The Monaco Grand Prix: history in the making

The Monaco Grand Prix was just one of many sporting events worldwide to be cancelled this year. But hopes are high that this best-known of all motor races will roar back to life in 2021. After all, it’s happened before, as this brief history shows:

When Monaco first asked to join the French Association of Recognized Automobile Clubs in the 1920s, their application was turned down. The rules clearly stated that member clubs must already have competitive racing in their own territory. Undeterred, the Automobile Club de Monaco decided they would have to set up a motor race of their own, the first on Monégasque soil.

So it was that on 14 April 1929, Prince Pierre inaugurated the first ever Monaco Grand Prix. There were sixteen cars on the grid: eight Bugattis, three Alfa Romeos, two Maseratis, a Licorne and a Mercedes SSK. An Englishman, William Grover-Williams, arrived too late to take part in the official trial sessions. Undaunted, he got up at dawn on the Saturday and surprised onlookers with an unofficial practice run. He went on to win in his 35B Bugatti, painted in his trademark ‘British Racing Green’. His time? 3 hours, 56 minutes and 11 seconds, with an average speed, over 100 laps, of 80.194 km per hour. The race was a phenomenal success, with a crowd estimated at 100,000 occupying every inch of space and hanging from every window.

Curbs and challenges

The Grand Prix’s early history was interrupted by unavoidable political events:  not only the Second World War but also the death in 1949 of Louis II, father of Prince Rainier. Monaco ran its first ever Formula One race in 1950, but it would be another five years before this particular format – with faster cars and more powerful engines – became the de facto standard.  During this time, the Monaco Grand Prix reverted to Formula 2 racing in 1952, but in 1951, 1952 and 1953 it was not held at all.  It was only in 1955, with the decision to return to F1, that the race became a crucial fixture in the sporting calendar. It was to run without a break until 2020.

Britannia rules the chicanes

Decades of great racing followed, dominated by British and Commonwealth drivers. On 19 April 1932, Sir Malcolm Campbell had opened the second Monaco Grand Prix in a black aluminium Rolls Royce Torpedo. It was an appropriately named car for the man who had recently smashed the world land speed record in ‘Bluebird’.  Now, in the sixties, the British were back. Stirling Moss won in 1956, 1960 and 1961. And in 1963 Graham Hill, then the reigning world champion, took the prize in Monaco, a feat he would repeat in the following two seasons. Following Jackie Stewart’s victory in 1966, Hill won twice more, in 1968 and 1969, bringing to an end an unbroken run of eleven years of wins for drivers from Commonwealth countries.

The race they can’t stop

In the years that followed, Monaco’s thrilling city circuit played host to numerous legends of the sport. Niki Lauda won twice, in 1975 and 1976; Alain Prost dominated the mid-to-late 80s; and Ayrton Senna delivered an unmatched five victories in a row from 1989 to 1993. Current world champion Lewis Hamilton has won three times – in 2008, 2016 and 2019.

Today’s Monaco GP is certainly the most famous of the handful of F1 races still to be run on a street circuit.  Watched by tens of thousands, the estimated TV audience for the race is 110,000,000 worldwide. For many fans, it’s their first introduction to Monaco; during race weekend, the population of the Principality surges from its normal 40,000 to an astonishing 200,000. Just as well that there are enough bars in town…