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Cancelled Grand Prix dents iconic Monaco’s prestige

Casino wheels have stopped turning, the Champagne is stuck on ice, and yachts bob silently in the famous harbour but Formula 1’s raucous circus won’t be coming on May 24 for the iconic Monaco Grand Prix.

The race was cancelled on March 19 because of the coronavirus outbreak, with the jewel in F1′s crown removed for the first time in 66 years.

It’s a blow to the tiny principality’s huge prestige and its finances. Lost revenue comes to about 140 million euros ($150 million) when you factor in early May’s Historic Monaco GP — an event featuring old racing cars and also cancelled.

Monaco’s F1 race has been part of the principality’s image since 1929. Ask people what Monaco represents and answers can range from Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier to the casino and fast cars, when roaring engines set off a weekend of revelry and excess.

In glitzy Monaco, being seen can seem as important as actually seeing the race. More than 200,000 people flock there from Thursday-Sunday, and nearly half won’t watch the race.

Monaco’s Institute for statistics and economic studies estimates that 40% of people present during the Grand Prix “don’t have any visual access.”

Up to 65,000 people attend on one day, all within a sardine-can radius which sees millionaires crammed together with cap-wearing F1 fans from around the world. Stands are packed, and so are balconies and the hill which slopes sharply up to Prince Albert’s fairytale-like palace.

Everyone wants to sample the elixir of an event which transcends motorsport. Famed members of the film industry, like George Lucas and Michael Fassbender, often come. The race shares a sunny spotlight on the French Riviera with the nearby Cannes Film Festival.

Some hop in by helicopter — seven minutes over the Mediterranean sea from Nice. But this year there won’t be the sound of clinking Champagne glasses from concluded business deals, and no drunks spilling from harbour bars to dance wildly to deafening music.

The first 10 races of 22 this season have been postponed or cancelled. Some could be rescheduled but Monaco, staged every year since 1955, won’t be.

Michel Boeri, the president of Monaco’s Automobile Club, said it was not realistic to hold the race later this year, “Try asking 1,500 volunteers to put their whole of August on hold or businesses, some who are far from here, to come and build the circuit later on. It was impossible.”

Because Monaco is a street circuit, all the crash barriers and stands are installed in the weeks before the race: 45 days to build and 25 days to dismantle.

“The epidemic was gaining ground,” Boeri told newspaper Nice-Matin. “We had no choice.”

The 80% of tickets already sold have to be refunded. Seasonal workers also missed out, because the bars and restaurants dotted around tightly-woven streets need them to cope with huge demand.

The Monaco Grand Prix was cancelled from 1938-47 and during post-war economic hardship in 1949, ’51, ’53 and ’54.

Monaco’s race forms motorsport’s Triple Crown along with the Indianapolis 500 and 24 Hours Le Mans. Fernando Alonso wants to complete the triple.

The Monaco Grand Prix stands alone in F1 because it has a day off. Practice sessions start a day earlier so fans can enjoy the Friday off.

Drivers appreciate much-needed practicality as much as the prestige. Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and rising star Charles Leclerc can walk to the track since they are residents. Leclerc, who is from Monaco, lives a stone’s throw from the harbour and first watched the race as a small boy.

It starts on a short straight alongside the harbour, then cuts a right and goes sharply upward past Monaco’s glitzy yacht club before winding past the casino, cutting through a nearby tunnel and curving back down to the harbour.

Cars then zoom past the iconic La Rascasse. The upmarket bar’s balcony perches over the track, offering fans a unique view of cars flinging around the corner and accelerating upward past them.

Fans pay for many special views through a VIP section. One travel hospitality agency has a branch dedicated to F1. Prices for watching Sunday’s race onboard a luxury yacht start at 2,950 euros ($3,150) per person. You get an open Champagne bar, a gourmet buffet and even earplugs, in case you didn’t bring any.

A number of rooftop terraces offer sweeping views. Ermanno Palace, overlooking the start-finish line, costs 3,300 euros ($3,500) each for race day, with business deals discussed over gourmet cuisine and a glass of fizz.

Laurence Cellario, founder of the Incentive Concept agency, estimates a revenue hit of 4 million euros ($4.3 million) — and insurance does not cover the virus outbreak.

“We will lose our profit margin,” Cellario said, estimating that to be 400,000 euros ($430,000).

The loss is tempered by the fact some clients have moved bookings to next year. Some of the hotels — like the imposing Hermitage next to the casino — are carrying over bookings, while others flatly refuse to refund.

Hotels profit from a large concentration of rich clients by quadrupling prices in some instances, with five-night stays often compulsory.

Many people seek hotels outside Monaco and take the train in. Hôtel Comté de Nice in Beaulieu-sur-Mer is about 7 miles away. Although reaching Monaco means a jam-packed train, a direct route takes only 10 minutes.

During race week the hotel increases its top nightly rate by 75 euros ($81). Still, the hotel’s manager, Vincent Eyguesier, has lost about 30,000 euros ($32,000), “(It’s) 5% of annual turnover in one week, which is enormous.”