Inside Line: Monaco, McLaren, Memories

ayrton senna, peter burns, monaco
Peter Burns is the guy top right with Marlboro visible on his shirt

Monaco is more than just a Grand Prix. It is a unique spectacle. It is a social gathering on the Mediterranean for the rich and famous and for those who would like to be.

It is set against the background of a high speed motor racing demonstration with fast and furious Formula One cars charging around the tight confines of the streets of Monte Carlo – and if you are lucky you may even see some overtaking!

Monaco is one of the oldest Grands Prix. The very first Grand Prix was held in 1929 and won by William Grover-Williams driving a Bugatti 35B, painted in what would become known as “British Racing Green”, beating the heavily favoured Mercedes of the great German driver, Rudolf Caracciola.

Mercedes has actually won the race six times, three times consecutively from 1935 to 1937 and from 2013 to 2015 with Nico Rosberg, who was born in Wiesbaden to a German mother. However Monaco is very much his home, having spent most of his life there and having seen his Finnish World Champion father Keke become the winner in 1983.

In fact it could be said that Monaco is indeed the ‘home’ Grand Prix for the vast majority of the F1 drivers! When you look at the rich heritage of the victors, there are a lot of multiple winners and the race seems to attract a certain calibre of specialist to master the tight confines of the streets.

(L to R) Ayrton Senna (BRA) 2nd place. Winner Alain Prost (FRA) Monaco GP, Monte Carlo, 3 June 1984

Alain Prost won Monaco four times, his first win, which was also McLaren’s, only received half points due to the race being stopped early due to very heavy rain. Had the race gone on for a few more laps then he may well have been beaten by a certain Brazilian driver in his debut season with Toleman, who soon became renowned as a both a rain master and Monaco master, but more of him later!

Michael Schumacher won Monaco five times, equaling the record of Graham Hill, who for many years was acknowledged as a Monaco specialist. In fact Graham Hill is the only driver to win the Triple Crown of Motorsport by winning both the Monaco Grand Prix (and the F1 World Championship), Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

The only constructor to have accomplished this is McLaren, who is the most successful team at Monaco having won the Grand Prix a total of 15 times. Ferrari is second with nine wins.

McLaren has a long association with the Principality and 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of McLaren’s debut as a constructor in Formula One, which was with the team’s founder Bruce McLaren at Monaco in 1966. Previously Bruce had won the race in 1962 driving a Cooper-Climax and at the age of 22 years 104 days, at that time became the youngest ever Grand Prix winner.

However it was not until 18 years later that McLaren claimed theirfirst victory with Alain Prost in 1984. In fact the year before the team had the indignity of neither of the cars of Niki Lauda and John Watson actually qualifying, and to make matters worse the team had a number of senior sponsors attending!

The McLaren F1 road car, the racing version of which won Le Mans in 1995, was launched in Monaco in 1992 at the Sporting Club. So tight was the security that only those closest to the project had any idea what it looked like. So it was a total surprise to see it emerge from below the stage amidst dry ice to find out that it was a three seater, with the driver positioned in the middle. Apparently it has been said that Niki Lauda’s comment to this was that the driver could have his mistress sitting on one side and his wife on the other – talk about deadly distractions!

McLaren F1 road car Monaco

I should also state for the record that Mercedes-Benz as an engine can also claim the Triple Crown.

An often asked question when it became known that I used to work for McLaren was did you go to Monaco? Well I did, 14 times actually, every year from 1988 to 2001 and I feel very privileged to have been there and part of it with some very treasured memories.

The first year was rather special and somewhat typical of the entrepreneur like attitude which made McLaren in those days a pioneer in F1 marketing. Another of my early jobs when I joined the team was being entrusted by Ron Dennis to find a furniture manufacturer to fit out the new office and factory facility which the company was going to move into in Woking Business Park.

Having short listed down to three potential companies, Ron and I visited them each, before settling for one, which was a German based company, who had a subsidiary in London. With the Managing Director almost rubbing his hands together and salivating about the scale of the deal, Ron went for the sucker punch.

McLaren would buy the furniture from the UK based company, but in return he wanted the German mother company to be a sponsor. After further meetings and trips to Germany the deal with Voko was agreed. This included hospitality for a party of eighty of top their clients each year at a Grand Prix weekend. The first event was the 1986 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, which included helicopter shuttles ferrying eighty people from Leeds Castle in Kent.

However having got a taste of the Grand Prix lifestyle the company wanted to be more ambitious and go to the glamorous Monaco Grand Prix. The challenge was finding 40 or more rooms in one hotel in Monaco, when most hotels had a five to seven night minimum stay, regardless of how many nights you actually stayed. This is where Ron and McLaren where at their lateral thinking best. Instead of staying at a hotel, why didn’t we bring one in, a floating one, which could be moored in the harbour.


