My love of watching Formula 1 live and in person has taken me all over the world, but the one place I had never been to see a race before was the past. Until that was I had a chance to visit the Monaco Historic Grand Prix. Want to know what to expect? This is my experience of attending the Monaco Historic Grand Prix and some tips and advice for planning your trip.
Since 1997 this biennial festival of motorsport nostalgia has been hosting races for Formula 1 cars of yesteryear on the iconic Monaco circuit.
And make no mistake, this is no Sunday drive. Well okay, it is really but don’t be under any illusions. Just because they’re driving around in priceless museum pieces, these guys aren’t pussyfooting around like I or any other sane person would.
These are real racing drivers and once behind the wheel the competitiveness and ego take over and they really go for it, seemingly not afraid of putting a dent in these beautiful machines.
The Monaco Historic Grand Prix usually takes place two weeks before the actual Grand Prix and the double header is a great idea for any F1 fan who fancies a longer stay in the stunning Côte d’Azur. The next one is in May 2022 and you don’t need to risk tearing a hole in the space-time continuum to see it.
Schedule and Entrants
The event takes place over three days and mirrors a Grand Prix weekend with practice on Friday, qualifying on Saturday and races on Sunday.
There’s about half an hour between most sessions so just enough time to get some refreshments and get back to your seats. You certainly won’t have time to get bored between sessions. Races are 10-12 laps or 30-35 minutes, and 18 laps or 45 minutes for later F1 races.
In 2018 there were seven categories with cars ranging from pre-war Grand Prix cars to Formula 1 cars of the 50s, 60s and 70s, as well as a handful of early F2 cars and sports cars. And in case you’re wondering, yes these are all original cars – replicas are strictly forbidden.
|Series A||Pre-war Grand Prix cars
|Series B||Pre 1961- F1 and F2
Grand Prix cars
|Series C||Sports Racing cars -
front engine (1952 - 1957)
|Series D||F1 Grand Prix cars
(1961 - 1965)
|Series E||F1 Grand Prix cars
(1966 - 1972)
|Series F||F1 Grand Prix cars
(1973 - 1976)
|Series G||F1 Grand Prix
cars (1977 - 1980)
Looking at the participants I felt a tinge of disappointment that there would be no cars from the 90s. Hero worshiping Senna as a child as he fought wheel to wheel with Prost and Mansel, these cars always turn the nostalgia dial up to 11 for me. In the end though it was to be a completely different category of car that would be my surprise favourite this weekend.
Practical stuff – booking tickets, finding accommodation and transport to Monaco
Friday is a practice day and anyone can attend for free, no ticket required. Thanks to a last minute flight cancellation though I was on a train from Milan when practice got underway (thanks Ryanair). The F1 Spectator budget not quite stretching to the cost of a room at Monte-Carlo’s Fairmont, I arrived in Gare de Nice Ville Friday evening and checked into a hotel near the station.
I was back at Nice train station the next morning and took the 8.39am train to Monaco. One pleasing difference between this and the regular Monaco Grand Prix is how much more relaxed things are. There’s no big queue at the ticket machines and enough available seats on the train to bag a seat on the coast side and enjoy the views of the picturesque seaside towns of the French Riviera.
Once in Monaco temporary signs lead from the station directing spectators to the various grandstands. The signage wasn’t perfect and Monaco’s layout can be confusing even when you think you know where you’re going. Luckily there are plenty of staff on hand to ask directions. I followed the signs to Grandstand T, my grandstand for Saturday.
Qualifying Day: Stars ‘n’ Cars
By 9.15am I was seated in the grandstand, just in time to see qualifying for the early 1960s F1 cars. There’s a full program so things start early.
Saturday is a timed practice day that decides the starting positions for the races on Sunday. Just like the actual Grand Prix, grid position is everything here so Saturday can be just as exciting to watch as the race and it’s where drivers always push the limits.
I’d missed the session for the pre-war Grand Prix cars which started at 8.30am, but I’d decided (wrongly as it turned out) that I wasn’t so interested in cars from the pre-Formula One era – not as much as I was interested in an extra 45 minutes of sleep at least.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one making heavy use of the snooze button that morning as people tended to arrive at various times throughout the day. In the afternoon grandstands were a lot fuller but it was still possible to find spaces, even in the upper rows. The very back rows, which at Monaco have more comfortable seats, were usually snapped up by then though.
I took my favourite spot in T1 – the top row, at the end nearest the chicane. From here you have a fantastic head on view of the cars exiting the first Swimming Pool chicane and approaching the second as well as a clear view of the exit. Seats lower down on the same side are also really good and easier to get. The cars feel close enough to touch as they exit the corner bouncing across the curb and with no fence it’s a brilliant photo opportunity too.
Grandstand T is also a great place for people watching and looking out for famous faces. There were shouts of ‘Mika’ in the grandstand as the double world champion ambled down the pitlane. This was followed by sightings of Adrian Newey, Eddie Irvine and Riccardo Patrese.
It turned out that besides Newey (who was competing in his Lotus 49) they were all there for the F1 Heritage Parade where they would be doing some laps along with Karun Chandhok, Thierry Boutsen and Jarno Trulli who I hadn’t spotted.
You can read my full review of grandstand T and all other Monaco grandstands in the Monaco grandstand guide.
