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Gilbreth column: Monaco Grand Prix world’s most stunning race spectacle

Monaco F1 GP Auto Racing

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands drives toward his victory during the Monaco Grand Prix in Monaco on Sunday, May 23, 2021. File/Luca Bruno/AP

Although not an aficionado by any means, yours truly enjoys the spectacle of the various professional road races that take place around Memorial Weekend, starting with Formula One’s flagship event, the Monaco Grand Prix. Even if you’re not necessarily a fan, the race on a beautiful spring morning in Monte Carlo is an absolute spectacle, what with stunning views of the French Riviera, springtime flora (if not seasonal jewelry, watercraft, attire and other accoutrements of the ultra-rich) and the city itself.

The Monte Carlo race circuit has remained virtually unchanged since 1950, shortly after Formula One was conceived, and is 3.34 km (2.07 miles) long. Somehow or other, despite a variety of twists, turns, chicanes and decelerations (including one remarkably slow turn at the Fairmont Hotel Monte Carlo), there is enough straightaway driving through the famous waterside tunnel to allow drivers to reach speeds up to 175 mph.

Drivers must complete 78 laps to finish the race, which, according to the always informed and excitable announcers, is exhausting both physically and mentally. Due to the narrowness of the streets and demanding conditions, there’s no room for error — either on the tracks or in the pits — and the smallest miscalculation might cost either the race, or worse, one’s health. Not surprisingly, there are few passes during the actual event and it’s not uncommon for the pole-sitter to end up winning, as was the case this year for Red Bull’s veteran driver Max Verstappen, winning his first Monaco Grand Prix.

In the rather-be-lucky-than-good department, Verstappen had qualified second behind Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, but Leclerc suffered a driveshaft failure on the way to the starting grid (F1 races always start from stop, so to speak) and was unable to start the race. Mercedes, another of the mega teams whose budgets have typically run in the gazillions, had a disappointing day. Louis Hamilton was instructed to take what turned out to be an ill-timed pit stop and his compadre, Valtteri Bottas, met such disaster during his (properly timed) pit stop that it was unreal, nightmarish, to the point of being oddly comedic.

Bottas was running second to Verstappen and came in to pit for a routine tire change. Somehow the wheel nut machined itself to the right front axle and the crew could not remove the right front tire. Spectators around the world watched in unbelieving amazement as Bottas’ positioning dropped from second to last in a matter of seconds. The crew could not rectify the problem and Bottas was forced to retire.

Now, one would think that with all the money floating around F1 racing, they could change a doggone tire and make sure their driveshafts are in working order. Joking aside, the mechanical engineering involved with this level of competition is remarkable and millions are spent on R&D during the off-seasons to eke out a millisecond here or there. All 10 teams spent $2.6 billion in 2019; Mercedes spent $484 million and Ferrari $463 million alone — and they still made plenty of money. (Spending caps are being placed effective this year in order to help some of the lesser teams become more competitive).

Next to James Bond, F1 drivers may be some of the coolest cats on the planet — and, of course, they know it — no doubt provoking a certain amount of resentment in other racing quarters. They tend to be handsome, carry a little swag, surround themselves with beautiful people, (and, as the song goes) their "money for nothin' and chicks for free," who are constantly globetrotting and speak several languages. This was amusingly parodied by Sasha Baron Cohen’s outrageously snooty and flamboyant character Jean Girard in "Talladega Nights," who’s openly gay and Ricky Bobby’s archrival.

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Many consider the Formula One racing machines to be the best in the world. (Maybe not the fastest; Indy cars might actually be a little faster in a straight line — i.e., 250 mph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — but lack F1 maneuverability.) And many would say that F1 drivers are the best in the world. But are they? Well-known open wheel drivers who have tried their hand at NASCAR, for example, have not necessarily dominated.

At any rate, I’ll probably not turn on another F1 event this season, but know exactly what I’ll be watching next 29 May at 9 a.m.

I-526 race track

Just as an FYI, there’s an incredible racetrack with very fast drivers that’s right here and literally surrounds Charleston. It’s called Interstate 526. I recently dropped by an office off Leeds Avenue and the office happened to be tucked right up against the racetrack — I mean the interstate. Over about a 15-minute period I was serenaded at least twice by sirens and felt several vehicles speeding past. Couldn’t see them because by the time I looked up they were gone.

Note to financially strapped local municipal governments: There’s an endless source of revenue racing around the beltway. Talk about money for nothing. 

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@comcast.net.

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