In the popular imagination, the recent history of the centuries-old city-state of Monaco is as much about the marriage of a beautiful American movie star, Grace Kelly, to the reigning prince, as it is about other international events, like the circus festival, tennis tournament and the Grand Prix, which has been run through the principality’s streets since 1929. This year's race is Sunday.
“Monaco is the most glamorous and historic race on the calendar,” said Jenson Button, a driver at the McLaren Mercedes team, who won the race with the Brawn team in 2009. “Winning there was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and it remains one of my favorite Grand Prix victories.”
Indeed, there is no other race on the Formula 1 calendar as glamorous, iconic and exciting as the Monaco Grand Prix; in fact, there is no other auto race in the world as rich in those qualities. For that reason, despite the absurdity of running 800-horsepower cars through the narrow, winding streets of this stylish city, the series has never been able to face the idea of doing away with the jewel in its crown.
“The street circuit may be somewhat anachronistic when we usually care so much about safety, but the race is so special on the Formula One calendar that for once, you just go for it,” said Michael Schumacher, a driver at the Mercedes team, who has won the race five times. “What I also like is that it must be great for the fans to be close to the cars and experience the power.”
There is so little space in the .7-square mile, city that the Monaco Grand Prix track is squeezed in and the spectators are closer to the cars than they are at the permanent circuits built with safety in mind.
The city and the series fit so well together partly because on many levels Formula 1 and Monaco are about the same thing: the super-rich and their high-flying excess, glamour and glitz. Many of the drivers have homes in Monaco, where they can live tax-free and remain well situated for constant travel in Europe, with the Nice airport nearby.
The city-state has a population of 36,000 and the highest GDP in the world, at $215,163. It is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and is tax-free for all residents except French citizens who arrived there after 1957.
Only Vatican City is a smaller country, and Monaco has been ruled by the Grimaldi family since 1297. In 1956, Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier were married in a televised ceremony that attracted international attention like the recent royal wedding in Britain.
The prince and princess were always associated with the race, appearing at the awards ceremony until the princess’s death in a car accident in 1982. Prince Rainier reigned for 56 years until his death in 2005, and today his son, Prince Albert II, rules the state. Prince Albert has also long attended races, even while his father was alive, and he now appears at the post-race awards ceremony.
The Monaco Grand Prix is also the race attended by the most stars, athletes and other celebrities, and that is usually helped by it being run at the same time as the Cannes Film Festival, just up the coast — although this year the festival ended a week before the race.
In terms of entertaining sponsors and doing business, Monaco is the most important race for Formula 1 and the most in demand commercially.
For the spectators, it is also convenient as a tourist destination, as they may stay in and visit the many towns along the French coast and travel to the race by the trains running beside the sea. And Italy is only 16 kilometers away.