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Monaco, 9th - 11th of May, 2014

The temporary race track in the principality of Monaco is without doubt the most famous “circuit” in the Grand Prix calendar, if not even within all race series. Since 1929 the best racing drivers of every generation came to Monaco to measure with the tricky wormed roads in the street canyons at the Cote d´Azure, even the most talented having “their moments” at the unforgiving narrow track. Where a mistake on other tracks might lead into the gravel the race in Monaco today ends in the guardrails or even in the harbour back in the days as Alberto Ascari did in his Lancia in 1955.

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For the 700th birthday of the principality the first historic GP was held in 1997 attracting more than 200 cars in different race groups giving the gentlemen drivers the once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the famous 3.3 km on their own. Planed as a singular event the success of the premiere led to a biennial edition from the year 2000 on so this last weekend saw the 9th historic GP.

In 7 different classes ranging from the pre-war years to the different post-war F1 and F2 regulations with an additional F3 race and a Sports Car Race representing the short intermezzo of the sports cars in 1952 the historic race cars were lined-up in the small paddocks in the harbour on Thursday afternoon for the scrutineering.

Friday morning started with the Credit Swiss Racing Forum in the drivers club featuring race drivers of the different eras including Sir Stirling Moss, Derek Bell and Jochen Mass plus Romain Dumas to share their memories on their Monaco appearances and other races from the past to get into the right mood for the following races. Furthermore Damon Hill and Alain Prost were demonstrating the Renault F1 from the Turbo era whereas Jacky Ickx was back on invitation of the official partner Chopard to drive the Auto Union Silver Arrows; especially the sound of the 16-cylinder C-Type was one of the highlights of the weekend.

Before the timed qualifying on Saturday every group had the chance to explore the track in a free practice, a very welcome opportunity for the newbies in Monaco but also for the seasoned historic racers, although the track is unchanged in the last years new buildings and fences change the look of the circuit very much making it difficult to find the previous braking points.

The first cars on the track were the pre-war cars from the late 1920s and the early 1930s, namely Bugatti, Alfa Romeo and ERA. In the last editions the light and nimble but yet powerful ERA seemed to be unbeatable running on all the podium places but this year two Alfa Romeo P3 were very strong competition, especially the one driven by Matthew Grist. Being son of the renowned Alfa restorer Paul Grist Matthew certainly knows how to drive this car and well from the beginning he was fighting with the fastest of the ERA, the Type B of Paddins Dowling for the victory. The ERA set fastest time in qualifying but it was the Alfa taking the chequered flag in the closest of all races with just a margin of 0.2 sec over the ERA in a photo finish. Pre-war races always have a very own atmosphere, although they are also driven hard the competitors are very respectful leaving each other enough room because a crash in these cars without any safety belt rarely ends without injuries. So it is no surprise that this category was one of the very few without a safety car phase or even a red flag during the entire weekend, something that could not be said from all classes. Another reason was certainly the small number of cars with just a dozen leaving enough room on the track.

More crowded was the appearance of the sports cars in Class C, limited to the year to 1955. With 40 cars this was one of the biggest fields of the weekend leaving just little room on the track. As the qualifying times ranging from 2 minutes from the fastest Jaguar C-Type to more than 2 ½ minutes from the back markers the race promised a lot of lapping during the 30 minutes, but apart from minor accidents including a bump from the second Jaguar C-Type of Nigel Webb to the Ferrari 340 MM of Roberto Crippa most of the high priced treasures came home unharmed. Right from the start of the race on Sunday afternoon the golden Jaguar C-Type of Alex Buncombe pulled away from pole position just followed by the Cooper Bristol of John Ure in about 10 second distance and the rest of the field over a minute back. In the centenary year Maserati was very well presented with several race models ranging from the two litre versions of the A6GCS and 200S to the 3 litre 300S, at the end the 150S/200S of Michael Willms was fastest of them on a fourth place just in front of the 300 S of Henri Chambon. Ferrari was presented by two 225 S of the type that won the 1952 sports car race here and a third of this rare coupés could be seen parked in front of the Fairmont Hotel.

Furthermore a 250 MM, the mentioned 340 MM, a 500 Mondial and a 625 TF were entered in the race but they were not competing for the first places but were even lapped by the Jaguar. Although untypical for the Monaco circuit this class was again one of the spectator’s favourites.

The third “exotic” class was the Formula 3 class from the years 1974 to 1978 with 2 litre engines. Back in the days this was the cheaper entrance in formula racing compared to the F1 and within a stricter regulation the drivers had to fight with equal weapons so a good driver could make himself known with good results in this series to attract a contract in F1. Today the F3 races and Formula Junior Races are very common at race meetings as there are plenty of cars available for the ambitious historic racer. In Monaco the F3 race was one of the main races with 18 laps in total and the second to last of the weekend. At the end no less than 14 Toyota powered F3 from Chevron, March, Lola, Osella or Ralt were on the first places followed by the first Renault powered Martini, the race was won by Paolo Barilla with the only Italian victory in a weekend mostly dominated by British drivers. The F3 race was the only race on Sunday with a safety car phase as it seemed that the less talented drivers and the more wanton ones were already taken out the day before in the timed qualifying. One reason is certainly that in the race the cars are already starting in the order of the drivers’ performance leaving less hairy situation with lapping than the qualifying where everyone is trying to get a clear lap in between the slower cars for the counting timed lap. Especially in the more powerful F1 qualifying sessions this led to many crashes.

