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The Monaco GP – Interview with SAS Prince Albert.

SAS Prince Albert of Monaco

By Nicholas Frankl Contributing Editor

Monaco isn’t a Grand Prix. It’s The Grand Prix. Since its inception in 1950 the Formula One World Championship has always had a very special place for the Grand Prix de Monte-Carlo. The event is the only race that everyone wants to attend – whether they know what an F1 car looks like or not – and every driver wants to win. “ I would gladly give everything I have to try to win the Monaco race, I came second and third but never got the top position, in fact I would give it all just to race here again in these magical streets” said former Ferrari pilot and Monaco resident Michelle Alboreto last year

Started in 1929 by Anthony Noghes, then President of the newly formed Automobile Club of Monaco, the race was held under the patronage of Prince Louis II. Sixteen competitors raced for 100 laps of the circuit, a green Bugatti Type 35B winning for France. Since then a championship racce has been held every year except between 1939 to 1947 and 49’, 51’, 53’ and 54’. The original track was slightly different sweeping the cars through what is today the pits area before reaching the hairpin. But apart from the addition of the swimming pool complex and a few additions like “La Rascasse” the circuit is much the same as it was eighty years ago.

The only constant throughout the years being that of automotive development and the evolution of the modern Formula One car. Now a days the drivers use their acute sense of wheel rim width to judge how much contact they can make with the barriers – not you’ll note - how close they can come to not touching the barriers. “ Here you use everything, every inch you can and that means rubbing or maybe kissing the barriers at most of the exit points of the corners” ‘2000 Grand Prix winner David Coulthard explaining his tactics to TACH over a salad three days before the race what he needed to do for 78 arduous laps.

“To win here for a driver is special, it doesn’t matter if you’ve won here before or if you’re World Champion, it’s still the one we all want to have our name on. It gives the whole team a lift and of course as most of us live here it’s our home race too!” He went on.

Logistically the race provides the officials and the Principality with a huge task. Three months before, the building begins. Triple layer armco has to be resurrected around the streets, which is kept in huge caves under the town, with each piece being numbered. Pedestrian bridges are built to provide access whilst the racing is on, along with grand stands, a race control tower and the whole pits structure – all this in a working busy Country, admittedly a small one, has to be constructed from scratch. Two weeks before the GP, the television specialists move in and run miles of fibre optic cables around the streets, set up Tv positions and telemetry points all run in to a control centre which arrives on the back of 25 forty ton trucks and is built inside an underground car park.

This year Sport Car International was given special access to the spectacle including an exclusive interview with SAS Prince Albert of Monaco.

With so much to do I began asking Prince Albert when the planning starts for next year. “Well I understand that as soon as the race is over and the organisers have had a well earned drink on Sunday evening the whole event is analysed and we begin to plan the next one. You know it takes two months to take down all we put up and that in its self is a very specialised procedure. If we don’t do it properly we cannot find it again for next year!”

Prince Albert is as a relaxed, unassuming and jovial a man as you might find, especially when you consider all he has achieved in his 43 years. He travels the world endlessly as ambassador, promoting Monaco both as a tourist destination and business location, represents the Country at the United Nations where he has championed green issues and especially the pollution of the world oceans, is the IOC member for Monaco as well as Patron of several hundred charities and events. With over 500,000 flying miles a year he also finds time to race 4-man bobsled and has competed as driver in three Olympic Games.

“Yes bobsled is a great way to let off the steam and compete on a level playing field with the worlds greatest athletes. It has given me immense satisfaction to compete on a world level and last year I won my first international competition in Canada. I am now aiming to race again in my final Olympics next year in Salt Lake City and finally beat you and the Hungarian Team!”

This I must explain is a friendly rivalry. As I have competed as driver of the Hungarian Bob team for the last two Olympics and been lucky enough to have beaten Prince Albert on both occasions. Not a good way to stay out of jail as we are in his town!

Given his experiences, would he agree that racing on an ice track at speeds approaching 90mph is almost as dangerous as driving around his streets in a racing car? “ I don’t know if dangerous is the right word, but it certainly concentrates the mind”! He replies smiling a broad grin. “Monaco has a very special history to it. When I talk to the drivers they say how much they enjoy racing around their home, and how over the years throughout all the changes in F1 Monaco has always remained the same, a true challenge for both the driver and his car it’s unlike any other race in the world”.

Has he ever though about racing himself?

“ I did when I was young – but it was never anything serious – you know club racing and things like that. I did once drive an F1 car which was very exciting and I have done a couple of stages in the Monte-Carlo rally. Of course I have driven around the circuit many times over the years and been driven around too – sometimes very quickly! My Father has a great collection of cars in our museum including a few F1 cars, but mostly they are older more classic models – not very suitable for the track”.

Do you have a favourite driver?

“I have had great times with many drivers. When I was young we had Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Niki Lauda, James Hunt – they were real characters. I think modern drivers are different kinds of sportsman, they are much fitter for a start and none of them smoke! But they have to be because of the pressures, both physical and mental of the sport and the technology of the cars. Ayrton Senna was supreme around these streets and his loss I think is still felt by everyone in the sport.

Sitting in the grounds of the Palace high above the Principality, the subject moves to all the incredible yachts in and outside the harbour. I ask about this years numbers and if it’s going to be a bumper year.

“I understand from the harbour master that this year we had over 120 applications that had to be declined, that’s a record and one of the reasons that there are so many large boats outside the harbour. I think that our new port extension which is being finished in Spain, ready to be towed here in a year will remedy the situation. I have never seen Monaco so busy.”

Of all the races that you have watched do any stick in your mind?

“Watching Senna around here on a qualifying lap was probably one of the best real motor racing experiences of my life, he had incredible car control and in fact we have a special exhibit at our automobile museum. The 60’s and 70’s were great too, but you cannot compare the speeds. Today the cars are just so fast, I don’t know how they do it.”

With the authorities ever more concerned about safety is Monaco making any changes?

“The automobile club is obviously in constant contact with the sports governing body and we actually have some of the best facilities being located directly in a city. The Hospital is minutes away and we have hundreds of marshals and doctors located around the circuit. I can tell you that there are plans to widen and expand the paddock and pit lane facilities to make that area better for the teams and drivers”.

With that one of the courtiers gestured that time was running out and that His Highness had other pressing engagements that he was already running late for. As he was leaving I asked if he thought there would ever be a Monegasque winner of the Monaco Grand Prix.

Prince Albert smiled once again “Well I am too old, but maybe one day, you never know”.