The challenge of improving the Monaco spectacle
By Mat Coch
Wednesday 31st May, 2023 - 9:29pm
The Monaco street circuit is an anachronism in the modern world of Formula 1, a legacy of an era that has long since passed.
If the track were anywhere else, or proposed today, it would never be considered. It’s too tight, too short, and offers cramped working conditions for the teams – not to mention limited viewing options for fans (which has commercial implications).
Origins of the Monaco GP
The circuit itself was first used in 1929 and, according to the Automobile Club de Monaco, was created in an effort to satisfy requirements so it could join what is, today, the FIA.
To do so, it needed a motor race, so Antony Noghes laid out a circuit that weaved its way around the Monaco streets.
For the most part, the circuit is unchanged save for the addition of the Swimming Pool and La Rascasse sections.
Almost 100 years on, Sainte Devote, Beau Rivage, Massenet, Casino Square, Station Hairpin (to use its historical name), Portier, and even Tabac would be recognisable to pre-war heroes like Tazio Nuvolari, Lous Chiron, and Achille Varzi.
And therein lies the problem; a street circuit suitable for Bugatti T35Bs and Alfa Romeo Monzas is no longer suitable for modern grand prix machinery – the pole-winning time for Varzi in 1933 (races before that had the grid determined by ballot) was 2:02s. Max Verstappen logged a 1:11.365s last Saturday.
But how to solve the problem? The streets are narrow, the Principality of Monaco small – just 2.1km, the second smallest sovereign state in the world.
New route from Antony Noghes
The most obvious change would be to extend the circuit, but the mountainous topography makes that problematic.
The first requirement is to find roads wide enough, or areas with sufficient space to widen the roads appropriately and accommodate the necessary safety precautions; marshals, recovery vehicles, and so on.
One option would be to look at re-routing what is currently the start-finish line, running on at the Anthony Noghes right-hander at the end of the lap and along Avenue du Port.
Following that around, one arrives back at what is currently Sainte Devote, where it could rejoin the current layout.
But while on first look it would be a straightforward change, there are other considerations; where does the pit lane feed in and out? What about the paddock and start-finish line? Does it add what is needed, namely an overtaking zone?
It also adds comparatively little to lap length, about 400 metres.
There would be safety concerns, too; speeds heading into Sainte Devote would be far higher, meaning the vmax at Massenet would also increase, necessitating other changes.
Extension from Portier
The more popular alternative is to turn left at Portier and head along the waterfront towards the northeastern border with France.
Hypothetically, this could be done along one side of Avenue Princess Grace before turning around and running back down the other side.
It would potentially create two braking zones and therefore overtaking opportunities; one at the newly created hairpin and the other into the Nouvelle Chicane, which would theoretically see higher approach speeds as it feeds directly into Boulevard Louis II – the road already used for the tunnel.
It’s a concept that hasn’t been lost on the teams, with Red Bull’s Christian Horner seemingly alluding to the Portier extension as his preferred option.
“I’m sure with the creativeness that there is, and the amount of land that they’re reclaiming here, there’s got to be the opportunity to squeeze a bigger braking zone,” he suggested.
“Maybe make Turn 1 a little sharper or slower, or maybe extend the circuit; if there’s an opportunity to add another kilometre in, that included a hairpin, that would be phenomenal.
“It’s something maybe to contemplate when you think of the next 20 years of Monaco – you don’t want to see it left behind.”
The issue with that solution is the road is extremely narrow, effectively a single lane in either direction, separated by a grassy island.
It could be widened, stealing some space from the footpath on each side and the island on the other, but that seems a drastic measure and a significant concession from locals for an event that lasts three days a year.
Of course, it would add the kilometre Horner has suggested, along with a heavy braking zone into a hairpin, not to mention the potential for another DRS zone, meaning it looks to tick all the boxes.
Reality of Monaco
There are potentially other options around Massenet and Casino Square, but they add little more than increase the length of the circuit.
Addressing the issues Monaco poses has no simple answer, and there is strong opposition from local organisers when it comes to changes to the iconic layout.
Introducing an alternate format or another mechanism to increase the sporting spectacle would be artificial and should be avoided at all costs, save it trivialising the event and F1 more broadly – it would cheapen an event that is about opulence and extravagance and therefore contradict its very reason for existing.
Monaco is therefore likely to remain an anachronism, a venue on the calendar for its glamour, prestige, and the value it offers to teams and sponsors rather than its sporting spectacle.
It will remain the ultimate challenge for a driver, and arguably for fans as they continue to endure processional racing.