I do not go to very many Grands Prix these days, but the one I never miss is the Monaco Grand Prix. First of all, it is on my doorstep – the paddock is just a short scooter ride from my apartment – and, second, it is a truly fantastic event.
However, although Monaco is most famous in a Formula 1 context for its glitz and glamour, it is the in-cockpit action that has always captivated my attention, nowadays almost as much so as when I was in the cockpit myself.
People often ask me what it takes to win at Monaco – and, having done just that, I guess I am pretty well qualified to answer that question.
It is a circuit like no other – narrow, tight, sinuous, tortuous, bumpy, yumpy – and its perimeter is delimited nearly everywhere by Armco. In other words, run-off area has it almost none.
That being the case, to be successful at Monaco, above all, you must stay away from those unforgiving guardrails. Equally, however, to be quick there, you must maximise the radii of your racing lines by running as close as possible to that unyielding steel. When you are on a quick lap, in qualifying for example, you should be aiming to use all but the last 5cm of the racetrack, on entry, apex and exit. That requires meticulous judgment, unflinching commitment, and even, yes, real courage.
Moreover, as with all street circuits, on which trucks and taxis ply their trade, the asphalt is very ‘green’ on Thursday, for FP1 and FP2, coated with dust and grease as it necessarily always is, but it becomes progressively more grippy by the day – by the hour in fact – as more and more rubber goes down, deposited by fat sticky ‘gumball’ tyres wheel-spinning and slip-sliding their way around.
You have to anticipate that gradual evolution, and therefore attack that bit harder with every lap. That is difficult to get right, not only physically but psychologically too. You have to steel yourself to believe that, yes, you really can go faster through a given corner than you could just 80-odd seconds before.
Moreover, more than anywhere else on the current Formula 1 calendar, Monaco rewards local knowledge. You have to learn not only every turn and every twist, but also every ridge, every rut, every kerb and every white line. I used to walk the circuit often – and not only in the lead-up to the Grand Prix.
My first Monaco Grand Prix was the 1991 event. It did not go well for me. I retired my Lotus-Judd 14 laps from the end, with an oil leak.
The following year, 1992, was no better: my Lotus-Ford’s gearbox gave out before half-distance.
I missed the race in 1993 – I was McLaren Formula 1's test and reserve driver that year – but in 1994 I was more optimistic about my chances. I duly put my McLaren-Peugeot on the front row – I qualified it in P2 alongside Michael Schumacher’s pole-sitting Benetton-Ford – but, on race day, on lap one, as I braked for the first corner, Sainte Devote, my car was thumped from behind by Damon Hill’s Williams-Renault, ending my race almost before it had begun. I was gutted.
In 1995 I was less competitive in qualifying – I could manage only P6 in my McLaren-Mercedes – and again I was unable to finish the race, retiring with engine failure after just eight laps.
It was not until 1996 that I finally scored points in a Monaco Grand Prix – at my fifth attempt – and even then I was involved in a collision five laps from the finish. Such was the level of attrition, however, with only four cars still running at the end of a very topsy-turvy race, that I was classified sixth nonetheless.
In 1997 I qualified eighth, only to suffer a repeat indignity of having my race ended by yet another coming-together with Damon, whose Arrows-Yamaha made contact with my McLaren-Mercedes on lap two, the resulting accident damage eliminating both of us.
By 1998 I was beginning to fear that the Monaco Grand Prix might be a jinxed race for me. However, that year’s McLaren-Mercedes, the MP4-13, was a truly sensational machine, and I had already won three of the season’s first five Grands Prix in it. As the Formula 1 circus arrived at Monaco, which was round six, I was determined to do well.
Acutely aware that overtaking was (and still is) all but impossible on those tricky little streets, I was extremely keen to bag pole position. I felt it was possible, because as I say my McLaren-Mercedes MP4-13 had already proved itself to be ultra-competitive that season. But the fly in the ointment was that my team-mate, David Coulthard, had always been super-quick at Monaco – and, as the practice sessions unfolded during the 1998 event, sure enough David began to show his trademark scintillating Monaco pace.
