Okay, I admit it, I had the day off yesterday, and I intend to do the same today. Tomorrow it will be back to work mode again and the Monaco weekend, which for many in F1 is a favourite. Monaco is considered to be the most important and prestigious automobile race in the world. Only the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours are in the same league, although some folks in Florida might argue for the Daytona 500 as well.
It’s not an easy place to work, but the thing that grabs anyone with a soul is the venue itself. This, lest we forget, was the original street circuit, very different to the road courses that were the fashion at the time. But how did this crazy event begin?
I wrote a long article some years ago in GP+ on this subject, so I can cheat a bit and give you a truncated version of that fascinating story. For those who would like to read the full version, you just need to sign up for the GP+ archive and look out issue 42. (Monaco 2009).
Monaco’s story as a centre of glamour began in the late 18th century, when rich members of English “society” began wintering in the town of Nice. They built the aptly-named Promenade des Anglais and soon magnificent villas were popping up all along the Mediterranean coast. By 1830 there were more than 100 wealthy English families wintering in Nice each year. That figure would double by 1850. But this had little effect on the town of Monaco, a few miles along the rocky coast. The Grimaldi castle with old Monaco village behind, was a spectacular sight and the climate was warmer than Nice, but it was not “the place to be seen”. Prince Florestan decided to change that, and shortly before his death in 1856, he decided to build “a bathing establishment and casino” to attract the moneyed folk. A casino was opened.
His successor Charles III wanted something bigger and better and grand casino and several fancy hotels were built on a rocky plateau above the small port known as La Condamine. This Charles called Monte Carlo (after himself). The appearance of the casino was followed by the opening of a railway line from Nice and by 1869 Monte Carlo was welcoming 170,000 visitors each year, including trendsetters such as the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. Prince Charles then decided to make the place even more attractive by exempting Monaco residents from all personal, property or income taxes. The wealthy liked that and soon began to buy land and build villas.
The casino needed publicity of course and so it was good fortune when in 1875 an English engineer called Joseph Jagger spotted that one of the casino’s roulette wheels had a slight bias and that certain numbers came up more often than others. This enabled him to “break the bank”, an expression meaning the croupier at the table runs out of gambling chips. A few years later Charles Wells broke the bank 12 times, at one point winning 23 of 30 consecutive spins of the roulette wheel. The casino was never able to discover how he did it, but British musical hall star Charles Coborn had a huge hit in England with his song “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”, which did much to give Monte Carlo an even better reputation.
With so many wealthy residents, the principality soon had its own automobile club, known as the Societe Automobile et Velocipedique de Monaco (SAVM), headed by a tobacco manufacturer called Alexandre Noghes. He proposed holding a Monte Carlo Rally to bring more winter business to the town. At the same time the Nice-La Turbie hillclimb was organised for the first time. This would be revived after World War I, along with a second dramatic climb up Mont Agel. In 1925 SVAM renamed itself the Automobile Club of Monaco and three years later it applied to the Association Internationale des Automobiles Clubs Reconnus (AIACR), the international governing body of motorsport, to be upgraded from the status of a regional French club to get national recognition. Alexandre Noghes’s son Anthony was sent to Paris to seek AIACR membership. This was refused because the ACM did not host a race on its territory. In consequence Anthony Noghes decided to create one and proposed a Grand Prix through the streets. It was an extraordinary idea and some thought that the ACM was mad to embark on such a project.
“They have the most astounding audacity in some parts of Europe,” wrote The Autocar, when word of the idea first filtered to England. It was, the magazine concluded, an unlikely event in a Principality “which does not possess a single open road of any length, but has only ledges on the face of a cliff”. The French were only a little less cynical, with La Vie Automobile noting that although it was the first time that a race had been held right in the heart of a city, “it goes without saying that the track is made up entirely of bends, steep uphill climbs and fast downhill runs.”
The idea of a race was supported by Prince Louis II and by local rising star Louis Chiron and impressive prize money was offered to attract the best names in the business.
The rest, as they say, is history…
The nice thing is that in the region one can still see places where history happened, as some parts of the region have barely changed in the last 100 years, despite Monaco’s excessive development. I was in La Turbie yesterday and took a photograph of the village square. I added an old picture just for fun. See what I mean?