So on route to a Grand Prix on the corporate jet, we made a flying visit to Ibiza for an inspection of the 56 berth luxury yacht Sea Goddess, which we chartered from Cunard for a quarter of a million pounds sterling, to be our floating hotel. The next challenge was securing a berth in the already overcrowded harbour. Through various senior sources this was arranged via the harbour master, who reputedly was the second richest person in Monaco after the royal family!

It was a full on 24 hour a day challenge for the five days the guests were with us. Because it was a ship, technically your left the country every time you embarked, so security was very tight. We provided them with customised polo shirts, sweatshirts, shoes and a variety of gifts. We had a charity auction, with prizes including a Honda sports car plus a Honda motorbike, plus appearances by both drivers Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.

Yet despite the sheer scale of the Sea Goddess event, the aspect that stands out most in my mind is being faced with the challenge of having to accommodate the German pianist Justus Franz, a guest of Hugo Boss, who required a Steinway grand piano on the deck. The problem being that the ship’s Steinway piano was below deck by the restaurant. Faced with the obstacle, it reached the extreme scenario of Ron betting me $1,000 that he could get another one on board, as we went through the feasibility of flying one in over the busy harbour by helicopter!

When you actually visit Monaco the thing that most strikes you is how small and compact the place is. Monaco as a country covers just 499 acres, which is little more than two square kilometres. It is reputed to be the second smallest country in the world and with a population of over 36,000 it is said to be the world’s most densely populated country, and when you compare it with Singapore, the South East Asia island is 349 times bigger.


The Monte Carlo street circuit is just three and a third kilometres in length, which is just over two miles and because of the relatively low average speeds, it is the only Grand Prix that does not adhere to the FIA’s mandated 305 kilometres (190 miles) minimum race distance. For Monaco this is reduced to 260 kilometres (161 miles) which in 2015 Nico Rosberg won in 1 hour 49 minutes.

If you ever have the opportunity to walk the street circuit you will realise just how narrow and tight the confines of the track are. It is jaw dropping to marvel at the complete illogicality of F1 cars driving at the speeds they do, which is probably why the circuit seems to attract a certain type of winner, who has a special mastery of Monaco.

No one typifies that more than the most successful driver ever at Monaco. Ayrton Senna won the race a total of six times – once with Lotus and then with McLaren for five successive years from 1989 to 1993.

In 1988 his qualifying lap was the stuff of legends. Speaking with the journalist, the late Russell Bulgin, Ayrton explained his almost surreal experience:

“I remember starting: going quicker and quicker. I was on pole by a few tenths of a second and then by half a second, and then almost a second, and then over a second. I was just … going, more and more and there was a stage when I was two seconds quicker than anybody else, including my team mate with the same equipment.”

“I realised at that moment that I was well over something subconscious. Monaco is small and narrow and at that moment I had a feeling that I was in a tunnel; the circuit was just a tunnel for me. It was going-going-going and within the physical limit of the circuit. It was like I was on rails. Of course I wasn’t on rails.”

Ayrton Senna McLaren Marlboro Monaco Paul Velasco

“Then, suddenly, I realised it was to much; I slowed down, I drove back slowly to the pits and said to myself that I shouldn’t go out any more that day. Because for that moment, I was vulnerable for extending my own limits, and the cars limits: limits that I never touch before. It was something that was not – not that I was not in control – but I was not aware, exactly of what was going on. I was just going-going-going. An amazing experience.”

In the race however, he made a small error and crashed at Portier. So angry was he with himself, that he escaped from the track and went straight home to his apartment which was just a few minutes away, and took the phone off the hook! He was missing in action for hours before he surfaced, enticed by the Team Co-ordinator Jo Ramirez.

It was a few years later in 1993, that I had one of those moments that when you look back and reflect on your life, there are certain instances when you wonder how on earth you ever got to be in that particular unique situation!

In the build up to the Monaco Grand Prix, I had to collect some passes for the sponsors from Jo Ramirez. Jo had to deliver some trophies to Ayrton Senna’s apartment in Monte Carlo so we arranged to meet there. When Jo needed a hand to carry all the silverware upstairs I duly volunteered.

Ayrton Senna McLaren Marlboro Monaco Paul Velasco

That evening Ayrton was all on his own, apart from his housekeeper and you sensed he was lonely, so we were duly invited to join him for dinner. Although I had got to know Ayrton reasonably well on a professional basis as the marketing person who tried to ensure he attended the various sponsor functions, having a relaxed informal dinner with him in his home was something else. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming!

During the dinner he and Jo talked about all sorts of things, and I just felt privileged to listen, but at one stage he did say “one day I think I will drive for Ferrari!” And it has been speculated that the rumoured $25 million deal for Michael Schumacher to go to Ferrari in 1996 was originally pencilled in for Ayrton!

Motorsport enthusiasts all have their favourite drivers and views on the all time greats, but for me Ayrton has a special place, and at least as far as Monaco is concerned, he was “Simply the Best!”

Inside Line by Peter Burns