UNmid the high life and hedonism of the fast lane, Formula One has long fetishised the glamour of the Monaco Grand Prix. Yet for Sir Jackie Stewart the spectacle played second fiddle to focusing on the unforgiving reality of racing in Monte Carlo.
Stewart won here with a majestic, untouchable performance on the streets of the principality 50 years ago in 1971. It was a drive from an era long gone that epitomised what it takes to master racing in Monaco.
Touring the circuit before the race, Stewart described the landmarks that really mattered from a driver’s perspective: “You brake here, by the manhole cover,” he bluntly told his companion, the film director Roman Polanski, before going on to note with glorious nonchalance how he would power slide his Tyrrell down the slope on the exit of Casino Square.
Polanski was with him in 1971 making the documentary Weekend of a Champion, about Stewart and the race. Both were at the peak of their powers. Stewart had taken his first F1 title in 1969, he would win another that year and another in 1973. His friend Polanski was at his most creative, shooting the film in between making Rosemary’s Baby e Chinatown.
The race saw Stewart at his best on one of the most challenging circuits in the world in the most cinematic of settings, winding between the walls of the town overlooking the sea and backed by cliffs. Overtaking then was very tricky but by no means impossible. Ronnie Peterson, who started in eighth, finished second but the challenge then, as now, demanded perfection of execution for every lap.
Stewart delivered a masterclass. He led from pole and swiftly opened a gap, putting in new lap records in a sequence of devastatingly quick circuits. By half distance he was 18 seconds clear and won from Peterson by 25 secondi.
It had looked flawless but Stewart admitted how close to the edge he had been, on one occasion kissing the barriers at the Tabac corner. He had been in the draft of Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus, which he was about to lap and was edged over by a sudden change of wind. Further demonstration of the unforgiving nature of the circuit had been delivered to Graham Hill. “Mr Monaco” had won the race five times, yet they counted for nothing when he clipped the barriers at Tabac and his Brabham was propelled across the road to crash out.
Polanski’s film is by no means a straight documentary, trying as much to portray the atmosphere surrounding the weekend with cameos from Ringo Starr, Grace Kelly and Joan Collins. Yet it does capture why the race remains so special to the drivers, even if nowadays the racing itself lacks the wheel-to-wheel edge of the sixties and early seventies.
“Just driving on the track, going into the tunnel, up into the Casino, the whole experience is mesmerising,” says Lewis Hamilton. “That never changes and the feeling of winning here is never any less, every year it’s unique and special.”
When Stewart climbed from his car into the arms of his wife, Helen, the heat from the cockpit had left him feeling nauseous and he said he could barely stop himself being sick as the anthems played and he accepted his laurels.
Rightly, his achievements and those of his contemporaries on the streets of Monte Carlo are recognised by the current drivers but, much as they might not be able to vie with one another on track, the fundamental test Monaco will present this weekend remains just as it was.
“Those years were amazing,” said Fernando Alonso, who has won here twice. “To drive those cars around Monaco, I can only imagine how hard it was and how tricky it was. At the same time now we have cars that go 15 o 20 seconds faster than those times. It is still the same challenge. At the end of the day it is the same spirit in the driving.”