Those with a historical bent may wonder why what is now known as the Fairmont Hairpin in Monaco used to be known as the Station Hairpin. There is no railway anywhere nearby. The tight, curling downhill hairpin is a famous corner in F1 but it has had a string of different names over the years. After it was called the Station Hairpin it became the Loews Hairpin and then the Grand Hairpin, before becoming the Fairmont Hairpin in 2004 when the Grand Hotel was acquired by the Fairmont Group.
But from 1929 to 1975 it was always the Station Hairpin. Why? Well, it’s fairly obvious really. There used to be a railway there. Such a thing might seem impossible today, with all the buildings jammed into Monaco, but in the old days the railway ran right through the middle of the town.
It is a story that goes back to 1867 when the Compagnie des chemins de fer de Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerranée (a bit of a mouthful, which was usually known as the PLM) completed construction of the railway between Nice and Ventimiglia, something which was very important for the growth of Monaco as a destination resort. Prior to that, getting to Monaco was extremely difficult and achieved mainly by boat. The road they call the Grande Corniche was there at the time. It was ordered built by Napoleon between 1800 and 1810, as a fast way to get to Italy, but this ran along the top of the celebrated coastal cliffs and the villages in the bays below were left untouched.
When the railway arrived the second road, known as the Corniche Inférieure was cut alongside the railways tracks, clinging to the rock and linking the small coastal villages. It was not until the 1920s that the Moyenne Corniche was built, halfway up the impressive cliffs.
In the 1860s there were no cars and so the railway was the fastest way to get anywhere. There was a station named Monaco in the west, where the Lycée Technique et Hôtelier de Monaco now stands and the railway ran above ground, crossed the ravine on a bridge just in front of the Sainte-Devote church and then curled under the Avenue de Monte Carlo, which climbs the hill from Monaco Ville up to Casino Square. The tracks then curled around the rock, high above the harbour, to arrive at the station. The station sat below the Casino and was accessed by the loop of road used today for the Grand Prix, that drops rapidly downhill from the Metropole Hotel and then descends to Portiers, down at sea level. The old railway track has since become the Larvotto tunnel, which is now used by cars, which emerge from the tunnel and cross over the top of Portiers corner. Once of steam trains crossed this bridge and there are a few photographs to be found with Grand Prix cars running beneath them.
It is a little known fact that there was also a branch off the railway to the west of Monaco station that went into a tunnel carved under the Monaco rock and emerged onto what was then known as the Quai du Commerce, where trains could go to load goods on to ships. This tunnel is today used by cars. The Quai du Commerce was renamed the Quai Antoine I and is where the Formula 1 paddock stands today.
As Monaco developed so the desire not to have steam trains running through town grew and in 1958 the section of railway to the east of Monaco station was rerouted into a tunnel through the rock after the ravine behind Sainte-Dévote, to emerge just before Roquebrune station, to the east of Monte Carlo. The Monte Carlo station was abandoned. The building remained unchanged until the 1970s when it was finally demolished to make way for the massive Loews Hotel.
The original Monaco station, incidentally, disappeared in 1999 when the railway was again rerouted, going into a new tunnel in Cap d’Ail through to a new underground station was built to serve both communities. Doing this enabled Monaco to use the path of the old railway line to build fast new roads under the city and allowed a strip of land above it for new development which generated vast sums of money and greatly improved the Principality’s facilities…
Originally published at Motorsport Week