This coming weekend sees the most glamorous event on the Formula One calendar, where the spectacle of motor racing is near enough eclipsed by the glitter of the rich and famous. The Monaco Grand Prix is the prestigious event that everyone wants to win but off track the weekend is as much about money and glamour, and in grand style.
Flash cars, glittering diamonds, big spenders and even bigger yachts; in Monaco less is not more, more is more. The only place that doesn't necessarily hold true is on track. The Monte Carlo street circuit doesn't reward the fastest car -- it's all about precision, handling and concentration. The slightest lapse of focus is all the barriers need to claim a victim.
Power is important, of course, but engines only spend about 50% of a lap at full throttle and there are no long straights where an advantage could be gained with top speed. The tight, twisty circuit, with its bumps and sharp cambers, requires a unique set up and the highest downforce settings of the calendar.
"Monaco sees the lowest average speeds of the whole season, which means that heavy downforce is more important here than aerodynamic efficiency," explained BMW Sauber technical director (chassis) Willy Rampf. "Good traction is also critical when you're accelerating out of the many slow corners."
Tyres help with the precise handling of the car needed and compounds will be soft. "The tarmac on Monaco's street surface is another factor taken into consideration by the tyre manufacturers," said Bridgestone's Hisao Suganuma. "The surface is very smooth and therefore compounds are from the softer end of the scale to ensure enough grip."
McLaren may not have been as competitive as expected so far this season but the team has won at Monaco 13 times, more than anyone else. This year's event marks the 40th anniversary of McLaren, as it made its debut here in 1966 with founder Bruce McLaren behind the wheel. Kimi Raikkonen took the victory last season.
"To lay the foundation for a good result you have to perform well in qualifying," said the Finn. "In Monaco overtaking is almost impossible as the track is so twisty and narrow. Because of this, I am sure we will see some interesting strategies from all the teams."
Championship leader Fernando Alonso has yet to set foot on the Monaco podium, something he aims to rectify on Sunday. "I think the car will be quick there," the Renault man commented. "You need good traction at this circuit, and that has been a strong point for the R26 all the way through the season so far."
So far Ferrari has staked its claim to being Renault's main rival this year, something that many had not expected to happen. It's a measure of the Scuderia's improvement that a second place finish for Michael Schumacher in Spain was a disappointment -- not so long ago getting on the podium was a struggle for the team.
Schumacher enjoys the Monaco challenge. "It is marvellous driving at such high speeds close to the guardrails," he said. "It is very tough. No mistakes are allowed and this makes things particularly arduous. Things improve if you have a car that allows you to keep pace with the leaders and this should include us."
Honda had both Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello in the points at Barcelona but the result was still some distance away from meeting expectations. Both drivers have previously visited the podium in Monaco -- Barrichello four times and Button once -- and Button hopes qualifying could help him do the same again.
"You need good mechanical grip from the car and this is also a circuit where the driver can make even more of a difference to the race outcome," he said. "We've been really strong in qualifying all this year and that will be very important for the race as it's almost impossible to overtake except in the pit stops."
BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld finished second in Monaco last year, when driving for Williams, and the German thinks this event is good for the fans. "You can get closer to the cars than at any other race -- normally you're sitting hundreds of metres away," he said. "In Monaco you have a real sense of the speed and sound of the F1 cars."
Toyota's seven points from six races, all scored by Ralf Schumacher, is, like Honda, below expectations. For Monaco the team will introduce the new TF106B, which has a revised front suspension. "From a driving point of view it's great to drive at Monaco and a challenge to be quicker than everyone else round the narrow streets," said Ralf.
"The barriers are closer than anywhere so you need to adapt your approach slightly. But that is something we have all got used to down the years. The first challenge is to secure a good place on the grid and then to try and finish the race without mishap."
Some people have voiced concerns about qualifying in Monaco. With the current format the drivers' favourite excuse of being blocked on a hot lap has once again become a regular fixture, but coming upon a slower car unsighted is a risky business when the Monte Carlo barriers are so close. The chances of finding traffic are higher than usual.
"I think everybody will be a little bit worried about qualifying," said Alonso. "Already in Monaco you normally have a lot of traffic in every session and this year qualifying will be very tough. I think the first 15 minutes will be hardest because one yellow flag, or if the guy in front has problems, then you could be out."
Despite all the talk about how hard it is to overtake at Monaco, it's not impossible. Last year Juan Pablo Montoya started at the back of the grid due to a penalty and finished fifth, while Alonso got overtaken by both Williams drivers at the chicane and Michael dispatched his teammate and his brother on the last lap. However, the race is usually a bit of a procession.
As qualifying is so important, it's likely Renault, Ferrari and Honda will do well but McLaren needs to shape up after its recent Saturday afternoon efforts. Some think that due to the nature of the street circuit the competition will be a lot closer this weekend, which would be a good thing -- as long as it's closer to rivals and not the barriers.