From the archives with Doug Nye

Chicanery in Monte Carlo

Rearranging the deckchairs hasn’t much altered the unforgiving Monaco circuit​

Back in 1986 – 30 years ago – the Monaco Grand Prix exemplified the changing standards within Formula 1. While the race itself was described at the time as “the usual procession” – headed again by Alain Prost’s McLaren-TAG Turbo, the stage upon which he and his rivals performed had undergone subtle change. One report declared that “Prost did not dominate simply by preventing others from overtaking, [after] taking an impressive pole position and then disappearing into a world of his own where the only worry would be maintaining concentration for almost two hours. The closest anyone got to the world champion was when they were being lapped…”.

The Monte Carlo street circuit itself had evolved over the long years since the race was first run, in 1929. Perhaps its biggest change had been made in 1973, when today’s swimming-pool section was introduced behind the modern pits, entered – as was remarked at the time – by a “45-degree left-right of surprising speed, while the next is a 90-degree right-left of surprising slowness…”. The Rascasse complex replaced the traditional old Gasworks Hairpin, while the course was longer and provided hugely enhanced spectator viewing. Jacky Ickx observed: “Monaco has always been frustrating. The job there is to keep away from the trackside dangers and avoid colliding with other cars while you have to wait your chance to move up a place. So why complain about changes which make a better show and add to the character?” One presumes he meant the character of the course rather than that of the competing driver…

In 1976 another change was made with a peculiar chicane fiddled in at Ste Dévote, the right-handed first turn. And the course had been tinkered with at frequent intervals, ever since. For 1986 the basic parameter of performance was altered yet again. A concrete extension had been grafted onto the quayside at the site of the traditional harbourside chicane, the objective being to tighten up the turn itself, and so slow the cars more between tunnel and Tabac corner. 

In 1985 drivers had complained that the original flick-left/flick-right chicane had become “nothing more than a blur at 160mph”. On the right stood the sheer rock face made famous – to a certain audience – in John Frankenheimer’s film Grand Prix. So the only option to provide more space there in which a more severe chicane could be created was to construct a new platform projecting into the harbour.

This latest modification apparently added 16 metres to the length of the circuit, and the new chicane – taken in second gear – attracted some driver criticism for being too slow, but the Formula 1 drivers as a group were of course a uniquely demanding community. It seemed that the change to the course – slowed by the new chicane but speeded up by levelling of bumps – especially on the pit straight – seemed to have extended lap times by about four seconds. However, the work had also been intended to provide another overtaking point on the traditionally ‘after-you-Alphonse’ street circuit. 

In seeking that objective, the work – neither for the first time, nor certainly the last – would prove a failure. This was because the adverse camber on the inside of the chicane entry made overtaking there alarmingly unpredictable. It proved very difficult for a charging driver to achieve a clean turn-in and maintain it rather than merely understeering straight on into a rival forced onto the wider line. 

So the queue of cars that had become a Monaco Grand Prix hallmark persisted – despite the Automobile Club de Monaco’s (and the supportive Principality’s) expenditure, which even 30 years ago was confessed to have been “just under £1 million”. Historically, very few people who matter have ever truly challenged Formula 1 and Grand Prix racing’s cost/benefit performance, but in the matter of tinkering around the edges to preserve a legendarily charismatic Grand Prix venue which in general terms would surely have been condemned as obsolescent decades ago, Monaco just about takes le biscuit.

Troubled oil on water

Even the Grand Prix legends can’t defeat the laws of physics, as a leaking pipe proved at Monaco eight decades ago 

hile such chicanery was a talking point of the 1986 Monaco GP, 50 years earlier – in 1936 – the harbourside chicane again featured large in the race’s story. 

That year’s Grand Prix was run on Easter Monday in nothing like Riviera weather. Rain fell steadily from a leaden sky, and the 18 starters faced the prospect of a 100-lap race around the hilly – and now streaming – streets. The Motor Sport report described how Mercedes-Benz fitted “short mud flaps behind the front wheels to keep some of the spray from the face of the driver” while the opposing Scuderia Ferrari mechanics had “clapped neat rain excluders over the air scoops on their (Alfa Romeos’) brake drums”.

Shortly after 1pm the winner of the previous day’s dry-weather Prince Rainier Cup race for voiturettes, ERA driver Prince ‘Bira’, opened the circuit in his personal ‘Bira blue’ 3-litre Bentley, accompanied by François Dureste, president of the organising club. 

