With the Monaco Grand Prix this weekend, why not step back in time to the first Formula One race at the principality? The following passage is from Gerald Donaldson’s “Fangio: The Life Behind The Legend”. You can check out the book review here. You can catch the video highlights at the bottom of this article.
Juan’s second chance to make an impression on the new championship came the next weekend in the famous race through the streets of the fairytale principality of Monaco. Clinging to the precipitous cliffs of the Alpes Maritime and overlooking the blue Mediterranean, the tiny country’s splendid architecture was crammed into crowded confines that afforded even its privileged citizens precious little room to manoeuvre. Yet as a glamorous and exotic backdrop for a motor race it was a theatre second to none, and had been since 1929.
Before the first Monaco race, many safety-conscious observers questioned the wisdom of letting loose high-powered racing cars on tight, twisting thoroughfares where even horses, let alone horseless carriages driven at a sedate pace, needed to be ridden with caution. ‘It goes without saying,’ stated the Nice Matin newspaper in 1929, ‘that the track is made up entirely of bends, steep uphill climbs and fast downhill descents. Any respectable traffic system would have covered the track with danger signs left, right and centre.’ Very little had changed in the intervening 21 years, except that the cars were now much faster, and on the evening before his first appearance there Juan conducted some private research into previous races. The fifteen drivers entered in the 1950 Grand Prix were invited to a reception at the Monaco Automobile Club’s headquarters, where Juan entertained himself by examining photograph albums of past events, many of which featured accidents. For the 1936 race, Juan found a photo showing a tangle of wrecked cars, among them two Mercedes-Benzes, a Maserati and an Alfa Romeo driven by his new team-mate, Farina. Studying the shot in detail, Juan came to the conclusion that the crash had probably occurred after one of the cars spun across the track and stalled in the middle of a sharp corner. Because the closely following drivers had been unable to see over the stone walls that lined the track, they had ploughed into the stationary vehicle. Perhaps, Juan thought, they had been too preoccupied to take note of the flags that must have been waved by the track marshals. Anyway, he concluded, it would be important to be prepared for such emergencies, and he filed the information away in a memory bank in which he had already deposited many cautionary notes about Monaco’s myriad hazards.
Though it was one of the shortest of all circuits – 1.976 miles in its 1950 configuration – it was filled with complications out of all proportion to its length. With no straight worthy of the name, the entire lap was a continuous struggle against centrifugal forces around a profusion of corners, many of them acute and several of them accompanied by an abrupt loss or gain of elevation. Bounded by stone kerbs and balustrades, its undulating surface treacherously disfigured by painted traffic markings and manhole covers, the course was in some places barely wide enough to accommodate a single car, whose occupant must maintain concentration of the highest order to drive with the inch-perfect precision necessary to avoid making even the slightest mistake. An extreme demand was also placed on manual dexterity, wince the steering wheel, brakes, clutch, accelerator and gear lever were in constant use. With at least twenty gear changes per lap there would be some 2,000 of them over the 100 laps of the race, which would last, for those that survived, over three hours.
At the start, wary of Farina’s reputation for recklessness, especially in the early laps, Juan fought strenuously to preserve the advantage afforded by his pole position. Farina battled back, but he was also occupied with defending his position against Villoresi, who had sensationally powered his Ferrari forward from the third row of the grid. By the time the wildly jostling pack rounded the Ste Devote corner, Juan’s closest pursuer as they charged up the hill was Villoresi, who had managed to elbow aside Farina’s Alfetta and was also in front of Fagioli in the third of the F-driven cars. In a crescendo of noise that reverberated off the walls of the buildings, the fiercely fighting field tore up the hill and roared through Casino Square, rocketed down the hill to Mirabeau, careered around the station hairpin, blasted through the darkness of the long tunnel and shot out into the bright sunlight along the harbour front.
But, as Fangio and Villoresi pounded past the Bureau de Tabac, chaos erupted behind them. At the Tabac corner, Farinas Alfetta came unstuck on the slick water thrown up by the waves crashing against the harbour wall. Farina’s frantic corrections fell far short of what was necessary to salvage the situation, and his wildly oscillating car struck the kerb and rebounded sideways, directly in front of oncoming traffic. Confronted with this sudden emergency, Fagioli threw his car into an avoidance manoeuvre that failed. As the two Alfettas smashed together, the closely following Maserati of Gonzalez speared into the wreckage with enough force to part the entwined Alfettas and emerge on the other side. Also managing to squeeze through the aperture created by the Gonzalez battering ram were Chrion, Sommer and Ascari. When Rosier arrived on the scene, he braked suddenly, whereupon his Talbot was rear-ended by Manzon’s Gordini, thus setting off a chain reaction of spins and crashes that within seconds left the track littered with nine crippled cars, several of them with ruptured fuel tanks.
As Juan sped through the harbour chicane, he caught a glimpse of yellow flags being waved in the distance. ‘I could detect agitation among the spectators,’ he recalled. ‘They were not looking at me leading the race, but were looking the other way.’ In a flash, Juan remembered the photo of the 1936 accident scene and immediately applied the brakes while raising his hand to warn his pursuers of likely danger ahead.
At the crash site – where, miraculously, no one had been hurt – the route was still blocked by a confusion of sidelined cars that frantic track marshals and course workers were having difficulty clearing aside. Juan took matters into his own hands. Manoeuvring his Alfetta alongside one of the trapped cars, he reached out and managed to push it aside far enough to create a gap through which he could ease his car. Villoresi, after some toing and froing, followed Fangio’s cue, as did Ascari and the few others who remained in the Monaco Grand Prix. None of them came close to catching Juan, who finished a lap ahead of Ascari; Villoresi had had to retire with a seized axle, leaving Chiron’s Maserati to claim third, two laps behind the leader, who finished three laps ahead of fourth-placed Sommer in the third Ferrari. Only three other cars survived the gruelling contest which lasted three hours and thirteen minutes. Juan’s fastest race lap of 64mph, which was only a fraction slower than his pole position time, gave him a total of nine championship points, tying him with Farina.