Monaco has been a long established and much anticipated event on the motorsport calendar for almost 90 years. A Grand Prix in its own right before Formula One existed, Monaco is regarded by many as the most prestigious race to win on the calendar. We take an in-depth look at the circuit, as we recount its history and consider how the corners got their names.
After six weeks of preparations, the placing of 3,600 tyres for tyre barriers, 33 km of guard rails are fixed in place along with 20,000 square metres of catch fencing and 1,100 tonnes of seating built. The 650 marshals line the track as the drivers end the formation lap.
The drivers line up on the start/finish straight, the layout of which remains much unchanged since the debut race on the twisting streets on April 4th 1929. The Royals of Monaco watch the start from the Royal Box to the right of the drivers, the steps to which take the place of a conventional podium. People who’ve watched from the box over the years include Prince Louis II, Prince Rainier III, Grace Kelly and the current Prince of Monaco, Albert II, who will once again hand out the trophies for this year’s podium finishers.
After a short run, the drivers brake for the first of 19 turns – Saint Devote. The turn is named after the Patron Saint of Monaco and there is a church up the road to the left of the track named the Saint Devote Chapel. There has been a chapel on the site since at least 1070 and it was most recently rebuilt in its current form in 1870.
There has been plenty of history of another kind here too, as there is always the possibility of carnage on the opening lap. In 1980, Derek Daly was caught out and flipped through the air as three other drivers also retired as a consequence. More recently, Kamui Kobayshi also ended up airborne in 2012 after an incident started by Romain Grosjean forcing Michael Schumacher into the barriers on the left of the start straight. Kobayashi then collided with Grosjean’s stationary car sending him on a bumpy journey to eventual retirement. It isn’t just the first lap though when this corner is challenging- Felipe Massa got this turn wrong twice in two days in 2013, though the first incident was caused by suspension failure. Saint Devote was also the scene of Max Verstappen’s ambitious move on Romain Grosjean in 2015, which saw him collide heavily with the barrier.
After succesfully navigating the first turn, the drivers head up the hill towards Beau Rivage – the first elevation change on a track which rises and falls 41.8 metres over the course of the lap. Mark Webber retired on this spot in 2006 when the engine in his Williams gave way. Drivers have to be wary in this section of other cars exiting the pits to their right. The corner name translates as ‘beautiful coastline’, but at close to 200mph, there isn’t much chance to soak it in.
There’s no time to take in the stunning architecture or window shop at the Hermes or Prada stores on the left either. When they’ve reached the top of the hill, the cars turn left into Massenet– a sweeping left hand bend. Named after Jules Massenet, who was a French composer in the Romantic era. He wrote over 30 operas in his lifetime, some of which have more than likely been performed in the Opera House, which is on the right of the bend. There have been plenty of operatic moments on track at this turn in recent years. Aquaplaning in a wet Grand Prix in 2008 caught David Coulthard out as Sebastian Bourdais then made the same mistake moments later. Fernando Alonso also lost out here in Free Practice 3 in 2010, compromising his hopes of Monaco glory.
It’s still all to play for as the drivers head into the right hander of Casino Square, which passes by Monaco’s casino. Citizens of Monaco are not allowed into the Casino and identity documents are checked on the door.
Another elevation change awaits as the cars now speed down the hill towards Mirabeau. Mirabeau was a scene of controversy in 2014 as Nico Rosberg went off the track and on to the escape road in Qualifying, bringing out yellow flags – meaning that his team-mate Lewis Hamilton couldn’t challenge his best time. The corner’s name comes from the high-rise building which is next to the track. Formerly a luxury hotel, the building is now a rather impressive block of flats, which offer a perfect view of the surrounding corners over the Monaco Grand Prix weekend.
Now, one of the most recognisable turns of them all. The drivers make their way further downhill towards the Fairmont Hairpin. Formerly known as the Loews Hairpin, this is the slowest corner on the Formula 1 calendar taken at just 31mph with maximum steering lock. It’s also a prime spot for overtaking, but it’s a big risk as it is incredibly easy to get wrong. In the early days of the Grand Prix here, this area was lined by sandbags to protect the driver should they have an accident. Lewis Hamilton made an audacious move on Felipe Massa here, in a season where the pair appeared to be magnetised.
