MONTE CARLO, Monaco — Grand Prix cars have raced around the streets of Monaco since 1929. In that time the cars, the principality itself and the rest of the world have changed dramatically, yet somehow the tradition of racing the fastest automobiles on the planet around one of the tightest circuits anywhere in the world has endured.
The Monaco Grand Prix has disappeared from time to time. There were no races held in Monaco between 1938 and 1947 due to World War II; the 1949 event was cancelled out of respect for the passing of Prince Louis II of Monaco; a disagreement over the sport’s regulations saw no F1 races between 1951 and 1954 (although a race was held in 1952 to sports car regulations) and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the race going ahead in 2020. Yet as long as the world kept turning, it seemed the long-term future of the event was not in doubt. Until now.
As F1 expands its brand around the world, its most famous race circuit is looking increasingly antiquated. The track is too narrow to allow the latest generation of cars to overtake, the hospitality facilities are too small to comfortably accommodate the teams’ sponsors and guests, and the money Monaco contributes to F1 looks in race fees like small change compared with events in the Middle East.
What’s more, it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“I think that if Monaco was a new circuit coming onto the calendar now and they said, ‘Well, you’re going to have the lowest fee of every single circuit, you’re going to go there and you can’t overtake’ it would never be accepted onto the calendar,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said at F1’s latest addition to the calendar, the Miami Grand Prix.
“So we accommodate Monaco because of its heritage and because of its history. That’s it.
“I think that you’ve got to evolve. If you stand still, then you’re going backwards, and I think that applies to all aspects of this sport.”
All of which has led to the question of whether F1 should ditch Monaco when its contract expires after this year’s race. For years Monaco relied on its heritage and glamour to negotiate the most favourable terms of any race on F1’s calendar. This included the right to sell its own trackside sponsorship, which is why so many brands appear only at the Monaco race — including watchmaker Tag Heuer, which is a direct competitor to F1’s own watch sponsor Rolex.
However, now that F1 is striking deals with places such as Miami and Las Vegas, CEO Stefano Domenicali has warned that ‘heritage races’ like Monaco will have to up their game to compete.
“We know we have to balance the arrival of new races with historic grands prix, and tracks that must continue to be part of our calendar,” Domenicali said earlier this year.
“The arrival of offers from new promoters has an advantage for the F1 platform, and that is to force the organisers of traditional grands prix to raise their level of quality, in terms of what they offer the public, and infrastructure and management of the event.
“It’s not enough to have a pedigree anymore. You also have to demonstrate that you are keeping up.”
The message from the top is clear: Monaco must adapt to remain relevant in F1.
The problem with making physical changes is that the nature of Monaco — a 0.8 square-mile country hanging off a cliffside over the Mediterranean — means there is no obvious space in which to change the track. There has been talk in the past of extending the circuit to the left before the tunnel, making use of a relatively straight piece of road along the beach.
“I thought about that sometimes, but whether it would improve overtaking, I don’t know,” Monaco national and Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc said on Thursday. “Maybe you could go left before the tunnel and do a big straight there, but how feasible that is, I’m not sure.
“Of course the overtaking is difficult, but I think what we all love as drivers is the challenge, especially in qualifying: to do that lap. Pushing that hard, there are no tracks in Formula One that come that close to the adrenaline we get here.
“It’s part of F1’s history and should stay in Formula One.”
What’s more, the lack of overtaking has been present for decades at Monaco and has never been considered a big enough reason to scrap the race. Instead, it seems, the complaints that have emerged in recent months are more financially motivated and, perhaps unsurprisingly, have coincided with negotiations over a new contract for the race.
In the past, Monaco could justify its small hosting fee with its existence on the Mediterranean and the associated glamour of racing around a yacht-filled harbour. It was a chance to impress prospective sponsors with floating parties just metres from the F1 action. And in a place where a million euros suddenly seems like pocket change, deals seemed to happen that bit more easily.
Although Monaco has added very little to F1’s coffers directly in race-hosting fees, the event itself has long provided an environment for the sport to close sponsorship agreements worth far more.
The question now is whether Monaco is needed. The Miami Grand Prix earlier this month was pitched almost entirely at corporate guests, creating an environment to entertain and do business. What’s more, by starting with the blank canvas of a parking lot around an American football stadium, Miami offers teams a chance to accommodate more high rollers per dollars spent without the added expense of hiring a 100-foot yacht for the weekend.