Race Day: Storm Clouds on the Horizon
On Sunday morning as I waited for the first pre-war machines to roar into life I watched a grey-haired couple being served a multiple course breakfast on the deck of their cruiser, while a deckhand was busily scrubbing down the starboard flank (as I’m sure it’s not called). I tucked into a slightly squashed croissant I’d hastily bought on the way to the station that morning.
What I lacked in breakfast, servants and boating terminology I comforted myself that I had a better view of the race track. Grandstand K – probably my favourite place to watch at Monaco. You can’t see the pitlane from here but the track action is second to none and the sound seems to surround you.
Sunlight sparkled in the azure waters of Monaco harbour like a scene from a postcard. At least that’s how the day started. Storm clouds were already gathering on the horizon, edging closer to the streets of Monaco.
When the series A race finally started I soon realized I’d made a mistake. These funny looking machines with their skinny tyres, the aerodynamic efficiency of a combine harvester and huge thundering engines were a joy to behold. What I’d decided were not worth getting out of bed for on Saturday were some of the most exciting cars to watch and even changed the way I think about Monaco as a race track.
Drifting through Tabac, almost floating with a grace and elegance that made later cars look clumsy and awkward. Suddenly Monaco made sense. These cars, much slimmer than later F1 cars, looked at home on the narrow streets . They are after all the cars this circuit was designed for when the first Grand Prix was held here in 1929.
The field was made up mostly of Bugatti’s, Maserati’s and ERA’s. A Bugatti T35B, victorious at the very first Monaco Grand Prix finished two laps behind and last.
1950s and 1960s F1 – Now in Glorious Technicolour
Next, Race D saw a close battle between Andy Mildlehurst’s Lotus 25 (1962) and Joseph Colasacco’s Ferrari 1512 (1964) with it’s distinctive blue wheels. The challenge from the Ferrari went down to the line, the Lotus taking victory by 0.6 seconds.
As if that wasn’t dramatic enough, the pair had barely crossed the line when there was a collision at Tabac and the crowd in grandstand K were on their feet. Iain Rowly had lost control of his Assegai and hit the tecpro on exit, later collecting Kurt Delbene’s BRP in a tangle of twisted metal.
Later the Series E race was just as tense at the front between two cars from the 1971 season. The sight of leader Bjorn Wirdheim’s March 711 squirming through Tabac and the chicane lap after lap while fending off Stuart Hall in his McLaren M19A was a thrilling show.
Fantastic Machines and Where to Find them – Visiting the Paddock
The three hour break between the series E and series F race’s was a perfect intermission to check out the paddock. The paddock isn’t widely publicized, but a visit is an absolute must. Being able to wander around the paddock, get close to these F1 legends is another old worldy throwback to Formula 1’s more accessible past.
It doesn’t get very busy so you can get very close to the cars. Also, keep your eyes peeled and you never know who you’ll see; apparently a certain Mr. Eclestone was seen hanging around there on Saturday.
This is one area where you’ll most need ear protection – I was nearly deafened by James Hunts Hesketh as it left the box to line up for the race. True it’s one of the more pleasing ways to lose your hearing but I would still recommend bringing some ear plugs if you visit.
To get to the paddock walk along Avenue de la Quarantaine and look out for a door on the left with a gazebo marking the entrance. Walk down five flights of steps and exit on the opposite side of the building. Famous Monaco burger bar Stars ‘n’ Bars is to the left and paddock access is to the right.
Lauda than Thunder: That ’70s Race
The Historic Grand Prix is a prestigious affair and many in attendance really dress up for the occasion lending the grandstands an air of elegance and sophistication.
The effect of this was dampened (pun intended) when in the afternoon the skies had finally opened, a prolonged heavy rain storm precipitating the use of disposable plastic ponchos.
Whatever crimes of fashion the rain had caused in the grandstands, out on the track the racing was improved by the situation. The remaining 1970s cars would be competing on a wet and drying track, adding an extra frisson of excitement to proceedings.
The series F race got under way and the giant screen showed just how tricky the conditions were as Roald Goethe lost control of his Tyrell 007 all alone on the start / finish straight, hitting the armco.
The 1970s cars seemed to generate the most excitement in the crowd. Besides the appeal of the 3-litre engine cars being the loudest, they are cars many in the grandstand would no doubt remember from the period and filled with names and liveries that many younger fans would recognize.
It’s a period distant enough to seem romantic but recent enough to be relatable to modern F1. Seeing the day-glow Marlboro McLaren and Niki Lauda’s iconic Ferrari 312B I had to pinch myself. It was like Rush the stage show.
I had to pinch myself again at the end of the race for something not seen in F1 for a while – a McLaren 1-2 finish. Michael Lions in the McLaren M26 as raced by Jochen Mass in 1976 took a commanding victory, completing the race in 34 minutes.
With a drying track and a full grandstand the stage was set for the final race for the 1977 – 1980 series G entrants. Too dry for wets but too wet for slicks, conditions were clearly the trickiest they had been all day and the 18 lap race saw more drivers spinning, crashing and just generally looking a bit silly than any other. The race was won by Martin O’Connell in a 1980 ATS D4, bringing to a close a fantastic weekend of racing in Monaco.
The Monaco Historic Grand Prix deserves a place in the bucket list of any motorsport fan. Its a must for anyone who gets off on the history of Formula One, the evolution of F1 machinery or just misses the sound of a real F1 engine. And as I discovered it can give even a long time fan of the sport a fresh insight into Formula 1 and Monaco.