Some places are just special.
From the moment you catch your first sight of it, rounding a bend high above the sea and seeing it sprawling along the narrow gap below where the Mediterranean Sea meets the land, you know you're approaching a holy place. The clustered high-rises crowded together like a whispering crowd below the regal gaze of the Grimaldi palace. The yachts in the harbour. The mountains rising imperiously on all sides, frowning down on the little natural amphitheatre-and behind it all the stretch, the sweep of pearl-blue, sparkling and dancing in the sunlight like diamonds scattered over a blue carpet, you know this place is different.
Monaco. With a population of 36,000 people and an area of only 2.2 square kilometres, it's the 2nd smallest country on earth. It has a land border (in total) of only 4.7 miles. At its widest point the country measures only 5,000 feet wide. That's less than a mile. It's 4.1 miles long on its coastline.
Monaco is smaller than such illustrious world powers as the Spratly Islands, the Cook Islands and Réunion. Its police force (515 police officers) is over twice the size of its army (255 soldiers). The only countries it could beat in a war with its own army are Antigua's and Iceland's. It's so small that even the native population are outnumbered by foreigners, with only 21% of those living their being Monégasque. The whole country only has six bus routes and one train station. The entire railway system of the country consists of an underground tunnel from one end to the other.
It is a truly, spectacularly small place.
And yet...and yet, it is one of the most powerful countries on earth, financially. Its GDP per capita last year was $153,000. It contains the highest concentration of billionaires on the planet. Millions of every single currency unit flow through its casinos and high-class shops each year. It's a tax haven...a billionaire's playground.
It's also home to arguably the most prestigious motor-race on Earth...the Monaco GP.
First run in 1929, the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix will see its 73rd time round the streets of the city-state this weekend. The brainchild of cigarette manufacturer Antony Nogues, who has the last corner named after him, it is an iconic part of the motorsport calendar, combining glitz, glamour, the high life and very fast cars on very narrow roads with a very high probability of crashing. A lap of Monaco has been described as "like riding a bicycle around your living room" by Nelson Piquet. It's only two miles long - the shortest circuit on the F1 calendar. The Circuit de Monaco twists and turns, back and forth, rises up and down the hills, through tunnels, inches away from the sea, through hairpins, chicanes, fast corners and slow corners. It is terrifyingly, awesomely beautiful.
But don't take my word on how vicious it is. Watch. This is Nico Rosberg's pole-lap from 2014:
Look how narrow the streets are. Look at the speed. Look at the car-control and the precision required to throw a finely-tuned race car around public roads that many would be nervous taking a bicycle around in a race environment. Look at how the circuit never relents for a second, never lets the driver relax or even hold the wheel dead centre.
Imagine the concentration required to do that for one lap. Then imagine doing it for 78, close to 22 other cars, while listening to the radio, and watching constantly for drivers trying to overtake.
Now imagine it in the rain. When the sheets are coming down, and you can't see the cars in front of you, and the corners come out of the mist, each looking to hurl the unwary into the unrelenting steel of the barriers:
Now imagine it without any driving aids-in an F1 car built from steel, with road tyres. Like this. This is the peerless Juan Manuel Fangio, in a Ferrari, lapping the same circuit...on the same roads. It is three of the most beautiful minutes of automotive footage you'll ever see-including Fangio describing a lap with his hands. Ignore the music. :)
(of course, from 1:02-1:40 in that video, which is the best bit, you're watching Fangio chuck a Ferrari D50 around 1960s Monaco at full chat with original engine soundtrack, which is roughly the motorsport equivalent of watching a recording of Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel...while listening to Metallica do Master of Puppets in Seattle in 1989.
So let's take a lap, shall we?
