Nelson Piquet described driving a Grand Prix car in Monte Carlo as like trying to ride your bicycle around your living room. A victory on the streets of the Principality, he declared, was worth two anywhere else.
Keke Rosberg once likened the flat-out dive down the hill from Casino Square to Mirabeau to being on a toboggan without any snow to cushion the bumps. And Keke was not afraid of anything.
Both these men were racing cars with a manual gearbox, slick tyres and an excess of mechanical grip over aerodynamic downforce. Hence they were very busy in the cockpit, constantly changing gear and correcting slides on the changes of camber. They’d wear out the glove on the right hand, and the sole of the boot on the right foot. Blisters were commonplace at the chequered flag.
Men like Graham Hill – they called him Mister Monaco – and Ayrton Senna made it their own, stamping their authority on the twists, turns and bumps of the streets. And that’s what a great driver does – he takes the little place by the scruff of its impossibly glamorous neck. It is not a place for the faint-hearted.
The Monte Carlo circuit is easier now, but still a huge challenge in a Formula 1 car. As we head towards the race this coming Sunday, I feel as excited and expectant as ever, this Grand Prix being one of my all-time favourite occasions. There is simply nothing like it, there being an element of total madness. Were such an idea to be put forward now it would probably be dismissed on grounds of ‘health and safety’ and lack of palatial facilities. But Monaco survives, and let us rejoice that it does.
The race is something of a lottery, of course, but no less thrilling for that. Despite protestations to the contrary, overtaking is possible, this being proved each year by those with absolute skill and bravery. The streets are the ultimate test of a driver and nowhere else can you get so close to the action on the track. No longer are you able to walk through the tunnel, or stand behind the barriers, but a seat at the swimming pool section, or in Casino Square, is as good a view of an F1 driver in action as you will find.
Every time I walk down to the circuit at the start of practice on Thursday I get goosebumps and feel that surge of excitement as the cars scream up the hill from Ste Devote. I quicken my pace, get out my stopwatch, and make a dash for the nearest vantage point. The media centre is not the place to be. No, you want to be out there, drinking it in, as the cars skim the barriers, blast into blind corners and wail away towards the harbour where they will dash past the yachts in a crazy blur of noise, colour and raw speed. One split second of distraction and the car will be off-line and into the scenery. It is a magical experience for both driver and spectator.
Who will be at the front on Sunday? I have no idea, but all things being equal the best drivers will prevail. So expect Vettel, Hamilton, Button, Alonso and Webber to shine. Red Bull’s aerodynamic advantage will be somewhat constrained in Monte Carlo, while the McLaren is nimble and Alonso will squeeze something out of his Ferrari. If it rains, well, then all predictions are set aside. For once this season a good grid position will be important, with drivers unlikely to be able to storm through the field, so Saturday should be as thrilling as ever. Traffic is the bogey in Monaco, new tyres or not, soft option or hard.
If you have never been to the Grand Prix du Monaco, you have not completed your motor racing initiation. You don’t have to stay in a fancy hotel or visit the Casino, you just have to be there. Yes, it looks pretty on the TV, but on the side of the track, or leaning from a window above, this is a gut-bashingly great motor racing spectacle.