This weekend was supposed to be host to both the Monaco Grand Prix and Indy 500. ESPN2 is showing historic editions of both races on Sunday.
But can one claim to be better than the other? Last year, having covered both events, Nate Saunders cast his verdict on that timeless question.
The two biggest events in open-wheel racing couldn’t be more different.
One is a breathless, lightning-fast dash around an enormous 2.5 mile pantheon with the biggest infield you are ever going to see and 300,000 people screaming louder than the engines themselves. The other is just as bananas: the best racing cars in the world roaring around the narrow streets that bend around the beautiful Monaco harbor, where yachts sit as if it is just another day in paradise and drivers dare their machines closer and closer to the wall each lap in pursuit of F1’s most prestigious victory.
It’s an incredible slice of fortune to have covered an Indy 500 and a Monaco Grand Prix in the space of three years. Off the bat, let’s make one thing clear: both events are incredibly special and deserve the legendary status they have gained over the past century or so of racing.
But are they comparable? Is one truly better than the other? Let’s break them down into categories and find out.
Both are steeped in remarkable tradition. Indy has the giant Borg-Warner trophy and the glass of milk for the winner; Monaco is a James Bond movie come to life, mixed with a sprinkle of Steve McQueen.
To many, there would be no F1 without two things: Ferrari and the Monaco Grand Prix. Monaco probably wouldn’t come close to making it on the modern-day calendar if it had to apply for a 2020 place as a new race. The iconic imagery is so special to people that many are upset that the Principality has started building a new plot of land behind the famous tunnel, ruining what used to be one of the best TV shots in all of sport. Monaco is rooted in motor racing’s origins as a gentleman’s pursuit and as such feels like a glimpse into the past and an era that has otherwise vanished.
But the Indy 500 is fascinating for a different reason. It is more storied than Monaco, having reached its 100th race in 2016, but with another element added to it.
One statement you hear in the build-up to every Indy 500 is that “it picks its own winner.” Looking at the list of victors, it’s hard to disagree. Sometimes victory can simply elude drivers forever — the Andretti Curse has followed that famous racing family since Mario’s victory at the Brickyard in 1969. Mario, son Michael and grandson Marco have each experienced heartbreaking near-misses in the years since (Michael has won as a team boss).
Because of the nature of the race, the Indy 500 remains the one everyone wants to win but also the one they have to win. For many drivers, the oval race is the one they are defined by — a career is not complete until they have stood on top of their car, worn the laurels and chugged the white stuff.
At Monaco, you need the right car to win. At Indianapolis, much like the Masters in golf, you only win if fate decides it is your day to do so.
Winner: Indy 500.
You could not find two more contrasting places if you tried.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is tucked away on the outskirts of the city, which is in the middle of rural Indiana. You drive around the I-465 ring-road and suddenly it’s there, as if it just popped up out of nowhere. Its size is misleading when viewed from the outside, and it’s only when inside that you can even start to appreciate the sheer scale of it. The area around is devoted to racing — legendary former champion AJ Foyt has a wine bar on Main Street, a stone’s throw away, and for race week the streets are renamed after that year’s competitors.
But Monaco’s F1 circuit is something completely different, as it is not really a race circuit at all. Whichever way you arrive in Monaco, you never feel like you can see a race track until you are standing right next to an Armco barrier by the harbour. The roads become a race track only when they are designated to do so — regular traffic drives down the start-finish straight within several hours of any session finishing.
But then, the thing that wins it easily for Monaco: the packed party yachts in the harbour, Casino Square, the tunnel, a Principality that turns into a race track and then back into a retreat for the rich and famous in the blink of an eye. Whoever first looked at all of those places and decided they made the perfect backdrop for racing was either crazy or a visionary, or a little bit of both. As we wrote ahead of the 2019 edition, watching at some of those locations makes for an utterly breathtaking experience.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway feels like a place where people should go racing. Monaco does not. And yet, somehow, it just works.
The United States just knows how to put on a sporting occasion. The Indy 500 build-up culminates with the famous call to “start your engines!” in front of more people than you would imagine could be packed into one place. That follows an incredible military fly-over, hours of build-up, a parade in downtown Indianapolis the day before, and days of access for fans and media to drivers unparalleled anywhere else in motor racing. It’s all unashamedly American and suits the magnitude of the event perfectly.
By comparison, Monaco is quite quirky. Fans are scattered around wherever they are willing to pay to watch from: the hill underneath the Rock of Monaco, where you can pay upwards of 50 Euros a pop for a very limited view of the whole event; a balcony of one of the many apartment blocks around the place; or, of course, from the luxury of a yacht along the harbour.
The experience of going trackside is restricted to those lucky enough to view from right up close. In terms of fans viewing the occasion, it has a more exclusive feel to it — even the grid feels celebrity-heavy by F1 standards. While Monaco has the incredible backdrop, it doesn’t have the luxury of the huge space the Indianapolis Motor Speedway does to really amplify the show beyond the racing.
This was the hardest one to decide, but it has to go to Indy. During the incredible period that precedes the race itself, my main thought — other than that I had come a really long way from covering the U.K’s legendary dog show, Crufts, in the formative years of my journalistic career — was that I had never seen anything like it. I still haven’t. The whole thing gave me goosebumps and that moment alone is reason enough to go back.
Winner: Indy 500
At this point I bet you’re thinking one of two things: “Monaco is always a boring race” or “The Indy 500 is just turning left over and over again, isn’t it?”
Respectfully, you’re wrong either way.
This year’s Monaco race proved you don’t need a giant festival to provide entertainment. First off, you need drivers to be punished by small errors, just like a desperate Charles Leclerc was early in the race — in an era of circuits featuring too many big run-off areas, the importance of that cannot be understated. It also means qualifying laps at Monaco on Saturday afternoon are the best you will see all year. You also need some element of jeopardy about the lead as the race is a constant balancing act between risk and reward.
As for the Indy 500 — it isn’t “just” turning left. The oval race is unbelievably fast and the risk level is just as high. Unlike Monaco, drivers run in packs, drafting back and forth in and out of the lead like it’s a stage of the Tour de France, listening to spotters who watch the action from the rafters and advise whether to “go low” or “go high.”
As with Monaco, waiting for a driver who makes the tiniest of mistakes is a wall. A race, a career and even a life can be ruined by an unnecessary tangle with another driver or a tiny error in judgment. J.R. Hildebrand infamously crashed out of the lead at the final corner of the final lap in 2012 after going too high up the bank while lapping a backmarker — a tiny mistake that cost him everything.
Mental fortitude is tested to the extreme at both. At Indy, the objective of the first 199 laps is to simply ensure you are still in contention to win it on the 200th. As with Ayrton Senna/Nigel Mansell in 1992 or Lewis Hamilton/Max Verstappen last weekend, sometimes Monaco is about whether or not a champion will crack under pressure.
To be honest, this aspect of the Monaco/Indy debate is also the most tiresome. The cars are different, as are the two series involved, so declaring one the winner over the other is pointless.
So… does one of them win overall?
Monaco was an incredible experience, but Indy has the perfect ingredients for a sporting contest: the size of the occasion, the unpredictability and the feeling of destiny around the man whose face ends up on the Borg-Warner trophy. Bits of Monaco were spellbinding, but all of the Indy 500 was mesmerizing to me. So on a personal level, Indy edges it, but it was the one I experienced first.
The above is just a glimpse into what these two events meant to me, so it is important to conclude with this final point. If you want to feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, your heart rate rise, and witness something truly astonishingly brilliant, then take your pick — either event will accomplish that. You will never, ever forget what it felt like the first time you watched racing at either of these magical places.