You can't drive around the whole actual circuit...at least not in the intended direction. The roads don't allow it. Here is the track, as laid out around the harbour:
The start-finish straight isn't actually a straight at all. It's a long left hand bend sweeping up the Boulevard Albert 1er before the narrow first-gear right at Ste Devote. Then the long climb, accelerating uphill past the shops and apartments on the Boulevard d'Ostende up to 180mph, flicking left and right slightly, before braking then following the road left onto the Avenue Princesse-Alice and then right, downhill past the famous Cafe de Paris and Place de Casino.
Right again onto the Avenue Mirabeau and downhill through the hairpin by the hotel of the same name before the famous Loews Hotel Hairpin. Pass Tiffany's on your right, two more first gear rights through Portier and out onto the Boulevard Louis II, immediately into the unique feature of Monaco-the tunnel under the hotel. Here is a photo beautiful in its simplicity of Fernando Alonso in 2014 exiting Portier 2 and putting the hammer down for the Tunnel:
Look how dark it is in there. Like the mouth of hell itself. In you go.
On your right is a blank wall, on your left, the barriers and then a 30ft drop into the Mediterranean Sea. I can testify to this, because I've walked the track and through that tunnel...the F1 engines scream through like the wails of lost souls in the darkness before exploding back out into the light and braking almost immediately from 180mph to first gear for the Nouvelle Chicane (the bit that was missing on Fangio's lap, along with half the tunnel). On your left now is the harbour as you rocket along the Quai des États-Unis, left at Tabac in 3rd onto the Rue de la Piscine and through the Swimming Pool Chicanes-as you go through Tabac and down this stretch, you're only a few tens of metres and the Virage restaurant from the back of the pit wall. Two cars have gone into the harbour with crashes...neither saw the driver seriously injured.
Out of the Swimming Pool complex and past the famous restaurants lined up in a row at the Port of Monaco..Le Nautique, L'Explorer, Le Red...the bars where names like Moss, Clark, Fangio, Surtees and Hill used to enjoy an after-race drink, before you go right around three sides and past the front door of La Rascasse, surely the loudest French brasserie restaurant (and also one of the most brilliantly-located) on Earth...as this picture of Ayrton Senna going by the front door shows:
Then, it's the last corner. a first gear off-camber right through Nogues and away up the hill once again. A fast lap is around 1:26. Do that once, and you only need to do it 77 more times to win.
Monaco isn't just a circuit. It's unique in ways no other circuit will ever approach...indeed it's not considered safe enough to be a "new" F1 circuit under modern standards due to the narrowness and twisting nature. It's so narrow, in fact, that at some points, such as the Loews Fairmount hairpin, it's physically impossible for two F1 cars to go round side by side - and F1 teams have to adjust steering and suspension just to get their cars around it. In some ways, it's an anachronism...and the almost impossibility of overtaking means that passing is not something that happens often here, though drama does.
The thing with Monaco is that, unlike other circuits, it is eternal. Watch cars blast around today and in the dying tinny yell of their V6 turbos you can hear the echoes of Fangio's snarling Ferrari V12, Moss's rumbling Mercedes, the unholy wail of the V12 monsters of the late 80s and the growl of the V10s. Racing has seeped into the tarmac here like engine oil dripping from a cooling sump, and the blood of motorsport runs through the roads here so much that when the tarmac cracks in the summer heat, you can almost see it seep out.
The ghosts, too, are always close here, in a way that only Spa or Monza now can even hope to compare to. Even when the roads are empty and the circuit is shut down, if you're walking through the tunnel late at night and the waves are lapping on the other side of the wall, they may hush and you may feel the wind of Ascari's Maserati as it cuts the night air, or see the red-and-white shadow of Senna's McClaren Honda flash by in the darkness as the spirits come out to play, racing eternally.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow stretch to the last syllable of recorded time, just as Macbeth said. In Monaco, though, all the F1 yesterdays don't show "the way to dusty death"
Here, F1 racing lives forever, the ghosts of legends past are always your co-drivers, and contrary to what Amélie says, times aren't hard for dreamers. Of any age.
Je t'aime, Monaco. Pour toujours.