In a sport that changes seemingly every second Monaco is the one shining example of consistency in Formula 1. The challenge facing the drivers this weekend is the same as the task that was faced by drivers from over 70 years ago.
Monaco is a circuit that every single corner echoes of the history of Formula 1 and this year is no exception with the race taking play on the 62nd anniversary of Stirling Moss’ superb victory for Lotus.
That victory was also the first Formula 1 success for the Norfolk based team that went on to win another six times around the streets of the Mediterranean Principality. The Lotus squad will start this year’s race as one of the favourites following a superb start to the season from Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean.
Having been amongst the pacesetters in each race thus far in 2012 the team will be looking to continue the trend of the season with five different winners from the opening five races.
If Raikkonen or Grosjean can claim victory it would mark the first win for a Lotus at Monaco since 1987 when Ayrton Senna claimed victory.
It is impossible to think of Monaco without thinking of the Brazilian who had arguably his most impressive performances on the famous street circuit. Whether it was his incredible performance in his first appearance at the circuit in 1984, when a red flag before half distance robbed Senna, and indeed Stefan Bellof, of the chance of challenging Alain Prost for victory, or his sixth and final dominant Monaco victory in 1993 this was a circuit where the triple world champion left his mark at every corner.
Monaco Grand Prix circuit
Monaco is unique in every way. Even though numerous street circuits have come onto the calendar in recent years Monaco has retained its position as the jewel in the crown of Formula 1. One element that sets Monaco apart is its timetable with practice taking place on Thursday before a rest day on Friday for promotional activities.
The track evolves heavily throughout the weekend with the goal posts constantly moving with more and more grip being put down onto the circuit. With the track getting faster and faster it is crucial for a driver to adapt to the circumstances lap on lap and make tiny adjustments on every corner to what they had done up that point.
Reigning world champion, Sebastian Vettel, claimed his first victory on the streets of Monte Carlo last year, and he is relishing the challenge ahead of this weekend:
“It’s something special to race in Monaco; it’s tight and there’s no room for error. It’s rough and, as it’s a street circuit, the road surface is uneven so you get shaken in the car and there is no room for mistakes. You have to push yourself and the car to the limit to be fast, you have to push as hard as on other tracks, but there’s no room. You can almost feel it when you are just missing the wall and just get through – but it’s a nice feeling. You need to be fully focused on track, it’s a special thing to win in Monaco.”
The desire to push yourself further, to dig deeper is key to a fast lap in Monaco. But crucially, unlike at other circuits, overstepping the mark will lead to an inevitable crash and the lost track time will make it all but impossible to catch up to your rivals.
The tunnel is perhaps the most famous feature of the Grand Prix circuit with drivers diving into the darkness flat out through a right hand bend before braking heavily into the seafront chicane, perhaps the only legitimate overtaking position on the circuit.
Monaco resident Nico Rosberg says that: “The drive through the tunnel at 280 kph is always a real adventure. You are so close to the barriers that you can really feel how fast the cars actually are. This year, the race has the potential to be more exciting than ever.”
Setup challenges facing teams this weekend
Setup is crucial at Monaco. Drivers want a car that allows them to “point” it at the apex of corners and get on the power as early as possible, just like at most circuits, but the challenge for engineers is that the road surface is so different to anything else on the calendar.
With a high crown in the middle of the road surface and drains at the apex of corners a car needs to be able to glide over the bumps.
Sam Michael, McLaren’s sporting director has faced this challenge on numerous occasions as an engineer and Technical Director:
“Monaco is a low grip street circuit,” said Michael as he commented on the challenges of setting up a car for this track. “Requiring the softest springs and highest ride heights that we operate over the whole season. Normally reducing understeer and improving traction are the keys to a good laptime.”
Lotus aiming high once again
Following their double podium at the Bahrain Grand Prix and KimiRaikkonen’s strong performance in Barcelona Lotus are now rightly regarded as one of the pacesetters of Formula 1. The Enstone based squad has made terrific progress in 2012 and the signs of their progress can be sen with Raikkonen’s reaction to finishing third in Barcelona:
“To be honest, I was a little disappointed,” commented the Finn. “I expected us to be a bit stronger in the race, especially at the beginning. In the last stint we were very good, but it was too late. We were not fast enough to race and that’s why we couldn’t fight for a win. But we showed in the end that we have good speed.”
For Lotus to have a strong race they will need to once again showcase their qualifying speed that has seen both drivers start on the front two rows at races this year. Even though the Pirelli tyres have revolutionised the sport and reintroduced overtaking there is still an unknown quality to racing around the streets of the principality.
Last year’s race saw Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and JensonButton use different strategies to finish on the podium but with the race red flagged towards the end, and with everyone using fresh tyres to finish the race a clear picture of the ability to overtake was never presented.
Last year’s race showed that it was possible to close dramatically on other drivers if you had fresher rubber but overtaking is still difficult so qualifying will play as crucial a role as ever in the outcome of the race.