While they splashed around their ceremonial lap, back on the soggy starting grid the Grand Prix cars were sheltered beneath tarpaulins. The three-strong front row comprised two Mercedes-Benz W25s for Rudi Caracciola and local star Louis Chiron, making his debut for the German team, with Nuvolari’s Alfa on the outside. 

It was then the Italian who led the snake of cars pluming off into the opening lap, while the tail of the snake was taken up – at some distance – by Mario Tadini, whose Alfa Romeo was gushing oil from a broken pipe. The car had been prepared for Antonio Brivio, but when the Scuderia mechanics on the grid found it leaking oil from a broken pipe, Brivio scrambled instead into Tadini’s sister car. The unfortunate Tadini was bundled into Brivio’s stricken machine with orders merely to “get the start money”. As he limped around that opening lap, laying down a narrow rainbow trail of lubricant on the wet road, Caracciola nosed ahead of Nuvolari with Rosemeyer’s Auto Union V16 third. 

On their second lap, Caracciola and Nuvolari both lapped Tadini’s crawling, incontinent Alfa before it finally dumped most of its remaining oil on the change-down into the harbourside chicane. Chiron locked up and slid straight into the sandbag barrier, Rosemeyer and Varzi dodged by in their Auto Unions, as did Fagioli for Mercedes and Stuck’s Auto Union. But Farina’s Alfa took a wild header into the barrier and Brivio in Tadini’s original Alfa also slid off there. Brauchitsch then buried his Mercedes into the tail of Farina’s Alfa and Count Carlo Felice Trossi stopped his Maserati after missing the only way through the mess… 

 Motor Sport described how, “Excited officials [were] trying to slow the approaching cars, blue flags waving everywhere and workmen endeavouring to extricate the cars that were too badly damaged to continue. It presented an amazing sight to which more fuel was added as Rosemeyer’s Auto Union arrived on its next lap and spun helplessly like a slowing [sic] top, but escaped disaster by inches and went on.”

Marshal reactions to such an incident have come a long way since 1936 as “Efforts were made to erect the remains of the chicane and quantities of petrol were poured onto the course in an attempt to clear away the oil. The rain continued in torrents and the cars that were left treated the spot with extreme respect. Instead of the 40-50mph at which this point was negotiated in practice, the drivers crawled through at a bare 12mph. Even so the oil made them slide perilously near the far-side wall and drivers twisted the steering wheel this way and that with little response in the form of front adhesion… At the end of the fourth out of the 100 laps, only 13 cars remained of the 18 proud vehicles that started a few minutes before…”.

Luigi Fagioli – driving the fourth Mercedes-Benz, then rammed the chicane exit barrier after a worker, as he arrived, inadvertently tossed a shovelful of sand – intended to soak up the oil and petrol – into his face…

This left Caracciola as the Stuttgart team’s sole survivor. And on the left-hand uphill curve past the Hotel de Paris, even the hyper-talented Bernd Rosemeyer lost control, his Auto Union spiralling into a spin which ended with its tail smashed halfway through a retaining wall over the edge of a yawning drop. Rosemeyer clambered out, studied the damage, shrugged his shoulders and trudged back to the pits with a piece of stonework in his hand as a souvenir. Motor Sport again: “Significant, perhaps, that it was his 13th lap, and the date, April 13th…”

By half-distance it was clear that the acknowledged Regenmeister, Caracciola, was living up to his reputation for wet-weather mastery, leading comfortably from Nuvolari with Hans Stuck’s Auto Union a distant third. As the long race progressed and the rain became even more intense, “The only scrap of colour visible was a series of iridescent circles on the murky waters of the harbour where the oil from the course had seeped through the paving stones into the sea itself.”

Modern-style team strategy came into play at Auto Union: “Varzi, knowing that Stuck must soon stop for fuel and expecting that he would have to do likewise, closed in on his team-mate, and, after a lap or so in close company, he moved into second place on the 83rd lap. Stuck pulled in but was away again in 18 seconds with enough fuel for the remainder of the distance. Varzi delayed his own stop until later and lost about an equal time but still retained his position…”

Caracciola brought home the Mercedes-Benz to win from the two Auto Unions after a non-stop master-class drive that took him 3hr 49min 20.4sec flag to flag – time enough for a couple of modern-era Monaco GPs. Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg’s combined 2012 and 2013 winning drives occupied 13 minutes less wheel time – with a different chicane, a lengthened circuit and very different cars. But matchless charisma – and minimal overtaking – are perhaps the only things unchanged at Monaco since 1929…