We have been blessed with some fabulous Monaco Grands Prix, which is amazing given what an improbable place it is to hold a race. But which race was the best, taking into account everything that makes Monaco so beguiling: the cars and drivers of course, but also Monaco's unique architecture in the strictest sense of the word, its buildings, balconies and balustrades and its hillsides, harbor, its tunnel, its roads and the Mediterranean Sea that defines, confines and embraces the Principality.
Before the modern Formula 1 World Championship began in 1950, we had Bugatti T35Bs and T51s holding sway from the inaugural race in 1929 which was won by the mysterious "Williams" (William Grover, newly re-discovered as a French Resistance hero in Joe Saward's book, Grand Prix Saboteurs).
Indeed, so dominant were these cars that in 1930 that Bugatti took the first 10 places. Rene Dreyfus won by the legerdemain of having a reserve gas tank that let him go farther than the other Bugatti 35s in the race, running the complete 100 laps without a pit stop.
Later on in the 1930s another familiar feature of the Monaco landscape, Scuderia Ferrari, made its first appearance at Monaco, but not with a "Ferrari" grand prix car just yet.
Enzo Ferrari was at that point managing the Alfa Romeo race team (but with a Ferrari prancing horse insignia on the louvered bonnet of the Alfa Romeo P3s run by Scuderia Ferrari), and Ferrari's team won first time out in 1934 by half a minute.
Prior to the Silver Arrows completely taking over the last half of the decade, in 1932, Alfa Corse (Alfa Romeo's factory team) had a kind of 'team orders' victory at Monaco with Tazio Nuvolari's Alfa Romeo 8C edging out by three seconds his team-mate, Rudolph Caracciola, in a similar white-painted machine.
The architecture of Monte Carlo
The start of the 1933 Monaco Grand Prix © LAT
Taking stock of the Monte Carlo infrastructure as of the mid-1930s, the distinctive architectural features that have made the Monaco Grand Prix so captivating and unique to fans worldwide were evolving.
To begin with, an essential part of the Monaco atmosphere was already in place: the Mediterranean and the elegant but compact harbour, with the yachts and single-smokestack steamships sheltered by a breakfront from the sea, sharing docking space with the humble fishing boats tied up to the docks near town.
On shore, the streetscape of Monte Carlo was still filling itself out but the main architectural elements were in place.
The brick aqueduct at the Virage du Portier turn, with its graceful Romanesque arches that ran high above the sea, provided a backdrop for the race cars as they headed out of town. Passing by the arches and the streetlamps, they aimed for the sea and the quayside in the area we now know as the tunnel and the chicane.
The part of the course that remains almost unchanged from the 1930s is the picturesque run past the Ste. Devote Church, now, effectively, Turn 1 on the modern course, with the church itself invisible, tucked away at the foot of the hill leading up to Casino Square.
As the cars navigate Ste. Devote and accelerate up the hill past the old Beau Rivage hotel site, they pass the low colonnade of tiny shops at Massenet corner - a graceful left-hander that gives way to the centerpiece of the course, Casino Square. Here, two imposing Beaux Art masterpieces face one another with the track weaving between the two buildings - the Monte Carlo Casino on driver's right and the exclusive Hotel de Paris on the left, the ensemble constituting the epitome of Monaco Grand Prix infrastructure.
Nuvolari and Fangio would recognise this famous crossroads, so little has it changed from their days.
And how did Monte Carlo's visitors get to the legendary Casino and its hotel across the street? In older pictures of Monte Carlo you see a railroad running along the Mediterranean and across the Romanesque arches directly into town.
On top of the aqueduct were railroad tracks that brought trains pulled along by locomotives steaming into the station from all over Europe to the Principality of Monaco for business or pleasure. The terminus of the railroad tracks was the elegant Monaco train station with its coloured brickwork, ironwork and fanlight glass overhang to shelter train passengers from the sun and the rain, located at the tightest hairpin on the track, the "Station Hairpin" as it came to be known. Across from the railway station in the 1930s was the Hotel Terminus whose sign announced "Oevert Toute L'Annee!"
The Station Hairpin figured into many a race. In 1955, Fangio was leading in his usually bulletproof Mercedes-Benz W196 when his transmission failed at half-distance and he retired, pulling the Mercedes-Benz onto the curbstone and abandoning the car at the entrance to the Monaco Railroad Station. As if he was catching the next train to Paris.
Lorenzo Bandini (Ferrari 1512) leads Jack Brabham (Brabham BT11 Climax) © LAT
By the time John Frankenheimer came to film the movie "Grand Prix" in 1966, the Monaco Railroad Station had disappeared, a defining element of the circuit lost forever, ultimately replaced by a succession of undistinguished concrete and glass hotels, including the current one, the Fairmont Monte Carlo. A saving grace of the Fairmont is that there is a pool on the top floor which provides a unique birdseye view of the cars snaking through the Station Hairpin, the slowest corner in Formula 1.
Another integral part of the serpentine of turns leading to and past the Station Hairpin is still more or less part of the circuit, the stretch that runs down from Mirabeau to the Mediterranean.