Hamilton looks to bounce back
Lewis Hamilton can rightly view the Spanish Grand Prix as lost opportunity to claim his first win of the season.
The McLaren driver set a stunning pole position time in Saturday’s qualifying session before stewards found that his MP4-27 was underweight and the Englishman was relegated to the back of the grid.
His performance on race-day however, when he moved through the field to finish eighth, showed a maturity that has been lacking in recent years. Hamilton clearly has realised that in as exceptionally competitive a field as Formula 1 is at present it is crucial to claim points consistently at every race.
Hamilton opened the season with a trio of third place finishes but Bahrain and Barcelona saw him claim eighth place finishes. The former champion, and 2008 Monaco winner, spoke of his approach to the current campaign before this weekend’s race:
“It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that, despite pushing for the win, consistency and scoring decent points is currently the most sensible way to tackle this world championship,” said Hamilton. “I’ve scored points at every race, and I’m only eight points off the lead of the championship. That’s a really encouraging statistic and it’s reassuring to see my approach is paying off. Nevertheless, I’m coming off the back of two relatively disappointing results and there would be no better place for the cards to fall in my favour than at Monaco.”
This new approach has seen Hamilton realise that it is more important to claim podiums and consistent points finishes rather than pushing too hard and risking a crash. When the opportunity presents itself and the car is fast enough Hamilton will look to win races but it will no longer be the be all and end all for the 27 year old.
After struggling with inconsistency in recent years Hamilton has returned to the form of his first two seasons where he was a consistent podium finisher and race winner. Monaco is the perfect race for the Englishman to show that his new approach to racing will give him the chance of claiming a second title.
Can Maldonado maintain momentum?
Following his stunning victory at the Spanish Grand Prix Pastor Maldonado finds himself at the centre of attention in Monaco.
The Venezuelan lives in Monaco and has always been at home on the streets of the principality. Last year he qualified a much less competitive Williams on the fourth row of the grid and until he clashed with Lewis Hamilton in the closing stages he looked well placed to claim a healthy points haul.
Speaking before this weekend’s race Maldonado was clearly in good spirits as he looked forward to the race:
“I’ve been quick here, especially in GP2,” said the Spanish GP victor. “Last year I was doing a good job, I was in P6, but it is always difficult. This kind of track you never know for traffic. The track is going to change a lot during the weekend and we need to follow the track and a good balance of the car. I’ll do my best and we’ll see. I believe it is still possible to be competitive here.”
The tight confines of the Monte Carlo streets have always allowed driver talent to shine and following his victory Maldonado is being looked at in a very different light than in the past. Williams are confident of another strong showing this weekend and a solid points finish would really illustrate the progress that the squad has made in a relatively short period of time.
The team will however have to race this weekend while still recovering from the fire that occurred during their celebrations following their victory celebrations. The team has had only one week to get their equipment ready for this weekend and numerous teams, including McLaren, have offered them the use of spare equipment and they face a massive task to have another strong weekend.
Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres
As usual the Pirelli rubber will play a key role in the outcome of this weekend’s race. The Italian manufacturer will take their super-soft and soft compound tyres to Monaco and the tight and twisty circuit will provide a unique challenge for the rubber.
Paul Hembery, motorsport director, is looking forward to the weekend however and another exciting race:
“Monaco is the highlight of the season and a place where our tyres have provided plenty of entertainment in the past,” commented the Englishman. “Last year we had three drivers on different strategies set for a grandstand finish before a red flag. The super-soft is the only compound that remains unaltered from last year, as it proved effective a tracks like Monaco.
“The wear rate is low in Monaco so the drivers should be able to push at their hardest from start to finish. Tyre strategy will be very important in Monaco where overtaking is more difficult than anywhere else. With the cars so evenly matched the slightest advantage, or smallest mistake, can have a big impact on the final outcome of the race.”
The track surface is the least abrasive of the year and the laptime is the the slowest average speed of the season. Even so it would be unwise to say that the Pirelli tyres will have an easy weekend.
While the track surface is unabrasive drivers have to guide their cars over manhole covers, drains and the crown of the road. These provide a unique challenge and make it exceptionally easy to lock up a front tyre and wear it out.
The brakes are used extensively throughout the lap and the heat transfer adds a strain to the tyres with the opening corner of the lap, Sainte Devote, seeing drivers shed over 100 mph in just 100m. Other challenges include the Swimming Pool complex where drivers bounce over the kers and generate almost 4g in lateral load.
The mental strain of racing in these conditions is immense for drivers and with any mistake punished the concentration required is incredibly taxing.
Weather for this weekend
Monaco in May should be a showcase from the sunny French Riviera but the lead up to the race has been blighted by heavy rain showers and cloudy skies. The forecast is for sunshine on Thursday but the weekend might suffer from occasional outbreaks of rain.