As we headed for Monte Carlo so we encountered a track the absolute antithesis to Barcelona in terms of what a driver is able to do to transcend the limitations of his car.
The Spanish track has too many fast, long-duration corners for the driver to be able to trick the car beyond its true level. Yes, he can induce oversteer by the way he turns in to negate any entry understeer he may have. But the penalty for that will come before the corner is over, when, with the oversteer corrected, the car then reverts to its natural understeer - meaning you've lost even more time than if you'd just accepted the initial understeer.
At Monaco, it's not like that. Almost every corner is a short, sharp direction change and then it's over. Plus, they are all at a speed at which aerodynamics is not the dominant force, where the mechanical aspects of the chassis are more important and these tend to be less insistent. So around here a driver who can override a car's natural tendencies will be quicker in the same car as the guy who just drives to the car's default limits.
With a great driver, by the time the car has registered that it's upset with what he's just done, the corner has passed and they're charging towards the next one, another chance to make up lap time over the less intuitive driver.
The place is unique in other ways too. Without run-off, with only walls and metal barriers, you cannot find the limit by going beyond it the way you can on tracks with lots of bland forgiveness areas. At Monaco more than anywhere, a driver needs to tune in to its rhythm, a rhythm that changes over the weekend as the surface builds - and loses - grip. This is a place where the art of driving is much more evident than the science, and therefore a place where extraordinary feats can sometimes be summoned in a way they cannot on the more conventional tracks.
To most of us with a love of the sport's history, think Monaco and you think of the great drives there - Jochen Rindt in 1970 when he made that Lotus do things that seemed to bend the laws of physics as he chased down Jack Brabham. Or the stunning silky pole-to-victory perfection of Jackie Stewart, 1971, his fastest lap a full second under his pole time - despite no rear brakes for the whole distance!
Or Gilles Villeneuve dragging the primitive Ferrari 126C round fast enough for the 1981 front row, mere hundredths slower than the vastly superior - and underweight - Brabham of Nelson Piquet. Or any number of very special Ayrton Senna moments, the most amazing of them when he was teamed with Alain Prost at McLaren in 1988 and '89. Then, the greatness of his qualifying performances bordered on the absurd.
As Prost says in Malcolm Folley's new book, Senna versus Prost: "It took me a long time to realise that Ayrton not only wanted to beat me but to destroy me." It was this attitude that underlay the risk characterised in Senna's driving, but it was always more apparent at Monte Carlo than anywhere else, especially in those two years alongside his greatest rival.
Folley quotes Senna's interview with Gerry Donaldson about his experiences in '88 there, when he said: "Suddenly, I was nearly two seconds faster than everyone else, including my team-mate in the same car. I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was kind of driving it by instinct, in a different dimension... I was way over the limit, but still able to find even more. Then suddenly, I realised I was in a different atmosphere. Immediately my reaction was to back off. I didn't want to go out any more because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding."
How could Prost, a normal guy with a conventional understanding of physics, possibly compete with this? But Prost is still here and Senna is not. You could do far worse than remind yourself of this fascinatingly intense rivalry in between catching the Monaco action.
To continue reading this feature, join Autosport Plus today.
Are you an Autosport magazine subscriber? Activate your online account
- Your Autosport Plus membership includes:
- Unlimited access to Autosport's news - no monthly cap.
- Read the best motorsport features, analysis and opinion.
- Explore Forix, our comprehensive motorsport stats database.
- Choose from a monthly or yearly membership.