Divorcing Monte Carlo?

After Formula 1 news outlets reported an agreement for a street race in Las Vegas shortly before the first Miami Grand Prix held under Formula 1 rules, Zak Brown drew major public attention. He did so by questioning one of the most established street circuits in motorsport. In the wake of the Las Vegas excitement, Brown mused that the addition of such glamorous places puts pressure on the Principality of Monaco to alter its venue and the contract it has with Formula 1’s commercial management.

It is widely known that Monaco pays a mere pittance of hosting fees compared to other venues that currently house Formula 1 races. It is also known that the Monaco Street Circuit is in many ways a relic of long-gone times, skirting by despite being both too short and too unsafe for modern times. With those two facts in mind, Brown suggested that this special status should be left in the past. His reasoning is that new additions like Singapore and Las Vegas are more than capable of providing equal glamour while paying normal hosting fees. He suggested Liberty Media should demand equal payment from Monaco and that the city should do what is within its powers to adjust the track to the necessities of contemporary Formula 1 cars. Brown then tried to dampen his words by stating that he appreciated the history of the track, but pointed out that, just as the sport is bigger than any one team or driver, it is bigger than any one Grand Prix. A few days ago Christian Horner made similar comments, stating that while he believes a Formula 1 without Monaco to be unimaginable, yet Monaco would need to adjust to the needs of the current era.

The reactions among Formula 1 fans and drivers were, as could be expected from such a controversial take, split: for example, Pierre Gasly emphatically rejected Brown’s view, stating that Monaco was the “most iconic race in the world” and said the track was his favourite venue on the calendar. Fans online could be found arguing either way. A number of posts said that Brown’s statement was tantamount to sacrilege, that one of the richest histories in Formula 1 should not be talked about like he did. They said Monaco should have a place on the Formula 1 calendar for as long as there is a calendar (or, for that matter, as long as there is a Monaco). Others were less traditionalist, feeling that races at Monaco would be complimented if they were called a “chore to sit through”. Their feelings are that Monaco is done, a relic of old times that only gets a pass where less traditional (read: European) venues do not because of its history.

Generally speaking, the author considers himself more in the conservative camp of Formula 1 fandom. However, in recent years, a factor has emerged that has left the author to believe that this long-lasting marriage, much like a drunken wedding in Las Vegas 48 hours after the fact, has lost its spark. This factor is a series that the Gravel Trap has dealt with more than once, and not always in the most complimentary of ways: Formula E. Monaco had been on the Formula E calendar in its opening season. However, for all Gen1 years and the first Gen2 season, the Monaco ePrix used an alternate version of the Monaco circuit. That version used the Avenue J.F. Kennedy to get back to Tabac and skip almost every part of the Formula 1 sectors 1 and 2.

When the Monaco ePrix returned in 2021, it used the full layout with only a minor improvement to the Nouvelle Chicane. Polesitter António Félix da Costa managed to take the first victory around the full street circuit. For 2022, the Nouvelle Chicane alteration was abandoned and Formula E used the exact same layout the Formula One Grand Prix will use two weeks from the release date of this Gravel Trap column.

This fling of Monaco and Formula E may however have shown us what a future without Formula 1 could be like on the streets of Monaco. The reason why Formula E makes the idea of a divorce between Formula 1 and Monaco appealing to the author is very simple: the Formula E races on the full Monaco layout were awesome.

If this Gravel Trap were about ranking world championship races at Monaco this millennium, both Formula E events would easily place in the top 5. The only Formula 1 races at Monaco from this time period the author would consider placing equal or above the Formula E events would be 2008, 2014 and 2018. 2001 too, if we are being generous, for the novelty of Enrique Bernoldi showing masterful blocking against a world championship candidate that would be the beginning of that contender’s downfall.

Even if the second Monaco ePrix on the full layout took quite a bit of time to get spicy, it was still infinitely better than the usual Formula 1 content around the streets of the principality. Despite the fact said excitement only arrived because one of the author’s favourite drivers suffered a technical retirement that robbed Porsche of a guaranteed victory and pretty much ended their world title dreams, he still had more fun watching that race than most Formula 1 races in recent months. 

However, that point is not to be understood as a critique against Formula 1. It has produced quite a few entertaining races itself in recent months and years. To pick the most recent ones, the author loved the Formula 1 Rolex Gran Premio del Made in Italy e dell’Emilia-Romagna 2022 and enjoyed last year’s Russian Grand Prix quite a lot as well. The dissonance between the entertainment Monaco is capable of and the entertainment its Grand Prix actually provides is not caused by any inherent boredom of Formula 1..