I remember the qualifying hour vividly, even now, 17 long years later. Initially, to our surprise, the man to set the pace was Giancarlo Fisichella, who had his Benetton-Playlife hooked up really well. I always regarded Giancarlo as a guy with great natural talent, and it was clear that he was really enjoying himself that afternoon, chucking that pretty blue-and-white car around as though it were a go-kart.
Eventually, however, DC and I began to gain the upper hand. The asphalt was rubbering-up all the time, and the track was consequently becoming faster and faster with every lap. I would put in a quick lap, and then David would beat my time. I would dig a bit deeper, and then, again, David would find another tenth and displace me at the top of the time-sheets.
As I prepared for my final run, the atmosphere in the McLaren garage was very tense. David had annexed provisional pole, having driven an excellent 1m20.137s lap. Now it was my turn again; I had just one set of tyres left; it was a now-or-never situation.
I sat in my car, and mentally rehearsed my lap, in real time, eyes closed. I knew what I had to do. I felt I knew how to do it, too. I had to push to the absolute limit – leaving no margin anywhere – but at the same time I had to make no mistakes whatsoever. I had butterflies in my tummy, I admit that, but you need that sometimes. It is a sign of adrenaline, and it keeps you ultra-sharp.
I drove a careful out-lap, examining the kerbs and guardrails all the way around. As I powered my way out of Rascasse towards Virage Antony Noghes, the last corner of the lap, I began to push. I whipped my car through that final tight right-hander, fast but economical of line in order to optimise my exit speed, and gunned my way along the start-finish straight to begin what I already knew would surely be one of the most important laps of my career so far.
As I did so, I remember saying to myself, aloud, “Okay, here we go, Mika, flat-out, maximum attack.”
For the first corner, Sainte Devote, I had a plan. I braked a tiny bit earlier than usual, and very hard, on a short and ever-so-slightly downhill section of asphalt, in order to pitch the weight of my car forward and thereby immediately heat my front tyres to their operational maximum. That way, I figured I would forcibly generate the front-end bite that I always loved in a race car. I always hated understeer, you see. I was invariably at my best in a car that I could hurl at the apex, almost imperceptibly catching and re-catching its rear end as I did so, so as to ‘ping’ that apex with just a few degrees of sideways attitude deliberately dialled in, the better to set my car up for an early and speedy exit, power on, foot to the floor. You cannot do that with understeer – you cannot do that with a front-end you cannot lean on in other words – but on that Monaco 1998 quali-lap I was pleased to find that my tactic had worked. I released the brakes a tiny bit early, turned the wheel, and the car followed my command accurately and obediently: I had generated, and instantly benefited from, the front-end bite I so craved. I duly got the power down early and well and began my charge up the hill towards Massenet and Casino Square.
That stretch of track – Avenue d’Ostende – is not quite straight, but it is important to try to thread as near-straight a path along it as you can. Every time you turn the steering wheel of a race car, even a fraction, even though your foot may remain planted firmly on the accelerator, still you always scrub off a small amount of speed. The laws of physics dictate that. So, as I say, I always tried to straight-line Avenue d’Ostende as far as was possible, which was tricky: tricky but worthwhile.
I got Massenet and Casino Square just right – a little bit of oversteer on the exit of the Square, my left-rear tyre a no more than 5cm from the Armco, but not so much as to compromise my exit.
As I plunged downhill along Avenue des Beaux Arts towards Mirabeau, I remember thinking, “Careful, Mika, careful.” Mirabeau is very easy to get wrong. You have to brake in the middle of the road, to avoid a bump that badly destabilises your car if you run over the top of it, and then flick left before turning sharp right into the corner. Your car’s inside front wheel becomes momentarily airborne as you do so, but, even so, you have to be ready to plant your foot on the accelerator as early and as hard as you can, for the ultra-brief blast down to Loews.
Loews is the slowest corner on the Formula 1 calendar. You take it in first gear, with maximum left lock wound on, and you feel as though you are sitting in the turn for ages. You are not, of course, but it feels that way. The important thing is not to be too impatient: get the power on too early and you may have to back off momentarily, which loses you irreplaceable lap-time.
