Of Chumps and Champions: Mayhem at Monaco


Curiouser and curiouser: What does the Monaco Grand Prix hold for Formula One this season? 

For those of you unfamiliar with the lightening swift racing of Formula One, I beg your indulgence. Formula One holds a particularly personal place in my heart as the male protagonist in my first novel, Jackson Tregaron, is a Formula One race car driver. In my book, he races for the McLaren team (which is no longer McLaren in F1; McLaren signed with Honda engines in 2015, making them McLaren-Honda). While writing Jackson’s character, I really immersed myself in the sport, learning about the race tracks and the teams and the drivers. And I loved every bit of it. Particularly Monaco.

Just to give you all a little scope: F1 is exhilarating to watch, especially in the last several seasons. To date, the sport has been dominated by the Silver Arrows- the Mercedes Team fronted by three time World Champion Lewis Hamilton and reigning World Champion Nico Rosberg. I may be incorrect on a podium or two, but I’m pretty certain that since 2013, Mercedes has finished every race with one, if not both, drivers on podium (meaning, they came in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd at the end of the race). However, with the unexpected retirement of the newly minted World Champion Nico Rosberg at the end of last season, things are shaking up. Valtteri Bottas has filled the position recently vacated by Rosberg. With his recent win in Russia, it looks like he’s taken up the mantle of Mercedes with aplomb. But, this year is unfolding into a bit of a topsy turvy scene. Ferrari, with former World Champions Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen at the wheels, is putting on the pressure to unseat Mercedes from their throne. Will it happen? Only time will tell.

Map of the Circuit de Monaco. Click Image for more information about the track. 

Map of the Circuit de Monaco. Click Image for more information about the track. 

But, I’m not bringing up Formula One in order to ponder what will happen throughout the whole season. What I’m excited about is the impending Grand Prix on the streets of Monte Carlo. It’s this weekend! Truly, if you never cared to ever watch a Grand Prix, or you’re somewhat interested by uncertain whether you’d like the whole round and round a track thing (although, these tracks are much more fun to watch, to me, than NASCAR- I can’t completely dig the oval, dude), then Monaco is the starting point for you. 

The Circuit de Monaco is one of the oldest race tracks in the sport. The first F1 race ran in 1929 and it has run every year since- except during WWII- along the same streets. Most races in F1 are held on tracks, but there are a few that hold the honor- and fun- of being on city streets. (This year, F1 street racing will be in Monaco, Azerbaijan, and Singapore. Singapore is particularly cool because it is raced at night through the illuminated modern metropolis.)

The Gardens by the Bay, one of the many awesome night sights seen during the Singapore Grand Prix.

The Gardens by the Bay, one of the many awesome night sights seen during the Singapore Grand Prix.

There is an impossibly chic, cultured, glitterati pastiche that goes along with racing in the millionaire’s capital of the world. All those yachts docked in that turquoise sea. The cliffs. The beaches. The climate. The Mediterranean. The Roche de Monaco. The Casino de Monte Carlo with its weathered copper roof. The Hotel de Paris with its opulent floral arrangements and Art Nouveau overhangs. The supercars. The superstars. It’s simply too-too, if you know what I mean. It’s the top, right up there with the Coliseum, Louvre Museum, Bendel bonnet, Shakespeare sonnet, and Mickey Mouse, as Cole Porter wrote. It’s the creme de la creme. It’s the upper crust. It’s everything you want in a Formula One event. And that’s before the racing even begins. 

But, for such an idyllic, halcyon venue, the Circuit de Monaco has held quite a bit of heartbreak and upset for the F1 world. Fasten your seat belts, my darlings, and listen to these bumpy rides. 

Last year, Daniel Ricciardo, driver for Redbull, led in Monaco over the then reigning World Champion, Lewis Hamilton. He was in first. He had a 13 second lead, which is a big lead in F1. Ricciardo drove brilliantly. Absolutely brilliantly, that is, until he was called into the pits to change out his tires (tyres, as they spell it in F1). 

