What makes the Monaco Grand Prix so special?

In a sport that is full of exotic locations, this is why the tiny principality is still the jewell in F1′s crown.

Damien Reid May 26, 2016

Sebastian Vettel finishes a bite of lunch at the table over my shoulder and departs, making sure to thank each chef in the kitchen on his way out. Actor Michael Douglas sips a drink at the bar looking at the racing action on screen while Cameron Diaz flirts with photographers just a few metres away.

It’s easy to see why the Monaco Grand Prix will never be dropped from the Formula One calendar despite the track being horribly outdated for racing today’s cars. It is, in short, the place to be. It is where every film star, rock god and corporate heavyweight plan to spend a weekend in May.

Barely an eye was raised in 2004 when a Formula One car crashed and a AED 1.8 million diamond embedded in its nose by a sponsor flew off and was never found. It’s just one of thousands of stories over 85 years that makes the Monaco Grand Prix so special.

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Monaco is the heartbeat of Formula One, the pulse that keeps this multi-billion dollar circus bouncing around the globe 20 times a year as potential sponsors are enticed to buy into this uber-exclusive world over champagne and caviar and where existing sponsors are lured back into “The Club” via lavish parties held on superyachts, mixing with films stars and royalty.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, a race happens that’s of almost inconsequential significance.

On this weekend virtually the entire Principality becomes one giant VVIP area where, if you have the right pass, you can mix freely with the world’s biggest names in sport, entertainment, business and politics.

The marina in Hercule Harbour – to give it its proper name – overflows with a priceless collection of yachts, topped each year by Kingfisher and Force India team owner, Vijay Mallya’s obscenely, over-indulgent 95-metre “Indian Empress”.

His Thursday night parties on board have become the stuff of legend. It is the largest yacht in the 550 capacity harbour, although technically the marina can take super yachts up to 135 metres, but it’s booked solid year-on-year and if you can’t cut the mustard with an impressively sized floating palace, then you’re consigned to using the overflow marina around the corner in Fonteville and ferrying in for the race.

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In Monaco, yachts and Formula One go hand-in-hand. Not only do they provide the perfect backdrop to the race, but with limited land available, they are de-rigour mobile hospitality units and offices for teams and sponsors and is where most of the action happens over the weekend.

The track itself is a chameleon as it is forced to transform from a Formula One racecourse to public streets, to outdoor nightclub and back again every day.

The Principality is so small that the circuit has to be opened as soon as racing stops each day to let people get home and for goods to be delivered. Then, as the sun goes down, it closes again to allow the myriad of bars, nightclubs and yacht parties to spill out onto the track.

Walking a late night lap is a must. From the Ferrari and Bugatti-laden carpark at the top of Massenet bend which welcomes the old money of Monte Carlo into its fabulous casino, right down to the tiny, well hidden McDonalds at Portier corner next to the famous tunnel that is a 3am haven for backpackers chasing a pit stop and refuel on their way home, the track becomes 3.34kms of humanity representing every walk of life.

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Exit the tunnel and walk down to the tricky right hander by the marina known as Tabac and from there past the famous swimming pool complex towards the final corner at La Rascasse, it is one giant street party as neighbouring bars link together on the right with superyachts doing the same on the left.

Tables are dragged into the middle of the track for dancers to tempt patrons from one bar to another and the whole strip heaves to a techno beat under a blanket of laserlights from land and sea that only fade with the rising sun.

With daybreak comes the street sweepers who perform their morning miracle of transforming the tiny streets from what looks like New Year’s Day back into the setting for the most prestigious motor race of the year.

Heavy heads slowly emerge from the mega yachts to take their prime positions in jacuzzis and on sun lounges waiting for the track action to start, but not before a bit more music.

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“If you said today lets have a race around here and you’ve never been to Monaco before, they’d say it was crazy, no way. It’s too tight for Formula One, it’s not safe and yet we come here year-on-year because it has this fabulous ambiance about it,” Adrian Newey, chief technical officer at Red Bull, told EDGAR.

It’s a conundrum of the highest order because if you ask any driver on the grid, to a man they would say that it’s their least favourite track to drive on because it offers virtually no overtaking opportunities and is the slowest on the calendar. Yet those same drivers would give almost anything – aside from the actual world championship trophy itself – to stand atop the tiny streetside podium flanked by the Royal Family and hold the Monaco winner’s trophy high.

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It is the race they want to win the most. For team owners it is the race where lucrative sponsorship deals are sealed. For Formula One supremo Bernie Eccelstone it is the race where booming TV ratings bring him even more millions, and for the likes of flamboyant team owner Vijay Mallya it is the race where the party to end all parties is traditionally held.

Despite it being hopelessly out of date to run today’s super fast machines, the motorsport maxim rings as true as ever; without Monaco, there is no Formula One.

This story was originally published in May 2014.