Can Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel add another special place to his ‘win list’ with success in Monte Carlo this weekend? Or will the unique nature of this tight little circuit in the Principality of Monaco throw things open and enable McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes or even Renault to get into the winning picture?
With four wins out of five thus far in 2011, and Mark Webber’s runaway victory here in 2010, the reigning world champion has to start favourite.
“It’s remarkable to drive an F1 car around Monaco,” Vettel says. “It’s a completely unique track and a unique challenge for the driver. You have to push as hard as on a normal race track, but the smallest mistake can bring a big penalty. Grid position is very important and can determine your race, as traditionally overtaking in Monaco is very tricky. Managing the traffic during qualifying in Monaco is also a big challenge. As an event, it’s one of the highlights of the year. We did well there last year and I hope we can be very strong again.”
Team mate Webber would also love nothing better than to repeat his success. “This is one of the most prestigious races of the year,” he says. “There are a lot of question marks going into this year’s race in terms of how the tyres will be and the strategy could be the most complicated of the year. It’s a track that I’ve always seemed to do reasonably well at and I have some of my best memories as a racing driver here. It’s clearly a demanding street circuit, which requires incredible concentration and composure for the drivers throughout the weekend, starting with Thursday’s practice sessions.”
McLaren’s duo also knows what it takes to win here.
“I love Monaco,” Lewis Hamilton says. “It’s a race I remember watching when I was a kid and it’s a place that really showcases Formula One at its very best: racing flat-out against around the toughest and greatest circuit in the world.
“After such a strong showing in Spain, I’m really looking forward to Monaco this year because I think we’ll see a different race from previous years. I think a combination of DRS, KERS and the Pirelli tyres will really make the racing come alive, and I’d love to see some overtaking action and some hard racing this year.”
And of the DRS zone on the pit straight, he added: “I think it’s only around 300 metres, so it’s pretty short, and not really long enough to enable us to really get enough of a launch on the car ahead. I think the aerodynamics will only really start working properly once we’ve reached the braking zone for Ste Devote, so I don’t think we’ll see too many DRS-assisted overtaking moves.”
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso added with a big smirk: “Maybe we will all arrive four abreast at Ste Devote!”
Hamilton believes that the biggest chance of overtaking lies in the performance of Pirelli’s soft and, for the first time this year, super-soft, rubber, notwithstanding the mountain of used rubber that will get thrown off the racing line as the race progresses.
“They will probably give us the greatest scope for excitement and the best chance of passing. While I don’t think the soft and super-soft compounds will be as critical around Monaco as they were at a place like Turkey, I still think the drop-off we encounter as the tyres go off should create opportunities. And I don’t think the marbles will be as bad as people fear, because they tend to occur at the exits of high-speed corners, and Monaco is generally quite a low-speed track, so I don’t think we’ll see the build-up that we saw at somewhere like Turkey’s Turn Eight, for example.”
McLaren’s Jenson Button won here in 2009. “Monaco is the most glamorous and historic race on the calendar,” he says. “Winning here was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream, and it remains one of my favourite Grand Prix victories. It’s always a strange contrast going from a circuit like Barcelona, which is fast, open and flowing, then arriving a few days later at Monaco - which is the slowest, tightest and toughest track on the calendar.
“On your first lap out of the pits, the acceleration just feels incredible and the barriers feel far too close! But you build up a little more gradually than you would at any other circuit, and you quickly find your focus. Still, it’s an intense and slightly unbelievable feeling.
“There’s been some suggestion that KERS might not provide a useful lap time benefit around Monaco, because you might think you couldn’t really exploit it to give you a boost onto a straight. But our simulations suggest that it’s worth as much at Monaco as it is pretty much anywhere else, which is another positive because I think that the Mercedes-Benz unit is the best in Formula One.”
While Button (and everyone else at McLaren) will be making extra sure that the radiator covers are removed before the start, Alonso will be hellbent on avoiding the costly mistake he made last year at Massanet.
“It’s a special race on the calendar,” the Ferrari star says. “And anything could happen there. Sure, we know the amount of downforce required at this track is the highest of the year, but that was also the case last year and we were competitive. I am definitely not thinking of giving up on the championship after just five races: the gap in the classification is very big, but everything can still happen, I'm sure of it."
After the multiple pit stops of China, Turkey and Barcelona, Pirelli believes there could be fewer here as stopping is costly in terms of lap time and track position.
"Monaco is one of those circuits where, if you have slip and wheelspin, you are in difficulty," Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery says. "That is often what you get in slow-speed corners and you accelerate and get slip so you get a lot of grip from the tyre which is why we went supersoft and soft, and pretty similar as to why we have gone that way for Canada.
"If you go with a tyre that is too hard and it is not giving you an advantage from the compound you do get wheelspin and you get excessive consumption of the tyre and that probably for the public is hard to understand as the hard is going to resist more, no matter what you do to it. But it is more complex, it is also related to how much wheelspin you get.
"We would like to see a two-stop strategy and based on Melbourne that should certainly be feasible on a low-speed circuit, although Melbourne doesn't have the really tight corners that it has at Monaco, so it will all be related to how much wheelspin we get and we will only see what when we get there."
As last year, when it barely rained at all, the forecast suggests that there is a chance of showers throughout the weekend. On Wednesday there may be showers and the ambient temperature will peak at 21 degrees Celsius. That should be the case through Thursday’s practice day to Friday, then the temperature will dip to 17 on Saturday and Sunday.
In terms of track changes, Ste Devote was resurfaced on Wednesday after a truck fire there on Tuesday and the kerbing into the seafront chicane has been revised slightly. In addition, during practice and qualifying DRS use will not be allowed in the tunnel on safety grounds.
“The circuit layout at Monaco makes it possible for drivers to short-cut the chicanes at the exit of the tunnel and at the second part of the Swimming Pool complex," explains FIA race director Charlie Whiting. "To prevent drivers gaining any advantage from this, we have this year introduced higher kerbs and speed bumps at these two sections.”
The race will run over 78 laps or 260.520 kilometres (161.887 miles), and will start at 1400 hours local time, which is two hours ahead of GMT.