As you read this, the Formula 1 teams will be arriving in Monte-Carlo for the 71st Monaco Grand Prix.
The McLaren guys probably won’t be expecting to win it, which is a pity, because their MP4-28 isn’t yet as quick as I’m sure it’ll become in time. It’s a pity, as I say, but it’s also a surprise, because McLaren remains one of the greatest teams in Grand Prix history, having won eight Constructors’ World Championships and 12 Drivers’ World Championships, the first of them in 1974, which I remember very well because I was the driver who won it with them.
Of all the Grands Prix I ever dreamed of winning, the two I wanted most were the Brazilian Grand Prix, my home race, and the Monaco Grand Prix. I won the Brazilian Grand Prix twice – once in 1973, for Lotus, and once in 1974, for McLaren – but a Monaco Grand Prix victory always eluded me. Even now, at 66, I still feel a bit sad about that.
And the reason I feel a bit sad about it is that I adored Monaco. It was and still is a uniquely challenging circuit from a driver’s point of view. There’s no room at all, so you have to be very precise yet very aggressive. That’s a difficult mixture to manage – aggression and precision aren’t natural bed-fellows – but if you can’t achieve it you simply won’t be quick.
You also need powerful brakes and strong traction, as well as a fast steering rack and a chassis set-up for quick turn-in. If you’ve got all that, you can approach the corners in a distinctive way, unique to Monaco. As you brake for each turn, you have to deliberately tease the car into a controlled attitude of turn-in oversteer, so that your car is already beginning the turn-in before you actually turn in. If you get it right, you should arrive at the corner’s apex at the climax of a measured four-wheel drift, your rear wheels describing an arc just a few degrees wider than your fronts, a small amount of opposite-lock and throttle modulation keeping the drift progressive. Do that, and you’ll exit the corner perfectly, your car already lined up for a smooth and fast exit. I used to describe it like this: you need to set-up the back end to help the front end, so as to maximise the radius of the corners.
But that’s not all you need to be quick at Monaco. Because it’s so narrow, and because its walls are so close, you have to be prepared to brush the Armco very gently on almost every exit. I always used to say that you knew when you’d driven a quick qualifying lap at Monaco because your tyres’ sidewalls would be scuffed white all the way around, indicating that you’d brushed the walls frequently but consistently on almost all the turns.
“If you get it right, you should arrive at the corner’s apex at the climax of a measured four-wheel drift, your rear wheels describing an arc just a few degrees wider than your fronts, a small amount of opposite-lock and throttle modulation keeping the drift progressive.”
You also need to be aware of what’s happening to the grip of all four tyres, all the time, because Monaco is so bumpy, so undulating, and so full of uphills and downhills and cambers and dips. Nowadays, because today’s Formula 1 cars have so much downforce, all four wheels stay planted on the Monaco asphalt at all times. But in my day it was different. We had much less downforce, so the uphills and downhills and cambers and dips used to cause our cars’ front wheels to jump and skip. We used to set our front anti-roll bars soft and our rear anti-roll bars stiff, to counteract that tendency. Graham Hill always used to like his rear anti-roll bars extremely stiff, on any circuit, and he won the Monaco Grand Prix five times. I don’t think that was a coincidence.
Watch old footage of a 1960s or 1970s Formula 1 car exiting Casino Square, and you’ll see two things: its left-rear tyre will brush the exit Armco, and its right-front tyre will jump into the air. That’s a very difficult process to manage simultaneously, but it’s the kind of challenge that Monaco, and Monaco alone, sets every driver who attempts to lap it quickly.
And, last but not least, you need stamina to do well at Monaco. In my day Formula 1 cars had manual gearboxes, and at Monaco you’d be changing gear roughly every two seconds, which meant 45 gearchanges per lap, which worked out at 3600 gearchanges during an 80-lap race.
My first Monaco Grand Prix was the 1971 event. I qualified 17th and my clutch failed at the start. Even so, I kept my Lotus going to the finish, and ended up fifth at the end. When I took off my right glove, it was full of blood from the blisters that had been caused by my having to pull the gearlever so hard to change gear without the softening effect of a clutch.
The following year, 1972, I put my Lotus on the pole, ahead of Jacky Ickx (Ferrari), Clay Regazzoni (Ferrari) and Jean-Pierre Beltoise (BRM). Just before the race was about to start, it began to rain heavily. As I exited the tunnel on lap one, I was behind Clay, and he missed the braking point for the Harbour Chicane and went down the escape road. I was unsighted by the spray from his Ferrari’s rear tyres, also missed my braking point, and had no option but to follow him down the escape road.
We had to wait for the whole field to go past before we could rejoin. I managed to fight my way back to third at the end, behind Jean-Pierre and Jacky. Clay crashed on lap 52, and I’m not surprised because it was unbelievably slippery that day. Five other drivers also had shunts: Henri Pescarolo, Mike Hailwood, Howden Ganley, Tim Schenken and Peter Gethin.
I finished second at Monaco in both 1973 and 1975, and in many ways they were very similar races for me. In 1973 my Lotus 72 was a bit quicker than Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell 006, and 10 laps from the end I caught him. But Jackie was always brilliant at Monaco, and fantastic under pressure, and I simply couldn’t find a way past him. I always used to say that if you thought you were going to overtake Jackie by waiting for him to make a mistake, you were going to have to wait a very long time – years, probably. Basically, Jackie just didn’t make mistakes – period. I finished 1.3 seconds behind him that day.
