The 2020 Monaco Grand Prix was the first Formula 1 race to be outright cancelled due to the coronavirus. Its 78thrunning deemed impossible at a different time of year and ditched along with the historic grand prix that was also due to take place. While that race would have been this very weekend, we’ll console ourselves by looking back at our favourite Grands Prix held in the tiny Mediterranean country over the last 91 years.
The five best F1 Monaco Grands Prix
This was, it would seem, the race that nobody wanted to win. Even eventual victor Riccardo Patrese had a damn good go at avoiding the top step of the podium. First Rene Arnoux led the race from pole, but then on lap 15 he sent his car into the barriers at the Swimming Pool. Team-mate Alain Prost took over the lead, and appeared to have the whole thing wrapped up as he still held position on the 74th of 76 laps. But then he pushed too hard and sent his Renault into the barriers at the chicane. Now Patrese led, on his way to potentially his first F1 victory in his Ford-powered Brabham. But on the penultimate lap Patrese hit some oil at the tight Loews hairpin, spun, and stalled. The lead now passed to Ferrari’s Didier Pironi, who promptly ran out of fuel in the tunnel on the last lap. Andrea De Cesaris then became the likely (or in fact most unlikely) winner, but he to ran short of gas before he could even pass Pironi’s stricken car. That left Derek Daly’s Williams as the de facto leader – queue Daly’s gearbox seizing before he could start the last lap. It was at this point that 1976 champion James Hunt, awaiting a winner in the BBC commentary box said: "Well, we've got this ridiculous situation where we're all sitting by the start-finish line waiting for a winner to come past, and we don't seem to be getting one!"
Finally, after an almost unending wait, there was a winner. And of all figures to cross the line first it was Patrese, who had managed to bump start his car by rolling down the hill from Loews and nursed it to the end. The race was so bonkers that Pironi and de Cesaris were still classified in second and third respectively despite not reaching the finish.
Moving from bonkers finishes to heroic performances, the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix ranks up with the 1959 RAC TT and 1955 Mille Miglia as one of Stirling Moss’s finest drives. Moss was, by now, in the stage of his career where he sought out drives in British cars first and foremost. So he lined up for the 1961 race in a Lotus 18, run by the independent Rob Walker Racing outfit. The Lotus was underpowered and apparently completely out-matched by the mighty, shark-nosed Ferrari 156s around it. Moss duly stuck the Lotus on pole. The Ferrari of Richie Ginther, powered by the firm’s brand-new 120-degree V12 while his team-mates raced with the old engine, shot into the lead from the front row and he was five seconds clear by the end of lap three. But Moss recovered, regained his speed, and set about whittling down the lead. It was 1.5 seconds by lap eight and by the tenth circuit he was right on Ginther’s tail. He made his move on lap 14, nipping past Ginther’s Ferrari and taking Jo Bonnier’s Porsche with him. Stirl’ proceeded to pull a nice six second lead over Bonnier, but behind him the trio of scarlet machines were ganging up as a pack, hustling each other on. Working together Ginther and team-mates Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips hunted down Bonnier, until the three were hustling him like the sharks their noses resembled. Eventually, around the 40th lap, they were through, and set about on Moss’s lead – which had stuck at 10 seconds for the preceding 20 laps. Such was the determination of Hill and Ginther that even von Trips was eventually dropped from the lead chase. By lap 58 Moss was having to push with everything the Lotus could give him to maintain the lead. This game of cat and mouse continued, the intensity ramping up lap after lap until Ginther decided to basically muscle his team-mate aside so he could try and hunt down Moss once and for all with the power of that new engine. But try as he might, he had nothing for the superb show Moss was putting on. Moss won by 3.5 seconds, having hustled the Lotus – at least 25PS down on power – as hard as he could for every one of the 100 laps. So furious was that leading pace that Moss, Ginther and Hill all lapped von Trips.
