There are two F1 races that are “must-sees” for me each year and, perhaps predictably, they are are held on old circuits that have managed to resist the worst excesses of the chicane-insertion years. One is the Monaco GP, which survives against all modern reasoning, and the other is the Belgian GP on the Spa circuit.
It is easy to criticize Monaco; tight and narrow streets, no run off areas, plenty of concrete to punish the smallest of errors and (we’re told) no opportunity for passing. Yet it is an incredible spectacle, the only GP run through city streets and a tradition that the FIA dare not touch. And, in spite of its lack of passing places, it always gives rise to dramatic races and fierce tussles.
The strange thing about Monaco is that you are more likely to see cars passing each other on the track there than at any other circuit. Every year there seems to be two or three drivers who manage to progress up the leader board despite the race’s reputation for no overtaking.
Why is this? Could it be that the reputation is undeserved and that it is actually well within the bounds of possibility to pass at Monaco? I think the answer lies in several factors. For one thing, the circuit is so tight that the cars do not attain the huge speeds they achieve elsewhere; it is risky to attempt a passing manoeuver but the slower speeds mean that there is more chance of halting the car before disaster occurs. This encourages the more determined drivers to have a go anyway.
And determination plays its part too. Most of the overtaking at Monaco happens away from the first few places and involves either drivers who have little to lose by risking a racing accident or top line drivers who have been relegated to the back of the grid by misfortune or a misdemeanor – they, too, have nothing to lose.
It is true that any passing manoeuver at Monaco requires some co-operation from the driver in front; it would be very easy to be obstinate and send both cars crashing into the wall. Yet every driver wants to finish the race and so, generally, once the car behind has the inside of a corner, the driver in front will allow discretion to be the better part of valor.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that passing does happen at Monaco. And that is more than can be said for many of the modern circuits.
Spa is magnificent, of course. Even though it is a shortened circuit, the best parts have been retained and the new section carefully designed to fit in with the older circuit. And the Eau Rouge corner remains as the most severe test of nerve and skill in F1. To see drivers hanging on grimly to the edge through that swooping corner is the highlight of the year.
The driver who supplied my most undying memory of Eau Rouge was the highly unlikely Andrea de Cesaris in the 1983 Alfa Romeo. We always felt that Andrea was just a little out of his depth in F1 for, after a flying qualifying lap, he would get out of his car with eyes staring and hands shaking. He was fast but so prone to accidents that the McLaren team called him Andrea de Crasheris.
In 1983, however, Andrea had matured a great deal and secured a seat with the Alfa Romeo team (wonderful cars, no reliability at all). He raced well throughout the year, always near the front, yet bad luck prevented him from winning a race. But at Spa, everything came together.
At the start, Andrea leapt into the lead and raced away from the field. For lap after lap he went through Eau Rouge flat out, the Alfa barely managing to hang on to the last few millimeters of road surface. It was an incredible sight, man and machine at the utmost limit of their ability, and I have never seen another driver take Eau Rouge as Andrea did that day.
Deep into the race, the inevitable happened. The Alfa’s engine went bang and Andrea coasted to a halt, a well-deserved win slipping from his grasp. It remains his finest race performance and a sight that confirms me in my love for Spa and the Eau Rouge corner. Let the FIA never remove it from the calendar.