FORMULA ONE’s jewel in the crown is the Monaco Grand Prix and it has staged an event in every single year of the Formula One World Championship. I won’t be covering the whole history, just within the last 20 years but I have to start with one exception.
The closing laps of the 1982 event have gone down in living memory. Longtime race leader Alain Prost crashed his Renault on a slippery circuit with only a few laps remaining. This handed the lead to Riccardo Patrese, who promptly spun his Brabham at Loews and allowed Didier Pironi into the lead. The Frenchman only led for a few hundred metres until his Ferrari spluttered to a halt, out of petrol. Andrea de Cesaris briefly inherited the no.1 position before he did what he did best, crashed! Derek Daly became a challenger before coasting to a halt after terminal damage was caused to his Williams. James Hunt famously said in the BBC commentary box; “Well we’ve got this ridiculous situation where we are waiting for a winner to come past and we don’t seem to be getting one.” Finally, Patrese regained his composure to win his first ever Grand Prix.
Hunt, who never won Monaco gave us another classic moment in 1989 when Murray Walker told the viewers about moody Frenchman Rene Arnoux and the lack of pace he had in the closing days of his career with Ligier. Hunt’s live response on the BBC was; “All I can say to that is b#####it!”
In 1992, Nigel Mansell was aiming to become the first driver to win the first six races of the season since Alberto Ascari in the 1950s. It looked on course in Monaco until a late pitstop to replace a slow puncture. The Brit, another never to win in the Principality came out behind the master of Monaco, Ayrton Senna. What followed was one of the most doggest pursuits in the archives as Mansell tried everything to get past Senna’s slower McLaren Honda. The Brazilian’s remarkable defensive driving earnt him a fifth Monaco victory and in 1993, he made it six. Little did we know that he wouldn’t be back in 1994 to make it seven.
The 1994 event was always going to live in the shadow, especially as it was just two weeks after the painful and tragic weekend at Imola, which accounted for Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. In Thursday free practice, Karl Wendlinger lost control of his Sauber Mercedes and crashed on the approach to the chicane. Wendlinger suffered serious head injuries and fell into a deep coma. Although he made a full recovery, his F1 career was effectively over. A first lap collision between Damon Hill and Mika Hakkinen helped Michael Schumacher cruise to his first Monaco GP success, 40 seconds clear of Martin Brundle in a McLaren Peugeot.
Hill was another Brit to be out of luck in Monte Carlo and was denied a clear victory in a crazy 1996 race which saw just four of the 21 starters make the finish. Schumacher had moved to Ferrari and started on pole position, before making an uncharacteristic mistake and crashing out at the Portier on the first lap. It was the same place where Senna had famously gone off in 1988 and became so distressed, he went home for hours after the race. Hill built up a 30 second lead before a rare Williams Renault V10 engine failure exiting the tunnel on lap 40 forced him into a gut-wrenching retirement. Jean Alesi was the next leader but a wheel bearing problem forced him onto the growing list of retirements. After all that, a masterful decision on tyre choice saw Olivier Panis come through from 14th on the grid to record his first and only victory and the last for the Ligier Formula One team. For the record, only David Coulthard, Johnny Herbert and Heinz-Harald Frentzen also made the finish.
Schumacher showed his skill around Monaco in 1997 on another wet day. He charged into the lead from second on the grid and built up a colossal 22 second lead within five laps, winning in the end by nearly a minute. The Williams team made a bizarre decision to start Frentzen and Jacques Villeneuve on slick tyres and both would crash out. Rubens Barrichello held his nerve to finish an extraordinary second for the brand new Stewart team in just their fifth race, bringing Sir Jackie Stewart, a three-time Monaco winner himself to tears.
One Brit who had success in Monaco was David Coulthard. The Scot won this famous race twice. In 2000, he inherited victory after Schumacher’s Ferrari suffered a suspension failure, having led by 50 seconds at one point. In 2002 DC battled an engine problem and stiff challenges from the Williams and Ferrari teams to record a popular victory for McLaren. It was the only time the Ferrari F2002 was beaten in the 2002 dominant campaign.
Juan Pablo Montoya recorded a super win for Williams in 2003, their first success in Monaco in 20 years and a year later, it was Jarno Trulli’s turn to taste victory. Trulli’s only Grand Prix victory came on a weekend where the Renault team had the fastest car throughout. Schumacher lost his chance of winning the first six races in a season, following a controversial clash with a lapped Montoya in the tunnel behind the Safety Car.
No man has dominated Monaco since Schumacher’s first retirement, with Fernando Alonso coming the closest, recording back-to-back successes in 2006 & 2007 for Renault and McLaren respectively. The 2006 event’s main headline was Schumacher’s parking attempt at Rascasse in qualifying which was a deliberate attempt to stop Alonso, Mark Webber, Kimi Raikkonen and Giancarlo Fisichella beating his fastest time. The stewards sent him to the back of the grid and he was vilified in the entire paddock. Some say it was his antics in Monaco that played a part in him announcing his retirement later in the season.
The honours in the last four seasons have been split between Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel. To win Monaco, you need speed, skill, a bit of luck and total commitment as one mistake and it is an expensive accident against the magnetic attraction of the barriers. Considering the unpredictable start to 2012 so far, a sixth different winner is highly possible, especially on this circuit where form can fluctuate.
MY TOP TEN MONACO MEMORIES
1. The epic battle between Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell for the victory in 1992.
2. Olivier Panis achieving victory against the odds in the crazy 1996 event.
3. Michael Schumacher’s masterclass in the wet in 1997.
4. Red Bull’s amazing celebrations after Mark Webber led Sebastian Vettel home to a 1-2 in 2010.
5. That unforgettable finish in 1982; the race that no-one seemed to want to win!
6. Alexander Wurz taking on Michael Schumacher in a fantastic battle in 1998, the highlight of Wurz’s F1 career.
7. Jenson Button parking in the wrong place and having to rundown the start-finish straight to the crowd’s acclaim, following his dominant performance for Brawn GP in 2009.
8. James Hunt calling Rene Arnoux “b######t” in 1989 live on the BBC. Well you might as well be honest about someone at the end of the day!
9. David Coulthard achieving Red Bull’s first podium in 2006, then going onto the podium dressed in a Superman cape!
10. The first signs Ayrton Senna would become a superstar, in the shortened 1984 race for the underfunded Toleman team.