Monday 18 May 2015

Monaco Preview: Hey ho, silver

Once upon a time, Formula One fan and more general wit Clive James noted with typical dryness that "it is said these days with increasing frequency that Monaco makes a nice change from Grand Prix racing". And with but the latest visit upon us this weekend coming, it's hard to argue.

Despite everything, there's nothing quite like Monaco
Photo: Octane Photography
What is it with the fraternity's annual stop-off and its apparent 'jewel in the crown' status? There are so many reasons to dislike Grands Prix around the Principality. If you're to be critical the Monaco round is an anachronism. If you're to be very critical, it's an absurdity.

Narrow, bumpy, sinewy. Nelson Piquet once declared famously that its challenge is like trying to ride your bicycle around your living room. The cars never are allowed close to their full potential around its confines and that has been the way for decades. No-one can pass here, and that's been the case ever since the insertion of the 'swimming pool section' (apparently to give more room for grandstands...) in 1973. By now, had the Monaco Grand Prix never existed then suggesting to establish it would be an act considered something close to certifiable.

It doesn't get much better off the track either; all cramped and claustrophobic as well as that the event attracts various ostentatious posers who in all probability don't care much for the sport other than in that one weekend of the year.

But perhaps, conversely, what it is about Monaco lays within all of this somewhere.

It is no exaggeration that among those 'brands' that make F1 what it is Monaco is right up there with the very most important. Maybe is the most important. Even those who've never seen a motor race have a reasonable chance of pairing Monaco with F1 in a word association test.

F1 could exist without it of course, but it would be diminished. And as a sneak preview of this scenario we had the fairly recent example of CART without the Indy 500, an absence it could never overcome despite having many things otherwise going for it and the series had to return eventually to its Blue Riband round somewhat abashed.

Moreover, and like it or not, Monaco seems to embody much of F1's image, or at least that which it likes to have of itself: glamorous, wealthy, eye-catching. Everywhere you turn in a Monaco Grand Prix weekend there is something captivating. It's no coincidence either that in terms of off-track commerce the gathering has long been considered the most important of the year.

Monaco represents a common thread of F1 history
Photo: Octane Photography
It's not all about stuff away from the track either. With the possible exceptions of Spa and Monza no other modern F1 venue represents such a continuous thread of the sport's heritage as Monaco does. The history of the place stretches back all the way to 1929 and the event literally is as old as street racing itself - prior to the inaugural Monaco gathering races were considered at home either on country roads or on the burgeoning permanent autodromes such as Monza. Before we knew it the legendary Achille Varzi and Tazio Nuvolari were indulging in duels around the houses that went into folklore. All of the sport's revered names have raced here; most have excelled. Some of the performances, such as those of Stirling Moss in 1961 and of Jochen Rindt in 1970, remain fresh and sharp in the memory. The circuit that survives today isn't all that different to that of 1929 either.

Plus while the race is the slowest of the season no where else - given the way the cars flash past the barriers but millimetres away - do you get a greater impression of speed of a Grand Prix car than at Monaco.

And even with the criticisms outlined no other event on the modern F1 calendar is such a driving challenge; a challenge of precision, skill and concentration. Nowhere else is the driver able to make a personal difference over and over their machinery. Nowhere else is there such a likelihood that even the smallest error will be punished definitively, a characteristic that's grown rather rare in this age of the car park run off area.

Not for nothing either are many of the sport's giants of past and present multiple winners around the Principality. And to take ourselves back to the inimitable Senhor Piquet, his celebrated Monaco line rather than said in contempt was in fact said with admiration; he followed it up with the view that victory on the streets of the Principality is worth two anywhere else.

But if Monaco is distinct the competitive order this weekend, at least for the front two, is not likely to be. Yes, Mercedes can despite everything be expected to be on top once again.

It looks likely we'll see both Mercedes out front again
Photo: Octane Photography
This is partly as Merc made a distinct stride on Ferrari in Spain last time out, partly too as the Scuderia was thought to be pegging Mercedes on engine grunt but not quite on chassis, and engine grunt counts for much less than usual at this track. And for all that we speak of Monaco's uniqueness, the best car remains the best car. Even here.

