Racing fit for a Principality

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The Grand Prix Historique provides more track action than modern-day F1 can usually muster, although there were some causes for concern
By Simon Taylor

Cynics say the Monaco Grand Prix now provides less of what is good about modern Formula 1, and more of what is bad.

For them, the Grand Prix Historique provides a welcome antidote. Town and track have both changed more than somewhat since the first Monaco GP in 1929, but it’s still magical to see and hear period racing cars battling through the narrow streets, with skyscrapers and mountains above, and yachts and blue Mediterranean below. When those cars are P3 Alfas, or Gordini T15s, or Ferrari 312s, or Matra MS120s, the years roll away and the old Monaco GP atmosphere is, very nearly, recreated. And these older cars can overtake each other, even on this circuit, so the racing is always exciting.

Every visit to a historic race meeting starts with the paddock, and the Quai Antoine Premier is lined with neatly ordered awnings that display the cornucopia of cars very well, with no anachronistic motorhomes or ugly trailers in sight. This event only happens every other year and, despite the huge cost of entry and accommodation, it is always very oversubscribed, so you don’t get to run at Monaco unless your car is a good one. There are the inevitable Gallic problems, of course: scrutineering this year seems to be more concerned with the labelling of a driver’s fireproof underpants than the safety and correctness of his car, and there is much angst when multi-spark MSD ignition, which many historic single-seaters have used for some time instead of the Lucas single-spark original, is declared unacceptable.

Saturday provides two practice sessions each, and Sunday, race day, also has a single-seater Ferrari parade. Almost half of these are from the Schumacher era, allowing the very lucrative Ferrari Clienti operation to give its wealthy customers an expensive blast around Monaco. A couple of incidents in the races proper highlight an issue which the Automobile Club de Monaco must tackle before the 2010 event. A 1970s Formula 1 car, for example, is an extremely serious weapon, especially around this tight and unforgiving circuit. Yet being able to own one is decided by the size of your bank balance rather than your experience and skill in the cockpit. In the big single-seater races the qualifying times of one or two drivers at the back of the grid are up to half a minute slower than pole, which means they are lapped after four laps. The committed driver of a fourth-placed ex-Reutemann Brabham arrives in the Casino Square to find a slowly-driven ex-Hunt Hesketh moving across on him. A collision is inevitable and the Hesketh turns over, although fortunately its driver, Lee Brahin, is only bruised. There are near-misses in other races. In future a qualifying limit, like a minimum percentage of pole time, must be set to avoid a tragedy.

The American Duncan Dayton is in scintillating form, winning both in his Lotus 16 and his Brabham BT33, the latter by 0.2 seconds after a furious pursuit by Joaquin Folch’s McLaren M23. Dayton has now had seven wins in five historic Monacos. His countryman Paul Edwards (Penske PC3) vanquishes Mauro Pane’s charismatic Tyrrell P34 six-wheeler in the final F1 event, which is without Bobby Verdon-Roe’s ex-Hunt McLaren and David Clarke’s ex-Peterson March after Verdon-Roe has a huge accident in the tunnel in practice and Clarke meets his debris. The Formula Junior race, confined to early cars that would have raced in Monaco’s first FJ race in 1959, provides wonderful variety with 17 different marques. The American-built BMC of Irish cancer surgeon John Monson narrowly triumphs over the Gemini of RAF doctor Tony Goodwin, who has been racing for more than 50 years: when Jackie Stewart won the F3 final here in 1964, Goodwin was 12th.

In the pre-war event Julian Bronson, in Mac Hulbert’s glorious ex-Mays ERA R4D, scores a fine win under pressure from Matt Grist’s brilliantly driven Alfa P3, while the key battle in the sports car race is between Michael Willm’s 4.1-litre Ferrari and Simon Diffey’s tiny 1.2-litre Cooper-MG. Lap after lap the Ferrari passes on the straights, the Cooper darts past on the corners, and the crowd cheers. Afterwards Diffey reveals his contribution to the environment: he has done the whole event, both practice sessions and the race, on one tank of fuel.

Inside view

Moss on Monaco

Sir Stirling reflects on his first race at Monte Carlo, and the changes since

My first visit to Monaco was In 1950, when I won the F3 race in my Cooper 500. I was 20, and Monte Carlo seemed pretty glamorous to me, with the harbour and the royal palace and the crumpet. I led all seven F1 GPs I did here, but only won three. In 1955 in the Mercedes I was leading on lap 80, but the race was 100 laps, and it was the one time the Merc failed. In ’57 I arrived at the chicane with no front brakes on the Vanwall and crashed into the wooden poles that made up the barrier then. I won with the 250F Maserati in ’56 and with the Lotus 18 in 1960 and ’61. Overtaking wasn’t easy, but you could do it – usually under braking. In those days the braking distances were much longer than now. I liked to go up the inside and leave my braking very late.

In the Historics this year I drove Frank Sytner’s Frazer Nash, like the one I drove in the sports car race here in 1952. It was a lot of fun, although it seemed over-geared to me – even in the tunnel I wasn’t getting into top.

Back then there were just ordinary roadside kerbs around the track, painted white, and if someone was clipping them their tyres started to get white walls. Now they just have these silly low rounded kerbs which everybody runs over. I won’t drive over them: I know it would be quicker, but I wasn’t taught that way. Frankly I’d rather there was a low brick wall defining the edge of the track. Then people couldn’t cut corners, they’d have to stay on line. They’re all good drivers in F1, they could cope with that.

The track and its character have changed so much. The waterfront chicane used to be a left-right flick and St Devote was a fast corner, too. These tight modern chicanes interrupt the flow. The tunnel itself, remember, is very much a right-hand bend. I would have taken it flat in 1952 in the ’Nash, but now I back off a bit. It’s an age thing: my balls aren’t as big as they used to be.