There’s more to Monaco than a lack of overtaking

Fernando Alonso in the McLaren garage at the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix

The Monaco Grand Prix is the jewel in F1’s crown, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise after the comprehensive kicking it received after 78 laps.

For a sport with a long and proud history, F1’s second-longest-serving venue was shown little love by some who should know better, in particular Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, two drivers who owe part of their legacies to victories in Monte Carlo.

Despite their seniority in the sport, after Daniel Ricciardo took the chequered flag in an impressively cool display of adaptive driving — he had lost 120 kilowatts of power early in the race after setting an all-time circuit record in qualifying 24 hours earlier, as described here earlier in the week — both went to town on the blue riband event.

“Thank God that’s over,” reigning world champion Hamilton said over team radio. “That was the most boring race I’ve ever participated in.”

He later added that it was “a super-unexciting race for everyone” and endorsed a variety of solutions, ranging from changing the layout from the current historic profile to enforcing more pit stops or modifying the weekend format — though the Briton was also keen to emphasise his love of the event.

His former teammate and two-time title winner Fernando Alonso was less measured, however, and gave the grand prix both barrels after retiring his McLaren two-thirds of the way through the race.

“Probably it’s the most boring race ever in Formula One,” he said. “I think probably we need to give something to the fans at the end of the race to pay a little bit back their ticket.

“Without a safety car, without yellow flags … I think the sport needs to think a little bit about the show, because this is very disappointing.”

His Monaco-bashing continued on Twitter, where he tweeted, “Ready to watch and enjoy the RACE of the day”, referring to the then upcoming Indianapolis 500.

Of course you couldn’t find two races more different than the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. One is run on the narrow and winding streets of an old European city, the other a giant banked amphitheatre designed only for speed.

It is a pointless comparison, but it does serve to underline an ongoing tension between various sections of the sport about what makes a good race.

The debate roared into life earlier in the year when the opening round of the IndyCar season returned a stratospheric 366 overtaking manoeuvres, though I wrote here that passing figures alone are not indicators of a great race. Formula One in any case is never going to meet such boggling metrics, with an average of fewer than 25 passes per race since 1990.

However, even F1’s lower average doesn’t take in account the difficulty of passing in Monaco, which was again illustrated by the six successful passes executed throughout the 102-minute race — though even this was more than the five that featured in Australia.

But the overtaking count is irrelevant when it comes to Monte Carlo, with the city streets offering a spectacle of an entirely different nature.

The principality is unrivalled as a vantage point for witnessing the raw fury of a Formula One car and the immense skill of the drivers who tame them, and that’s because nowhere is the combination of man and machine more on the edge than on the streets of Monte Carlo.

The ratio of risk and reward is distorted in Monaco, where the suffocating walls threaten to end even the fastest driver’s weekend — Max Verstappen knows this well — while the promise of becoming part of history at one of the world’s most famous races tempts the competitors to push the envelope only further.

It’s an intoxicating combination — just ask Fernando Alonso after he won his first Monaco Grand Prix in 2006.

“This is a special place for any driver to win a race,” he said, “for the history, for what it represents to Formula One and because it is such a big challenge to get through the race with no mistakes.”

Arguments to change the layout or enforce unusual one-off rules or formats to enliven the race are beside the point — the unlikeliness of the Monaco Grand Prix and the drivers’ desire to master it for the personal challenge and historical relevance is the spectacle all in itself.

There’s got to still be room for that in Formula One.