We drove a Honda NSX hybrid supercar to Monaco to celebrate F1 history
Darren Cassey heads to Monaco – the most iconic street circuit in the world – to explore the connection between Honda’s hybrid supercar and its Formula 1 machinery
Turning on to the start/finish straight, a unique view of mountains and immaculately maintained, high-rise buildings fill my windscreen. I turn right through the first corner and head up the deceptively steep hill, mesmerised by the yachts in the harbour to my right as the sun peaks above the horizon.
Up early before the army of scooter riders have awoken, I pull a sharp right and head downhill to the Fairmont casino – the most famous hairpin in motor racing – and pause for a moment. This is the Monaco street circuit, and the car is the Honda NSX.
From May 25 to 28, the Japanese manufacturer’s Formula 1 cars will be screaming around here – arguably the most iconic street circuit in the world. Today, I’m driving the company’s highly desirable supercar at considerably lower speeds, tracing the track’s route through the bustling principality on France’s south coast.
Much like those F1 cars, the NSX is a hybrid. It’s powered by three electric motors and a 3.5-litre petrol V6 engine that combine to make 573bhp. It’ll hit 60mph from a standstill in less than three seconds and with power going to all four wheels the way it pulls you out of a corner is addictive.
To celebrate the link between race cars and road cars, we’re driving 1,200 miles from the team’s base in Woking, England, to Monaco via F1 circuits at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium and Circuit Paul Ricard in France.
Despite a previously successful stint together in the sport between 1988 and 1992, the McLaren-Honda team has been having a torrid time since partnering up again in 2015.
Despite on-track reliability issues, it’s fair to say that Honda’s road effort appears to suffer no such difficulties, and after 340 faultless miles we arrive at Spa-Francorchamps feeling surprisingly fresh.
Nestled in the gorgeous Ardennes forests in Belgium’s hilly south, the track is well hidden. It’s not until we stumble upon the quiet village of Francorchamps with its motorsport-themed restaurants and hotels that there’s any hint of a world-famous race track in the vicinity.
Since our final destination is an iconic street circuit, it seems apt to trace Spa’s classic route, which included many of the country roads surrounding the closely guarded modern circuit.
Famed for its high speeds, Spa was one of the most terrifying tracks on the old F1 calendar. In the 70s, drivers would be flat out for most of the race with little-to-no safety protection around the track – with speeds averaging 150mph across the lap and no margin for error, it’s no surprise that many drivers lost their lives here.
As we retrace the route, houses, trees and telegraph poles pass by mere feet from the road – it’s difficult to imagine the courage it took to keep the throttle pinned at such speeds.
With visions of the past fresh in our minds, we leave the forests of Spa in our rear view mirror and forge a path south through Luxembourg and into France – Metz, just over the border, will be our first overnight stop.
The next day, 500-plus miles of French motorways pass by with little drama. We drive through countless toll booths and turn countless heads – few cars this side of a million pounds grab attention quite like the NSX does. At £140,000, it could almost be considered good value…
What’s arguably more impressive, though, is the fact that we’ve traversed a country in a low-slung supercar and still feel fresh at the end of it. Everything Honda has learned about ergonomics building mainstream cars has clearly been put to good use – the seats aren’t as supportive as I’d like, but the interior is spacious and relaxing, if a little understated compared to the exterior.
With our driving hours approaching double digits, we arrive on the French Riviera with the sun low in the sky. We make a quick detour to Circuit Paul Ricard, which will be present on the F1 calendar from 2018, having been absent since 1990. A friendly but not-to-be-messed-with security guard moves us on quickly.
After a quick play on the roads around the circuit, which are so good they’ve been used for World Rally Championship stages in the past, we plug Monaco into the sat nav and plough on into the night. We make it over the invisible border line via a road that literally carves through a cliff and find our hotel for some well-earned rest. Tomorrow we’ll be up before the sun so we can drive the track in peace.
With the help of Google Maps – the car’s GPS couldn’t get its bearings among the tall buildings and cliff faces rendering the in-car sat nav useless – we find our way to the start line. It’s still pretty dark and, to our delight, we’ve got the place almost to ourselves.
It’s surreal actually being here. Our only companions are workers building the track – scaffolders piece together grandstands, road workers repave the circuit and police officers shout and wave at distracted tourists.
As we pound the same Tarmac legends such as a returning Jenson Button will be tearing around soon, it’s hard not to get caught up in the glitz and glamour. Particularly when you’re driving something as spectacular as the NSX.
Honda has a history of making exciting performance cars, but it lost its way a little – until recently. The sharp, angular design and exquisite, deep red paint job make the Japanese supercar stand out even among the super-rich – and there’s a perverse enjoyment about cruising around silently using just the electric motor.
With the sun now a dominant fixture in the sky and the Monegasque commuters clogging up the streets, it’s time to call it a day. We pull over at a harbour-side cafe and sip coffee on what will soon be the racing line.
In the warm morning sun I take a moment to drink in our beautiful surroundings, and it’s immediately clear why the world’s rich and famous are so drawn to this location. Monaco on a race weekend must be simply spectacular…
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