Monaco Grand Prix: the race that nearly never happened

The history of the Monaco Grand Prix is all to do with the history of Monaco, and the fact that although it borders France and is largely French-speaking, the principality is an independent territory.  Which is why when, in the late 1920s, the Automobile Club de Monaco applied to join the French AIACR (Association of Recognized Automobile Clubs), they were refused on the grounds that the exclusive Parisian club had no jurisdiction over races that took place on Monégasque soil. So the club had only one choice: to set up their own race.

On 14 April 1929 the first Monaco Grand Prix was inaugurated by Prince Pierre. There were sixteen cars on the grid: eight Bugattis, three Alfa Romeos, two Maseratis, a Licorne and a Mercedes SSK. A certain Englishman by the name of William Grover-Williams, who arrived too late to take part in the official trial sessions, got up at dawn on the Saturday and stunned all onlookers with an unofficial practice run. Williams went on to win the Grand Prix in a green 35B Bugatti in 3 hours, 56 minutes and 11 seconds, with an average speed over 100 laps of 80.194 km/h. The race was a phenomenal success.

The scene was set for a century of great racing, and much of it was dominated by the British. On 19 April 1932, Sir Malcolm Campbell – who had recently smashed the world land speed record in Bluebird (reaching a speed of 408.621 km/h) – opened the second Monaco Grand Prix at the wheel of a black aluminium Rolls Royce Torpedo. And between 1963 and 1965 Graham Hill – who was twice crowned world champion, in 62 and 68 –  won three races in succession in the Principality.

Economy and wars have played their part, causing the race to be cancelled a number of times, but since 1955 the race has been run annually, with only a few changes to the original course, the most significant being the addition of the swimming pool section in 1973.  Today’s Grand Prix is watched by tens of thousands, with an estimated 4,000,000 TV viewers worldwide.

William Grover-Williams, winner of the first Monaco Grand Prix. Photo: Jilly Bennett