MONTE CARLO, Monaco -- Just how prestigious is a victory in the Monaco Grand Prix?
After he won the 2003 Monaco Grand Prix, Juan Pablo Montoya rated it similar to winning the 2000 Indianapolis 500.
"Winning in Monaco is a bit like when I was in America and I went to Indy," he said in 2003. "It is like the most special race you can win.
And being the only street course in the championship, it is very special. It is a great atmosphere, it is a bit different to every other race, and to come here and win is fantastic."
A win at Monaco pays 10 points, just like a victory at any other Grand Prix on the calendar.
But drivers treasure a win through the glamorous streets of Monaco far more than just any race victory.
"A win here is very special," two-time Monaco winner Fernando Alonso told ESPN.com.
"Monte Carlo, Indianapolis, Monza [Italy], Spa [Belgium]. There are three or four F1 circuits that all the drivers want to win. I have been lucky the last two years [2006 and 2007] to win here, and obviously I want to win more and more here."
Alonso said drivers would exchange a F1 win just about anywhere for a win in Monaco.
"In 10 years' time, 20 years' time, it will be something special to taste," he said.
Monaco is the jewel in F1's crown.
People who know little of auto racing, never mind F1 specifically, know about the famous Monaco Grand Prix.
Like the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Monaco Grand Prix is a "stand-alone" event.
All three tracks have histories dating to the early days of racing. Indianapolis opened in 1909. Le Mans staged its first 24-hour race in 1923, and Monaco held the first Grand Prix in 1929.
These three races unofficially comprise the triple crown of racing worldwide. Graham Hill is the only driver to have won all three.
The first Monaco Grand Prix was won by an Anglo-French driver listed by the pseudonym "Williams" on the entry list and driving a Bugatti.
William Grover, his real name, later worked as a secret agent for the Allies behind enemy lines in World War II. He was captured and executed by the Nazis.
Another British driver won the Monaco Grand Prix 79 years later, as Lewis Hamilton steered his Vodafone McLaren Mercedes through treacherously slippery conditions to victory on Sunday.
This is the best win ever, for sure. It was the most fun I have had in a race. Ever.
-- Lewis Hamilton
"This has got to be the highlight of my career and I am sure it will continue to be the highlight for the rest of my life," an ecstatic Hamilton said. "I remember on the last few laps I was just thinking that Ayrton Senna won here a lot of times, and to win here would be amazing."
Senna, Hamilton's hero, won the Monaco Grand Prix a record six times.
Monaco is all about tradition. And it's about glitz and glamour and huge yachts and exotic cars. It's about excess and seeing and being seen.
For the drivers, however, the lure of Monaco is not the glitz but the challenge of surviving 78 laps just inches away from walls and barriers at high speed.
Mark Webber won the Formula 3000 race held in conjunction with the
2001 Monaco Grand Prix. Since graduating to F1, he scored a third-place finish in 2005 and has had several other strong showings, including fourth this year.
What makes doing well at Monaco so special?
"It is a real challenge for the drivers," Webber told ESPN.com. "The drivers like the unique challenge of Monaco, which is zero tolerance for mistakes. Immense concentration. Absolute focus.
"You get punished incredibly quickly if you screw up here, not like other places where you can get away with a few mistakes here and there, especially the modern circuits. This place bit me in Formula 3000 in 2000. I was determined to come back and master the place, and I won the next year in F3000."
Monaco is a true street circuit. Venues like Montreal and Melbourne, Australia, are more like "park tracks" with a combination of streets and an actual racetrack in a city park. The latter tracks do offer at least a tiny bit of runoff area, allowing the driver to make a mistake of a few inches here or there.
In Monaco, the walls bite any error of judgment.
"Monaco is my favorite race," Hamilton said. "You have the history all around, you can just feel it, and the atmosphere is fantastic. It is the Grand Prix that every driver wants to win. Being a street circuit, it is very exciting to drive -- there is no room for any error all weekend.
"You are on the limit the whole time; there are no long straights where you have a moment to think. It is so tight and narrow, and when you consider how quick you are driving, it is unreal. To be quick you need to use every centimeter of the circuit, this even includes touching the barriers at some points."
Ironically, Hamilton did tag the barriers early in the race and got a flat tire, but he got back to the pits for new tires and a new fuel strategy that allowed him to win.
Later this season, two new street tracks join the F1 calendar with races in Spain and Singapore.
"It will be interesting to see how the street circuits in Valencia and Singapore compare," said Jenson Button. "The whole lap at Monaco is just a nonstop challenge, and you have to maintain absolute focus and concentration over every single one of the 78 laps of the race. The absolute key to a really quick lap is to not let the barriers intimidate you, as this is a circuit that rewards precision."
Not all the drivers like Monaco.
In the past, Felipe Massa finished third here, and he also raced from 16th on the grid to fifth in 2004. This year he started on pole and finished third.
"I have had some good results here," he said, "but it is not one of my favorite circuits. I enjoy much more a real circuit like, for example, Spa or Turkey. Even the new circuits, Bahrain and China, I prefer much more than here.
"A street circuit is not very fun to drive. It looks like sometimes that if you push a little bit you are slow. So you need to drive very technical, you need to be very careful, as if you brake a little bit late sometimes you gain in the braking but you lose in the exit, so it is very different driving here than the other circuits."
Heikki Kovalainen and most of the other drivers disagree.
"I always enjoy driving at Monaco because it is a very challenging circuit," Kovalainen said. "Some people think because it is not as fast it must be easier, but it is not very forgiving and you have to focus every single moment and be the maximum on each lap. You can't relax anywhere.
"It also has unique characteristics, such as the sound is very different. It is louder even in the car because of the buildings surrounding the track. All the drivers like it because it is a challenge, and we like our challenges! It is a very special race and it is very difficult to win. That is why everybody is very motivated to do just that."
Kovalainen's McLaren teammate Hamilton will savor his win for a long, long time.
"This is the best win ever, for sure," Hamilton said after his victory Sunday. "Even if I was to win here again, which I plan on doing, this is the best one. It was the most fun I have had in a race. Ever."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.