Thursday May 24th, 2001
By Alan Baldwin
There is nothing like the Monaco Grand Prix, with cars skimming the barriers and roaring through a dark tunnel as the din echoes around the yachts moored in the harbour.
"The best way I can describe my feelings for Monaco are by saying, I love it," says team owner Frank Williams. "It is the most stressful race for many participants, but the most exciting Grand Prix of the year.
"The endless noise, the amazing proximity of the cars, the ability to watch such skilled racing drivers driving real racing cars as they power 800 horsepower through Rascasse - it is just a great privilege to be so close."
Yet every May there are those who think the unthinkable and wonder out loud about its future: Is it reaching the end of the road, a relic from Formula One's glamorous and often tragic past?
Putting aside the history and the partying surrounding the event, there is no escaping that it is an ancient street circuit that allows little overtaking and speeds far lower than any other race in the championship. It is also one with slippery painted road markings, kerbs and manhole covers in a confined space.
While sponsors and team owners love the atmosphere, entertaining in the sort of style expected in a millionaires' playground, ordinary fans can get breathtakingly close to the cars. But not all the Formula One drivers share their enthusiasm for a race described by Brazilian triple world champion Nelson Piquet as akin to trying to ride a bike around your living room.
The late James Hunt, champion in 1976, said it was "a silly event, not a proper Grand Prix at all." Australia's former champion Alan Jones was even more scathing in 1980, the year he won the title.
"It's not just the poseurs and their yachts, although they're bad enough. It's the race itself which is just a bloody procession. The truth is that the cars have outgrown the circuit. And it is exceedingly boring to drive."
Going back even further to 1966, American champion Phil Hill made the observation that "if you suggested running a race there for the first time, you would be considered to be mad and out of touch with reality."
It is perhaps worth pointing out that none of the above drivers ever won in Monte Carlo. Damon Hill, whose late father Graham won here five times and was known as "Mr Monaco", wrote that "it might be a faintly absurd place in which to stage a race, but Monaco is crucial to the health of Formula One."
McLaren's David Coulthard, who lives in Monte Carlo and won the race last year, was asked this week for his view and whether he thought the event - now in its 59th edition - was nearing the end of its natural life. His answer was revealing.
"I certainly haven't had that thought," he replied. "I think Monaco is safe on the Grand Prix calendar until there's a serious accident. You tend to bounce off the barriers and maintain the accident on the track.
"It's probably more of a problem for all of you, the mechanics, the logistics side of it. The drivers typically turn up and everything's prepared and we go driving."
In fact, Monaco has had some terrible accidents in the past - Italian Lorenzo Bandini perishing in his flaming Ferrari in 1967 when it struck hay bales and caught fire.
"The crash was one of the most terrible sights I think I have ever witnessed on a racing circuit," wrote Graham Hill in his autobiography "Life at the Limit" and he had seen a few. But the race has become considerably safer since those days.
This year, after the death of a marshal in the season-opening race in Australia, more fencing has been erected. But more space cannot be created out of nowhere. The main paddock is sandwiched along the harbourside with motorhomes parked tightly together some distance from the pits. More garages are further up the road in a multi-storey car park.
It is probably the only track in the world where a journalist arriving by car in the morning can meet a Formula One car being pushed towards him downhill on the same narrow road.
"You end up with two separate garage set-ups - one for the pit-lane garage and one for the coach park garage where we work on the cars, neither of which are ideal locations," Jordan's race team manager Jim Vale said. With no gravel traps or run-off areas, the cost of a driver misjudging a turn can be heavy.
"It's advisable to have a fourth car so each driver has a spare for the race if required," says Vale. "As we can't store much in the small pit lane garages, large parts are left in the multi-storey. We'll have a team member up there with a radio who can jump on a scooter and deliver parts as and when needed."
It promises to be a busy weekend.