Another thing the Spanish weekend suggested to us is that we might actually have a Mercedes on Mercedes battle this season after all. Nico Rosberg was never nearly as woefully shy of Lewis Hamilton in the year's early part as some in the chanting choir might have led you to believe, while in Bahrain he demonstrated that he has fight still and in Spain that he still has his mojo.

Furthermore this is Monaco, where Nico has won on the last two visits as well as finished a very close second the year before that. Critics though will point out last time his win was largely hinged on a, shall we say, controversial pole position. Whatever is the case let's hope for less rancour this time. Indeed a lot will be decided on Saturday here - I recall Juan Pablo Montoya one year theorising that a F3000 car placed on pole position for the Monaco Grand Prix would have a good chance of winning the thing. Yet let's not dismiss Lewis either, whose brave, precise and acrobatic style will serve him well in the Principality's like-no-other challenges. It's curious however that he hasn't won here since 2008.

Having the Monaco round following that in Barcelona is convenient too, as since they savaged the last part of the Montmelo track with its tight chicane times in that final sector of the lap provide a good gauge of Monaco form.

Herein the silver cars have yet more evidence for them being favourites as two weeks ago they were on top of the best times in that sector; they were one and two in both qualifying and the race and in the former indeed they were clear of the first non-Merc by around half a second.

Ferrari appears to be next up, with Vettel third quickest in this sector in qualifying and Kimi Raikkonen similarly-placed in the race (Seb sank to ninth in the list on Sunday though it likely reflects his late struggle for pace on hard tyres when fuel loads were lighter).

Red Bull might find this analysis encouraging - not surprising given its hardly concealed frustration with its Renault power unit, a deficit which won't be punished as much in the Principality. Even though Daniel Ricciardo qualified tenth in Spain he was fourth quickest in the final sector and just over a hundredth of a second away from Vettel's best in third.

Red Bull and McLaren looked strong in Barcelona's
final sector, which may bode well for Monaco
Photo: Octane Photography 
It may be encouraging for McLaren too, as while Jenson Button struggled in the Spanish race describing his car as 'scary' at various points he still was sixth in the rankings in sector three in the race. Indeed for a while now a few at McLaren such as Fernando Alonso have identified the Monaco round as an opportunity to get a better result than usual as the Woking car is another that has a horsepower deficit that will be less exposed.

As intimated qualifying as well as the order emerging from the habitual chaos at St Devote on lap one will matter an awful lot. And come the race no matter your potential lap times in clear air, finding yourself behind a slower rival can destroy your weekend at a stroke.

There isn't a great deal of wiggle room on strategy either. With all of the considerations above attacking multi-stop strategies are perilous, demonstrated for example by Button in 2011 who looked the quickest out there but an inconvenient safety car scuppering his three-stop run consigned him to a third place finish. Vettel meanwhile prioritised track position despite some very second hand rubber and won.

The soft and supersoft is the compound selection as has been so in most preceding years at Monaco. One-stoppers all round remain probable even with this as in addition to the near-impossibility of overtaking with Monaco's low speeds and smooth surface tyre wear is relatively low.

But one thing that could add considerably to the variation this time is that long range forecasts have rain around not just for Thursday's practice but also Sunday's race. Wet races at Monaco indeed are ones of sheer survival. And for all that this race's capacity for surprise in a dry race might be over-stated when the rain falls we can get real surprise results - such as Olivier Panis's win in 1996, Jean-Pierre Beltoise's triumph in 1972 as well as a young Ayrton Senna oh-so nearly winning out in a Toleman in 1984 - and there are those who reckon the victor would have been Stefan Bellof in the Tyrrell that day had the race continued much longer.

Might we get something similar again? You suspect only so if the rain does indeed arrive. Not even Monaco's meance should be able to stop the silver march otherwise.

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