This part of the circuit still goes by a luxuriant tropical garden called the Jardin Exotique, probably the largest extant green space in all of Monte Carlo. After that, on a driver's right comes a fabulous cascade of beautifully designed stairs and tree plantings but the balustrade on the driver's left side as they approach the Station Hairpin that used to be there is gone now.
The little concrete island at the apex that defines the hairpin has been experimented with continuously over the years, at times prettified with plantings, all of that having given way over the years to the Spartan look we see today, which is a rock garden with some tropical plants and a tall and ugly light pole that has replaced the Victorian streetlamps that Carraciola and Rosemeyer drove by.
After the cars emerge from the tunnel that parallels the Mediterranean, there is the tricky chicane - the scene of many spectacular accidents, including Lorenzo Bandini's fatal crash in 1967, Ascari's plunge into the Mediterranean in '55 and, more recently, Kimi Raikkonen ramming Adrian Sutil out of fourth place last year.
The chicane has changed its location and configuration over the years. In the 1930s it was defined by boards and sandbags, now it is made up of phony kerbs and a 90-degree turn, but constitutes about the only place to chance a pass on this impossibly tight course.
As for the modern swimming pool complex, built on land reclaimed from the sea, the less said the better (although the breathtaking switchback entry to the swimming pool catches provides great TV), and oh for the return of the long-gone Gasometer or Gasworks Hairpin on the far side of the course. A true 180-degree right-hander that was formerly a perfect match to the Station Hairpin at the other end of a racetrack. Today, we have the Rascasse corner as a substitute, and the new pits constructed two years ago are roughly located where the Gasworks Hairpin once anchored that end of the course.
To me, it was the symmetry of those two challenging hairpins at opposite ends of this storied town - the Station Hairpin and the Gasworks Hairpin - that defined what made Monte Carlo a great place to hold a race.
So in deciding what was the 'Best Monaco' of all, to my mind, it was to be a race that happened when all these charming architectural and infrastructure elements existed at the same time as the racetrack itself was in its optimal two-hairpin configuration. And the drivers and the cars also have to be sufficiently interesting and varied enough to live up to the circuit.
The candidates for best Monaco
Juan Manuel Fangio, Alfa Romeo 158 © LAT
In 1950, the first year of "modern" F1, and in only the second race of the new world championship, Fangio won the race with elegant Alfa Romeo 158. But the ocean ruined that race when, on lap one, a wave broke over the seawall just past the chicane at the Tobacconist's Corner, "Tabac", and caught most of the field off guard which led to a chain reaction accident that destroyed nine cars.
One notable point about the 1950 race weekend was that in the supporting 500cc Formula 3 race, Stirling Moss took his first win at Monaco.
The next Monaco Grand Prix was in 1955, and that race had great promise since it was the year of "the Train", Fangio and Moss as team-mates driving the stunning silver Mercedes-Benz W196 that had dominated the 1954 and 1955 seasons. Mercedes-Benz even brought their unique and great-looking blue transporters, designed to look like the then-current Mercedes-Benz sedan.
Not to be outdone, the equally iconic red Italian V8 Lancia D50s, pannier tanks and short wheelbase were a beautiful sight, so this 1955 race gets high marks for Monaco atmosphere.
But in the end, Fangio's unbreakable W196 did the unthinkable and broke its rear axle mid-race while leading and then 30 laps later, Moss's W196 caused him to give up the lead when it developed mechanical problems. Then Ascari, who was then second on the racetrack and would have inherited the lead in his Lancia D50, went for his famous swim in the Mediterranean after missing the chicane. This left the victory to the unspectacular but consistent Maurice Trintignant in his Ferrari 625. We cannot have a victory by default as the 'Best Monaco', so 1955, appealing as it is for various reasons, is out of contention.
In the wake of the 1955 Le Mans disaster, Mercedes-Benz withdrew from racing at the end of the season. As a result, the 1956 Monaco Grand Prix shaped up as an Italian showdown between a Fangio-led team of four Ferrari-Lancia D50s and Moss, who headed up a collection of five Maserati 250Fs. Fangio, of all people, got out of shape at Ste. Devote on lap one and then, hurrying to catch up, made another mistake at Tabac and bent a wire wheel.
After abandoning his own car in the pits, Fangio took over team-mate Peter Collins' car and stormed back through the field to finish second to Moss. But, despite his late charge, the margin of victory was not all that close, with Fangio six seconds in arrears at the finish line.
Moss's first F1 victory at Monaco, but not the best of races, so the 1956 race is disqualified. Happily, Moss's winning Maserati 250F (Chassis No. 2522(A)) is still in existence and the car is to be offered at auction before this year's Monaco, valued at $1.7 million.
