The excitement begins at the start of every season, but bubbles and promises to burst through at the beginning of one particular race weekend – Monaco. There is something so special about Monaco, everyone will tell you that. If Singapore brings the bling to F1, Monaco brings the grace, the glamour, the passion, and the history.
And boy, this particular track oozes history. It is perhaps the one reason why I love the Monaco GP and why I wait for this particular weekend. My friends would probably roll their eyes and shake their heads. It’s not history, they would whisper, it’s because of Ayrton.
Yes, Ayrton too. My love for Monaco probably has a lot to do with Ayrton. He was crowned king of the circuit for winning the race here six times – a record that remains unbroken. There are two Ayrton in Monaco stories that are my favourite. Strangely, Ayrton didn’t win in either of these races, and yet, somehow they stand for what racing and Monaco truly means to me.
The first took place in 1984. It was Ayrton’s debut in Monaco, racing for Toleman, a team that wasn’t the best by any stretch of imagination. It was raining and Ayrton was 13th on the grid. Monaco, a tech-unsavvy car, and a bad spot on the grid is not a good combination in the best of times. I know what you will say. When did that ever stop Ayrton Senna? Sure enough, he climbed up the grid and then on the 19th lap blasted past Niki Lauda to take the second position. He started chasing Alain Prost, reducing the gap. It looked like Ayrton would score a maiden victory in Monaco. But the rain became worse and the officials stopped the race at lap 31. The gap between the two was at 4 seconds a lap. He finally passed Prost on the 32nd lap, but the race was over. The winner was Alain Prost with Senna at 2nd on the podium. In so many ways, this was a true blue Senna race, full of determination, focus, and an intensity that’s hard to rival.
It’s usually pretty darned difficult to overtake in pouring rain. But to do it in Monaco, according to me, lays bare a racer’s talent and calibre. This circuit, 3.340 kms in length is lined with Armco barriers. Errors don’t go forgotten or unseen. All it takes is a teeny-tiny mistake to say bye-bye to any podium dreams.
Ayrton discovered this in 1988. He had a phenomenal start with a qualifying lap that beat all. He finished 1.4 second faster than McLaren teammate Prost. It was like he was on a different planet, in his zone, racing against no one but himself. After the Qualifying, he said in what has now become a famous quote, “I was already on pole, then by half a second and then one second and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my teammate with the same car. And suddenly I realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. Not only the tunnel under the hotel, but the whole circuit was a tunnel. I was just going and going, more and more and more and more. I was way over the limit, but still able to find even more.”
This mystical experience gave way to Race Day with Ayrton in the lead. But at lap 67, just before the tunnel, he made an unlikely mistake, a lapse in concentration, perhaps. He crashed into the barriers. The race was over. In Ayrton Senna, Memories and Mementoes From a Life Lived at Full Speed, Christopher Hilton recounts this incident. It was a mistake, Hilton says, that changed Ayrton and the way he looked at racing, a “fundamental turning point”.
An angry Ayrton walked back to his Monaco apartment and closed himself off from the world. He later told L’Equipe, “It influenced my position in the team and my style of driving, but I hadn’t understood all of that before the stupid mistake at Monte Carlo. Afterwards, I had to understand how such a thing could have happened. We all make mistakes and that is normal, but the important thing was to know how I had let it happen. I really had a blackout. And then I found the way to get out of the situation. Some of my family helped me. Little by little I returned to top form, but only slowly and carefully. I needed a full two months. Viewed from the outside, I don’t think people noticed it, but it was a major part of my development.”
It was this sense of introspection, an analysis that set him apart from all the other drivers – then and now. And what better place to do it in, than on one of the most challenging tracks in the world. Monaco is not just a street circuit. It is like those circuits of old, replete with surprises that push the racer and the car to its limit. It is narrow and twisty, unforgiveable for those who think it easy, daunting and yet empowering. Driving an F1 car around Monaco, as Nelson Piquet once said, is “like trying to cycle round your living room”.
It seems almost logical then that the Monaco Grand Prix is around the corner. Especially since this is a season where a clear winner is far from certain. So, even though we can’t predict the winner this Sunday, one thing’s for sure. Only the best will stand at the podium.
All Ayrton Senna pictures from http://www.flickr.com/photos/institutoayrtonsenna/
(Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) )