The Monaco Grand Prix

“Where should we go for our honeymoon?”

Years ago in 2007, I posed that question to my then-fiancé (now husband), and he surprised me with his answer: “The Monaco Grand Prix.” Turns out it that was on his personal bucket list, so just like that, we began planning to attend our first ever Formula One race—and our first trip to the French Riviera.

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What makes the Monaco Grand Prix a big deal? There’s a number of factors. First off, history. The Monaco Grand Prix has been a part of the Formula One calendar since the beginning, dating back to the first world driver’s championship series in 1950—making it one of the most historic and prestigious events of the season. Grand prix motor racing was held even earlier than that in Monaco, as far back as 1929, when the Automobile Club de Monaco sought to put itself on the map by organizing a national race. 1

Photograph of the entrance to the world-famous Casino Monte Carlo.

The entrance to the world-famous Casino Monte Carlo.

Then there’s the old adage: location, location, location. The race takes part on the city streets of the principality, zooming past its world-famous casino down to its glittering harbor. This sovereign city-state—sandwiched by France and the Mediterranean Sea, measuring less than one square mile—transformed in the mid-nineteenth century from a tiny backwater fishing village to a [still tiny] tax haven for the wealthy, subsidized by a successful casino that was connected via rail to Paris. About a century later, the marriage of Hollywood actress Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier III brought a new brand of international attention and glamour to the principality. Travelers then, as they do now, flocked to the Côte d’Azur for a taste of the good life: to bask in the perennially mild Mediterranean weather and surround themselves with its gorgeous scenery (natural and manmade).

Monaco’s street circuit is a unique challenge for the racers. The sweeping elevation changes, tight corners, and narrow roads all add up to one of the season’s most demanding races. One momentary loss of concentration by a racing driver is a sure way to end the day. With little to no run-off area anywhere along the circuit, it’s likely that a wayward driver will spin off into the barriers that line the roads for the race.2 Three-time world champion driver Ayrton Senna famously walked back to his Monaco apartment after crashing out in the 1988 grand prix race, forfeiting what had been a dominant lead established by his record-breaking qualifying run. Considering the circuit’s considerable beauty, challenge, and its storied history, it’s no wonder that Monaco is the grand prix that every Formula One driver wants to win.

While the racing nowadays is a bit processional (narrow roads mean few clear-cut opportunities for overtaking the competition), for the drivers the Monaco Grand Prix arguably presents its own challenge and reward: self-discovery. The late three-time world champion Ayrton Senna eloquently talked about this following his amazing qualifying lap in 1988: 3

“I was already on pole, then by half a second and then one second and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension.”

Ayrton Senna

A driver’s utter dominance, the fusion of man and machine, is what is on display at Monaco. However, the moment that the unexpected happens—when a driver puts a foot wrong and ends up in the barriers; when the pesky rain washes away the racing line on track; when a routine pitstop goes terribly awry—can jumble up the field and create one of the most exciting races of the season.

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Gare de Monaco-Monte-Carlo

On the train platform at Gare de Monaco-Monte-Carlo, the principality’s sole railway station.

The road to the 2007 Monaco Grand Prix for us spectators was a little less perilous. We bought grandstand tickets for just the race day (Sunday) via the official Formula One site. Unlike most other grands prix, there are no weekend passes for sale (neither general admission nor grandstand seating); the only multi-day tickets are two-day Saturday-Sunday VIP Terrace passes that would set you back a few thousand US dollars per person.

Our assigned seats were in Section O: the famous Piscine (“swimming pool” complex) sector, where the drivers zig-zag through two quick chicanes. The grandstand sits on the yacht dock at the heart of the harbor front. In order to cross the racetrack to get to our seats, we walked through an elevated passageway over the road. While walking through the passageway during the race, cars sometimes sped by underneath, creating a tremor in their wake. The sound was incredible.

With our backs to the Mediterranean Sea, the backdrop of our track view was Monaco itself—with its packed grandstands and throngs of spectators perched not only on the terraces of luxury hotels and apartments, but all along Le Rocher, the rocky promontory to the south overlooking the harbor, La Condamine. It is atop this rock where the old town quarters of Monaco and its royal palace reside.

The fancy people were there to see and be seen, an obscene 21st-century remix of a Slim Aarons photograph.

The streets of Monaco are extremely crowded during the race. Sporting fans, the gaudily wealthy (with their huge megayachts and supercars), and Hollywood celebrities flock to this corner of the world every May not only for the race weekend, but for the Cannes Film Festival. The Jumbotrons dotted along the circuit periodically flashed live camera glimpses of movie stars. Boldfaced names walked not five feet away from us in the crowd, only to disappear beyond a VIP checkpoint.