There is a clichéd break-up phrase that seems to apply for both sides in this situation: “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Formula 1 would need slimmer cars, perhaps with less power or less grip to make the most of the necessities of the Monaco street track, whereas said track would need to be wider and offer more risk-free overtaking spots to showcase the full abilities of Formula 1 cars. With other series providing much more bang for your buck, and other tracks being willing to pay Formula 1 significantly more money, perhaps it would be better to just go separate ways instead of continuing something that does not quite work in the modern age simply for the sake of reliving how things were. 

The history Formula 1 has at Monaco is beyond reproach and a list of all breathtaking Monaco magic would be longer than most GPR profiles. Still, one cannot help but notice that most of those moments are from long-gone times. Think of Schumacher’s magic first laps where he pulled out around four to six seconds a lap in the opening stages of the 1997 event. Think of Olivier Panis surviving the mayhem of the 1996 event to take his first and only Grand Prix win. Think of Roberto Moreno hauling the Andrea Moda C4B on the grid in 1992. All of that is now at least 25 years in the past and very few new memories worth keeping are coming along. The last heroic memories of Monaco are Daniel Ricciardo keeping his Red Bull alive to fight off Sebastian Vettel in 2018 and Jules Bianchi scoring Marussia’s first points in the 2014 event. Those Grands Prix are now four and eight years old respectively. That’s a rather long time between heroics worthy of the epics of Formula 1 history. Certainly, it was not like every Formula 1 race from the old days was gold, but you were much more likely to get a story worth talking about on a yearly basis.

However, just like a real divorce, this motorsport divorce is something to be considered very carefully. First, let’s look at what Formula 1 would lose. Despite the claims that Formula 1 is bigger than any single Grand Prix, Monaco is still a valuable brand to have to fans both rich and average. The 2021 Monaco Grand Prix produced the highest TV rating for a Formula 1 broadcast on ESPN2 of all time (and, in fact, the fourth-highest cable Formula 1 audience in the United States of all time). Given the importance of the American market to Liberty Media, those numbers would give anyone in their offices pause when pushing Monaco for concessions. While Formula 1 claims it could replace any track with three willing spenders (and we have little reason to doubt them given the perpetual rumours about potential additions), losing the Monaco Grand Prix would also involve losing $15,000,000 outright. Paired with the prestige loss, it would perhaps not be worth it to go for a slightly higher-paying venue. 

Monaco, on the other hand, would lose the privilege of hosting one of the most popular Formula 1 races around. While they pay the aforementioned 15 million to host the event, as a tax haven they obviously are not particularly keen on listing out how much money the microstate earns through tourism and other expenses related to the Grand Prix. While the Formula E events were undoubtedly awesome, it is just as undeniable that Formula E does not have a profile that can hang with Formula 1

So far, the Monaco ePrix has not yet seen too many celebrities being at the ePrix for a relaxed Saturday. Furthermore, while Formula E has a number of great motorsport names competing in it (such as Porsche and Andretti), those names just are not a McLaren or a Ferrari. The last one is particularly important since in the 2009 row between the FIA and the Formula One Teams Association, Monaco’s Grand Prix organisers were vocal about not wanting a Formula 1 race without Ferrari on the grid. As Ferrari has little to no investment in electrical motors, we will wait a long time before a Maranello-backed team will compete in the series.

For now, these considerations are merely hypothetical in nature. Monaco has stated that there are absolutely no considerations for a split and that the only question about the continuation of the Monaco Grand Prix is in contract length. 

Formula 1, however, needs to force more rounds on a calendar on the verge of overflowing for the sake of maximising profit. Additionally, there is rather limited potential to alter the Monaco streets without completely destroying the soul of a circuit that has proven it can provide excellent and thrilling racing with the right cars. 

With those facts, it might be in the best interest of both parties to go their separate ways. Why keep a partnership going that is making neither side look their best? Why raise a generation of new fans on the idea that Monaco is a dull event solely kept around to stop old elitists from moaning about the sport they grew up with changing? Why not offer them more thrilling purpose-built F1 facilities? Why, as a sovereign prince of a coastal city inevitably threatened by rising sea levels caused by man-made climate change, not embrace alternative propulsion methods? Why not allow Formula E to showcase why Monaco used to be the highlight of a Formula 1 season in the old days? 

All sports evolve

All relationships evolve. 

Sometimes, no matter how beautiful the memories you had were, the best thing is to just let go.

Sources: Autosport, motorsport-total.com, Racer.com, Speedweek 

Image sources: Automobilista 2, Jaguar Racing, Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team