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Automotive history

Freeze Frame: British victor for the first Monaco Grand Prix

by Antony Ingram
14 April 2021 3 min read
Freeze Frame: British victor for the first Monaco Grand Prix
Racing gets underway at the 1929 Monaco Grand Prix, with eventual winner Grover-Williams racing out of shot around the first corner, Sainte Dévote. Photo: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Welcome to Freeze Frame, our look back at moments from this week in automotive history

14 April 1929 – The inaugural Grand Prix of Monaco

It’s nearly impossible to imagine a season of Formula One without a visit to Monte Carlo for the Monaco Grand Prix, though 2020 gave us a flavour of such a season thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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This year’s event will go ahead – all being well – on May 23, but 92 years ago today our counterparts were enjoying the roar of racing engines around the principality for the very first time, as the inaugural Grand Prix of Monaco took the principality by storm.

It’s always a pleasure looking back on these races, but also amusing when they generate nothing like the fanfare you’d expect. Motor Sport dedicated just two matter-of-fact paragraphs to Monaco’s first Grand Prix. Perhaps our contemporaries in the Roaring Twenties treated any new event with the suspicion we set aside for Sochi in 2014 or Baku in 2016.

1929 Monaco Grand Prix
The first row on the grid for the 1929 Monaco Grand Prix. Left to right: Philippe Étancelin, Christian Dauvergne, Marcel Lehoux (all in Bugattis). Race winner William Grover-Williams can be seen in the number 12 Bugatti in the centre of the second row. Photo: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In fairness, they could not have known it would become a cornerstone of the racing season. Since the inauguration of the Formula One World Championship in 1950 only Monza has hosted more Grands Prix, at 70 to Monaco’s 66. Like other famous circuits such as Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps and Interlagos, there would be probably be uproar if it were removed from the calendar and replaced with another characterless “Tilkedrome”.

Monaco is rarely known for great racing in the modern era, but Motor Sport called the 1929 event a “terrific duel”. Read between the lines and the race was won in the pits and on fuel-efficiency (sounds familiar…), but no doubt the action between stops was a sight to behold for those catching street racing for the first time.

“The course was extremely tricky” reads the report, “and included innumerable bends and two hairpins”. Each of those hairpins still exists today; the old Station hairpin long since renamed the Grand Hotel, and La Rascasse (named for the bar on the apex) taking the place of the tight Gazometre corner that linked either side of the pit straight. Today’s right-hander is named Antony Noghès, for the president of the Automobile Club de Monaco and originator of the course.

1929 Monaco Grand Prix (William Grover-Williams, Bugatti)
Race-winner William Grover-Williams in his Bugatti Type 35B. Photo: ullstein bild via Getty Images

Prince Pierre of Monaco had the honour of clearing the course at the wheel of a Voisin, before the hundred-lap race got underway. William Grover-Williams quickly took the lead in his 2300cc supercharged Bugatti Type 35B, before being overtaken on lap 36 by Rudolf Caracciola in his monstrous 7-litre supercharged Mercedes SSK.

Grover-Williams re-took the lead six laps later, but after each driver stopped for fuel (and Caracciola to acquire a pair of new rear wheels) it was Grover-Williams in the more efficient Bugatti that came out ahead, extending his lead to more than a lap. The gap eventually closed, but Grover-Williams led home Georges Bouriano in another Bugatti and Caracciola.

Grover-Williams went on to win the French Grand Prix at Le Mans that June, and achieved a further victory at Spa in 1931, before his racing career tailed off. He died in 1945, executed by the Nazis for his part as a special agent aiding the French Resistance during the Second World War. A tragic end, but his name will forever be written into history as the winner of the very first Monaco Grand Prix.

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