MONACO — The Tip Top bar has stood at 11 Avenues de Spelugues in Monaco since 1938.
Its frontage has witnessed every Monaco Grand Prix since the second World War and, legend has it, Graham Hill once danced on the bistro’s tables following one of his five Monaco victories in the 1960s.
In the COVID-reality of 2021, however, its tables are stacked behind closed doors, partying is strictly limited by Monaco’s 11 p.m. curfew and a sign by the entrance reminds patrons to wear a face mask for the safety of its staff.
Even in the rarefied world of Monaco, where studio apartments start at €2 million and supercars are more common than taxis, the pandemic has made left its mark. Fans will be present at this weekend’s race — the 78th running of Formula One’s most famous grand prix — but the temporary grandstands around the circuit will only be 40 percent full.
The lucky 7,500 that have managed to get hold of a ticket will require proof of a negative COVID-19 test to gain access and must wear a face mask at all times as they attempt to remain 1.5 metres from one another in the network of narrow passageways around the circuit.
Yet for an hour on Thursday morning, just metres away from the entrance to the Tip Top, an air of normality returned to the principality of Monaco.
For the first time in 24 months, the sound of a Formula One car reverberated between the concrete apartment blocks of Monte Carlo and, as is the local tradition at this time in May, the residents of Monaco took to their balconies to see what all the fuss is about.
The Tip Top sits just 200 metres beyond the highest point of the circuit and the following half mile of track winds its way back towards sea level throughh switchback corners called Mirabeau and the Fairmont Hairpin.
On TV the drive looks as pleasant as the scenery, but stood trackside, you see, hear and smell the forces involved.
The Fairmont Haripin, named after the hotel that overlooks the track on one side and hangs over the Mediterranean on the other, is the slowest corner in Formula One.
That may not sound like an exciting place to watch, but even here, in their slowest moments of a flying lap, F1 cars are still thrilling to watch.
On the approach to the Fairmont, the drivers cross from one side of the track to the other, flash over road markings designating a motorcycle parking bay and haul on the brakes.
As they flick down the gears, the clunks and bangs from the transmission sound like Civil War re-enactment as the gearbox reluctantly accepts the driver’s request for first gear.
The car slows to 30mph, which happens to be the speed limit for the rest of the year when the same patch of tarmac is clogged with scooters, cars and buses crawling on their commute.
Once the gearbox has sounded its battle cry, it’s the turn of the front tyres to chirp in protest as the driver whips the steering wheel to the left and hits full lock.
Initially the tyres are unwilling to play along, scrubbing and jutting across the track surface before finally biting and hooking the car into the corner.
At two metres wide, an F1 car is not designed to turn through such a tight radius, and it shows.
The whole car appears to resist the manoeuvre, and the front wing takes some collateral damage as its titanium tip scrapes across the road and leaves a trail of sparks in its wake.
To complete the 180-degree rotation, drivers need to boot the throttle and slide the car up against the raised kerb stones on the right, risking a potential puncture if the tyre were to make contact and be ripped from its rim.
It’s an undignified few seconds for such a fine piece of engineering, but grand prix cars have been tackling this exact hairpin for 92 years and it remains a remarkable sight to behold.
It’s like riding a dirt bike in a supermarket
Three-time world champion Nelson Piquet, who raced in F1 in the late 1970s, the 1980s and the early 1990s, famously compared driving a lap of Monaco to “riding a bicycle around your living room”.
But in modern cars, which are multiple seconds a lap faster than they were in Piquet’s day, the analogy has stepped up a notch.
“It’s true, it’s like that,” 2018 Monaco Grand Prix winner Daniel Ricciardo told ESPN after Thursday practice.
“But I’d say it’s now like riding a dirt bike in a supermarket — it’s crazy.
“When you’re in the car, you’re absorbed by it all, so we don’t have time to think how crazy it is.
“I remember once I was watching Formula 2 car through the Swimming Pool [chicane] and into the Rascasse [corner], and I was just like, ‘it’s so narrow, it’s so fast … it just doesn’t make sense!’
“It’s still scary. But a good kind of scary.”
The tight Monaco circuit requires a different approach to any other on the F1 schedule and drivers must adapt to it in the space of the three hour-long practice sessions.
“It’s so unique,” Ricciardo, who drives for McLaren, added.
“If you compare it to Barcelona, where we were two weeks ago [for the Spanish Grand Prix] and everything is kind of normal — you’ve got your 100 metre boards and you brake at them, it’s just not the same here.
“The 100 metre boards don’t mean anything [in Monaco], you’ve got to find different references, the grip is low and even your driving style is not that traditional.
“You’ve just got to figure it out on the bounce.”
As impressive as it is to watching F1 drivers live on their instincts during a qualifying lap at Monaco, the race itself is often an anti-climax.
The tight layout means overtaking is near impossible and races are often won on Saturday by qualifying on pole position and retaining the lead at the start of the race.
Ricciardo did exactly that when he won the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix, and even managed to retain the lead once the hybrid element of his engine failed and reduced his car’s power output by 160 brakehorsepower.
He celebrated the win by belly flopping into the swimming pool on top of Red Bull’s hospitality unit, instantly creating one of the most iconic Monaco photos of recent years.
“Somebody asked me about that race the other day and they said: ‘It was probably the best day of your life, wasn’t it?
“I said that those moments in the pool probably were the best moments of my life, but the day itself sucked!
“I hated the day because it was just full of stress and anxiety.
“Qualifying is still the most stressful day [of a Monaco weekend], but if you put it on pole you still have the stress of ‘if I don’t convert this into a win, then I’ve done the worst thing you can do in Monaco because you have to convert from pole’.
“I remember [two-time Monaco winner] Mark Webber came up to me that day when I was eating lunch — and obviously he was not trying to add pressure, he was trying to give me advice — but during all those moments I was just like ‘f—!’.
“I could really feel that everybody really wanted me to execute and to win, but I couldn’t escape anyone to focus on it.
“Even to the point that when I stopped on the grid after the formation lap and lined up in P1, I don’t know if it rained overnight, but there was still a little bit of water over by the inside barrier and I felt like I had parked the car too much on the right, and I felt like my right wheel was on a damp patch [which would impact the start].
“So even waiting on the grid for the other cars to get there, I was like ‘oh f—!’.
“Nothing about that race felt good other than leading into Turn 1.”
Even though there will be fewer fans and less atmosphere in the grandstands on Sunday, the racing at this year’s Monaco Grand Prix will be no different.
Whoever starts on pole position will likely have the same nerves, the same concerns on the grid and the same relief if they are still leading by the exit of Turn 1.
Despite a year’s absence and the presence of COVID protocols this weekend, the magic of Monaco is still intact.