Giorgio Scarlatti (Maserati 250F) passes the crashed Lancia-Ferrari D50s of Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn © LAT
The 1958 race was noteworthy as signaling the increased superiority of the British marques, with Vanwall, BRM, Cooper and Lotus overwhelming the more traditional Italian teams of Maserati and Ferrari in qualifying and occupying the first five positions on the grid. Nevertheless, Mike Hawthorn was in his championship year and moved up in his front-engined Ferrari Dino 246 from sixth on the grid to lead before his fuel pump packed in. Moss also led for a bit before retiring the Vanwall with valve problems.
With the two English hares out, the race fell into the lap of the ever-patient tortoise, Maurice Trintignant, this year driving a rear-engined Cooper T45 for Rob Walker. Another default victory for the little Frenchman then, not a Monaco Grand Prix for the ages. The race is however notable for Bernie Ecclestone's presence as a driver during practice. He attempted to qualify his Connaught B, bought at auction in October 1957, but did not succeed (though he has done well since!).
In 1959, the record books say that Jack Brabham won the race for Cooper Car Co. in a Cooper T51 - and significantly, it was the Australian's first grand prix win. But the day really belonged, as it often did at Monaco, to Stirling Moss, who led between laps 22 and 81, building up a 40-second advantage until his car suffered a damaged rear axle.
Brabham inherited the lead and held on for victory in his workmanlike way, five Coopers finishing in the top six.
In the 1960s, only the 1960-1965 races qualify for the 'Best Monaco' sweepstakes, since one of our architectural icons, the Monaco Railroad Station, was torn down before the 1966 race.
Although Graham Hill's victories for BRM in three successive years - 1963, '64 and '65 - deserve to be remembered, they were mostly walkovers, including the 1-2 BRM finish of '63. Close on paper but really a 'team orders' finish, with Hill leading his team-mate Richie Ginther over the finish line.
The 1962 race was compromised at the first corner when the wild Belgian Willy Mairesse dove inside everyone else at the Gasworks Hairpin in his Ferrari 156 - then a year-old design - triggering an accident in which five cars collided and resulted in the death of a track marshal. Surely not a recipe for the Best Monaco.
Stirling Moss (Lotus 18 Climax) © LAT
The Carlo Chiti-designed "lay-down" 120-degree V6 lowered the centre of gravity of the 'Sharknose', improving handling on the twisty streets. The engine was also believed to boast 190bhp, 10 more than the 65-degree V6. So, potentially, Ginther had the best package for the streets of Monte Carlo.
When the green flag fell (Louis Chiron doing the honours), Ginther got the better start into the Gasworks Hairpin and took the lead, with Jim Clark's Lotus 21 in tow and Moss next in the somewhat older Lotus 18 run by Rob Walker. When Clark dropped out on lap 11, Moss moved up and, inch-by-inch, drew in Ginther's Ferrari. He passed the lead Ferrari on lap 13 of the 100-lap race.
On lap 26, Phil Hill decided to make his run at Moss and Ginther, always a team player, let Hill by before the Station Hairpin and tucked in behind him. By lap 55, the more powerful Ferrari 156 began to settle in behind the Lotus-Climax and Hill, with Ginther trailing him, was catching Moss in nose-to-tail formation as the gap from Hill to Moss gradually fell to 4.5s.
These three cars were so close that the thrilled observers at the Railroad Station Hairpin could see the two Ferraris approaching the famous turn on one side of the horseshoe-like shape of the turn and watch Moss exiting in the Lotus on the other.
On lap 74 of 100, the Ferrari pit signaled Hill to let the rambunctious Ginther by, which he did as the two Ferraris came up the hill before Casino Square. Ginther chipped away at Moss's lead and by lap 87, could see Moss directly ahead of him. As the trio passed the pits, the gap was down to 3.5s and the pit board hung out for Ginther by his Italian mechanics was marked "Bravo" to urge on the Californian.
With eight laps left though, the much more experienced Moss remained unflappable and was so nonchalant that he gracefully waved to backmarker Maurice Trintignant in his Cooper-Maserati, as Moss lapped him (for the fifth time!) at the Station Hairpin.
While Moss was at ease and in the lead, Ginther was determined and relentless in his pursuit and pulled out all the stops. With seven laps to go, Ginther reduced the gap to Moss to three seconds, and the Ferraris now ran second, third and fourth. By lap 96 though, Moss had fought back and widened the gap to 5s.
As the final lap unfolded, Ginther made a last-gasp charge and Moss crossed the finish line just 3.6s ahead of Ginther, who had driven the race of his life in only his fifth GP. Only Hill finished on the same lap. So close was it that day that Ginther and Moss even shared fastest lap at 1:36.3.
Prince Ranier and Stirling Moss on the podium © LAT
It had been a hot day, in more ways than one, with Moss having the side panels on the dark blue Rob Walker Lotus 18 removed to better ventilate the car and himself. Moss's light blue Dunlop overalls showed broad sweat streaks as he stepped out of the Lotus and headed up to the Royal Box for presentation of the trophy.
It's at this point that the 'Best Race at Monaco' hypothesis breaks down in one important respect: the inimitable Princess Grace Kelly, for some reason, missed the closing ceremony and was not there to greet Sir Stirling. The only flawed feature of what was otherwise the best Monaco.