Formula 1 descends on the streets of Monte Carlo this week for the Monaco Grand Prix, and while there are a number of storylines to track this week — from Charles Leclerc’s bitter history at his home course to whether Sergio Pérez can remain “King of the Streets” — one of the biggest storylines to follow might be the Grand Prix itself.
Thanks to its rich history, trackside glitz and glamour, iconic setting, and some of the narrowest corners on the F1 circuit, Monaco has for decades been considered the “Crown Jewel” of the F1 schedule.
Monaco presents one of the most unique challenges of the entire season for drivers, and teams. Thanks to the narrow nature of the track, and elements such as the Grand Hotel Hairpin, which drivers take at roughly 30 miles per hour, making it the slowest corner of the year, overtaking is almost impossible during the Grand Prix. According to this study from Keberz Engineering, which analyzed overtaked at each F1. track from 2017 through 2022, Monaco was dead last, averaging just four overtakes per race.
This means in Monaco, qualifying is king. Drivers push the envelope as much as possible, knowing full well that if they want to win the “Crown Jewel,” their odds are much, much better when they start up front.
That means pushing things to the limit and drivers putting their cars within inches — or less — of the Armco barriers that line the track. The result? Qualifying at Monaco is often the most exciting part of the weekend, and perhaps the most dangerous. Saturdays at Monaco have seen some spectacular crashes, crashes that have altered the course of the Grand Prix itself. In 2021 Charles Leclerc, seeking his first win in his home race, crashed at the end of qualifying. He managed to secure pole, but the damage to his Ferrari resulted in Leclerc failing to even start the Grand Prix the following day.
Last year saw Sergio Pérez crash at the end of qualifying as well, an incident that led to much speculation in its aftermath. Pérez ended up starting third, but managed to in the Grand Prix thanks to another strategic blunder from Ferrari.
Still, as the drivers themselves admit, that adrenaline rush that comes with pushing their cars to the limit on the city’s streets provides a thrill that cannot be matched. F1 shared this video on Monday with a number of drivers, including Fernando Alonso, Alex Albon, Esteban Ocon, and Leclerc discussing their love of Monaco:
Special place, iconic race #MonacoGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/lP05kkUUhW— Formula 1 (@F1) May 22, 2023
However, Monaco’s status as the pinnacle of F1 has come under some scrutiny in recent years. With F1 continuing to grow and expand into new audiences, there is concern that the sporting world may have outgrown Monaco. With the layout of the track cutting down on overtakes, and teams feeling cramped by the setup around the circuit, could the “Crown Jewel” completely lose its luster?
“I think that if Monaco was a new circuit coming onto the calendar now and they said, ‘Well, you’re going to have the lowest fee of every single circuit, you’re going to go there and you can’t overtake’ it would never be accepted onto the calendar,” Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner said at last season’s Miami Grand Prix.
“So we accommodate Monaco because of its heritage and because of its history. That’s it. I think that you’ve got to evolve,” added Horner. “If you stand still, then you’re going backwards, and I think that applies to all aspects of this sport.”
Miami is just one of two recent additions to the F1 calendar, with the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix coming later this season. F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, speaking last year, outlined how “heritage” tracks need to do more to keep up, given the additions.
“We know we have to balance the arrival of new races with historic grands prix, and tracks that must continue to be part of our calendar,” Domenicali said last season.
“The arrival of offers from new promoters has an advantage for the F1 platform, and that is to force the organisers of traditional grands prix to raise their level of quality, in terms of what they offer the public, and infrastructure and management of the event,” added F1’s CEO. “It’s not enough to have a pedigree anymore. You also have to demonstrate that you are keeping up.”
Some have wondered if the historic layout could be altered, to perhaps allow for more overtaking. Monaco is just one of a handful of F1 circuits with a single DRS zone. F1 added DRS zones back in 2011 to help make overtaking easier, but with the single DRS zone in Monaco, there are reduced opportunities for drivers to overtake.
But if the circuit is lengthened, perhaps a DRS zone — or two — could be added. Writing in The Race last summer Gary Anderson, a former Jordan and Jaguar F1 technical director who currently works as an analyst, outlined his plan for lengthening the circuit in Monaco, and adding more opportunities for overtaking:
So here is my proposal. Before the entrance to the tunnel, you turn left a little earlier instead of right at Portier. The roads in that area do already exist, but might need to be resurfaced to level them out a bit with some of the road furniture also tidied to make sure it’s suitable for F1 cars.
Then you head down towards the Beach Plaza Hotel. Here, it may be necessary to create a new ‘exotic’ roundabout and then head back up to rejoin the old track again just before the tunnel. If you use two DRS sections you might just need a small kink that needs a touch on the brakes where Portier used to be just to disengage the DRS before the tunnel, the space is there to have this. I say exotic because it needs to be more than what we currently regard as a roundabout. But in Monaco, nothing is normal so that should be no problem!
We have one hairpin in Monaco around Lowes, as it used to be known. which requires more steering lock than any other corner on the F1 calendar so why not another in the form of this roundabout?
Here is what that might look like, in contrast to the current layout:
Drivers, such as Leclerc, are not so sure.
“I thought about that sometimes, but whether it would improve overtaking, I don’t know,” Leclerc said before last season’s Monaco GP. “Maybe you could go left before the tunnel and do a big straight there, but how feasible that is, I’m not sure.”
What most drivers are sure of, however, is Monaco’s place on the schedule.
“Of course the overtaking is difficult, but I think what we all love as drivers is the challenge, especially in qualifying: to do that lap. Pushing that hard, there are no tracks in Formula One that come that close to the adrenaline we get here,” added Leclerc last season. “It’s part of F1’s history and should stay in Formula One.”
“It’s one of the crown jewels of our sport. So I’m not really sure it would be great to lose it,” said seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton last year. “I guess that the difficult part is that the racing itself is not that spectacular. But everyone that goes enjoys it. It is a prime location. Adjusting the track is not easy, because it’s the second-smallest country in the world, and so we don’t have a lot of space there. Many of us live in Monaco. But it is just that, that icon status it has, the history that it has that is so appealing to drivers, but also I think to those that are watching.”
Monaco’s contract with F1 was up at the end of the 2022 season, but it was renewed through the 2025 campaign last fall, ending speculation that the race could fall off the calendar for the 2023 season. It is believed that F1 received some “concessions” in the renewal, as the sport was reportedly frustrated with the smaller hosting fee paid by organizers, as well as how TV direction and trackside sponsorship deals were handled.
As for whether it stays on the calendar after 2025 remains to be seen. But if it were up to Leclerc, Monaco would always be part of F1.
Just make sure you watch on Saturday.
“I really think that Monaco is one of the best racetracks out there in terms of qualifying — there are no places I enjoy as much as I do here and no place where the driver can make as big a difference to the result,” Leclerc said last season. “The guardrails are so close ... the danger, you can still feel it because you really have got the sensation of speed.”
“In terms of qualifying, it is probably the most exciting qualifying of the year. I agree that in the races there might be some things that you can change here and there to try and help overtaking because cars have changed and evolved and it might not be the best track to overtake, but in terms of challenge for the driver, it is one of the toughest challenges for us throughout the year,” Leclerc added. “I think a track like this should stay on the calendar.”