There’s never been much room for manoeuvre at the Monaco Grand Prix – for the drivers, their cars and teams, or, for that matter, the circuit itself. It was criticised at its 1929 inception for being too narrow, too winding and generally unfit for purpose.
Land is at a premium within this 500-acre Principality levered between the Alps and the Med. (New York’s Central Park covers 850 acres, by the way.) Buildings have grown taller as a result – and its famous circuit has followed fundamentally the same sinuous two-mile path that it always has.
Barring the surrounding architecture, little has changed from the exit of its first corner – named after (patron) Sainte Dévote and her nearby church, reconfigured in 1870 – to the entry of the 90-degree right-hander – named Portier after a harbour for small fishing boats – that returns the competitors to the seafront.
Thereafter, the pressing need for more elbow room – for racers and fine-diners alike – has had to be recovered from the waves. Though these slivers of extra space have been hard won, it was easier than moving mountains.
The big change occurred in 1973. Before then, however, there had been a host of minor alterations.
The 400-yard Tunnel, with its dressed-stone façades, was finally lit in 1931.
The tramlines that scarred Boulevard Albert I, site of the current start/finish, were prised out the following year.
And the Chicane that flicked cars left-right onto the concrete-paved Quai des Etats-Unis received in 1935 the first of numerous tweaks.
Having thus been moved 100 metres closer to the tight left-hander at Tabac – named after the kiosk wedged between and beneath a flanking pair of staircases fringed by balustrades – the Chicane was the scene of a pile-up in 1936.
An inattentive marshal compounded this incident by then shovelling sand into the face of a passing driver rather than onto the spilt oil. The temporarily blinded Luigi Fagioli, the previous year’s winner, crashed his Mercedes-Benz as a result.
The Chicane was pushed back to its original position post-WWII and, after two-time world champion Alberto Ascari’s infamous plunge into the harbour, was made narrower and slower for 1956. Even so, it was the scene of another pile-up in 1957.
The other notable change fashioned during the 1950s was the repositioning of the start/finish. From 1955 to 1962, it was situated opposite Boulevard Albert I on the curving quay. This switch forced cars into a hectic dash to, and mad scramble around, the Gasometer Hairpin. The tragic death of a marshal, felled by a loosed wheel in 1962, caused a rethink and the start/finish was also returned to its original position, on the approach to Ste Dévote. The grid was reduced to a 2-2 formation – from 3-2-3 – and its rows were alternatively ranged left and right.
It was mainly the architecture that changed during the 1960s, however.
The 97-year-old railway station, after which the track’s slowest corner was named, was being demolished in 1965 because its line had gone underground. By 1966, it had gone, its handsome wrought iron-and-glass awning and all – to be replaced nine years later by a seven-storey, 600-room luxury hotel.
The accompanying Tunnel survived until 1972, while its utilitarian brick viaduct, which framed the approach to Portier, lasted one more year. A much longer Tunnel beneath the hotel – and partially open to the elements along its length – replaced the former, while the latter is now a flyover.
Increasing safety concerns and lack of overtaking opportunities as F1 cars became faster and wider had brought the race’s continuation into doubt. Again. As a result, several proposals to extend the circuit eastwards beyond Portier – and over the border into France if necessary! – were tabled in the early 1970s. But all thoughts of radical facelifts, some of which planned to use the route of the disused overland railway, were shelved in favour of a nip-and-tuck.
In 1972, pit crews were temporarily relocated from the narrow, tree-lined strip opposite the start/finish to the quayside, a move made possible by again shunting the Chicane closer to Tabac. Thus a barrier at last separated team personnel from speeding cars. The following year, however, they returned to a permanent and (relatively) substantial base, tucked up more safely in a new and separate pitlane.
Widening the curving promenade had also allowed a reprofiling of Tabac – its kiosk now marooned in a pedestrian tunnel – and the building of a road that skirted the Olympic-sized Swimming Pool before diving into Rascasse hairpin, where a restaurant stood rather than the hardly glamorous gasometer.
The circuit, extended by approximately 200 metres, had received its modern look, with double layers of Armco – barriers had been steadily replacing bales since 1961 – increasing its sense of claustrophobia – and speed.
In 1975, the grid lined up one-by-one at staggered intervals – though today the F1 norm, this was not copied elsewhere until 1980. Chicanes were added in 1976 at either end of the pits ‘straight’: at Ste Dévote and a new corner that commemorated the race’s originator, Antony Noghes.
The Chicane, meanwhile, continued to be a bone of contention – until 1986, whereupon a much slower version, Nouvelle Chicane, was created on a purpose-built, stilted extension jutting into Port Hercules. This added 16 metres to the lap.
More recent gains from the sea have seen the walls on the entry (1997) and exit (2003) of the Swimming Pool section pushed back, and the creation of a faster and wider approach to Rascasse.
The latter freed sufficient space for a larger pit complex (first used in 2004), while the removal of the inside barrier at Ste Dévote not only eased the inevitable and often costly first-corner traffic jam, but also provided for an extended pit exit, with cars merging beyond the corner and not before.
And it’s at this precise spot that Formula E will break with Monaco tradition by almost doubling back on itself and heading parallel with the harbour – in the ‘wrong’ direction – rather than ascend the hill to the iconic Casino Square. This unique layout then rejoins the GP circuit at Nouvelle Chicane, which will serve as a hairpin on this occasion.
Though different, the track will be instantly recogniseable. No amount of change could change that. Monaco knows that it possesses something unique and has lovingly and conservatively nurtured it – but not cloyingly so. Within its obvious restrictions, not all of them geographical, it has adapted where and when necessary.
Its 1948 Grand Prix, the first for 11 years, was supported by a race for motorbikes, won by Italy’s Aldo Brini on a 500cc Gilera. This experiment was not repeated.
By 1952, Formula 1 was in a chronic slump. Rather than follow the herd and host an event for Formula 2 cars, the Automobile Club de Monaco did so for sports cars instead.
Jaguar’s Stirling Moss was the race’s favourite and started from pole position, but he was hunted down and overtaken by the more nimble Gordini of local hero Robert Manzon. At which point they slid off on an oil slick and crashed at Ste Dévote, an easing of which had shaved 30 metres off the lap.
Moss was able to continue, only to be disqualified for receiving outside assistance – from a pair of kindly British holidaymakers – and the way to victory was left open for Italy’s Vittorio Marzotto, the eldest of four aristocratic racing brothers, as Ferrari scored a 1-2-3-4-5.
Moss had, however, already experienced Monaco success, having won the 500cc Formula 3 support race of 1950.
Revived in 1959 – and run to 1100cc Formula Junior regulations until 1963 – this event would become a vital shop window/stepping stone for drivers rising through the ranks.
Its extended F3 period, from 1964 to 1997 – plus 2005 – was bookended by wins for future multiple world champions Jackie Stewart and Lewis Hamilton; and included victories for other future Monaco GP winners: Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Ronnie Peterson, Patrick Depailler and Alain Prost.
The race’s Formula 3000 interlude, from 1998-2004, and its Formula Renault 3.5 period since 2006, have resulted in another signpost victory for a future Monaco GP winner: Mark Webber.
Welcoming Formula E is Monaco’s latest and most far-reaching addition to a club that is exclusive without being inured entirely to the pressures of the larger world beyond its narrow confines.