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Flat Spot On: If It’s Baroque – Don’t Fix It

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 25 2012

Formula 1's big race is still a big race. (RacinToday file photo by Jonathan Ingram)

MONTE CARLO, Monaco – Is the Monaco Grand Prix over-rated?

Is this Grand Dame a dowager, dottering along within the skirts of tradition and the Mediterranean city’s cachet as a playground of the rich and famous, ignoring the onset of the KERS and Drag Reduction System that have made F1 weekends more like free-for-alls? Will we see a parade decided by one of the top three starters yet again at the principality?

It’s worth asking how old, exactly, is the Monaco race. The streets on the seaside cliffs became the scene of a Grand Prix for the first time in 1929. The early races showcased drivers who exuded the jaunty courage of the burgeoning machine age as they slewed their purpose-built cars around the Monte Carlo Casino and down through the harbor area at a breakneck pace. Promoted by the Automobile Club de Monaco, racing and its inherent risk proved to be a good match for the principality located on the French Riviera known as a friendly haven for wealthy gamblers.

After Grand Prix racing was organized into a regular series of events during the post-war years and came to be known as Formula One, Monaco continued as a fixture on the annual racing calendar. This year’s running will be the 58th consecutive year Monaco has been part of the Formula One world championship, far longer than any other event.

For this writer among many other observers, amidst the city’s fascinating tableau of architecture that ranges from Baroque to Bauhaus, the Grand Prix of Monaco symbolizes continuity, because the two-mile circuit remains largely unchanged from the day of the first race. Despite all the advances in aerodynamic design, engines, transmissions and tires and a rulebook that has eliminated Red Bull’s blown diffusers in favor of Mercedes’ F Duct, the Formula One drivers of today still race their high-tech cars on the same narrow streets as the drivers of last year and the year before and the year before that… This is not the pavement but it’s still the same streets where the great Tazio Nuvolari’s Alfa sped over in the 1930’s – or Juan Manuel Fangio’s Mercedes in the 1950s.

To win at Monaco is to be recognized as one of racing’s truly outstanding talents. It’s not glamour-glomming and just adding on to a long and encrusted list. The close confines of the barriers surrounding the circuit dictate that a driver must be faster than his adversaries but cannot afford a single mistake during two hours of flat out competition. In that sense, it’s a classic road race deserving of its lofty status beyond the Baroque and billionaires. (They actually have a Billionaires Club during the race weekend in Monaco at the Fairmont Hotel.)

The late Ayrton Senna won at Monaco for a record five consecutive years from 1989 to 1993, one of many feats that marked the Brazilian’s greatness. But the 1988 race remains the Monaco event for which Senna is best remembered, because he crashed while holding an insurmountable lead (and then walked to his nearby house while remaining incommunicado for several hours).

As the documentary film Senna attests, it was during this race the Brazilian sensed himself to be in another dimension of time and space. Such are the demands and mesmerizing qualities of Monaco from the point of view of the cockpit. His long hiatus after his crash was the motor racing version of detox as he came back to grips with reality – and set his course for five consecutive wins at Monaco and three world championships.

This year’s magic number at Monaco is six.

Now that former champ Kimi Raikkonen has come out of a his brief hiatus, which included driving Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series events in Charlotte at this time last year, six drivers who have won at least one Formula One world championship will be trying to score the victory, a first such occasion for Grand Dame.

Unfortunately, Raikkonen missed the first practice session Thursday with a steering issue and then got precious little dry time in the afternoon. A former winner at Monaco with McLaren, Raikkonen is among those touted as the possible sixth different winner this year in six races. Meanwhile, his French teammate Romain Grosjean went well enough in the Lotus-Renault in each session (second) to suggest the possibility of a Lotus victory – meaning the season could also have six different constructors winning in six races.

There’s never been an American who has hoisted champagne with the Prince of Monaco – although we might now claim Juan Pablo Montoya as a Yank since he’s a NASCAR regular. There are two chances for an American to win at Monaco this year in the form of Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly, who will race in Formula Renault 3.5 and GP3 respectively, as part of their efforts to be the next to represent the stars and stripes in motor racing’s Olympic movement.

But will the Grand Prix measure up to the most recent modern standards of F1 – where unpredictability remains the calling card – due to Pirelli’s rapidly degrading tires, the KERS and the DRS. Or will it be a matter of taking a look at the top three on the grid and picking one as the winner?

In the last 20 years, the winner at Monaco has come from the top three starting positions – with the exception of Olivier Panis’s victory in the rain in 1996. (He started 14th.) Getting on the pole at Monaco is a very similar challenge to winning the race, it seems. Just ask Sergio Perez, who crashed heavily in Q3 last year while bidding for rookie glory.

In clear conditions, picking the pole winner as the race winner would have worked for Nico Rosberg’s win this year in China for Mercedes. Or Pastor Maldonado’s more recent victory for Williams-Renault in Barcelona.

Last year at Monaco, the top three contestants all used three different tire strategies – but a dramatic finish was ruined by a red flag, which allowed all the contenders to get fresh rubber. Given this year’s even more rapidly degrading tires of Pirelli, which will supply Super Softs and Softs, it’s possible that a similar scenario may evolve. At Monaco three contenders make a very large crowd in a place famous for the right crowd and not too much crowding.

– Jonathan Ingram, who is reporting from the principality of Monaco this weekend, can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 25 2012
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