Thankfully, I got it right on that 1998 quali-lap, then turned right into Portier, clipping both its apices nicely, ran my car right up to the exit guardrail on the left, and powered into the Tunnel.
As I hurtled through that dingy section of track and out into the bright sunshine, I determined to brake late and hard for the Harbour Chicane, but not to lose any lap-time by being too ambitious in so doing. I succeeded, and, as I powered past the super-yachts on my left towards Tabac, I began to think, “Yes, this just might be pole.”
I quickly re-gathered my concentration, and sliced my way through Tabac, neat and quick. The Tabac apex is the wall itself – there is no kerb – but I got it just right: it is a fourth-gear left-hander that you take at about 120mph (193km/h), but, even so, I ran very close to the Armco and made no contact, just as I had hoped.
The next corner is the Swimming Pool entry – one of the most exciting turns of the lot, and I do not mean only among Monaco corners. No, the Swimming Pool entry is mighty by any standards.
First of all, it is incredibly quick. You brake at about 150mph (241km/h), and it is not a place where subtlety is rewarded. In fact, I would say you have to punish your car to be really quick there. As you pitch your car left towards the first part of the turn – it is a left-right switchback – you aim for the apex Armco on your right, ride the apex kerb as you do so, miss the wall on your right by a few centimetres, and then floor the accelerator earlier than seems sensible or even possible.
There is something odd about the track surface there, you see. If you hesitate, your car can become unsettled. Instead, you absolutely have to get the power down hard and fast so as to load up your rear tyres and prevent them from sliding. It is not easy to do, but you have to do it to be proper-quick there. So you have to dial in the power early, lots of it, and, as soon as you have done that, you instantly know whether you have got it right or not. And if you have, then there is no sensation better for a Formula 1 driver, none at all.
In 1998, on that quali-lap, I got it just right. After that, I began to feel really good. The last few corners passed in a blur, in fact, but I remember taking them all absolutely flat-out. Maximum attack, as I always used to put it.
Maximum-attack is how you almost always have to drive at the end of a quali-lap anyway: drive like an animal, as fast as you can, taking everything out of the car; after all, there is no point finishing a quali-lap with anything left in your tyres’ grip reserve, is there?
As I crossed the line, my time flashed up: 1m19.798s. Pole position, 0.339s quicker than DC’s best.
I was delighted – and relieved. As I say, David was always brilliant at Monaco, and I knew I had had to dig very deep indeed to beat him to the pole that day.
The next day, I was determined to convert that pole to a win. I was nervous as we drove to the grid, but most of all I was anxious to make a good start.
Luckily, I did just that, and led the field into and through Turn One. But David was just behind me, his car’s nosecone never more than a few metres behind my car’s gearbox, and I felt sure he was going to be a threat all afternoon. I pushed as hard as I could – flat-out in fact – but David just sat behind me all the while. I would drive a few corners as fast as I possibly could, and afterwards I would glance in my mirrors, but he was always still there; the word that springs to mind is ‘menacing’.
Between lap four and lap 12 – in other words nine laps for each of us, or 18 in all – we established no fewer than 12 fastest laps. We were both absolutely flying.
But, on lap 18, suddenly, David was not there any more: it turned out that his engine had let go.
That took the pressure off me, and I eventually won by 11 seconds from Giancarlo, who had capped his fine weekend with a very solid drive to second place, a full half-minute ahead of Eddie Irvine’s third-placed Ferrari.
As I drove into pace fermé, and climbed out of my car, I felt real joy. I had won the Monaco Grand Prix. But, just as important, I felt massively proud of my fellow McLaren-Mercedes team-members, who had designed, built, prepared and run such a superb racing machine. Here and now, I thank them again, all of them, 17 long years later.
Later that evening, exhausted but happy, I remember thinking to myself: “Mika, you’ve won the Monaco Grand Prix. Not every driver can do that. So you’re good enough to win the World Championship. You are. You really are. Now go and win it, Goddammit!”
And I did – but that is another story.