Retro on the Riviera: PH Footnote

It's Monaco Grand Prix week, meaning what is already the world's most densely populated country will be fit to burst as its 40,000 residents are joined by 200,000 race fans. Those visitors will pay for the privilege, too: on race day, even the cheapest seats in one of the rather basic grandstands cost £520, not to mention inflated flight and accommodation prices. That's quite an investment just to watch muted racing cars that are too wide and too powerful to allow proper racing on the tight Monégasque streets.

But there is another - and I think better - way to experience this glamorous, storied racing Mecca on the Côte d'Azur. Make your travel arrangements for a fortnight earlier and you're in for a much bigger treat at a fraction of the cost. Every two years, the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique precedes the Formula 1 circus, and from 11-13 May I was there to enjoy it. This year's visit was my fourth, and I'm more convinced than ever it is one of the world's best motorsport events.

Forget the calculated homogeny of F1 hardware in 2018. This year's GP Historique featured an immense variety of more than 170 Grand Prix cars, from the petite, pale blue 1925 Bugatti 35 to ground effect cars such as the 1980 Williams FW07B and everything in between, plus a helping of characterful and stylish 1950s sports cars for good measure. There were seven classes, each of which got a 30-minute practice on Friday, 25 minutes of qualifying on Saturday and then a race of between 10 and 18 laps on Sunday. No shortage of action, then.

But I'm a road car fan first and foremost; so before the motorsport, a visit to the preview of RM Sotheby's auction at the seafront Grimaldi Forum conference centre, a 10-minute walk from Casino Square, seemed appropriate. It's one of three major Monaco auctions timed to coincide with the GP Historique.

With even the kiddies cars bringing a low estimate of around ten grand, I wasn't there to buy (the 70 per cent-size Gold Leaf Lotus Elan was quite lovely, mind you), but it was a rare opportunity to see some very special cars up close. The headline lot was a 1957 Ferrari 250 'Tour de France', estimated to make €7m-€9m. Surely one of the most graceful endurance racers of all time, it was beautifully presented, only the weathered and cracked Cavallino badge on each flank allowed to recall its age and extensive competition history.

My main interest lay with other Italians, though, including a pair of Alfa Romeos by Bertone - a 1959 Giulietta Sprint Speciale and 1965 Giulia Sprint Speciale, both of which took cues from Alfa's madcap BAT series of acutely aerodynamic concepts - a devastatingly handsome 1955 Lancia Aurelia B24S Spider America by Pininfarina, a 1954 V8-engined Fiat Coupé by Vignale and the cleanest Lancia Delta Integrale Evo I've ever seen, a 1992 Verde York edition. The likes of Aston Martin, BMW, Jaguar and Porsche were also well represented; so much glorious metal in one uncrowded room.

The 250 TdF didn't sell (neither did the daringly two-tone Ferrari 458 Spider-based Sergio by Pininfarina), but most lots did, collecting a total of €23.3m. A stupendous €1.2m bought a 1973 Porsche 911 Carrera 2.7 Lightweight, while €809,375 went to charity for the Pope's Lamborghini Huracán. See the full results here.

Saturday afternoon was spent in the grandstand opposite the famous swimming pool, its shimmering blue volume cruelly empty as we sweltered in our seats. Goodness knows how hot it must have been for the drivers - a mix of owners and those talented enough to be offered a seat - but it gave us a chance to familiarise with some of the cars ahead of race day. For me, qualifying's highlight was Michael Lyons in his 1977 Penthouse-Rizla Hesketh 308E, attacking the course - and his competitors - without much in the way of mercy for his car's screaming Cosworth DFV.

It was blessedly cooler on Sunday, when our grandstand perch at Tabac corner let us track the cars over a generous stretch from just after the tunnel all the way to the swimming pool, plus an over-the-shoulder glance as they blasted uphill from Sainte Devote.

Race one was won pretty easily by Irishman Paddins Dowling in the famous 1936 ERA R5B, 'Remus', originally raced by Prince Bira of Siam for his White Mouse team and winner of the 1936 Grand Prix at Albi. Like many of the cars competing, its intriguing backstory was half the appeal.

I'd most been looking forward to the second race of the day, which was for F1 cars from between 1961 and 1965, and it delivered brilliantly. In Lotus's 70th year, it was fittingly the most populous marque on the grid, and equally apt that in the 50th year since Jim Clark's death, one of the svelte, green and yellow Lotus 25s that carried him to the 1963 World Championship was on pole.

Serial classic Lotus racer Andy Middlehurst was at the 25's controls, but despite qualifying 2.5sec in front and being no stranger to winning in Monaco, he spent most of the race barely clinging on to the lead from Joseph Colasacco in the 1964 ex-Surtees Ferrari 1512. Seeing and hearing these howling cigars chase each other around the harbour's edge was my highlight of the weekend, Coventry Climax V8 and Ferrari flat 12 wrung out as the drivers hunted for grip and fought for track position. In the end, it was a win for Middlehurst - by a mere 0.6sec. It was an even closer thing in the 1966-1972 F1 race, the hammer-headed March 711 winning from the ex-Denny Hulme, Yardley-liveried McLaren M19A by less than 0.4sec.

There were cars I'd seen before, cars I hadn't, and cars I'd forgotten all about, each one oozing the character so painfully absent from their contemporary counterparts. Was the level of skill on show up there with that of modern F1 drivers? No, not really. But as entertainment, I'd choose the GP Historique every time.

The practicalities stack up, too. Only 40,000 people attend the event, so overcrowding isn't an issue. During a Sunday downpour we dived into a café, found a seat and watched the racing on TV over drinks: ideal. As for the cost, entry to the stands (and to the RM Sotheby's auction preview) was free on the Friday. Saturday tickets cost £26 and it was £44 on Sunday, or £53 the pair. We paid £120 for flights to Nice, £83 each to share a hotel room in delightful Beaulieu-sur-Mer, and about a fiver on the 10-minute train ride into Monaco. You can take more expensive trips to Homebase.



Richard Webber

[Auction images: RM Sotheby's]


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Comments (37) Join the discussion on the forum

  • tyrrell 22 May 2018

    Well I will be there in 2020 on the strength of this article, sounds fantastic cool

  • LaurasOtherHalf 22 May 2018

    Is it tradition that decrees Pistonheads main page articles must have at least two paragraphs dedicated to a certain car/car’s feature and NOT contain an image of whatever the author is writing about?

    C’mon editors!

    Other than that, looks like a brilliant trip. Can’t agree on the Monaco F1 bashing though, it’s one of the most amazing events to attend for any petrolhead. Casino Square on Saturday and Swimming Pool/Pits on Sunday for us this year smile

  • stuthemong 22 May 2018

    Fantastic article, wish you'd posted your plans before you went, now I've got to wait two years!!!

    PH heaven

  • Oz83 22 May 2018

    I also went this year. Popped down on Friday for the free entrance. We had our 2 year old with us and we weren't sure how long she would sit still for :-) Unfortunately the miserable marshals at Casino wouldn't let us in with a fold up push chair. Thankfully they had pram parking at Anthony Nogues so we enjoyed an hour or so there.

    Having watched the Hybrid/turbo F1 cars in Monaco a few years back and being a little underwhelmed, all I can say this time is 'the noise'! You don't so much as hear these cars, you feel them. I can only imagine what a full grid must have been like back in the day. Even our little one with her ear defenders on said it 'tickled' as a Ferrari flat 12 disappeared down the straight.

    Well worth a trip.

  • Krikkit 22 May 2018

    tyrrell said:
    Well I will be there in 2020 on the strength of this article, sounds fantastic cool
    Me too!

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