physics-defying ground-effect weapons that appeared in the ’70s. No cars later than 1980 would compete during the weekend, but through the grids there was a salivating mix of both rare machines and game-changing designs, even if I would have liked to see some of the turbo-era beasts in action.
I couldn’t complain though, not in the midst of cars like the Lotus 25, which in the hands of Jim Clark was a dominant force throughout the early ’60s establishing the dominance of England. And speaking of, there were also examples of the Lotus 49 that featured a certain Cosworth DFV engine that would change grand prix racing for the next 20 years that followed, as well as and the previously mentioned ground-effect cars like the Lotus 78 and the Williams FW07B that would win the then-scrappy constructor its first world title. There were cars from Ensign, Brabham, McLaren, Ligier, Tyrrell, Shadow, Cooper, Maserati, and of course, Ferrari to join them. The list of fiberglass and exotic alloy is too great to delve into here on a car-by-car basis, but it was a wonderfully curated list that provided some of my old favorites to gawk at once more along with some new-to-me machines to learn about for the first time. As history lessons go, this was pretty fabulous. No dull lectures to be found here.
As wonderful as it was getting lost in the sea of patina and pristine restorations in the paddock area, these machines had been assembled here for a greater purpose. They were made for motion, and they were here to do their jobs. I was itching for the action to start when I arrived a few days early, and come the Friday of first practice rounds I found myself walking the circuit as the sun rose. In the quiet streets of the early morning, the tarmac and Armco took on an ethereal character. If these streets could tell stories, there would be some wondrous anecdotes to go around I’m sure, beyond the highlights we’ve all memorized.
With a head filled with old footage and photographs of the late Graham Hill triumphing here five times in the ’60s, the man becoming known as the king of Monaco, I also thought of Riccardo Patrese’s unlikely win in 1982, after Didier Pironi and Andrea de Cesaris ran out of fuel on the last lap, and of course personal memories of Schumacher winning the emotionally charged 1994 race that came just two weeks after the tragic events at Imola that took the lives of Ratzenberger and Senna. Karl Wendlinger had a terrifying accident himself in the tunnel during that weekend at Monaco, at a time when safety in the sport was under renewed scrutiny. For my generation though it’s all about Senna, and as the sun lit up the boats packed around the section of circuit that skirts the marina, it seemed fitting that my mind wandered to the most successful man to defeat these streets. Six wins in all, he mastered the course like few others, and if he were still with us I am sure he would have delighted in the spectacle that was about to take place in honor of the circuit’s illustrious past.
As engine notes rose and reverberated around the city for the first practice, the weekend itself seemed to fly by as fast as the cars. To experience the noise and the smell of these historic machines as they flew past the famous corners and landmarks was more than stunning, and I didn’t realize my arms could sustain goosebumps for so many hours in a row. As a motorsport fan it was unmatchable, not to mention the visual extravaganza from a photographer’s perspective as drivers wrestled with their wheels to guide their steeds through the two miles of claustrophobia.
Peeling through the first corner of Sainte-Dévote, heavily remodeled over the years, before tearing up the undulations and swift direction changes of Beau-Rivage, past the Hotel de Paris and designer shops and then through Casino Square and onwards to Mirabeau, Portier, Tabac, and La Rascasse. In between these is the terrifying run into the unsighted Nouvelle Chicane, through the monstrous and much revered “Tunnel.” It’s a constant assault on the senses to watch, as the piercing notes of the engines reverberate off of the surrounding structures, and I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to pilot these highly strung grand prix cars around here lap after tight and twisty lap.
Small mistakes render heavy punishment within the confines of this circuit, something a fair few drivers would fall foul of over the weekend, and the racing was incendiary. No regularity scoring here! For a track with a reputation of being hard to overtake on, the dog fights that took place throughout the classes were tremendous and added extra pizazz to what would have been fine enough in parade lap format. Thankfully it was much, much more than that. Often events that one really looks forward to can be a victim of expectations that cannot deliver their promise, but the Historique falls far out of bounds of this The excitement and adrenaline produced over the weekend will simmer within me for a good long while yet. There aren’t enough superlatives, but I am sure that Antony Noghès—the man that started all of this in 1929—would more than approve of this homage, and all I can say at this point is it’s worth the trip if you can swing it. You have two years until the next edition, and if this one is anything to go by, it is not to be missed.