A History of the Monaco Grand Prix: The World’s Most Prestigious Car Race
Steeped in history, the Monaco Grand Prix boasts a circuit, backdrop, and pedigree that is second to none. This Monte Carlo weekend event draws excitement and intrigue in equal measure, having earned an international reputation as the world’s most glamorous car race.
In this article, we look at the event’s history, its most accomplished competitors, and what makes the Monaco Grand Prix so special today.
The Race’s Beginnings
In 1297, Monaco, then known as the Rock of Monaco, was seized by the prominent Italian Grimaldi family. Over the centuries, Monaco was controlled by the Sardinians, the Spanish, and the French, before gaining its independence in 1861, when the Grimaldi family reestablished power as monarchs.
Around the same time came the invention of the automobile. Within a few decades, wealthy Europeans became obsessed with racing cars. European manufacturers such as Peugeot, Bugatti, and Mercedes-Benz started developing faster and faster models to race against each other. Countries across Europe started hosting races called the Grand Prix.
In the 1920s, the Automobile Club de Monaco tried to establish the Monaco Grand Prix. For some time, the organization had hosted the Monte Carlo Rally — a fixture that involved drivers starting in various points across Europe and finishing in the heart of Monaco. Unfortunately, their request was denied, as international rules dictated that a Grand Prix had to exist entirely within the borders of the host country.
In most countries, this would not be an issue, but Monaco is tiny. It spans just 2.2 square kilometers, making it the world’s second-smallest country. As a workaround, the country created one of the world’s most unusual circuits. While in most countries, racecourses run through the countryside, in Monaco the race circuit runs right through downtown Monte Carlo, traversing regular streets, tunnels, and the picturesque harborside. With perilously narrow corners and little overtaking room across the course, the Monaco Grand Prix changed the face of car racing. In Monaco, having the fastest car often takes second place to the driver’s daring and technical abilities.
The first race, held on April 14, 1929, was organized by Automobile Club de Monaco president Antony Noghès. The first winner was William Grover-Williams.
Following the inaugural event, the race garnered more interest and importance with each subsequent year. By the mid-1930s, audiences were wowed by mesmerizing shows. Unfortunately, a temporary halt to the event was called between 1939 and 1947, with the Grand Prix canceled once again in 1949 due to the death of Prince Louis. The competition quickly gained notoriety once more throughout the 1950s, becoming one of the most prominent fixtures in the Formula One calendar and generating some of the sport’s most dramatic incidents over the years.
In 1955 the Italian racing car driver Alberto Ascari was leading the race until his car flew off the track, plunging into the harbor at a spot that proved to be the downfall of several competitors over the years. Some of the greatest names in Formula One, including Jack Brabham, Alain Prost, Riccardo Patrese, Didier Peroni, Andreas de Cesaris, and Derek Daly, also suffered spectacular setbacks on the streets of Monte Carlo.
In the world of car racing, just one driver has achieved the Triple Crown. This feat involves winning the three most prestigious competitions in the global racing calendar: the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France, the Indianapolis 500 in the United States, and the Monaco Grand Prix. Graham Hill of Great Britain is the only driver to have achieved the Triple Crown, accomplishing it in 1972. Hill went on to win the Monaco Grand Prix five times, earning him the nickname “Mr. Monaco.”
The Monaco Grand Prix comprises 78 laps around a truly unique course. Against the stunning backdrop of the French Riviera, the course is fronted by a yacht-filled harbor and surrounded by elegant high-rises and iconic landmarks, attracting celebrities from all over the world. The race has been run by three generations of Monaco’s royal family, all of whom take a close interest in the event.
As the narrowest track on the Formula One calendar by far, the Monaco Grand Prix is recognized as the world’s most challenging car race. It has undergone course revisions over the years, but it still retains the same basic layout. Also known as the Race of a Thousand Corners, the race is notoriously difficult to navigate, with barriers obscuring drivers’ vision at almost every turn, waiting to punish even the smallest of errors.