Another race of absolute mayhem at Monaco. Another race where drivers seemingly didn’t fancy the top step. Another race where an unlikely driver claimed his first victory. This time though, it would be his only victory. The race that was meant to be Michael Schumacher’s race, it was wet at the start and he had qualified his lacklustre Ferrari 310 on pole with a brilliant lap. But then he crashed. On lap one. So it was meant to be Damon Hill’s race, the time to win the race his father had become synonymous with. Indeed he was 40 seconds clear by the start of the 40th tour of the scheduled 78, but then his engine went bang in spectacular fashion on the way out of the tunnel and it was suddenly time for Jean Alesi to double his Formula 1 victory tally. But then Alesi’s suspension failed. Surely it must now be the chance for Jacques Villeneuve to win the race and close on his team-mate’s championship lead? Villeneuve wasn’t leading and was having a quiet race, but by chance it was the Ligier JS43 of Frenchman Olivier Panis who led and Villeneuve would hunt him down at some point. But then Luca Badoer, six laps down in his Forti, hit Villeneuve at Mirabeau and they were both out. Panis would lead until the two-hour time limit elapsed, with future double Monaco winner David Coulthard just a few seconds back. It was his first victory, and would remain his only F1 win. Behind them just one other car finished. Making the podium also representative of the entire finishing field. Eddie Irvine, Mika Salo and Mika Häkkinen took each other out in a crash just a few laps short of the finish and fourth-placed Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s decided to pull into the pits as he was running a lap down anyway. Incredible.
Now, I argued in a recent article that racing at Monaco today is quite barmy, and I stand by that, but what that barmy nature does give us, is races of extraordinary tension. The last two battles on this list represent that kind of fight. In the latest Monaco Grand Prix in 2019 we were presented with what should have been a straightforward third victory on the Cote D’Azur for Lewis Hamilton. He had qualified on pole, and after 11 laps was leading when the right-rear tyre of Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari detonated and covered the circuit with debris. Out came the safety car, in came the top four drivers – Hamilton, Bottas, Verstappen and Vettel – and with the option of a hard tyre that could go to the end, all made what was to be their only stop of the race. But for some inexplicable reason Hamilton’s Mercedes team opted to put him on to the medium tyres instead. Hamilton duly registered his concern at the lack of durability compared to both the length of the race and his rival’s harder rubber.
Behind him there had been a coming together between Verstappen, now in second, and Bottas, who was also put onto the mediums at first, which resulted in a five-second penalty for Verstappen, and an extra pitstop, and a switch to the harder tyres for Bottas. That left Hamilton alone out front on tyres that may well not last to the end of the race, and Verstappen behind keen to pass him as soon as possible not only in order to win, but because he now knew he needed to build a five second lead to win the race. Queue a nail-biting final 63 laps. Verstappen constantly able to close on Hamilton, his tyres gradually shedding grip lap after lap, through the twistier bits, but Hamilton crucially able to deploy all of his hybrid boost, and the always strong Mercedes engine, down the straights. At one point Verstappen got so close into the chicane that he actually clipped Hamilton’s rear tyre on lap 76. Amazingly the rubber on the Mercedes W10, now more jelly than tyre, held up and Hamilton crossed the line for an extraordinary victory of grit and determination.
For a man so famously fearless and willing to push his car as hard as he could at all times, it’s amazing that Nigel Mansell never won a Monaco Grand Prix. He came close on multiple occasions, leading in 1984 for example before pitching his Lotus into the barriers. But it was 1992 when he came closer than ever to taking a victory in the principality. Mansell stuck his mighty Williams FW14B on pole by almost a second from team-mate Patrese in 1992. Ayrton Senna was a further half second back in third, and jumped Patrese at the start. But at the front Mansell was gone, the British hero leading 70 laps of the day’s 78 completely unhindered. But then he felt something odd and was forced to pit with a loose wheel nut. Four new tyres on his Williams, Mansell screamed back out of the pits, full of speed and fury, but now in second place behind Senna’s McLaren. Such was the speed of the closing Mansell that the Williams smashed the Monaco lap record (lapping two seconds a lap faster than Senna’s best) and caught up to the Brazillian’s gearbox with three laps to go. The dual that followed has gone down in legend.
The blue and yellow Williams looming behind Senna’s suddenly super-wide McLaren. But for every jink Mansell made Senna had a counter, for every attempt Senna had a parry, and for all Mansell’s desperation there was simply no way past. Senna would claim his record-equalling fifth Monaco victory, and Mansell would leave again empty handed. Mansell would win the championship in 1992, but he left for IndyCar at the end of the season, and despite some fleeting returns to the F1 cockpit, would never race an F1 car at Monaco again.
If you love Monaco you might find Andrew Frankel’s thoughts on the best Monaco Grands Prix interesting. You might be interested to know that it wasn’t F1 cars but sportscars that ran in the Monaco Grand Prix in 1952…
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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