The Monaco Grand Prix is an annual event for those who are famous for being famous, rather than for having any discernible talent apart from self-promotion. The paddock had its fair share of such folk this year, with the grid being packed with people who could not tell you with any certainty whether the cars were front- or rear-engined. The city retains some of its former magic, although the Monaco police force do their best to make you hate it, with nonsensical one way systems that are there simply because they are there. All weekend we were diverted from the usual route into the circuit, leaving our usual road completely empty and unused and then had to go through a series of junctions and roundabouts that simply created a traffic jam where none was necessary. On Thursday the traffic was so bad as a result of this stupidity that the tailback went several miles into France. There is constant work going on in Monaco as the path of the old railway line is gradually filled in with new buildings and road networks that are hidden from view underground. They are brilliant if you know where to go and no policemen are involved. On Friday night I went out to dinner on the Italian end of Monte Carlo (Portier) and was dreading the drive back to France, as I knew that the centre would be a mess of traffic. In fact I found the entrance to the tunnel network and was able to drive the entire length of the place in just two minutes, popping out where I wanted to be and cruising home to Beaulieu along the Bas Corniche.
While I absolutely adore the Monaco weekend, with all of its minor annoyances, I felt this year that there really is a need to take another look at the track layout. The overtaking aids that have been introduced this year had almost no effect and we saw none of the passing that has typified the other races this year. The race is still a wonderful spectacle and shows the greatest drivers in their element, but when the best cannot overtake one has to ask questions. The other thing was the accidents. There were four nasty incidents on the run down to the chicane from the tunnel exit, all of them caused by the bumps on the road. Tonio Liuzzi and Vitaly Petrov damaged their cars on Thursday and then on Saturday Nico Rosberg and Sergio Perez has similar accidents. Perez was unfortunate in that the trajectory of his car took him into the barrier broadside. It was similar accident to that which ended Karl Wendlinger’s F1 career back in 1994, although it must be said that since then the barrier design and positioning have changed enormously thanks to the efforts of the FIA Safety Department and the FIA Institute and their many advisors. They have found ways to allow a driver to survive such accidents, even if he still ends up in hospital with a concussion. So Perez’s escape was not a miracle, but rather something that has been carefully planned for. The safety systems worked well, with the barriers absorbing energy. the car doing the same and the cockpit foam and HANS all helping to make sure that the driver suffers as little sustained G-force as possible. Jenson Button had a similar crash at the same spot in 2003 and there were further improvements after that.
“The cars have improved dramatically in terms of safety since Karl Wendlinger’s accident and the circuit has improved,” Button told The Independent. “The barrier’s been moved back since my accident, so there have been improvements, but we need to find a solution because we all love racing here. It’s a very special circuit but there’s a couple of areas that we need to discuss and try and come up with a solution because we all think the same thing. We all want it to be safer there, so we can come here and really enjoy the racing. The chicane’s a tricky corner and it’s an area where it’s very difficult to do anything in terms of safety because it is what it is. It’s Monaco, a street circuit, but I still think we need to look further as to what we can do with the run-off.”
What can be done to reduce the risks and to improve the overtaking? The answer lies in changing the circuit but this is very difficult to achieve given the space available. A few years ago there was hope of a major revamp when Monaco was considering a land reclamation project around the Portier section of the Principality, where it was reckoned that around 60 acres of land could be added – in much the same was as happened on the western side of Monaco when the Fontvieille district was added, including a stadium and a heliport, in addition to parks and residences. This was an interesting plan and would have offered the chance to extend the circuit from Portier, the tight right-hand corner just before the tunnel, out onto the reclaimed land. This would have provided the opportunity for a section of straight leading to a tight corner of some kind to create an overtaking spot and then a return section of road that would join up with the current track in the tunnel, as a point at which the speed of the cars could be reduced enough to make the chicane area less dangerous.
The aim of this new section of land was to create new attractions for tourists, additional beaches, better facilities and developing more upscale residential property and improving port capacity. The project was axed because of opposition from the local community.
Here is an idea of what the area would have included.
It remains to be seen whether this sensible project will be revived, but if it is, there is potential to make massive changes to the circuit that would suit the 21st Century racing cars. I have sketched the kind of idea that might work, with a fast curve from Portiers to a tight hairpin by the sea (similar to Montreal) and then a run back along a promenade to a chicane (another possible overtaking place) which would mean slower speeds in the tunnel and at the chicane, which could become a kink again, as it used to be. Such a scheme would also allow for the Monagasques to build a new pit lane with semi-permanent garages in a parkland setting (as in Melbourne), with the buildings serving other purposes throughout the year. All this would only be possible if land was reclaimed, but it is an interesting thought nonetheless.