I find it very hard each year, as I set the Sky box to record the Monaco Grand Prix not to disappear into the mists of time. It is now the only GP on the calendar whose character has not substantially changed since it was first used for Grand Prix racing. Indeed if you compare the circuit used by Grover Williams to win the 1929 Monaco Grand Prix and that Messrs Hamilton and co will use this weekend, you’ll discover that from the startline through Ste Devote, all the way up the hill through Casino Square down to the seaside and through the tunnel and past Tabac the track has changed very little.
The tunnel is longer, the chicane at its exit slower, but that’s about it. Only the swimming pool complex and the extension down to Rascasse can count as major alterations, and they merely build on the circuit’s strengths, unlike the chicanes that necessarily, but still sadly, turned Monza into a very different kind of track.
And I guess because this year marks the 40th anniversary of his passing, and because there is no driver more indelibly associated with Monaco, my thoughts are with Graham Hill. I’ve always been fascinated by the man and as the years go by I become increasingly suspicious of the broadly held view that his wasn’t that great a talent and that he dragged himself to the top of his sport by application alone. It wasn’t any easier to succeed in F1 then than it is now and the idea that a plucky journeyman could somehow score two world titles six years apart, five Monaco wins and become to date the only person to win Indy, Le Mans and the F1 championship simply doesn’t ring true to me. Besides, I’ve seen pictures of him in a Ferrari 250GTO holding as elegant a four wheel drift through Madgwick as I have ever seen, and you don’t do that without a fairly sizeable gift.
So the Monaco to which I wish to return now is the 1969 race, his final win in the Principality. It was remarkable he was there at all as just a fortnight earlier at Montjuich Park in Spain the high mounted rear wing of his Lotus 49B had failed at speed, pitching him into an accident that left wreckage strewn over a 200 yard stretch of track. Ten laps later his team-mate Jochen Rindt suffered precisely the same fate in the same place but with the added hazard of the wreckage of Graham Hill’s car parked at the side of the track, which he duly hit, launched into the air and landed upside down. The resulting crushed cheekbone and hairline skull fracture was regarded as a lucky escape.
From somewhere – actually the cars that had competed over the winter in the Tasman Series down under – two more 49Bs were found for Monaco and, with Rindt still on the sick list, Richard Attwood who’d come second and set fastest lap here the previous year, was drafted onto the strength as Graham Hill’s team-mate. So here is the first point of significance of the 1969 race: it was the event where wings on stilts were banned for good. Oddly enough having practised with them on Thursday before they were outlawed, the cars actually ended up going quicker without them. This was a time of immense change in F1, not just aerodynamically but also in tyre technology and lap times were tumbling, Jackie Stewart claiming pole in 1min 24.6sec, a barely believable 3.6sec faster than Hill’s pole time from the previous year. And if you think that was just JYS doing his thing, consider that three quarters of the cars on the grid beat the previous year’s pole time.
‘Even at the time it must have seemed a momentous day, but how much more so with the benefit of hindsight?’
Where was Hill? Back in fourth place, the quickest Lotus but that was only to be expected as Jo Siffert’s was a private entry and Attwood had never actually driven a 49B before. Graham Hill was of course the reigning world champion but so too was he in his twelfth season in Formula 1, had celebrated his 40th birthday earlier that year and, of all the drivers on the grid, only Jack Brabham was older. The chances of adding to his unrivalled tally of four Monaco GP victories seemed implausible to say the least.
Soon after the start it seemed nearer impossible. Jackie streaked off into an unassailable lead, MotorSport magazine saying his Matra looked more like a dragster than a racing car, pursued in vain by Chris Amon’s Ferrari with Hill third, a position kept secure by the gargantuan tussle going on behind him between young guns Jacky Ickx and Piers Courage. Within a very short period of time Stewart was so far ahead he was signalled to cut right back on his engine revs and could be seen picking his way around the track, in full cruise and collect mode. But back then Monaco with its thousand gearchanges, transmission-busting bumps and merciless barriers was often a war of attrition, and so it proved. John Surtees’s gearbox blew causing him to collide with Brabham, Pedro Rodriguez’s engine packed up, Jackie Oliver hit the wall at Ste Devote, Amon lost his differential, while Silvio Moser, Jean-Pierre Beltoise and, yes, Jackie Stewart, all succumbed to universal joint failure, and all of this by lap 22 out of 80. Which meant that for almost three quarters of the race just eight cars remained, reducing to seven when the rear suspension of Ickx’s Brabham quit at half distance. And Graham Hill was leading. From lap 23 onwards and with all threats removed, Hill just did what he always did best, lapping Monaco calmly, consistently, preserving the machinery and making no mistakes. An unprecedented fifth Monaco win was his.
Even at the time it must have seemed a momentous day, but how much more so with the benefit of hindsight? No one could have known that Sunday would be the last of Graham Hill’s 14 Grand Prix victories nor, despite the fact that he would race on for another six seasons, that he would never even stand on an F1 podium again. And who could have predicted the sad irony that it would also be at Monaco in 1975 that his F1 career would end with the humiliating failure of not even being able to qualify for the race?
Yet there is one more reason to remember Monaco ’69, beyond the banning of the wings and the final F1 triumph of Graham Hill, and that is because of the car that came last that day, a car I’ve not mentioned until now. It was a Cooper-Maserati entered by a team called Antique Automobiles and driven by Vic Elford. The car was so slow even a talent such as Vic’s could not qualify it within eight seconds of pole. In the end he did well to keep out of everyone’s way and by the finish it had been lapped six times. So what possible interest lies here? Only this: it was the last time a Cooper would contest a World Championship Grand Prix, and the last for any car powered by a Maserati engine too. On paper Monaco in 1969 looked like just another race, in reality it was one of the more significant events in the history of our sport.