Circuit first opened: 1929
Current circuit length: 2.075 miles
2015 event calendar
Jan 19-25: Monte Carlo Rally
Jan 28-Feb 4: Historic Monte Carlo Rally
Mar 20-22: Zero-emissions Rally
May 9: Formula E
May 21-24: Monaco Grand Prix
A 2000-mile round trip to Monaco threw up more than we bargained for at the Grand Prix Historique last May
Writers: Andrew Frankel & Damien Smith
AF In the last week of May 1952, a motoring journalist called Tommy Wisdom drove the second production Jaguar C-type from England to Monaco. There, on June 2, he took part in the only Monaco Grand Prix ever to be held for sports cars. The race lasted for a gruelling 100 laps and the first five cars over the line were all professionally driven Ferrari 225S models. But in sixth place came Wisdom, who promptly packed up the C-type and drove it back to England.
This C-type is that C-type, chassis XKC005, and last year it returned to Monaco to be raced by another motoring journalist. Me. It was never going to be possible even to approach the efforts and achievements of the intrepid Tommy, but we still thought we’d have an adventure. And for reasons both planned and not so planned, if nothing else we managed that.
Driving the C-type down there was sadly impractical. Tommy drove with his equally capable wife Elsie (known to all as Bill) and how they managed to pack even a change of underwear between them in the C-type is hard to imagine. I expect they had a support car. With me and editor Damien Smith on board, my race gear, computers and assorted clobber, it was all we could do to squeeze everything into the hatch of one of its descendants, a brand new 542bhp F-type R coupé.
So the least we could do was drive to Monaco non-stop: from my home in Wales, that is a less than convenient 1043 miles away. Leaving home at 3.30am and despite two motorway closures, I was still outside Redhill train station at 6am to collect Damien, the Jag having swallowed this first bite of the journey without pausing to chew.
DS The grind of a rail commute into London is a daily reality, but this time the early alarm call and heavy silence of a packed morning train would be no hardship. At Redhill I was going against the human flow rather than with it, for a change, and waiting for me was Andrew with the maroon F-type. Freedom.
You can’t beat a road trip: the chance to switch off from the routine of normalcy to concern yourself with only the horizon ahead of you. Motor Sport readers had their imaginations piqued regularly by Denis Jenkinson and his continental journeys, and it’s a tradition we uphold today whenever we find an excuse – and the biennial Grand Prix de Monaco Historique was perfect.
Cramped is too strong a word for the F-type’s cabin, but for two men of above average size (height in Andrew’s case, width in mine) the snug sports car would offer a firm test of friendship. At this stage, we could have no idea just how.
Elsewhere, Damon Cogman espouses the virtues of a ferry crossing over the channel tunnel, and I quite agree with his sentiment. But the responsibilities of everyday life could not be ignored entirely on this trip and we were watching the clock. So the choice of tunnel it was, followed by endless miles of smooth but largely uncluttered autoroute. Jenks wouldn’t have approved, especially as progress would be tempered by the constant threat of speed cameras, but such is the reality of modern life and motoring.
Our route was simple: due south, then east a bit. The A26/E17 runs from Calais all the way to Reims, pushing on to Troyes and then Dijon. Beyond that, the E21 leads to Lyon’s sticky congestion.
Then we took the A7/E15 that drifts south-east after Avignon, before picking up the eastbound E80. Beyond Cannes, the traffic snarls up again around Nice, where we spot the Mediterranean for the first time and plunge through the mountain tunnels towards Monaco.
It takes little time at all to read that description, but 11 hours of straight driving, with two fuel stops for the thirsty 5-litre Jaguar, reminded us once again of France’s considerable size.
AF Having signed on, the next most important item on the agenda was to get a look at the circuit. I’d driven it in traffic years ago and even booked an hour in a simulator to try and teach me the lines, but by far the most valuable contribution to my understanding was doing a lap on foot in the company of ace racer and preparer Gary Pearson.
Gary’s advice is as terrifying as it is useful. He starts by pointing to the kerb at the exit of Antony Noghes, the corner that leads onto the pit straight. As kerbs go it’s pretty innocuous but instead of flowing gently into grass, gravel, concrete or Tarmac, it ends instantly in a vertical barrier. Yet as Gary points out, “It’s a good angle, changes the camber of the road and gives you a terrific drive onto the straight. Really you have to use it.” In someone else’s multi-million pound, totally original C-type that’s due to start the Mille Miglia four days after racing here.
The tour continues. Ste Dévote is apparently faster than it looks and, farther up the hill, Gary points out the precise pedestrian crossing at which you must brake for Massenet. It looks miles away from the curve on foot, but then I’m not doing 100mph right now.
