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Race Day : May 11th 1997

The 55th Monaco Grand Prix

Bridgestone tread the unknown as drivers play ball in Sponsor’s Paradise.

"For the first time a fast race has just taken place on a track right in the heart of town. It is the Principality of Monaco with its Grand Prix which has taken this initiative. The race circuit, laid out entirely within the Principality, between Monte-Carlo, the Condamine (Port) and Monaco proper, works out to be just over 3 kilometres. It goes without saying that the track is made up entirely of bends, steep uphlll climbs and fast downhill runs. Any respectable traffic system would have covered the track with ‘Danger’ sign posts left, right and centre. It is on a 100 laps of this circuit that the first Grand Prix ran..."

So said La Vie Automobile on 25 April 1929. And what do you know, it was won by a Williams. The car was blue, but it was a Bugatti 35B and it was driven by an Englishman by the name of William Grover-Williams over the 3.18Km circuit at an average speed of 80.10 kilometres per hour, setting the benchmark for one of the most exciting races in the Formula 1 calendar.

Monte Carlo, the smallest European state after The Vatican has become the playground for the rich and famous and specifically the Principality of Monaco is the hub, where money sparkles like a golden fountain and drops from millionaires’ manicured fingers at the Casino, valueless, like empty peanut shells. It is the summer playground for the fantastically rich. The Grand Prix circus is totally in its element amongst the celebrity tax-exiles and rent-a-Royals, who overcrowd the woefully inadequate pit lanes, basking in the reflected machismo that only Formula 1 can bring.

Corporate sponsorship is at it’s craziest height and is a logistical problem for all the teams’ Public Relations personnel. To hire a hotel room or an apartement here with a view of the race track - and there are many - will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and everyone wants a bit of the action, wants a bit of the glamour to rub off into their corporate grey existence. Businessmen who don’t know the difference between Airforce and downforce, who think ride height is something that truckers are privileged to, and who think that McLaren is a baby carriage. Being there is the thing. Drinking the good life champagne if only for an expenses paid day and being party, just for a microsecond, to the greatest spectacle of overindulgence masquerading in the name of sport, is their only concern. Blink and you’ve missed it and many do but, ‘check out that babe over there with that Verscasse bit of flimsy falling off her shoulder, I do think she’s giving me the eye! Now that’s what I call motor racing!’

Of course the teams have to come, they have to hurtle their fabulously expensive projectiles around a street circuit, inches away from concrete walls and metal barriers, at over 147 Kms per hour. They have to suffer the madness of Ste-Devote the first corner chicane that has seen more shattered metal and carbon than any other corner on the Grand Prix calendar, they have to endure the mad scrabble for places for service vehicles and corporate hospitality tents. In short, it’s a bun fight-no one likes doing it, but they all do.

With minimal space available along the harbour, only the top five teams usually have the chance to locate their trucks between the water and the circuit. Teams in the ‘second division’ take up the first two levels of the multi-storey car park a good fifteen minutes walk away. Battle for space is even fiercer this year, because of the increase in the number of trucks required to carry extra spares. The pits are located on the other side of the harbour, which means mechanics need to transport everything across by truck and unload on the other side. Once there, they have no garage from which to work. Instead, there is a small ‘lock-up’ area where cars are kept and work on the car has to be done in the pit lane.

But, hey, the drivers, to a man, love it. They love the satisfaction of completing a race here, driving on an eleven tenths adrenaline rush. The proximity of the gates of heaven (or hell) to their flailing tyres is but the thickness of a chequered flag or a one thousand dollar bill and the exhibition of driver skills is dependent on the degree of concentration they can achieve whilst they try to catch their breath on the short sharp straights between tight hairpins and fast left/rights. The bigger your balls the faster you go. Jacques Villeneuve having watched his grow, since his debut debacle last year at Monaco, will tell you ‘It’s fun.’ What he means is, that given a well balanced, neutral car, he can fly as close to the ragged edge as possible, without getting his knuckles grazed on the concrete and, well, if he does, he does. It’s OK.

Even at speeds of 80 Km an hour it has always been the same. On a circuit notorious for lack of overtaking opportunities, Achille Varzi and the great Nuvolari in 1932, traded the lead over twenty times, sliding their great big supercharged monsters through the likes of Loews (station) Hairpin, their skinny balloon tyres squealing and leaning crazily from the cockpit of their cars pushing opposite lock to prevent the rear of the car, carrying all the fuel, from crashing into a wall. The following year Nuvolari driving his Alfa for a young team boss by the name of Enzo Ferrari, suffered an engine explosion and was disqualified trying to push the smoking wreck across the line. The race gained in reputation when 54 year old Louis Fagioli crashed and died in the tunnel section in 1952. Lorenzo Bandini died crashing into the chicane exiting the tunnel in 1967 and even Ascari had the ignominy of driving into the harbour and having to swim to safety. There were also the Glory Years, Ayrton Senna winning the race 6 times at the end of the ‘80’s and the fantastic battle between Nigel Mansell and Senna in 1991 when, Mansell leading, had a puncture in the closing laps. His race back to second place behind the McLaren and his audacious but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to pass the Brazilian, were nothing short of awesome.

