The Last Race At Monaco: Saying Goodbye ‘Til 2020 With The Best Of The Bunch
Photography by Will Broadhead
The tunnel is dark, it is lit by fluorescent strip lighting but compared to the blinding sunshine of the cloudless Mediterranean day the dim surroundings feel somewhat claustrophobic. Some light sneaks in through the openings in the exterior walls, and far down below, at the bottom of the sheer cliff this stretch of road sits upon, I can hear the sea lapping against the rocks and tidal defenses at the base of this large structure.
There’s another noise as well, I can just about make it out as it breaks through the cool and quiet of the atmosphere in here, but as it closes in it becomes louder and more distinct. It is the roar of a racing car, not just any: a Formula 1 machine of a late-‘70s vintage. He’s bought some friends with him as well, 35 of them to be exact, and in 30 seconds they will round the right-hander at Le Portier and make the transition from the glaring light and disappear into the gloom.
I can hear the downshifts and the pops and bangs on the overrun as the cars negotiate the slow rotation of the curve before the tunnel, then the revs rise and the noise increases—my heart rate goes up a few notches as well—and the last audible non-engine sound I am aware of before the cars appear is the hiss created through my own sharp intake of breath. The noise level as the cars careen past, just a few feet from my face, is incredible. I’ve never heard anything like it, I can feel the sound waves pummeling my chest, as if coming from within. It’s breathtaking in an almost literal sense, beautiful but fierce.
As the machines punch through the dark and emerge into the glaring light and the blind crest that takes them down into the Nouvelle Chicane, the tunnel walls continue to reverberate with a metallic din, as everything inside is left filled with the energy from the procession just passed. The grin on my face says it all, to stand in the tunnel at Monte Carlo as the most powerful machines of the weekend are on track—I’m talking about the 1977-1980 class at the Historique weekend—is unlike anything else. Sure you can argue about what’s the best automotive experience out there, but as far as vintage F1 goes what can beat this?
The end of the ’70s was a groundbreaking time for grand prix racing. It was a period that saw Lotus unveil the 78, the first-ever ground effects car that would change the paradigms of aerodynamic understanding. The increased downforce breathed new life into the now aging Cosworth DFV engine, as its narrow V8 profile meant aerodynamic efficiency could be increased, giving the venerable motor one last hurrah before the arrival of the turbo beasts of the early ‘80s. The ground effects cars also helped Williams truly arrive as a constructor, with Sir Frank Williams team winning the 1980 Monaco Grand Prix, Carlos Reutemann driving the FW07B to success through the principality’s streets. The 07 would win the championship that year in the hands of Alan Jones, the start of a fruitful period in the Didcot-based constructor’s history.
’77-’80 also saw the emergence of new talents in the roster of competitors on the human side of the equation, with Nelson Piquet, Keke Rosberg, Ricardo Patrese, and the brilliant but tragic Gilles Villeneuve coming into their own, and in the 1980 season a certain Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell. Some of these would go on to become winners at Monaco and other circuits in the future, as well as World Champions, but across this particular four-year period the Monaco master was Jody Scheckter, winning twice around the streets in both a Wolf and a Ferrari, the latter being Ferrari’s first ground effects car (the 312T4) and also the car in which Scheckter would win the ’79 Championship. 1980 was also the last year of the World Drivers’ Championship, before the FIA took charge of things from 1981, so it is perhaps appropriate that this year’s edition of the Monaco Historique signed off at this point in time. Before we start to lament the ending of another fine weekend’s competition though, there was still the business of the race itself—what a contest.
Just as with all of the racing during the weekend in May (this is the last of our reportage of the event which won’t be back until 2020), the action was fast, aggressive, and on the edge considering this was contemporary racing for these cars.
The thunderstorms that had forced Nice airport, just a few miles down the coast, to suspend flights had left the track damp and slippery, but there was just a hint of clearing conditions. With little-to-no wet setup time and the potential of a dry line appearing, the race looked a total lottery. A clear battle emerged between four cars early on, the two golden Arrows of Nicky Pastorelli and Jordan Groger were entangled in a dogfight with Michael Cantillon’s Tyrrell and Michael Lyons driving his Penthouse-liveried Hesketh 308E.
Nose to tail, the fighting was fierce, with the Arrows breaking clear before Pastorelli was forced into an error at Sainte-Dévote. As the race unfolded and conditions improved the triumph would eventually fall to Martin O’Connell in his bright yellow ATS D4, with Nick Padmore and Jordan Groger finishing just two tenths apart for the last two podium spots. It had been a fine exhibition of racing and a superb way for the curtain to fall on a stunning weekend of historic action. All good things must come to an end, but with a final show like this, I don’t think anyone could have too many complaints.