The Monaco Grand Prix used to be the biggest event in the Formula 1 calendar. It’s a lavish event in one of the most glamorous cities in the world, attended by A-list celebrities throwing incredibly expensive parties on boats. The thrill of seeing the fastest cars in the world race around a street circuit in beautiful weather was once without parallel in motorsport, and that was the whole appeal of the race. Sadly for those who love this track and the associated parties, it appears to have passed its sell-by date.
The parties on the yachts and boats still happen – or at least they would if it weren’t for the pandemic restrictions that affected the event this year. The celebrities still attend, as was evidenced by Serena Williams waving the chequered flag at the end of this year’s race. The weather is generally still beautiful, although it wasn’t this year. If anything, the dull conditions set the tone for the race, which was one of the most boring we’ve seen in years. Max Verstappen eventually won it, having led from the first second to the last. It was his first-ever win in Monaco and puts him at the top of the driver’s world championship for the first time in his career, but even he probably won’t remember it in detail a few weeks ago. It was soporific.
The most disappointing thing about the race is that it shouldn’t have been this way. Events around the Grand Prix conspired to give us what ought to have been a day of drama. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc somehow managed to land pole position at his home Grand Prix but was forced to retire before the race even began because of gearbox problems. Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton started from seventh on the grid after a poor day’s qualifying, so we should have been treated to the sight of him fighting his way up from the midfield. That didn’t happen either. Hamilton, like every other driver on the track, found himself unable to overtake anybody. Modern F1 cars are simply too wide and too fast to allow for overtaking on a track as narrow as Monaco. The whole race turns into a procession. If you start at the front, you’re likely to end at the front. If you’re trapped in the middle, you’re unlikely to be able to find a way out, no matter how good you are.
The Monaco races of the past weren’t like this. If anything, it was the most unpredictable race of the season. The track was still narrow, but ten or twenty years ago, there was still just about enough room to get by. Crashes were inevitable. Sometimes those crashes were enormous, taking out race leaders and giving us surprise winners. There’s a reason why Monaco is chosen as the backdrop for the F1-themed “Grand Prix” casino game. The unpredictable nature of race days in Monaco made the event the perfect working metaphor for casino games. When you spend your money at the top uk casinos and spin the reels, you have literally no idea what’s going to happen next, but you’re excited by the prospect. That’s exactly how Monaco used to make Formula 1 fans feel. The biggest difference is that very few people win the jackpot when playing casino games, but Monaco could make us all feel like winners. Nobody other than Red Bull felt like winners when Monaco’s 2021 Grand Prix came to an end.
Both before and after the event, drivers and teams voiced their concern about the track. Lewis Hamilton said changes needed to be made to make the track suitable for modern racing. Verstappen worried that overtaking would be difficult. It turns out that he didn’t need to worry about that, but his point still stands. The problem is that making changes to Monaco is extremely difficult. Ultimately, this isn’t a race track. These are streets, and those streets have to be viable for standard road cars on the 362 days of each year that Formula 1 isn’t in town. There’s only so much that can be done to reshape the track, and even then, it might not be enough. The simple truth – the one that the FIA don’t appear to want to face – is that the sport has outgrown Monaco. In many ways, it would be better to say goodbye to it now while we still have fabulous memories than allow it to linger on and sully those memories more with each passing year. Many TV viewers don’t look forward to Monaco anymore as it is. After this year’s sleep aid, it might only appeal to those seeking a cure for insomnia.
We’ll try to introduce a little bit of balance here. A couple of things happened that deprived us of drama and weren’t the fault of the track itself. Leclerc’s brake issue sounds like it was the fault of the Ferrari garage. Valtteri Bottas might have been able to get closer to Max Verstappen if it weren’t for a pit lane disaster that meant the team was unable to remove his front-right wheel. The Dutchman was already getting away from Bottas when the pit stop happened, but he might at least have been able to give him something to think about. Even Hamilton might have been able to do better had he not appeared to have slipped into one of his notorious sulks after a bad pit stop of his own left him trapped behind Pierre Gasly and Sebastian Vettel. This was an especially bad day – one where everything seemed to conspire to give us the worst viewing experience possible from an excitement perspective.
We all have our favourite Monaco memories. Olivier Panis’s shock win in 1996 is probably the best of them when it comes to unlikely winners, but Hamilton’s own defensive display against Verstappen with shredded tires two years ago is up there, too. With the current track layout and car configuration, it doesn’t look like we’ll get many great memories to add to our collection in the future. Unless Monaco can be changed – and we mean substantially changed – it would be better for the sport if it wasn’t on the calendar for 2022.