Round 6 of this year’s F1 Championship sees the sport remain in Europe and, indeed, on the driver’s doorsteps in the rich man’s playground that is Monte Carlo.
Motor racing has taken place on the streets of Monte Carlo for over a century, with Formula 1 making an annual visit since the series’ inception back in 1950. Many of the drivers live in Monaco, due to the exemplary standards of living afforded to the citizens of the world’s most famous tax haven, and this means they are racing on streets that are part of their daily lives. For one brief weekend, they swap their idyllic croissants by the harbour for a frantic pummelling of that same tarmac; a frenetic workout that requires every single little bit of concentration, focus, mental fortitude and skill that they possess.
The Monte Carlo event is full of little idiosyncrasies that make it one of the most memorable Grands Prix of the year. For instance, there is no other race on the calendar that doesn’t have to pay to have its spot on the F1 calendar. There is no other race that sees practice take place on Thursday, rather than Friday, meaning that the entire sport takes an enjoyable 24 hour break mid-event. It’s the shortest track in F1 at just 3.3 kilometres, with the shortest race in terms of distance travelled at just 260 kilometres, 45 less than the FIA-mandated 305. But, due to the interminable twists, turns, slow corners, and no discernible straights, it’s one of the most difficult races to complete. Such was its challenge, there was a time when it was assumed that a rookie driver would fail to complete the 78 lap distance, due to the encroaching barriers seemingly closing in around them as the race wore on and fatigue set in.
Of course, that doesn’t make any of the top drivers immune to the charms of Monaco’s Armco barriers. This weekend is likely to witness one of the briskest battles of the year so far. While it’s largely been a case of Ferrari & Mercedes being the quickest teams over the five races so far, Monaco’s lack of demands on huge amounts of grunt mean that the inherent disadvantage that the Renault-powered Red Bull team usually have won’t be as pronounced. In 2016, at the height of Mercedes’ domination, Daniel Ricciardo looked a certain victor until a bungled pitstop meant he lost track position to Lewis Hamilton. While he never regained the lead, the Red Bull was very obviously the quicker car and, with Mercedes’ edge now considerably less than it was two years ago, the nimble chassis that will be under Ricciardo and Max Verstappen should see them well able to challenge for the win.
However, Spain last time out did raise some interesting questions. After being marginally the quickest car in the first four races, Ferrari got a thorough drubbing at the hands of Mercedes on the sweeps of Catalunya. Red Bull didn’t really fare any better and looked to have Ferrari under control too, suggesting that the Scuderia fell back in relation to Mercedes as opposed to Merc unlocking previous season’s levels of domination. A combination of the particular tyre demands of Catalunya, mixed with the new track surface, and the characteristics of the circuit layout itself played out beautifully for Mercedes. Ferrari looked off the boil all weekend, particularly in the cooler temperatures, but Monaco should be a much different affair. The red cars were dominant last year, with Sebastian Vettel & Kimi Raikkonen claiming their only 1-2 finish together so far. Ferrari’s SF71-H looks more comfortable on softer compound Pirellis and use of the new HyperSoft compound this weekend should play to their strengths. It all looks set up to be a closely fought Ferrari/Red Bull weekend, with Mercedes just about hanging on. Should this not play out and Mercedes are just as fast as they were in Spain, then Ferrari’s World Championship dreams will have to take a significant hit.
Away from the immediate front, the midfield battle also appears intriguing. Haas have made a major step forward this year and Kevin Magnussen & Romain Grosjean should both be capable of fighting for serious points, Grosjean’s recent form put aside. The French driver has recovered from bigger setbacks in his past and team boss Guenther Steiner has moved to quell any particular doubts that might be starting to bubble over about his driving. Renault were also very quick in Azerbaijan, another street circuit, albeit a very fast one by comparison to Monte Carlo. The French team’s increase in pace this year plays into the hands of the impressive Carlos Sainz & Nico Hulkenberg for this weekend, don’t discount them from being best of the rest behind the top three teams.
McLaren & Force India aren’t quite as strong so far this year, and could struggle for points in Monaco. While Spain saw a step forward for McLaren with their upgrade package, the chassis still isn’t quite up to the standards of some of the cars ahead of them. While Fernando Alonso will no doubt make up for some of that shortfall, the recovery process of a team that couldn’t finish races only six months ago means that overcoming the likes of Renault & Haas will be tough. Tougher still for Force India, who haven’t hit the ground running in 2018. Neither driver scored points in last year’s race and, with a car that doesn’t look as competitive as last year’s, Sergio Perez & Esteban Ocon will be scavengers this weekend.
Of course, Monaco is the great leveller, and it’s a track where an inspired driver can make a big difference to a result over what his machinery is theoretically capable of. The weather also could play a part, with rain expected at different points over the weekend. An already tricky track becomes more like a game of Russian roulette when covered in water and the form book could end up having to be torn up should it start raining for qualifying. If the weather stays clear, watch the Red Bulls. If it rains….keep an eye on Fernando Alonso.