Features - Historical
SEPTEMBER 19, 2000
How Monaco got a Grand Prix
BY JOE SAWARD
In the late 1920s Antony Noghes, a well-to-do cigarette manufacturer and a resident of the chic Mediterranean winter resort of Monte Carlo, came up with an unusual idea. He wanted to organise a race around the narrow streets of the principality.
Noghes was the founding president of the Automobile Club de Monaco, but his idea met with not only opposition, but also derision. It was absurd. Powerful racing cars threading their way between the houses, dodging tramlines and trees.
Noghes was not deterred by the critics. A successful and well-connected businessman, he set about making his dream a reality. His first task was to convince Monte Carlo that the race was a good idea. Noghes argued that a race would attract tourists to the city - and would benefit not only the hotel owners, but also the famous casino. Noghes was a personal friend of the Grimaldi family, the ruling house of Monte Carlo, and he convinced His Serene Highness Prince Louis II that a race would be a boost for the principality. The Prince agreed.
His next task was to convince the sport's international federation to sanction the race. Initially, the idea was thought impossible, but the persuasive M Noghes managed to change the minds of those in Paris.
Having achieved this, he next secured the financial backing for the event, convincing the Societe des Bains de Mer, owners of the casino, to underwrite his enterprise.
As he fought to make the race a reality, he planned out what he believed would be the perfect racing track. It would be 1.97-miles in length, starting on the Quai Albert 1er, behind the harbour promenade. At the end of the starting straight, by a tiny chapel called Ste Devote it would sweep right, steeply uphill, past the grandiose hotels towards the casino. As it crested the rise, the track swept round to the left, through the gardens of the casino, before plunging downhill, through a series of tricky turns, past the station and under a railway arch, to emerge on the waterfront. From there it would curl right, through a short tunnel under the Tir au Pigeons and into the harbour, where it would jink left onto the pavement of the promenade itself. At the end of the promenade, close to the gasworks, there was a hairpin back onto the Quai Albert 1er.
There were trees, lamp posts and tramlines along the way but, on April 14, 1929, Noghes dream came true. The streets were barricaded with sand bags and hoardings. There were wooden bridges to allow the spectators to move freely around the town.
It would be the second Grand Prix of the year - an invitation race with a free formula. All the top drivers of the day received invitations to compete.
There were 23 entries, but only 16 cars arrived, and one of these too late to take part in practice. This was the Bugatti Type 35B of 'Williams', who woke the town on the morning of the race as he completed a few unofficial laps of the track.
The field was dominated by 2.3-litre supercharged Bugattis (four Type 35Cs, three type 35Bs and a single Type 37A). These were driven by such as Algerian Marcel Lehoux, 'Philippe' (the pseudonymous Philippe de Rothschild of the famous banking family), a young Rene Dreyfus, Philippe Etancelin and Belgian Emile Bouriano.
From Germany came 28-year-old Ruedi Caracciola driving a huge 7.1-litre Mercedes-Benz SSK which, according to the critics was far too large a car to negotiate the twists and truns of the track. There were a pair of Alfa '1750's, driven by Louis Rigal and Freddy Zehender, a couple of Maseratis, a singleton Delage and a little-known La Licorne.
In keeping with the best traditions of the sport, the cars were painted in the national colours of the drivers. Bouriano's Bugatti was yellow for Belgium, the French were in blue and 'Williams' had a British racing green 'Bug'.
'Williams' was an Englishman, William Grover, although he was born and raised in France. Employed as a chauffeur to the famous Irish artist Sir William Orpen in Paris, he preferred to remain anonymous.
Ironically, missing from the field was Monaco's own Louis Chiron, the winner of the first GP of the year, who was forced to miss his home race, as he was in America, contesting the Indianapolis 500.
The grid was drawn by lottery and Etancelin found himself on pole position with the little-known Dauvergne (Bugatti) and Lehoux sharing the front row. 'Williams' was on the second row and Caracciola in the huge white Mercedes was way back on the fourth row.
The 100 lap race began in a roar of noise as the field accelerated away towards Ste Devote with Lehoux and Etancelin scrapping for the lead.
By the end of the first lap 'Williams' had taken the lead. Lehoux was an early casualty, crashing into the sandbags on the waterfront. The man to watch, however, was the brilliant Caracciola who manhandled the huge Mercedes up to second place by lap 10 and began to close in on the green Bugatti. It was an entertaining scrap and the thousands of spectators, perched at every possible viewing point watched as Caracciola challenged for the lead on lap 30. It was the classic fight: david versus Goliath, the huge Mercedes versus the tiny Bugatti. For five laps the German led then 'Williams' forced his way ahead once more. His lead would be short-lived, for on lap 49 he stopped to refuel. The pit stop took 90secs, by which time Caracciola and Bouriano were ahead. 'Williams' attacked and when his ivals pitted, he was once again in front. Caracciola, so brilliant in the early part of the race, was delayed, spending five minutes in the pits. Caracciola re-emerged from the pits and began an amazing charge, catching and overtaking everyone but 'Williams' and Bouriano.
The first [sl10]Grand Prix de Monaco[sl0] had been a great success. Despite the fears of accidents, there had been no major incidents. The crowds had seen something totally new - and incredibly spectacular - and they liked it. Across Europe other towns began to plan street races: Pau, in the south west of France; Douglas on the Isle of Man; Nice; Nimes and Biella and Modena in Italy.
Sixty-two years later Monaco remains the greatest round-the-houses race. The epitome of what motor racing is all about: speed, noise and glamour. It is a race that every driver wants to win and every enthusiast wants to visit.
If people laughed when Antony Noghes suggested the idea, they no longer mock the idea - Monaco is the most important race in F1 calendar...