After the hairpin, it’s further downhill towards the Portier corners. Kimi Raikkonen suffered an engine failure on the approach to this corner in 2006. As the track levels out and passes under a bridge, they arrive at the second part of Portier. It is well known as being the part of the track where Ayrton Senna crashed out in 1988, after leading the race by close to a minute. He went off to his apartment and didn’t resurface until the team were packing up on Sunday evening.
Another iconic part of the track awaits the drivers now as they head into the Tunnel. The tunnel was a place of disaster for Michael Schumacher in 2004 as Juan Pablo Montoya collided with the back of his car under the safety car, forcing the German wide, onto the marbles. Schumacher lost control and hit the wall, forcing him into an early retirement.
As daylight hits the eyes of the driver once again and the drivers pass the impressive new Yacht Club on their left, the Nouvelle Chicane makes up turns 10 and 11. This is probably the best opportunity for overtaking on the track. But it’s important to be wary too. Jenson Button and Sergio Perez both had huge accidents here in 2003 and 2011 respectively. Karl Wendlinger all but ended his F1 career here as he slammed into the barrier, putting him in a coma – the race after Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna died at Imola in 1994. All of these incidents mean that changes to this section of track are more frequent than other sections, as the track is occasionally revised to make it safer.
The run to the next part of the track was the scene of one of the most infamous crashes in Formula 1 history, as Alberto Ascari ended up somersaulting into the harbour water. Thanks to the speedy recovery of his car, he was unhurt in the incident. This was however his final Grand Prix, as he would be killed in a crash in testing just four days later.
The fastest part of the circuit is next, as the walls get closer through Tabac. Tabac is named as such as there used to be a tobacconists on the outside of the corner. On the run through this section of track in 1967, Lorenzo Bandini suffered a fiery crash which would prove to be ultimately fatal. Meanwhile, there was a smoky exit from the race for Takuma Sato here in 2004 when his engine blew up in the opening stages. Smoke poured across the track causing other drivers to take avoiding action. Giancarlo Fisichella ended up flipping over as he collided with the back of Coulthard in the melee.
The course used to be a straight after Tabac but parts of the track were re-worked extensively in 1973, due to a Swimming Pool being built. So the drivers now take two chicanes- the fast Louis Chiron– named after a Monegasque racing driver – and a further slower chicane, known as the Swimming Pool.
The chicane demands the drivers to get as close to the barrier as they possibly can but it’s a dangerous line to walk, as Hamilton found out in 2008 when he encountered a puncture, before going on to take the win. Turns 12 to 14 were slightly altered in 2015, as the track was realigned, meaning the overall distance is now 3 metres shorter. In the first Formula One event at Monaco in 1950, on the first lap, more than half of the field retired as a wave crashed near this section of track, sending cars sliding across the track.
After making it this far, it’d be a shame to lose the car through Turns 15 and 16 on the approach to La Rascasse. Fans come together here to cheer their heroes towards the finish from some of the few grandstands which line the circuit. La Rascasse was the scene of Jules Bianchi’s supreme pass on Kobayashi in 2014 which saw him take the only points of his all too short career. There is traditionally a party on Saturday night in La Rascasse restaurant, which often spills out onto the racetrack itself. Any mess left behind is cleared from the track for Sunday’s Grand Prix.
La Rascasse has seen controversy too – Michael Schumacher stopped his car here in 2006’s qualifying session, meaning that his rivals were unable to better his time. He was sent to the back of the grid.
As the drivers pass the pit entry, they head through the Anthony Noghes chicane. The driver hits the accelerator after they’ve passed thorough the section named after the man who envisioned the Grand Prix on Monaco’s streets. They pass the Royal Box to start the lap once again.
Each turn at Monaco has its own history and each barrier waits to claim its next victim. Whoever passes the line first this year will deservedly earn a place in Monaco’s prestigious history books.
Nicky Haldenby is a freelance writer from Scarborough, England. After graduating from the University of Hull in 2015 with a First Class honours degree in English Language and Literature, Nicky, a lifelong fan of Formula 1, founded the Lights Out F1 Blog in 2016. Now in its fourth season, the blog has become a firm fan-favourite, delving deep into the sport’s history books and lifting the cover on unusual F1 statistics. Nicky also writes at F1Destinations, and sister site GPDestinations, where he shares regular race previews and articles focussed around the latest in Formula 1 calendar and venue news. In 2017 and 2018, he wrote for Badger GP. Nicky can also be heard regularly as a guest on various Formula 1 radio shows and podcasts.