For the first time since 1954, the Monaco Grand Prix will not take place this year—and, for some F1 fans, that’s not entirely a bad thing. The iconic race has been maligned in recent years, and for good reason: who wants to watch modern F1 cars drive single file across narrow city streets, with virtually no chance for overtakes, as billionaires look on from enormous yachts? Critics have argued the event is boring, outdated, and downright obnoxious.
For years, I believed that, too. That is, until I actually attended the race in 2019 and witnessed the pomp and circumstance firsthand. From bombastic ceremonies to surprisingly passionate locals, the experience wound up defying my expectations, resulting in a charming weekend that could sway even the most hardened F1 cynic.
So take a trip with me to last year’s race and find out how you, too, can check this Grand Prix off your bucket list—without breaking the bank—and maybe even rekindle your love of F1 in the process.
There’s no denying that the Principality of Monaco is a strange place. At less than one square mile in size, you could feasibly walk across it in an hour. Hotel and Airbnb options are slim and laughably overpriced, so I stayed in nearby Nice, France, which offers its own picturesque views of the French Riviera and a much wider array of affordable hotel options. Only a half-hour train ride from Monaco, it is an ideal home base for Grand Prix weekend. (Do not, under any circumstances, try to drive into Monaco on race day; the train is a much, much better experience.)
If you’re worried about ticket prices, you have options. Grandstand seats for race day can set you back a few hundred dollars, but more affordable general admission tickets exist, or you could attend only the qualifying session (which, given the lack of overtaking during the race, is actually the highlight of the weekend).
Additionally, Monaco is the only F1 race of the year that has an entirely free “Fan Zone” event on the Friday before the race, allowing you to potentially meet drivers, watch a featured F2 race, and walk the track afterward. It’s a great option for those looking to get the flavor of the event without spending a dime.
Arriving at the Monte Carlo train station is a spectacle unto itself. A mob of F1 fans snake out of the station and pack the streets outside, with merchandise stands lining nearly every major road and alcove. Ferrari billboards greet you at each turn as you wind your way down to La Rascasse—the area near the “Fan Zone,” which includes free slot car racing, photo opportunities, esports booths, and more. These same types of diversions are available at other F1 races, like at Texas’ Circuit of the Americas track, but there’s something exhilarating about having it all packed within the small city confines of Monaco. You feel like you’re in the middle of everything.
Contrary to popular belief, even the Monegasque locals were fired up and enthusiastic about the Grand Prix. This is likely because young Charles Leclerc—already the most successful Monegasque F1 driver in history—was making his hometown Ferrari debut. Leclerc-themed graffiti, posters, and banners adorned walls and apartment windows. (Locals who don’t enjoy the race usually make sure they’re somewhere else that weekend.)
When the hometown hero failed to make it out of Qualifying Session 1, the frenzied crowd was visibly shaken.
A local man dressed head to toe in Leclerc gear looked at me near the merchandise booth with sad eyes and said, “Ferrari strategy…how do you say?” He thought for a moment. “It’s crap!”
On race day itself, the city is swarmed with tourists. Outdoor bars and restaurants are buzzing as early as 7am as fans make their way to the grandstands.
I passed the Casino de Monte-Carlo and the famous swimming pool as I worked my way toward my seats at the Bureau de Tabac grandstand, which overlooks the yachts docked on the Mediterranean Sea—only a short distance from the Nouvelle Chicane and the exit of the track’s infamous tunnel. If you have binoculars or a zoom lens, this is a perfect area for people watching, allowing you to see billionaires partying on yachts as well as various other spectators, hailing from all walks of life, as they head to their seats.
Below the temporary grandstands is a complicated maze of steel support beams, with an atmosphere that feels more like a high school football game than the most prestigious race on Earth. Monegasque teenagers stand at makeshift concession stands selling cheap ham-and-cheese baguettes, and you could even pick up a $5 beer (music to the ears of someone accustomed to American stadium pricing). The whole arrangement is in stark contrast to the extravagant yacht views above, and it’s actually rather charming.
Before the race began, pomp and circumstance commenced: Monaco’s Prince Albert waved to fans as he led a lengthy motorcade; a team of paragliders swooped down while waving Monaco’s flag; and all of the yachts honked their horns during the Monegasque national anthem in honor of F1 driver Niki Lauda, who had passed away just a few days prior.
The F1 race began, and the crowd was whipped into an early frenzy. Leclerc made a few brilliant overtakes early on, drawing cheers from the apartment dwellers overhead, although he eventually blew out a tire and had to retire from the race.
But Max Verstappen, arguably F1’s most electric superstar, delighted the crowd most of all as he made a mad dash on Lewis Hamilton in the final laps, providing some gripping late-race drama—although he never did catch Hamilton.
The highlight of the race came after the podium celebration, when fans once again were allowed to walk the iconic track. The entire city had turned into a giant party, with cheap adult beverages flowing and music blaring on side streets.
Walking the track is a must: Monaco’s circuit might appear narrow and boring on television, but experiencing it in person gives you a true sense of just how difficult it is to maintain control on those sharp corners. (On Friday, when racing is suspended so people can get to the shops, you can also drive it, although the roads are two-way, traffic can be heavy, and the police are omnipresent, so a lap might take you 30 minutes.)
I came into the Monaco Grand Prix expecting a dull, lifeless race, with locals who were disinterested and even annoyed by all the tourists. I walked away more excited about F1 than ever, especially with young stars like Leclerc and Verstappen energizing the crowd.
It’s unfortunate that the race won’t be happening this weekend, but the Automobile Club de Monaco has already confirmed dates for next year’s Grand Prix (to be held a week earlier than usual: May 20-23, 2021). Once travel is safe again, you should definitely consider a trip to this iconic event. There might not be many overtakes, but the experience is one you’ll never forget.
Listing image by Gregory Leporati