“Monaco always stood for the most glamorous part of Formula One. I think Miami, Singapore, Las Vegas are starting to add some pretty glamorous markets,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown told Reuters earlier this year.
“I think Monaco needs to come up to the same commercial terms as other grands prix and also maybe needs to work with ways they can adapt their track because as our cars have become bigger, the racing has become more difficult.
“You do need to take into consideration history but then I think you need to take into consideration how is the show that it puts on.
“There is also an element, which shouldn’t drive our decisions but should be part of our decisions, of what’s the economic contribution to the sport.
“I’d much rather have Monaco than not … but just like the sport is bigger than any one driver or team, I think it’s bigger than any one grand prix.”
But for many in F1 — most notably several drivers who are residents of Monaco — the prospect of losing the race from the calendar is inconceivable.
“I don’t think you can replace Monaco,” world champion Max Verstappen said when asked how it compares with Miami. “Monaco has such a history, and of course it takes time to build that.
“Miami is completely different to Monaco, there’s a lot more space here and the whole atmosphere is different. Different kind of culture as well, which is good that we have because it would be very boring to drive every time at the same culture.
“So yeah, you have to find a middle way between, you know, these kind of things, Monaco and of course, permanent racetracks.”
Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who also lives in Monaco, added: “It’s one of the crown jewels of our sport. So I’m not really sure it would be great to lose it.
“I guess that the difficult part is that the racing itself is not that spectacular. But everyone that goes enjoys it. It is a prime location.
“Adjusting the track is not easy, because it’s the second-smallest country in the world, and so we don’t have a lot of space there. Many of us live in Monaco. But it is just that, that icon status it has, the history that it has that is so appealing to drivers, but also I think to those that are watching.”
However, even with mounting pressure to accept a more expensive deal, the Automobile Club de Monaco is confident the race is here to stay. Speaking at an event ahead of this year’s race, the club’s president, Michel Boeri, reassured those working at the grand prix that stories about the race being dropped were wide of the mark.
“I’d like to refer to what has been read in the press, where it is said that we may struggle to keep organising grand prix races beyond the 2022 event, so as early as next year,” Boeri was quoted as saying by La Gazette de Monaco.
“It was implied that the fees required by Liberty [Media] were too excessive for Monaco and the grand prix would no longer be held. That’s untrue. We are still in talks with them and must now seal the deal with a contract.
“I can guarantee you that the grand prix will keep taking place beyond 2022. I don’t know if it will be a three- or five-year contract, but that’s a detail.”
It seems unlikely that F1 will leave Monaco completely, but one option could be for it to alternate with other races. Under the current agreement with the teams, F1 can extend its schedule of races to only 24 per year, meaning anywhere unwilling to pay a competitive fee is clogging up valuable space on the calendar.
Whatever the deal, it would be a shame for the sport to lose such an iconic venue. As Horner, points out — for better or worse — a race like Monaco would not be allowed on the calendar if it were proposed now, so losing the race next year would likely bring an end to a unique spectacle in the world of sport.
Racing is rarely exciting in Monaco, but in recent years it has still provided drama. In 2019, Verstappen hunted down Hamilton thanks to differing tyre strategies and nearly passed him for victory with a lunge at the Nouvelle Chicane. In 2018, Daniel Ricciardo narrowly held onto victory ahead of Hamilton after losing electrical power from his hybrid system — a result that came just two years after a botched pit stop cost him certain victory. Perhaps not the best races of their respective years, but events packed with drama nonetheless.
What’s more, Monaco has always been more about qualifying than the race. The sight of a 2 metre wide, 200 mph race car slotting its way around an undulating circuit that is tighter than any other on the F1 schedule is unlike any other in motorsport. It is also a truly unique challenge for the drivers.
“I really think that Monaco is one of the best racetracks out there in terms of qualifying — there are no places I enjoy as much as I do here and no place where the driver can make as big a difference to the result,” Leclerc said. “The guardrails are so close … the danger, you can still feel it because you really have got the sensation of speed.
“In terms of qualifying, it is probably the most exciting qualifying of the year. I agree that in the races there might be some things that you can change here and there to try and help overtaking because cars have changed and evolved and it might not be the best track to overtake, but in terms of challenge for the driver, it is one of the toughest challenges for us throughout the year.
“I think a track like this should stay on the calendar.”
The Monaco Grand Prix is live on ESPN at 8.55AM (Eastern time) on Sunday, May 29.