Monday 5 December 2016

Principality's relic of a bygone age still a litmus test of talent

David Kennedy

Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30

Spectators watch second practice of the Monaco Grand Prix at the Circuit de Monaco. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire.
Spectators watch second practice of the Monaco Grand Prix at the Circuit de Monaco. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire.

Two mega events in the motorsport calendar take place today: The Monaco Grand Prix in Europe and the Indianapolis 500 in the US. Both share common threads and have Irish connections.

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But first, let's take a circuitous history lesson. In the 17th century the French and British came to Indiana in the midwest, now referred to as the 'crossroads of America', for the lucrative fur trade. The French successfully integrated and traded with the native Indians and respected their heritage. In the 18th century French and British colonists fought over the land. The British won and the whisky they used to trade with the natives proved a disaster for the Indians when it came to treaty negotiations.

When the British were defeated in the War of Independence, Indiana became the 19th state of the union. Lord Mountjoy told the English Parliament, "America was lost by Irish emigrants . . . I am assured from the best authority, the major part of the American Army was composed of Irish and that the Irish language was as commonly spoken in the American ranks as English."

The McCormick and Pogue families were of Scotch-Irish descent (a self-styled description used then to differentiate themselves from the Catholic Irish) whose ancestors fled Ulster following the Test Act. They became the first settlers in Indianapolis in 1820 when John McCormick built a log cabin on the banks of the White river and later opened a tavern. It is said that Justice Jeremiah Sullivan, whose barrister grandfather hailed from Charleville, minted the name 'Indianapolis' and it was declared the capital of Indiana.

Less than 100 years later the inaugural Indianapolis 500 race was held. Today sees the 100th anniversary of the running of the Indy 500, the 500 denoting the miles covered, over 200 laps on a 2.5 mile oval with speeds in excess of 230mph. It is the largest single-day sporting event in the world and this year it's a sell-out, with over 450,000 spectators expected. Colombia's Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the 2003 Monaco GP with McLaren, is defending champion.

Status GP, having competed successfully in GP2 in 2015, winning two races in our debut season, including the Monaco GP2 race, decided to revive the famous Theodore Racing name which has been so successful at the Macau Grand Prix with our partner Prema.

Theodore team owner Teddy Yip Jnr just announced a long-term tie-up with the Prema team, who run cars across many formulae, not least Michael Schumacher Jnr in Formula Four and Lance Stroll in GP2, son of Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll. He acquired a stake in the Williams Grand Prix team and his son is expected to drive for them in F1 next season.

Part of this expansion and rebranding also involved a return to the Indy 500, a venue where Theodore Racing made its debut with ex-Ferrari driver Clay Regazzoni in 1977. Coincidentally the Swiss driver failed to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix and Teddy Yip Snr flew him to Indy that same weekend to qualify for the 500. Unfortunately he retired after 25 laps.

Theodore returns almost 40 year later, this time partnering the Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan team. Bobby Rahal won the 1986 Indy 500. David Letterman, a native of Indianapolis, is the legendary former talk show host and Mike Lanigan, the third partner, is an entrepreneur. LLR with Theodore have two drivers in the Indy 500, Graham Rahal and Spencer Pigot. Keep an eye out too for Conor Daly, son of Derek, who will also be competing in his third 500.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is also known as the 'The Brickyard' because the track was made from crushed tar and stone. Only a strip of the original track exists today. Thunderstorms are expected, which will make it all the more challenging, not to mention terrifying, for the competitors.

Speaking of storm clouds, five years ago when Donald Trump was a mere property mogul and TV celebrity, he was invited to drive the pace car at the Indy 500 festival parade. In the run-up to the event, Trump vilified Barack Obama, casting dispersions on his birth certificate, saying he was a Muslim and questioning how he had made it to Harvard. The ensuing uproar forced Trump to reject the invitation, citing business pressures. There was relief all around, not least because no-one was sure Trump could drive, since he's chauffeur-driven everywhere. Past Presidents such as Ford, Bush and Clinton have all attended the event. It's not many venues that deliver a captive audience in such vast numbers.

The Monaco Grand Prix is a relic from the past and the halcyon days when an Irish-American woman, Princess Grace, presented the trophy. Except the cars have completely outgrown the narrow track - it's like being put in a straitjacket in a bobsleigh and told 'don't touch the walls'. Still, as a circuit it is unique and drivers love it. It serves as a benchmark for exceptional talent. The pole sitter can take comfort from the fact that nine of the last 10 races were won from that position.

Of course Monaco is all about set-up, qualifying and grip. It rewards concentration, tenacity and controlled aggression. It has a rhythm, and the sooner you master it, the quicker you will go.

The circuit is 2.092 miles long with an average speed of 98mph, a top speed of 177mph and is run over 78 laps. Aerodynamics, high downforce, correct tyre choice, good pit-stop strategy, maximising overtaking opportunities are just some of the tests.

When Red Bull demoted Daniil Kyvat to their junior Toro Rosso team, swapping him with Max Verstappen, they were vindicated when the Dutch teenage sensation won the last grand prix in Barcelona. The Mercedes team-mate collision helped, of course, but Red Bull look as though they're on the brink of a comeback. Kyvat was furious; the fastest lap he achieved was scant consolation and was probably delivered with a two-finger salute.

If the Spanish Grand Prix is about a variety of winners - 10 different drivers in 10 years - Monaco is often about monopoly. Nico Rosberg is going home, not just to where he was brought up but also to where he has won the last three grands prix. But his predators are closing in. Red Bull, Hamilton and Ferrari are looming large. With a clean run of four victories in the first five races, until their collision in Spain, Rosberg is determined to ride with the momentum. If a victory isn't on the cards then keeping the points tally up is imperative.

Like in Indy, thunderstorms are expected today and if they materialise, that could produce an unexpected winner. Many of the 200,000 visitors to the principality will still quaff their champagne come hail, rain or shine. Let's hope the conditions aren't as bad as 1996 when only three cars were running at the end, barely enough to make up the podium!

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