Most obvious was this in the last F1 race for the cars of 1973-1978, with lap times at about 1 ½ minute (compared to 1 ¼ minute of the current F1 cars) they are pretty fast and both the car and the track seemed to be too difficult for some of the entrants. The weekend started the worst possible way as the Ferrari 312 T with the number 12 lost his entire oil from the Casino back to the paddocks on one of his first laps covering the entire track with oil sending several cars in the guardrails. Fortunately most of the impacts were very soft so the cars could be run the rest of the weekend but the marshals had to work hard to get the track clean over almost the full 3,3 km. After lots of oil binder and several laps of the street sweepers the track was clear again. Being the last of the qualifying sessions on Saturday afternoon it was finally stopped after no less than three red flags giving the worst expectations for the last race on Sunday but unfortunately no one was injured.

This era was just featured last year in the movie “Rush” showing the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt and Ferrari against McLaren. Although dominant back then it were not these two marques in front of the field but the smaller of Hesketh and Fittipaldi but also March and Williams fighting both for pole position and the winner of the actual race. After a one second gap in qualifying finally the Hesketh 308E of Michael Lyons won with more than half a minute over the March of Charles Nearburg, third came the Williams of Nick Padmore. Fortunately the weather this year stayed dry as two years ago this last race was held in pouring rain making it even more difficult to keep these cars on track. On could say that this was not a good weekend for the Ferrari pilots in the F1 races as the last of the remaining car, the 312 T2 (winner of the 1976 Monaco GP in the hands of Niki Lauda) just did one single lap before retiring.

Even less fortunate was the ex Jacky Ickx Ferrari 312 B2 in the race of Class E, the grand prix cars of the years 1966 to 1972. In this period one of the star lots at the RM Auction in Monaco, the Brabham BT20 won in 1967 in the hands of Denis Hulme followed by three Lotus victories with the Type 49. One of this Lotus 49 originally driven by Jim Clark to victories in the Netherlands, Belgium and USA was entered in this race but ended in the wall of St.Devote after loosing his wheel in the first practice session. It was another Lotus, the Type 72 entered by the Lotus Classic Team driven by Katsuaki Kubota who both set the pole time in front of Michael Lyons in the Surtees TS9 and winning over Duncan Dayton in the Brabham BT33. The Lotus is being known as one of the first cars with sponsor livery instead the team colours and the black-gold JPS livery is without doubt one of the best looking of an era when tobacco advertisement was normal. The race was ended two laps early after a red flag incident on the start-finish straight when a misunderstanding between the Ferrari 312 B2 and a March 721 blocked the straight. Being shown the blue flags the Ferrari changed the line overseeing the March who tried to lap the Ferrari on the inside, with just two more laps to go the race was not restarted.

Whereas the cars of the former categories featured already spoilers the Class D with cars from the 1.5 litre era 1961-1965 had the sleek cigar form of the Lotus and BRM with the famous Climax engine in the back. More exotic was the wonderful Ferrari 1512 that already made its post restoration debut two years ago when it was not fully sorted. This year the 12-cylinder Ferrari engine powered the car to a promising third place in qualifying giving hope for a podium finish that should just last for about one lap ending up in the wall as well leaving the victory to Andy Middlehurst in the Lotus 25, another one for the Lotus Classic Team.

One of the most entertaining races was the era of the F1 and F2 cars before 1961, when most of them were still front engined. After a second place in first practice German GT driver Frank Stippler, who is very well known for driving historic races in the last years, had to skip the second practice due to technical problems but his time was good enough for a sixth starting place. After a repair overnight he attacked the BRM in front of him coming home second behind the Cooper T51 Climax of Roger Wills. With 6 cars within 10 seconds after 8 laps this was the closest race of the weekend.

As one could see from the results this was a very expensive weekend for some of the entrants giving some restoration companies more work than expected. Monaco is a very demanding race track and not very suited for the unexperienced driver. Beside the own ability the preparation of the cars is most important and with all the professional race support (most of them from Great Britain were historic motorsport is still most common) it is a surprise that at least two crashes resulted from a lost wheel because of loose wheel nuts. Furthermore it was easy to see that the bigger the race group the more likely were the misunderstandings between the faster and the slower cars so even more than on other race meetings one had to look both the own and the competitors driving style before lapping or passing as unlike in modern professional racing the racing lines differed very much from driver to driver.

When the cars were rolling for some time it was still very interesting racing and the tribunes very well visited for a classic race meeting. With good weather in May the Cote d´Azure is well worth a visit and the addition of the RM Auction makes this a very attractive weekend to watch historic racing. In 2016 the tenth edition will be held and hopefully many interesting cars could be seen again in the jubilee year.

Report & images: Peter Singhof