Aside from the famous faces, I remember the more colorful people in attendance: the woman in the skin-tight, slit-up-to-the-hip orange dress (and spray tan to match), tossing her head back as she let out a vulgar laugh; the middle-aged fellow in the shirt that was unbuttoned down to his thigh-hugging mint green trousers; and the preppy-chic man in blue leaning casually on the grandstand railing. The fancy people were there to see and be seen, an obscene 21st-century remix of a Slim Aarons photograph.

A man in blue leans against the back rail of the grandstand, while scores of people camp out on the hill overlooking the track.

Amid the scene, there was still a race to be had, whether people were watching or not. Clouds that threatened rain early on gave way to a muggy, sunny day. Live commentary was provided in a multiple languages: French, Italian, and Formula One’s lingua franca, English. Maybe German, too.

The race result itself was decided rather early, as no one could match the dominant pace of the McLaren duo. The winner of the 2007 race was two-time world champion Fernando Alonso (Spain). In second place was teammate and rookie upstart Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain), and in third, Scuderia Ferrari’s Felipe Massa (Brazil). Everybody else was so far off the pace that they were all lapped handily by the top three finishers. Alonso’s victory marked the 150th Formula One race win for the McLaren team—a team that has seen a great deal of success at Monaco.

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Not soon thereafter, however, the race was fraught with scandal. McLaren was called out for team orders keeping Hamilton from pursuing his senior teammate (although they were promptly cleared of wrongdoing), while ex-Ferrari chief mechanic Nigel Stepney was arrested and dismissed from the team. He had been connected to evidence of a mysterious white substance in the fuel tanks of the Ferrari race cars, just prior to the Monaco Grand Prix. But there was more to it than the alleged sabotage….

A view of Monaco's harbor, after the finish of its famous grand prix motor race.

A view of Monaco’s harbor, after the finish of its famous grand prix motor race.

The drama of the weekend foreshadowed the tense rivalry between McLaren teammates (and championship frontrunners) Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, the eventual falling out between Alonso and McLaren management, and the megaton bombshell that would rock the sport that year: McLaren’s disqualification from the 2007 Formula One constructors’ championship and the levying of a record US$100,000,000 fine—punishment for possessing secret technical information from Ferrari via Nigel Stepney.

For Stepney, charges (and an eventual guilty verdict in 2010) of “sabotage, industrial espionage, sporting fraud and attempted serious injury” meant an ignominious end to what had been a championship-winning career with driver Michael Schumacher at Benetton and Ferrari.4

Sabotage! Espionage! Inter- and intra-team conflict! Like a Hollywood thriller, the melodrama had shifted into high gear, and we unknowingly had waterfront seats for the show.


Getting There

The closest international airport is Nice Côte d’Azur International Airport, just 14 miles away from the Principality of Monaco via a series of famous seaside auto routes known as corniches. Helicopters offer a quick (if spendy) flight from Nice’s airport to a helipad in Monaco’s Fontvieille district.

To get from Nice to Monaco via public transport, you can do as we did and take take the train from Nice-Ville to Monaco/Monte-Carlo. Trains can be crowded, but the trip is somewhat short (20 minutes), manageable for those accustomed to crowds on big city commuter trains. If you are taking the train, it’s best to buy advance tickets to avoid the long day-of ticket queues.

Buses are another option, particularly if staying far away from Nice-Ville train station (Lignes d’Azur #100 has stops in Nice’s Old Town). Vieux Nice (the atmospheric Old Town) is a 15-20 minute walk from the train station.

Race tickets can be purchased from the official Formula One site, directly from the Automobile Club du Monaco (which organizes the race), or from a variety of authorized third-party ticket agencies.

Lodging

Hotel rates in Monaco and the French Riviera spike dramatically for Grand Prix weekend. If you’re looking for somewhere to stay on a more modest budget, consider a booking a vacation rental through HomeAway, Airbnb, or Gîtes de France. We booked a one-bedroom flat at 22 rue Barillerie in Vieux Nice, just one block away from the market at Cours Saleya. For our honeymoon, it was like a dream to pretend we were Niçois for a couple weeks.

Further Reading

The New York Times has done a write-up on Monaco in their popular “36 Hours” column.

The acclaimed documentary Senna (2010) includes highlights from Ayrton Senna’s most memorable races in the Monaco Grand Prix. He won the race a record six times in his brief but storied career, including five consecutive wins from 1989 to 1993. I didn’t get a chance to watch the movie during its international debut in Japan during the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix, but I caught a domestic showing back home. I’d never seen/heard so many grown men cry in a movie theater before. The year 2014 is the 20th year anniversary of his tragic death, which happened during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. This month, many tributes to Senna’s legacy have been published in commemoration of this event.

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