The Monaco Grand Prix has caught a lot of flack in recent years because it’s just not as well suited to modern-day Formula One cars as it was to the series’ vintage counterparts. Longer, wider cars make passing difficult on a short and narrow track, so we’ve seen more than a few processional races. But the track remains an icon, and for good reason.
If you’ve followed my writing for any amount of time, you’ll know that I’ve never been willing to give anything a pass just because it’s tradition—but there’s also so much history imbued in this Grand Prix that there’s still a part of me that gets excited every time this race rolls around. And after sitting down with the Monaco Grand Prix edition of RACEWKND’s fantastic F1 magazine, I’ve been inspired to look back at the history of the circuit, including some of the memorable moments that still holds this track a cut above the rest.
Back before the days of Formula One, the Monaco Grand Prix was one of several Grands Prix events that stood as the pinnacle of motoring events. And in 1929, Grover-Williams won the inaugural Monaco GP behind the wheel of a Bugatti Type 35—which he did by beating Rudi Caracciola, the German driver that was highly favored to win the event behind the wheel of the seemingly invincible Mercedes.
Back then, the Grand Prix was an invitation-only event, so you had to be asked to compete. That, in and of itself, was a high honor, but as you can imagine, taking a victory absolutely usurped a simple invitation.
Sadly, Grover-Williams was arrested by the Nazi regime during World War II due to his role in the Royal Army’s Special Operations Executive to foster the French Resistance. He was deported to the Sachensenhausen concentration camp, where he died.
As the world began to recover from World War II, formal racing began to get underway, which coalesced into Formula One racing as we know it today. This meant that there were various races that were part of an overall championship, with each race being worth a certain number of points. And in 1950, the first post-war year of the Monaco Grand Prix, Juan-Manuel Fangio won his first-ever Grand Prix.
While Monaco was a difficult circuit at the time, Fangio had something of a simple win. He managed to avoid a massive pileup and sped to victory without a challenge. That same year, he also won the Belgian and French Grands Prix. And he may very well have won the Championship, too, had he not suffered an accident at Monza.
That being said, Fangio’s victory at Monaco was a sign of things to come. Still regarded as one of the best drivers in Formula One history, Fangio went on to win the 1951 World Championship, followed by four others from 1954-1957.
The Monaco Grand Prix has also been a track known for its danger—specifically by the fact that its harborside location saw drivers careening into the water on May 22, 1955. Late in the race, he grew distracted by one of two sources: the crowd’s reaction to Stirling Moss’ retirement or the lapped car chasing his tail. He ran up on the chicane too quickly and launched through the sand bags and hay bales that were being used as some primitive safety equipment. Ascari tumbled into the harbor. Thankfully, he managed to escape with nothing but a broken nose.
It took 11 years for it to happen again, but Paul Hawkins showed that it was totally possible to once again launch into the harbor when he did so on lap 79 of 100 in the 1965 event. Yet again, hay bales and sand bags lined the track as a form of safety precautions, but it wasn’t enough to stop Hawkins’ spinning car from tumbling over the quay. His Lotus sank, but Hawkins managed to swim free.
Both events inspired the harbor crash scene in Grand Prix, one of racing’s most iconic films.
The Triple Crown of motorsport may not be an official award, but it’s something that every driver covets. To earn it, you have to win the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix (or, depending on how you interpret it, the F1 World Championship). And Graham Hill is the only driver who has ever taken that achievement.
In fact, it was his Monaco wins that truly transformed Hill into a celebrated icon, both of his era and in history. For years he was the winningest driver on the streets of Monte Carlo, taking five victories in 1963, 1964, 1965, 1968, and 1969. Not bad for a racer who struggled to earn his driver’s license until he was 24 years old.
It would certainly have been an impressive enough accomplishment in and of itself, but Hill topped it off with an Indy 500 win in 1966, a 24 Hours of Le Mans win in 1972, and two F1 World Championships in 1962 and 1968.
When he failed to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix in 1975, Hill took it as his sign to retire to focus on running his Embassy Hill team. But no matter what, he still retains the nickname “Mr. Monaco.”
Hill’s record looked to be a difficult one to beat, but there was one driver strong enough to beat the record: Ayrton Senna. His six wins at the track are still enough to cement him in history as the only driver to have achieved such an impressive feat, but his run at the 1984 Monaco GP remains one of the most celebrated drives in all of Formula One history.
Having qualified 13th on the grid, Senna’s experience as a wet-weather driver came in handy when race day dawned damp. By lap 19, Senna had passed Niki Lauda for second place, and he was steadily closing on race leader Alain Prost. But his chance at a win was ended when the lap was red flagged on lap 31, the rain having been deemed too dangerous.
When the race was stopped, Senna was approaching Prost at a rate of four seconds per lap.
And that race, for as impressive as it was, wasn’t even a win. Senna proved that his success at the street circuit wasn’t just a wet-weather fluke when he won in 1987, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993.
While I will admit that this last event is a personal favorite of mine, it’s a moment that many people look back on fondly, especially considering what happened later. At the 2014 Monaco Grand Prix, Jules Bianchi finished in ninth position behind the wheel of a Marussia, which was one of the backmarker teams on the grid that year. That ninth place earned Bianchi and Marussia two whole entire World Championship points—the first for both driver and team in F1.
Unfortunately, those were destined to be the only points Bianchi and Marussia ever scored. Later that year, Bianchi was involved in a car accident that would ultimately prove to be fatal during a rain-soaked Japanese Grand Prix. It was a hearbreaking moment for a driver who had turned many heads due to his success at Monaco and his prospective Ferrari seat sometime in the near future.
Each time F1 returns to Monaco, it’s hard not to be reminded that, no matter what we feel about the race, anything is possible on the streets of Monte Carlo.