Street Fighting Men
Normally, a race at a circuit where overtaking is all but impossible is hardly a mouth-watering prospect. I wasn’t exactly eagerly awaiting the Spanish Grand Prix at
Why? In part it’s simply the novelty of seeing brutally powerful racing cars being threaded along the narrow roads that wind through the immensely built-up Principality. In 25 years of following the sport, it’s still not entirely worn off. It’s no longer exactly picturesque. Yes, the harbour looks a little more impressive on TV than the docks at the Valencia street circuit which F1 visited for the first time last year, but densely packed tower blocks, whose sole purpose appears to be to maximise the ratio of tax exiles to square feet hve long ago replaced most of the Belle Époque French architecture which provided the charming backdrop to the races which took place there in the 50s and 60s.
More important than that, though, is that it’s a circuit where the driver can make more of a difference than perhaps anywhere else on the calendar. As Mark Hughes put it in Autosport last week, it’s a place where the art of driving a racing car on the limit can still count for more than the science of aerodynamics. Nelson Piquet might have compared it to riding a bicycle in your living room, but still, threading an 800BHP racing car round
Partly because the races can be so processional, Saturday afternoon qualifying is never more crucial – the ability to wring a single lap on the absolute limit without going over it never counts for more.
It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that the race has been dominated by the acknowledged greats of their era. When I first started following the sport in the mid 1980s, Alain Prost was the generally acknowledged master of
Already though, a young Brazilian by the name of Ayrton Senna was serving notice of his talents, coming remarkably close to winning the rain-shorted 1984 race in a Toleman Hart. Not, in all truth, a car which normally troubled the podium. Senna would go on to make the place his own, winning 6 times between 1987 and 1993 – the only gap in that record being the 1988 race, which he had absolutely dominated. He lapped nearly two seconds quicker than his team mate Prost in qualifying, and talked of experiencing something approaching a transcendental experience that year – of no longer consciously driving the car. Then he went off into the wall 12 laps from the end as a result of a trivial lapse of concentration, while leading by nearly a minute.
Michael Schumacher, in turn, made the world stand up and pay attention when he outpaced Senna in the 1993 race before his Benetton expired around mid-distance, enabling Senna to beat Graham Hill’s all time record of 5 wins around the streets. Schumacher would go on to win the race 5 times himself and while, like Senna, he threw away wins through silly errors (crashing on the formation lap in the rain in 1998 for example…) the truth is that Schumacher was a devastating combination of the particular talents of Senna and Prost, it’s only a shame that Senna’s death in 1994 robbed us of further contests between the two men around the streets of Monaco. For many, it was Lewis Hamilton’s sheer pace at
In some ways more fascinating is the way in which certain drivers not generally considered to be from the very top drawer have shown themselves capable of incredible feats at there. Alex Caffi is not a name which would figure prominently in any history of the sport, and yet in sundry Dallaras and Footworks, and even the awful 1987 Osella, the Italian driver could be relied upon to perform well round the streets of the Principality. In 1987, he got the Osella as high as 15th on the grid and would go on to score points there both in the 1989 Dallara and the 1990 Footwork. A sign of a sadly overlooked, under-rated talent? On balance, probably not, although it’s always very hard to know for sure. If that were the case, he ought to have been quicker relative to his team mates elsewhere. More likely, his driving style just happened to gel with the tight, low-speed confines of the circuit – he ran very quickly at
The same was surely even truer of his compatriot Stefano Modena. The wealthy Italian had starred in F3000 in 1987, but never entirely succeeded in convincing the F1 world of his talents. In his first race, for Brabham in
And yet, the man always starred at
In recent years, perhaps the standout ‘
Again, though, I wonder if it comes down to the fact that the circuit rewards concentration and precision – something which Trulli’s one lap abilities indicate he has in spades when the occasion requires.
So, anachronism it may be, and certainly it never produces much in the way of racing - in the wheel-to-wheel sense, as opposed to Max Mosley's favoured "high speed chess", but as a test of a driver's art, there's nothing and nowhere quite like it.