Monaco. The name itself–the very place–invokes visions of royalty and glamour, of deep blue sea and deeper pockets of green.
For fans of Formula One, Monaco means even more. It means Alberto Ascari and his 1955 plunge into the Harbor. It means Graham Hill and his five victories, Ayrton Senna and his six.
With its undulating, narrow street course, Monaco is less a race than it is a test of men against themselves. The curbs are unforgiving, the Armco disasterous. Anyone who’s watched even a single Monaco GP knows that passing is nearly impossible, unfortunately, which generally makes for incredibly dull processions. Except for those rare occasions when F1’s brazen drivers seize an opening and make their moves stick. Or, alternatively, when it rains. It poured in 1996, and attrition led to just three cars finishing.
This weekend’s GP marks the 600th for the venerable Frank Williams, whose eponymously named team has claimed 113 victories, seven driver’s titles, and nine constructor’s titles during his 39 years in the sport. If ever there was an F1 icon (and hero to independents everywhere), Sir Frank is it.
A handful of those 39 years–from 2000 to the end of the 2005 season–included a partnership with BMW. In the end, it was a tumultuous affair, during which time Williams-BMW ran the luckless, crashy Ralf Schumacher, the golden child (at the time) Jenson Button, and, from 2001 on, the overtaking maestro Juan Pablo Montoya.
Four race wins came in 2001, and the BMW V10 was widely regarded in the paddock as the most powerful engine on the grid. 2002 resulted in a single victory, while 2003 presented Williams-BMW with its greatest shot at reclaiming the driver’s and contstructor’s titles. Montoya won at Monaco and Germany, while Ralf won at the Nurburgring and Magny-Cours. At season’s end, Montoya finished 11 points shy of Michael Schumacher in his Ferrari, while the Williams-BMW team managed second behind Ferrari.
It was all downhill from there for Williams and its relationship with BMW. There was a lone victory in the 2004 finale in Brazil. But there was also what I consider to be one of F1’s great all-time passes, when Montoya overtook Mike Schumacher on the outside of Bus Stop at Spa-Franchorchamps. Brilliant.
So Sir Frank welcomes 600 this weekend, commendable indeed. Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren looks to be the early favorite, while Kimi Raikkonen seeks to build on his championship lead for Ferrari. BMW-Sauber, meanwhile, is still regarded as one of the most potent powerplants on the grid, and they’ll look to grind their way back into the thick of things around the Principality’s twisty streets. I, for one, and hoping for rain.
Sir Frank Williams
Montoya passes Schumacher, Spa 2004