Here’s an interesting statistic: of the 79 races since 1950 (the first year of the championship) that were won by less than a second, eight took place in Monaco. And the smallest-ever winning margin (215 thousandths of a second) was also in Monaco, when Ayrton Senna only just managed to stay ahead of an inspired Nigel Mansell. They of course turned out to be the key players in the title fight that year. And so despite the technical superiority of the Williams (Mansell won the first five races of the year, to become champion by August) Senna won in the Principality at the end of a crazy race, with Mansell all over his mirrors, yet not quite able to get past.
There have been some other notable duels in Monaco, such as that in 1955 between Stirling Moss’s Maserati (which won the race) and the Ferrari shared by Peter Collins and Juan Manuel Fangio – who would go on to win his fifth championship at the end of the year.
But if we’re comparing Monaco to a boxing ring, then the collective memory turns automatically to the rivalry between Senna and Alain Prost. The two of them racked up 10 Monaco wins in total: six for the Brazilian and four for the Frenchman. The Principality was their collective empire. The only other dominion that came close was the five wins claimed by Graham Hill. But things could have been very different had it not been for two critical episodes, both of which ended badly for the Brazilian.
The first was 1984, with Prost at the wheel of the dominant McLaren, whereas Senna was an F1® debutant and forced to ply his trade at the wheel of a more modest Toleman. That year, Monaco was caught in a downpour. Prost led, but he was being inexorably reeled in; sometimes at the rate of seconds per lap. Behind him; Senna seemed to effortlessly dance between the puddles and the guard rails. What happened next was down to the well-known race director: Jacky Ickx. He decided to stop the race after 31 laps, keeping Prost’s victory intact, but also meaning that the ‘Professor’ would get just 4.5 points rather than nine for a full distance win. Nine laps later he may have been passed, but the statutory six points for second place would still have been enough to eventually help him win the title that year. Instead, the 1984 championship went to Niki Lauda: by a meagre half a point.
There was another showdown between Senna and Prost in 1988. This time, they were in the same car: the McLaren-Honda that would go on to dominate that championship and the three next ones too. On race day, Senna was like a man possessed. He started from pole ¬– for which he had been challenged by Prost – and built up a significant margin thanks to a pace that was impossible for anyone else to live with. His lead had extended to an almost obscene 40 seconds: the McLaren management was livid as they needed him to slow down in order not to risk what would be a major result for the team. So, Senna slowed down and committed a rookie error: he didn’t consider that by slowing down, the car would also slide less towards the outside of the corner. This cost him the front-right wheel, ripped off by the barrier on the last corner before the tunnel. It also cost him what would have been the most superhuman victory ever seen around the tight confines of the Principality.
Senna stepped out of the McLaren, jumped over the guardrail, and – still wearing his helmet – went straight to the nearby apartment that he owned. He wasn’t seen by the team – or the rest of the world – until the following day. Senna soon set the record straight though: between 1987 and 1993 he was the only winner in Monaco. Except for that unlucky 1988.