The prince
of circuits

Formula 1 royalty
Maybe, in the politically correct world of the future, there will be no more racing one day. But if that unfortunate day ever comes, at least there will always be one circuit that perpetually stands out in the collective memory. That circuit is, of course, Monaco. It's not just the circuit of the Grimaldi princes, but the prince of all circuits.
Just to call it a ‘circuit’ doesn't of course tell the full story. Monaco is a myth: a legend of costumes and casinos and glamour. A dream even, or just a splendid oxymoron that has somehow managed to blend speed and thrills in the midst of a tiny principality squashed between the sea and the Maritime Alps. It’s hard to precisely sum up the entire character of this unique up-and-down three-kilometre circuit that consists almost entirely of corners (with the exception of the start-finish straight and the long corner through Formula 1’s only tunnel). And yet the drivers blast round it at an extraordinary average of around 160kph, which will get even faster this years as the result of increased downforce. Yes, it’s an anachronism, but one that has remained true to itself since 1929, when the first race was held. From the 1950s up to now,  changes to the layout have been minimal. When they have happened, it’s almost always been down to changes in Monaco’s road network, on which the circuit is of course based.

Mastering Monaco
The basic concept of the track is a straightforward one. Apart from the very few places where high speeds are reached (such as the exit of the tunnel where the cars reach 300kph, before braking hard for the 70kph chicane, with the sea on the left that serves as additional motivation to get it right) the rest of the track is just one corner after another. While being relatively slow (by Formula 1 standards at least) they’re all different: the entry speed for the Tabac right-hander is almost 180kph, for example, while the exit of the corner is blind more or less up to the last minute.
And that’s just one of a series of challenges that the drivers have to confront 78 times during the course of a race: a hypnotic blur that takes place just centimetres away from every guardrail. It’s a carefully crafted ballet whose opening act starts at Sainte Devote, immediately after the pit straight and just before the climb that heads to the Casino, and then segues into Casino Square itself. This is a 90-degree right-hander that spits the cars down past the Tip Top bar on bumpy asphalt all the way to Mirabeau: a tight right-hand corner leading to the slowest hairpin of the entire season, and then the final descent with the double corner at Portier into the tunnel. The cars burst back into the sunshine towards Tabac, through the famous swimming pool esses, and then negotiate another hairpin at Rascasse, before the chance to briefly draw breath on the pit straight ahead of another exhilarating lap.

Finding grip
The constant on-off acceleration, from race pace to the speed of normal traffic, means that aerodynamic grip is an issue. So for Monaco, there is a myriad of new flaps, wings, and devices that appear on the cars to harness every last scrap of air that might just provide a bit more downforce, even at low speeds. These corners offer very low grip anyway, so if it rains they become truly insidious obstacles, ready to catch out the unwary. For this reason, tyre nominations in Monaco are always for the softest compounds . As a result, the stress on the tyres is reasonably contained; so recent races have featured a limited number of pit stops. 
All this is for the engineers though. And Monte Carlo – while filled with complex technical challenges – should definitely always be seen through a human lens. The weakest link is always the driver, and specifically the fatigue that can prompt even the most talented men to make a mistake. Stories of this in Monaco fill the annals of Formula 1 history. In Monte Carlo, under the shadow of the Grimaldi Palace that overlooks the port and the silhouette of the Casino (a powerful metaphor for the race itself), everything is a gamble. Red or black? You spin the wheel 78 times during the race, with the boundary between a perfect racing line and a ruinous trip into the barriers being an extremely delicate one. Those risks have to be taken though: there is no other way. On a track where overtaking is almost impossible, it's the driver who has to make the difference – sometimes with extreme measures.
The very best champions bear testament to this, including Ayrton Senna: the most successful driver in Monaco GP history with six wins, making him the undisputed king of the streets. However, even he once threw away what would have been another resounding victory, with a mistake of just a few millimetres, almost within touching distance of the chequered flag.

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