Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, May 10, 1997

Tricky Track Awaits Monaco Racers

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
OF THE RACE he never won, three-time world champion Nelson Piquet said: "Tell you the truth, I hate Monaco. It's like riding a bicycle around your living room."

What the retired Formula One racer from Brazil was referring to was the small space that this last European city track offers. The race is often criticized as being nothing more than a procession where the outcome is decided by the shape of the starting grid. The popular perception is that it is impossible to pass at Monaco.

"Olivier Panis exploded that myth last year, didn't he?" said Chris Williams, the spokesman for Panis's team, Prost-Mugen-Honda. "He started 14th on the grid and passed four cars on the track and won the race. It was a victory due to both passing and pit-stop strategy.''

Panis, for his part, said he ''particularly appreciated," the Monaco track. "The man is more important than the machine,'' he said. ''It's a track that you have to really love and have a feel for if you want to get good lap times."

Both Ferrari and the Williams team are trying to break a jinx this year. Williams has not won since 1983, Ferrari since 1981, with Gilles Villeneuve behind the wheel. Williams is hoping it has found a winner in Villeneuve's son, Jacques. But Patrick Tambay, a former racer and current TV racing commentator, said: "If you compare Monaco to skiing, it is a slalom race - and Jacques is a downhill skier not a slalom racer."

French drivers like Panis and Jean Alesi may feel a certain historical right to the race that has seen more French victories than any other nationality since the current Formula One championship started in 1950.

"Monaco is a little like a home race," said Jean-Pierre Beltoise, the Frenchman who won in 1972 in the rain. "It's a French enclave, and you speak French there." He added that winning in Monaco was "better than everywhere else.''

''The track is unique,'' he said, ''because of its history, because it is the only track still in a city, and in an old European city at that."

The art of driving there is also unique. "I won because it was raining that day," said Beltoise, 60, "and on other tracks I was handicapped by the V-12 that was not powerful enough. In those very slippery conditions, the engine was perfect.''

He said the main peculiarity of Monaco was that ''the limits are set at brushing up as close to the safety fence as possible without touching it. The limits at the other tracks are set at not putting the wheels 20 centimeters (8 inches) outside the edge of the track or on the grass or the gravel."

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