Perhaps his most useful advice comes in the tunnel, a simple acceleration zone for a bewinged modern F1 device, but not only completely on the limit for the Jaguar but also simultaneously the fastest point on the track. Enter the tunnel and you wonder what all the fuss is about, but about halfway through there is an evil tightening of the radius and, if you turn in too early, you’re in the barrier at a three figure speed before you see daylight. Get it right and you’re still not out of trouble because you have to brake from flat out to almost nothing for the hideous little chicane that breaks the lap’s otherwise mesmerising flow.
Research complete, there’s nothing else to do save wait until Saturday for our two qualifying sessions. Nothing, that is, save look around the most glamorous historic race meeting in the world.
DS To get the most from any trip to Monaco, be prepared to walk. At the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique, the traffic and the mass of humanity isn’t quite as intense as it is for the Grand Prix proper, but that’s just relative. Around the circuit itself and the hilly streets above, don’t expect to move anywhere fast. Still, at least by foot it’s easy to explore all the nooks and crannies of this fascinating, other-worldly place.
The 400-plus entry ensures the paddock is 100 times more pleasant than it is during the modern Grand Prix. There’s familiar exotica from the UK scene, but so much else that’s fresh. A pit pass offers further delights, with a spectacular line-up of 1970s F1 cars poised in the open garages.
When the track goes live, views are always limited and access is a headache without a photographer’s tabard. Sitting in a harbour-front grandstand to watch a practice session, I was disappointed yet again by how little paying punters can see of cars passing just a few metres away. The best, unobstructed views are gained from the opposite side of the track, from the pitwall, where one can look down on the swimming pool complex and the short run to Rascasse. Then the other option is a balcony invitation… in Monaco, the privilege of access is everything.
AF In the pits I decide not to try to set a time at all. The C-type is factory standard with 220bhp and, while I would hope to be thought a competent racer of old cars, I am just as surely no superstar. Unlike most other events, the only priority here is to preserve the pristine machinery. If everyone else wants to behave like this is a race that matters, it’s my job to let them.
But it’s hard. You’re at Monaco, the streets are closed and you’re in a fabulous racing car that once competed here for real. The engine, chassis, gearbox and body it had then are those it has now. And the track is fabulous, so full of challenge and exhilaration you’d think it had been designed for racing. Ste Dévote is just about being brave with entry speed but Massenet is as difficult as they come, tempting you to turn far too early and wipe out at the exit. The run down the hill through Mirabeau and Loews to Portier is the most famous part of the track but, to a driver, the slowest and least exciting. The tunnel is more about nerve than talent, but Tabac and the entry to the swimming pool are utterly thrilling sweeps, a unique sensation to add to my racing experience.
I just about manage to behave in the first session, but in the afternoon I find myself braking later, re-applying the power sooner, using more road and, just once, not lifting in the tunnel. That scared me. The result was an unexpected midfield qualifying position, exactly where I’d promised myself never to be: right in the thick of it.
Sitting on the grid, the nerves ranked with sitting in a Caterham at Brands for my first ever race 20 years ago. I wasn’t worried about hurting myself because I think that’s pretty unlikely even in a car without a cage or belts. But if I damaged the C-type, I’d ruin the Mille Miglia for its owner and it would be all I’d ever remember from racing at Monaco.
So when the race starts I’m cautious. Far too cautious. Cars go flying past left and right. But, hey, I’m driving at Monaco. What do I care?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. In front is an Aston Martin DB3; having tested it for this magazine, I know it’s a sight faster now than it was then. I can get as close as I like going into and through every corner, but at the exit he powers away. And I haven’t the nerve to post one up the inside at the tunnel exit, the only realistic passing opportunity. What I need is a distraction, and Al Buncombe in the nuclear-powered JD Classics C-type provides it. He’s in a race of one at the front and blasts past at the exit of Tabac. The Aston driver sees him and courteously steps aside at the entry to the swimming pool, so a little less courteously I follow Buncombe through.
Time is running out, but one more interesting challenge remains in the form of another very standard C, the beautiful Ecurie Ecosse car driven by Alain de Cadenet. I believe our cars are in similar spec, because his also has twin SUs, the first thing you’d bin in favour of triple Webers if you were hotting it up. But I have something he lacks: disc brakes.
As soon as it returned to the UK in 1952, Jaguar borrowed XKC005, fitted discs and sent Stirling Moss to Reims, where it became the first car ever to win a race wearing them. Which is why it still uses them. Alain is driving splendidly and the challenge is the reverse of that presented by the Aston: I can keep up on the straights but through the corners he’s as quick as you’d expect for someone who’s stood on the podium at Le Mans.
