Preview of the Monaco Grand Prix
This season may have produced five winners so far but now Formula One heads to the most prized race of the year – the Monaco Grand Prix. Despite overtaking being almost impossible, there is something magical about Monte Carlo. Part of it is the huge changes of elevations, bigger than any other grand prix circuit. Then there is the close proximity of the confines of the track, with the drivers routinely within touching distance of the barriers – indeed they regularly brush them. Most of all, though, it is the history permeating through the place.
So what should you expect this weekend?
Track and Conditions
Tight and twisty, poor grip, difficult to overtake, punishing… they may be cliché phrases but Formula One’s ‘Jewel in the Crown’ lives up to all of them. Drivers are under pressure right from the start – first to get the best out of the car in practice while avoiding any time consuming accidents, followed by the need to pull out the perfect qualifying lap and negate the lack of passing opportunities- although Ferrari caught the field napping in 2010 as Fernando Alonso’s strategy propelled him to sixth having started from the pit lane. Grip is poor, with the track open to normal road traffic in the evenings and there is very little run-off meaning that mistakes tend to be expensive – Monaco has had the third highest rate of retirements due to accidents over the past five years. In short, Monaco requires 100 percent concentration from all the drivers and the slightest mistake could ruin their weekend.
The most challenging corners are Turn 1, Sainte Devote, where drivers are greeted with an Armco barrier if they turn in just too fast. It’s easy to miss the braking point as the entrance to the corner is so bumpy; Massenet, at the crest of the Beau Rivage, is blind on entry, and often the scene of pile-ups; The hairpin – the most famous turn in F1 – is also the slowest and requires full lock and gentle throttle application; The tunnel – the only one in F1 – really is a shock to the eyes as drivers plunge in and out of darkness – the sound as the engine noise bounces off the walls is incredible; And the chicane at Swimming Pool really does defy physics as the cars bounce across its kerbs.
Then there is the last part of the lap which is vital for a clean run: the drivers have to thread their cars carefully between guardrails, apply the brakes while cornering at the same time, then power out of Anthony Noghes and on to the start-finish straight for another lap.
The climate in Monaco tends to be warm and sunny although rain is far from uncommon and the long-term forecast currently hints that showers may play a part at some point in the weekend.
Due to the low speeds and low aerodynamic grip, good mechanical grip is essential. The track surface is bumpy and drivers need to ride the kerbs to get the best lap time and therefore softer springs are needed to allow more travel and better ride. The circuit also sees the highest downforce levels of the year although this is mainly for traction under acceleration and stability under braking than cornering.
The lack of straights mean that the brakes are reasonably hot throughout, because there is insufficient time to allow cooling down. The heaviest braking takes effect coming out of the tunnel into the chicane.
Meanwhile, the engine is put under its own particular demands despite spending little time at full throttle. Instead of pure power, it is good torque and drivability that are the main assets in an engine for Monaco.
The 2012 racing debut for Pirelli’s supersoft tyres alongside the soft compound should give the teams something to think about. Last year the three podium finishers adopted a one-, three- and two-stop strategy before the race was red-flagged in the late stages. Therefore it remains debatable as to what is the best strategy, not least because it was questionable whether the one-stopping Sebastian Vettel would have held on without the benefit of the race being halted and the opportunity to take on fresh rubber.
Despite how crowded the start is, the drivers generally manage to remain civilised and Monaco sees a perhaps surprisingly low number of first lap retirements. However, there remains a good chance that the safety car will intervene at some point despite the efforts of the highly efficient Monegasque marshals – an average of one safety car per race over the last five years, the joint fifth highest occurrence on the calendar.
Monaco has produced more than its fair share of memorable races and iconic moments but one of the more recent stand-out races was in 1992 when Nigel Mansell recovered from an unscheduled stop for a suspected puncture to harry Ayrton Senna all the way to the finish. The Williams and McLaren ran together, Mansell exploring every possible way to pass the Brazilian with Senna making sure that no gaps were left. The Brazilian stayed ahead and they crossed the line separated by two-tenths of a second.
Ones To Watch
The ultimate in street circuits and while the race has a habit of throwing up surprise, one-off winners, it generally favours a special kind of driver adept at getting the best out of the tight constraints of the harbour-side circuit. Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton always look strong around the principality but don’t rule out Pastor Maldonado springing another surprise – full of confidence fresh from his victory in Spain, the Venezuelan has an impressive track record in Monte Carlo including two victories and two second places in GP2.
Food for Thought
Will a sixth driver win in Monaco? Will Ferrari’s improved form in Spain carry over to Monte Carlo? Can McLaren stamp out their costly mistakes?
Circuit Profile – Circuit de Monaco
2011 Monaco Grand Prix – Vettel Wins Dramatic Monaco GP
Photos: Mercedes AMG Petronas, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, Team Lotus photo archive, Marussia F1