In 1975 it was the same story. My McLaren M23 felt superb that day at Monaco, and towards the end I was right behind Niki Lauda’s leading Ferrari 312 T2. But Niki was a bit like Jackie in the sense that he also made very few mistakes, and I finished 2.8 seconds behind.
My last five Monaco Grands Prix were a little less enjoyable, because I was driving for my and my brother Wilson’s Copersucar-Fittipaldi team, which never fielded a car that was capable of winning Grands Prix. Having said that, I finished sixth in both 1976 and 1980, but sadly I scored no points in 1977, 1978 and 1979.
Monaco is the only true street circuit in modern Formula 1 – although parts of Albert Park in Melbourne and the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal encompass some public roads – but in the 1970s we also raced at Montjuic (Barcelona) and Long Beach (California).
I first competed in a Spanish Grand Prix run at Montjuic in 1971, but I failed to finish that race because my Lotus’s suspension broke on lap 55. Two years later, in 1973, I won there, also for Lotus, and I have to say it was a wonderful feeling to have triumphed on such a formidable racetrack. Montjuic was much faster than most street circuits, very challenging and very technical. It was a place where good drivers could really make a difference.
However, in 1975 – by which time I was a McLaren driver, having won the World Championship the previous year, also for McLaren – I didn’t race there at all. As I went jogging around the circuit on the Thursday before the Grand Prix, I noticed that many of the guardrails had been tethered with very thin wire. I told Teddy Mayer, McLaren’s boss at the time, that I was prepared to face what I called “normal risks” but that the level of protection at Montjuic that year was totally unacceptable.
The then FIA President, Jean-Marie Balestre, said I had to race or I would be banned from the next Grand prix – Monaco. So I did – I drove exactly one lap – and then I pulled into the pits and retired.
I then drove to Barcelona airport and caught a flight to Geneva, because I was living in Switzerland in those days. As I walked out into the arrivals hall, I was stopped by dozens of TV reporters. I assumed they wanted to ask me why I hadn’t raced – but in fact they wanted to ask me what I thought of the fact that the race had been stopped after just 29 of its scheduled 75 laps, and that there had been only eight finishers, and that there had been a large number of big shunts, and that one of them had caused the deaths of five spectators.
So I was right to have criticised the race organisers, and justified in having defied Balestre. Predictably, given that it was clear that I’d been spot-on and he’d been at fault, he didn’t ban me from competing in Monaco after all.
The other street circuit that was used for Grands Prix in my era was Long Beach, California. I never raced there in a race-winning Formula 1 car, because the first United States Grand Prix West (as it was called) was held in 1976, by which time my Lotus and McLaren days were behind me and I’d started racing for Copersucar-Fittipaldi.
Long Beach was a very good circuit, but it was easier than either Monaco or Montjuic. It was wider, and the run-offs were more generous, so it forgave your mistakes whereas Monaco or Montjuic would always punish even small errors. But, as at Monaco, you had to be precise yet aggressive, and good drivers tended to shine there. I scored my first World Championship point for Copersucar-Fittipaldi at Long Beach, in 1976, finishing in sixth place, and I stood on my last ever Formula 1 podium there too, in 1980, having finished in third place.
But I remember the 1980 United States Grand Prix West for a different reason, and it makes me shudder to recall it, even now, 33 long years later. On lap 51 I was following Clay, who was 40 years old by then and had been let go first by Ferrari and then by Williams, for both of which teams he’d won Grands Prix over a long and successful career, and was driving for the tiny Ensign team.
As I braked at high speed for Queens Hairpin, which was the slow corner at the end of the super-fast Shoreline Drive, Clay didn’t slow at all, because his brake pedal had snapped under his right foot. As I turned in, I could see his Ensign rushing towards a concrete barrier at undiminished speed. Even though I was turning right, I still looked left, aghast. As I rounded the corner, I turned my head to the right again, so as to sight the apex, and at that moment I heard an almighty bang.
Even though I was wearing a fireproof balaclava and a helmet padded with fire-retarding padding and sound-proofing material, and even though my Cosworth V8 was revving at high decibels just a few inches behind my back, I could still hear the sickening impact of Clay’s Ensign smashing into that concrete barrier. Thinking about that sound now, the best word I can use to describe it is ‘explosion’. I’ll never forget it.
I was certain that Clay had been killed – and, even as I continued to race flat-out, I felt a shocking nausea in the pit of my stomach. I’d known him and raced him throughout my Formula 1 career. I’d made my Formula 1 debut in 1970, and so had he. I’d won my fourth Grand Prix, and he’d won his fifth. He and I had fought out the 1974 Drivers’ World Championship, he for Ferrari and I for McLaren, right down to the very last round, the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. And now this. I remember how I felt, all alone in the cockpit of my Copersucar-Fittipaldi, sure that my old rival had perished.
Even so, I continued to race as hard as I could, because that’s what we did in those days, even when tragedy struck. And I finished third. And when I got out of the car, I was told that Clay hadn’t been killed, but that he’d been badly injured. In fact, as we soon learned, he’d been paralysed, and would never walk again.
But he’d race again, because he was a fighter, always was, always would be. In fact he became one of the first disabled drivers to race specially adapted cars in professional motorsport, competing in events such as the Dakar Rally and the Sebring 12-Hours. In 1994, when he was 55, he even raced a specially adapted Toyota at Long Beach, the circuit on which he’d hit a concrete wall at 150mph 16 years before.
He died in 2006, driving a specially adapted Chrysler road car, on an autostrada, near Parma, Italy.
That was Clay: flat-out all the way, and never mind the consequences. God bless him.