Friday, August 12, 2011

Monaco magic endures through the ages

Vitaly Petrov is making an increasingly impressive entry into Formula 1 with Renault this year but Russia's first grand prix driver sounded startlingly out of step with his surroundings this weekend.

"Driving at Monaco means nothing to me", said F1's top rookie after 2010's opening races.

What about the history and the tradition of one of the most famous races in the world?

"I don't feel anything about the history," he said.

I have to admit his answers left me lost for words. I have never come across anybody - driver, engineer, mechanic, journalist or fan - who was so dismissive and so detached about racing on the most renowned street circuit on the globe.

The Monaco Grand Prix was the first race which grabbed my attention and switched me on to F1. It was the one track, above all others, that I wanted to visit.

I remember being shocked by the prices but overwhelmed by the setting, the layout and the atmosphere, which never fail to inspire a return ticket.

Vitaly Petrov driving at Monaco during the first practice sessionVitaly Petrov is focused on racing and has no time for the many distractions Monaco has to offer

Squeezed in between the jagged hills which rise so sharply and the harbour full of multi-million pound yachts on a shimmering Mediterranean sea, there appears barely enough space to park a car, never mind race 24 of them.

Yet part of the beauty of Monaco is how close to the action spectators can find themselves.

At some parts of the track, such as the sea-front chicane at the exit of the tunnel, you actually could reach out and touch the cars as they navigate the kerbs before blasting away towards Tabac corner and the spectacular Swimming Pool complex.

Rubens Barrichello has been both a racer and a resident here over the last two decades and he smiles when he recalls his first impressions of this most unlikely sporting location.

"I arrived in Monaco and was puzzled. I had to ask: 'Where's the track? I can't see it," the Brazilian said.

"I couldn't believe it when I was told I was standing on it. It looked so narrow. I thought: 'How could you ever go flat out round here?'"

"I took the whole of my first practice session to build up the confidence and the speed to do it."

Few would argue with the words of Barrichello's fellow Brazilian, Nelson Piquet, who memorably likened racing in Monaco "to riding a bicycle around your living room".

The tightest and shortest circuit on the calendar, it's the ultimate driving test around a layout which has hardly altered from the first race in 1929 - a world away from architect Hermann Tilke's new designs like Bahrain, Shanghai or that deluded Monaco wannabe, Valencia.

Consider the roll of past winners and you understand why Monaco is regarded as the premier driver's circuit.

Ayrton Senna's won six times, Michael Schumacher and Graham Hill five times, Alain Prost four times, with those knights of the road, Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart, both three-time winners and Juan Manuel Fangio twice.

Without their rarefied mix of concentration, confidence, consistency, courage and crucially talent, charging between the barriers at speeds of up to 170 mph can become an exercise in damage limitation.

The slightest deviation caused by one of the many bumps or markings on what are public roads for the rest of the year can wreck a car in an instant. And in a wet race, when a driver's skill is even more critical, the white lines are like marble.

"To be so close to the wall at such a speed, to have the flow of the track is extra special", said Schumacher this week.

"When you have big run-off areas, it allows this extra per cent in safety. Here, if you want to nail it, there is no margin for any little error whatsoever."

Drivers frequently say it becomes almost mesmerising to complete a lap in less than 80 seconds over a race distance of 78 laps, blinkered and hemmed in by steel barriers throughout.

Nobody who was here in 1988 will ever forget Ayrton Senna's extraordinary qualifying lap, almost one and a half seconds quicker than his McLaren team-mate, Prost.

"Suddenly it frightened me because I realised I was beyond my conscious understanding," Senna explained afterwards.

His crash into the barriers the next day when comfortably leading only added to the mystique of Monaco. The greatest battle for drivers in sight of the chequered flag can be with themselves, maintaining the pace and precision to complete a successful afternoon.

Senna's spellbinding duel with Nigel Mansell in 1992 (see highlights video below) also highlighted the elevated role of the driver and the importance of track position here.

Mansell's Williams was by some margin the fastest car but Senna's McLaren held him resolutely at bay over the final laps after the Englishman had to make an enforced pit stop. The Briton's last chance to win in Monaco had gone.

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Jenson Button will tell you that nothing compares to qualifying here.

"It's a crazy circuit to drive but when you really hook up a good lap, it means more to you than anything else in Formula 1," he said.

With overtaking so limited, grid position is all, hence the drivers' concerns over back-markers in the first part of Saturday's session. Too far off the front row means too little chance of victory.

Races here can be processional but imagine yourself in the cockpit, and you can't fail to marvel at the driving skill on show.

Show. There's a word that's absolutely key to a Monaco weekend. Why else do Hollywood stars from the Cannes film festival, billionaire captains of industry, international footballers and top-selling musicians find themselves drawn to this principality?

Monaco is a place to be seen and a place to do deals as much as place to go racing.

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone has admitted: "They give us more than we give them."

Other longstanding venues such as Silverstone and Spa have been threatened with losing their places at F1's top table.

But Monaco continues to revel as the sport's jewel in the crown and shows no sign of losing of its sparkle.

What finer place to celebrate this day, the 13 May, the 60th anniversary of the F1 world championship?


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