Ordinarily, watching a pit crew is a fascinating thing. (If you’re imaging Giudo in Disney’s Cars masterfully changing all of Lightening McQueen’s four tires single-handedly in a handful of seconds to the shock and awe of rival Chick Hicks’ pit crew, then you might have an idea of what it’s like watching a pro pit crew do their thing.) They take off four old tires and replace them with four new ones in roughly 2-4 seconds. Let me repeat that: 2-4 SECONDS! I’ve never timed myself while changing a tire (and, to be clear, that’s one tire, not four), but I imagine it would take much longer than 2-4 minutes let alone 2-4 seconds. 

Footage of Ricciardo's tyre fiasco in 2015 at Monaco. 

But, on that fateful day in late May when Ricciardo pulled into the pit lane, he stopped in front of his garage and simply sat there waiting. 

F.Y.I. This does not happen in Formula One. The pit crews are on it. Period. When a driver is called into the lane, they are ready and waiting for him. But on that day in Monaco, they weren’t ready. Ricciardo sat for precious seconds while the crew scrambled to get new tires on his car. Worse, when he re-entered the race, Lewis Hamilton had snatched the coveted first position on track. Even more egregious, Hamilton maintained that lead all the way to the end of the race. Hamilton took first; Ricciardo came in second, even though he’d driven for first, even though he should have taken first. Through no fault of his own, he placed second. Even now, just writing about it, I feel all the commiseration and upset I felt then. Struck down by a set of softs. (Tires in F1 are rated- ultra-softs, super-softs, softs, mediums, hards, intermediates, wets… They each have distinct purposes to each track and each track has regulations about which tires can be used on it. I don’t know all the difference or which tracks require which. Just know: Tires, they’re a big deal.)

Breakdown overview of how Hamilton lost in 2015. Notice how fast the pit stop is. 

The year before that heartbreak, Lewis Hamilton was the driver meted with disappointment. Like Ricciardo, he was leading that day for 64 of the 78 laps. Then Max Verstappen, driver for Torro Rosso, crashed his car into the back of Romain Grosjean’s Haas car. The virtual safety car was deployed, which slows the racers down to a specific speed. Hamilton watched his 25.7 second lead slowly begin to diminish. On lap 66, behind the the actual safety car- which further slows the drivers down- the teams called the top three drivers in- Rosberg and Hamilton for Mercedes and Vettel for Ferrari. Before pitting, Hamilton was in the lead followed by Rosberg and then Vettel. Through some stroke of ill-luck for Hamilton or good luck for the other two drivers (whichever way you wish to see it), Rosberg and Vettel made up time during the pit and entered the race again before Hamilton. Still under safety car, Hamilton left the pit lane only to find the lead he had was completely gone. Worse than no longer being in first, Hamilton found himself in third. And, when the safety car finally left the track on lap 70, there wasn’t enough time for Hamilton to reclaim his lead. He finished the race in third place. Again, through no fault of his own. 

Apparently, the tire is mightier than the sword. Well, at least, in Formula One it is. 

I could go through the history of the track and chronicle the multitudinous upsets. The crashes. The comas. They’re all there. Even some deaths. And, though it doesn’t look as dire as all that, this year holds the promise of upsets aplenty. 

Already there is controversy surrounding the Monaco Grand Prix this year. That controversy’s name is Fernando Alonso. Alonso, former World Champion with Renault and current driver for McLaren-Honda, has had nothing but headaches and heartaches since he signed with McLaren-Honda in 2015. And, now, born out of his dissatisfaction, and, in my opinion, a desire to attain the coveted Triple Crown of Motorsports- wins at the the Monaco Grand Prix, the 24 Hour Le Mans, and the Indianapolis 500- Alonso has announced he will not race in Monte Carlo this year for his F1 team. Instead, he will race in the Indianapolis 500 for McLaren-Honda-Andretti. The team principals are not happy with him. He’s not happy with the team principals. And it all adds up to the question: what will the Monaco Grand Prix hold this Sunday? Upsets? Surprises? I can’t wait to find out.

What about you? Any sports upsets that still make your blood boil or fill you with the utmost sympathy? Let me know. Any sports, not just F1. Although, if it’s F1, you’ll make my day, and, on that note; Go ahead- Make day!