The traditional advertising landscape for the tobacco barons has its roots in the Monaco Grand prix. It was conceived in 1929 by cigarette manufacturer Antony Noghes now President of the Grand Prix, but then, President of the newly formed Automobile Club de Monaco. In order to expand the club and have it recognised internationally, an automobile sports event had to be organised on its own territory. Noghes proposed the creation of an Automobile Grand Prix which would take place in the streets of the Principality. Being a close and personal friend of Prince Louise ll, Noghes brought his influences to bear and realised his personal ambition, the first race taking place on April 14th 1929 under the Prince’s royal patronage.

The circuit hasn’t changed a great deal since the ‘ideal topography of a natural race track’ was drawn up in the 20’s. During the 50’s modifications to the Ste Devote bend led to the shortening of the circuit to 3.14 km and it was not until 1973 that the layout underwent further changes with another 135 metres of track being added due to the construction of the new Swimming pool. This section was also the centre of controversy earlier this year when much to the drivers’ dismay the corners were altered further in the interests of safety. From the original 100 laps, the race now, is run over 78 laps on the 3.328Km circuit.

In the wet last year, Monaco was no less controversial with only four cars making it past the flag and in excess by a few seconds of the ‘two hour’ rule. Michael Schumacher took a first lap dive into the Armco at Portier before the tunnel entrance continuing Ferrari’s early season embarrassment. Damon Hill on a comfortable lead had an unusual Renault engine failure, handing the lead to Jean Alesi, who promptly went out with suspension failure. A rather surprised Olivier Panis in the admired but underachieving Ligier Mugen-Honda took the win to the delight of the predominantly French crowd.

Panis stands an even better chance of winning this year if the rains come. Inspiration will of course play it’s part but not nearly as much as the Bridgestone tyres whom everyone is expecting to outshine the Goodyears on a slippery circuit. Bridgestone are taking four different types of wet weather tyre to compliment the two dry compounds. 1220 in all seems a bit overkill but with so little knowledge of the circuit they cannot afford to make any mistakes. Hirohide Hamashima Technical Director for Bridgestone Motorsport commented, "We have no experience of Monaco, so we are making a big effort to use simulations to gain usable data. Now we must hope that the tyre specification we have chosen will work well there. At Monaco our main problem is the unknown..."

As regards race strategy Trevor Foster Race Director with Jordan Peugeot said, "Of all the Grands Prix this is the one where qualifying is most important. There are three places where overtaking is (just) possible-at the Loews Hairpin, at Mirabeau and Ste Devote- but it is extremely difficult. Race strategy is more important than ever as the timing and number of pit stops can have a huge impact on where the driver finishes. We look at the different possible permutations of fuel loads and pit stops and how they might affect the teams outcome in the race. It is then up to us to decide what effect ‘external factors’- such as driving style or the weather may have. Monaco is a slow speed circuit with maximum downforce and driver skill is at a premium."

Damon Hill went out of last year's Monaco GP with engine failure

Which is where we came in. Heinz Harald Frentzen found his virility enlarged at Imola and Villeneuve is desperate, especially after last year, to prevent emasculation setting in. In fact no one except Panis and David Coulthard who finished second in the McLaren can do any worse. Hill’s blown engine might just have been a deja vu. However he knows the circuit well and if the Yamaha holds out for 12 quick laps on Saturday qualifying, the circuit could give him a grid position within the top ten. It’s probably asking too much for the poor boy to grab a point let alone finish the race, but if the car does let go again, I feel that he will become more than just the occasional dinner guest at McLaren Boss, Ron Dennis’ table. Yes. rumours are flying as to who will take him next year. With Adrian Newey, Hill’s close friend and ex-Williams technical guru on board this August, and David Brown his old mechanic filched to work for Coulthard last season, it could be home from old home for Hill. Both current drivers’ contracts expire this year and despite Mika Hakkinen’s turn of speed and regular points finishes, he has yet to deliver paydirt. This could prove to be Hill’s salvation. However he isn’t German and it’s widely understood that Mercedes, McLaren’s engine supplier, would like a fellow countryman to power them to victory. Again, all the Germans seem to be tied to contracts right now, so how many more can the F1 fraternity take? It all remains to be seen.

But not by many of the suits that sip their fizz beneath the ornate splendour of guilded chandeliers, staring out big hotel windows at the colourful blur of buzzing machinery. The Rothmans sponsors may have a bigger room than the Mild Seven chaps and the Danka sponsors might be on the top deck of a bus drinking brown ale but probably their collective concern rates less than zero regarding the machinations of Formula 1. "Pass the canapés, oh, yes I’ll have another glass, err... d’you think I can get this programme signed by Jacques? It’s not for me you understand..." Of course it’s not, its for the boys back at the office, a trophy of jolly’s having been had and if someone else buys the drinks, tall tales to be told down the pub.

Whilst corporate sponsorship pays for our enjoyment of sport in general, motor races like the Monaco Grand Prix and the historic race of Ferraris held this weekend in the Principality, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the famous racing marque, bring home the fact that it is a stratospherically isolated sport and the circle in which it operates is pitifully small. The real enthusiasts pay for the privilege of sitting 500 metres away in the drizzle for a fleeting glimpse, once every minute or so, of a dream. Not for them the fine cuisine and the expensive hotels. It’s a day trip to the principality or a tent 20 miles away, but it’s always them that make the races and it’s what makes the drivers race. All the money in Monaco wouldn’t do that. At the end of the day it’s who’s on Pole, ‘yes, it’s me in front of all these people! They’re cheering ME! Therefore I must have the biggest balls. Now, get out of my way!’

Chris Richardson


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