Each year in May, 200,000 of the human beings with the world’s most outward-facing wealth engorge a city the size of New York’s Central Park.
They’re here to imbibe Formula One’s dizzying Monaco Grand Prix – this year the sixth race in the sport’s 21-stop global tour and always its most glamorous.
“Winning the Monaco Grand Prix is the highlight of any racing driver’s career,” says Nico Rosberg, who won in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
The 3.2km Circuit de Monaco course winds directly up and down the narrow switchbacks carved by the city streets, making it impossible for even pedestrians to traverse any main arteries.
Monaco: the course
The first Monaco Grand Prix was held in 1929 and it’s been running every year, uninterrupted, since 1955.
It’s the jewel in the crown of the Formula One circuit, the famous open-cockpit racing series for teams such as Aston Martin Red Bull, Ferrari, and Mercedes-Benz.
If you want to reach driving immortality, you must triumph here: Brazilian god Ayrton Senna won six times, Michael Schumacher won five. F1’s current star, Lewis Hamilton – the 12th-highest-paid athlete in the world – has won twice. Fresh off victories in China and Barcelona, the 34-year-old Brit is poised to do it again on May 26, which would be convenient, since he also lives here.
Hamilton will have his work cut out for him. With 78 laps totalling 260km, Monaco’s grand circuit is the most dangerous and technically demanding in an F1 calendar, which includes a night race through the crammed thoroughfares of Singapore.
The drivers piloting these 1,000-horsepower rocket ships must abruptly shift speeds here, going from 300km/h to just 50km/h as they combat the gravitational force of up to five Gs on tight curves.
“To achieve anything,” 1961 Grand Prix winner Stirling Moss famously said, “you must be prepared to dabble on the boundary of disaster.”
The average driver changes gears 3,666 times during the 90-minute race, and there are often inferno-inducing crashes – particularly coming out of the course’s tunnel.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo holds the record for the fastest single lap ever run, covering its expanse in 1:10.81 last year. When asked how he felt after placing second in 2016, he replied: “Like I’ve been run over by an 18-wheel truck.”
Monaco: the scene (and being seen)
Kings and princes watched Ricciardo’s feat, along with shipping scions and their tanned associates.
Then there are the modern-day royals: Drake and Elton John, Rihanna and Gigi Hadid. The latter come wearing diamonds and watches priced like Porsches to hobnob with peers in paddock clubs and pit lounges; they perform at after-parties at established hot spots Buddha-Bar and Jimmy’z, or at swank pop-ups such as the party thrown by New York’s 1 Oak.
The Monaco F1 soiree circuit starts early in the week, as Symphony (owned by LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault), Musashi (owned by Larry Ellison), and other superyachts pull into the bay fresh from Mykonos and Ibiza.
Mornings start late, with a midday brunch, some swimming and shopping, and a late-afternoon rest back in your stateroom before dressing for sunset cocktails.
In the cool of the evening, dinner will be at Odyssey, the exclusive Joël Robuchon restaurant designed by the late Karl Lagerfeld, or Omer, Alain Ducasse’s chic new spot in the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo.
After dinner, there may be dancing until dawn—it helps if you have friends who work at the clubs; entry at 1 Oak for a mere mortal costs US$10,000, and that’s before you start drinking.
If you’re not crashing on a friend’s yacht, you’ll want to look to the grand Hotel Metropole Monte-Carlo, which houses Odyssey, or the vast Fairmont Monte Carlo, perched on the water’s edge. (Book early; rates can swell past US$8,000, more than 10 times the price of a room in low season.) Villas can also be rented in the hills around the city.
Monaco: the money
Like Hamilton, many current and former F1 drivers own homes here.
Looking up from the oceanside promenade, you see slopes jammed thick with villas hidden by bushy palms and discrete retaining walls, like mini feudal castles.
It’s difficult to resist a tax haven placed in the center of Europe’s most stunning coast; the lack of capital-gains and income taxes and low inheritance taxes has contributed to an estimated US$1 trillion sitting untaxed in the principality’s bank accounts.
In fact, the Monaco Grand Prix has such élan that it’s the only F1 locale in the world that doesn’t pay anything near the roughly US$30 million standard fee for the privilege of hosting.
Where other cities lobby and then ante up to have billionaires descend on them, Monaco just sits back and puts out the vibe.
The race’s promoting committee, the Automobile Club de Monaco, gets to keep all revenue generated throughout the weekend as well.
The budget to produce the Grand Prix – which requires 50 engineers to erect 32km of temporary safety barriers and 1,000 tonnes of grandstands – is about US$40 million, including a US$7 million subsidy from the state.
Trackside advertisers such as Vodafone and Shell pay much of the cost in the millions of euros they spend to plaster their brands front and center along the course.
Ticket sales also help. The cost to get inside the gates on Sunday’s race day is US$133. Seats in the grandstand start at US$211 (already sold out) and can reach US$734 (also sold out) and up. A view from a private terrace costs at least US$2,000; access to the paddock club is just over US$6,000.
All told, the race weekend cull reaches US$110 million, according to Michel Boeri, the Automobile Club’s president.
Monaco: the race
But, oh, the thrill! That alone makes those ticket prices worth it.
Any seat’s a good one, with the ocean as the backdrop, the city rising behind you, and cars flying by so close you can feel the ground rumble as they approach.
It’s visceral drama that combines the energy of the Super Bowl, the pomp of Wimbledon, and the split-second, doom-avoiding calibrations of the Kentucky Derby – then hits fast forward.
The race itself starts with the wave of a bright green flag as fans stand in their seats, craning to see the starting grid. The cars are so low they seem to graze the asphalt as the contestants swerve to warm their tires and jockey for position.
With the safety halos on top obscuring the drivers’ faces, the cars become the focal point. Hamilton’s is painted black, teal, and silver for Mercedes; Sebastian Vettel is ensconced in a blazing Scuderia red Ferrari. Drivers vie for the best line around corners, overtaking one another as they barrel down the straights.
McLaren often has the fastest pit stops – roughly 2.5 seconds to change all four tires.
The winner, lately, has been Mercedes, an inevitability that’s become tiresome for John Malone, the Denver media magnate who bought F1 for US$4.4 billion in 2017.
Smart watchers will look for Malone to shake things up, potentially by imposing spending caps to curb the influence of money on the outcome.
For two hours, Monaco becomes a universe of sensory overload: Engine notes pierce the salty air; grease and burning rubber permeate hair and clothes.
You’ll want lots of euros for refreshments, gobs of sunblock, and a hat for the wind. You’ll be buzzing for days, physically and emotionally, exhausted but in high spirits from a cacophony of money, power, and adrenaline you're unlikely to experience anywhere else.
The 2019 Monaco Grand Prix will be run this coming Sunday, May 26.