But I can see his brakes tiring. The speeds are too low and the buildings too close to allow decent cooling and there are four big stops on each lap. With one to go he runs a little wide at Rascasse. Had I not known who was at the wheel I’d probably not have tried it, but I nip past, defend furiously for the last lap and am the 24th car to take the flag, out of an entry of 46. I’d qualified 23rd…
Having finished a race not quite as well as I’d started, I really didn’t have much to celebrate, but I fear my whoops of joy still disturbed the serenity of the Hotel de Paris. All I had to do now was get home.
DS By the time I got back to the paddock, Andrew’s adrenaline levels had calmed, but I suspected the sense of elation would carry us all the way to Calais. Not quite, as it turned out.
To avoid losing a working day, the plan was to leave Monaco as the flag fell on the final race and drive through the night. Two up? No problem.
As the Jag climbed out of the principality, the pair of us jabbered away reflecting on our experiences of racing’s gaudy jewel. Andrew drove into the growing darkness until just before midnight when we stopped for fuel and I took over.
Minutes later I became aware that he wasn’t happy in the Jaguar’s firm bucket seat. He’d mentioned a back complaint over the course of the weekend, and bumping around Monaco in a 62-year-old sports car was never going to help. But now the adrenaline-fuelled joy had turned to paralysing agony.
We were somewhere just south of Dijon when he pleaded with me to pull up on the hard shoulder. The complete darkness was punctured only by the headlights of cars and trucks thundering a few feet past our open door. Andrew wanted to take a walk, but he couldn’t move his legs. “I’m so sorry, but I need to get to a hospital,” he groaned. It was half-past midnight.
Time to call on the Jag’s rudimentary sat-nav. It did at least find a hospital in Dijon, so on I drove as slowly and smoothly as I could, but any slight jarring left Andrew on the brink of tears.
The hospital, like the rest of Dijon, was in complete darkness and now Andrew was beyond the point of desperation. Eventually, we spotted a small sign directing us to A&E. I parked up and ran inside.
The magic of, ahem, ‘international sign language’ convinced an orderly to bring a wheelchair out to the car, but it took another 10 minutes to ease Andrew out of the F-type and into the hospital.
For an hour I sat slumped in the waiting room. Would I be leaving my colleague here in the middle of France and going on alone? But then how would he get home, and when? What the hell would I tell his wife? The buzz of Monaco was long forgotten as I returned to the Jag to get some kip.
A tap on the window woke me abruptly. The towering figure outside was Andrew, who had finally convinced a doctor to give him an injection to dull the pain. The transformation from the figure I’d last seen was miraculous. To my astonishment, Andrew eased into the driver’s seat and declared he was ready to go – eager to make time before the pain returned – and that it would be more comfortable for him to drive. It was 3am as we set out once again for Calais.
I took over from the next fuel stop as a glorious dawn broke over the rolling meadows north of Reims. Had it all been a nightmare?
At Redhill station at 10am on Monday, Andrew bid me farewell, then turned the Jag in the direction of Wales and a much-needed doctor’s appointment. So began another routine week. Having spent much of the previous one swanning around Monaco, I had to catch up with some work. Exhaustion and a pounding headache would be met with little sympathy as I slunk into the Motor Sport office. Not quite Wisdom and Jenks, but a trip to remember. As for F-types, glorious as they are, I’ll never look at them the same way again.
Essential travel guide
Where to stay
For the best value, try Nice in one direction or Menton in the other. Whichever event you attend, both locations are convenient, have a good range of restaurants (more reasonably priced than those close to the circuit) and are well connected to the principality by rail. There are many comfortable two-star hotels within an easy walk of Nice station. At the other end of the spectrum, there are yacht and/or hotel packages for a variety of four-figure sums (or more) in Monaco. As an example, you can book a weekend suite at the Fairmont Hotel from €2200 per person and enjoy clear views of the hairpin… but the price doesn’t include accommodation. For that, you might fancy a couple of nights in the Columbus Hotel – once co-owned by David Coulthard. Located within an easy stroll of the track, it has rooms from €5000 per night during the Grand Prix weekend.
Low-cost airlines fly from many UK destinations to Nice, but prices rise sharply once the operators clock that it’s GP time. The same applies to traditional carriers. The drive from Calais takes 10-11 hours – and parking will be either expensive or non-existent when you arrive. Doing the whole thing by train is a relaxing option and allows you to enjoy France wafting past while you enjoy a glass of Merlot or similar: book early and you can reserve a first-class seat for about half the price of an air ticket (but you need to be very prompt, clicking ‘buy’ before breakfast on the day sales begin). From London, you can change in either Lille (which involves crossing a footbridge) or Paris (two stops on RER Ligne D from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon).
Plenty, if you opt for the car, but that is likely to become a full holiday rather than a short break. On foot you could try retracing the route of the Grands Prix de Nice (six races between 1932 and 1947), but there is no enduring evidence that Bugattis once roamed freely in these parts.