It's time to polish the diamonds and wax the Roller -- or whatever posh people do to their cars -- and pop open the champagne as F1 takes to the streets of Monte Carlo. Yes, it's the Monaco Grand Prix, where the glitz and glamour of the sport ...
It's time to polish the diamonds and wax the Roller -- or whatever posh people do to their cars -- and pop open the champagne as F1 takes to the streets of Monte Carlo. Yes, it's the Monaco Grand Prix, where the glitz and glamour of the sport overtakes the on-track activity, which is usually the most overtaking we see in the principality. Despite that, Monaco is generally considered to be the highlight of the season.
Monaco is not just a race; it's an Event, with a capital E. You can hardly fail to see why, what with the abundance of wealth, the casinos, the yachts and the celebrities. On top of that you've got 22 extremely fast cars from the world's most glamorous sport screaming round tight twisty streets on the edge of a harbour. It's quite possibly the most ridiculous location to hold a motor race.
The 3.34km Monte Carlo track is the only one on the calendar that is solely comprised of public roads. This makes set up particularly tricky as you've got things such as gutters, camber, manholes and other peculiarities intent on upsetting the car and pointing the driver into the welcoming, and unforgiving, arms of the barriers. Downforce is the highest of the season and good grip is needed for constant cornering.
"We run maximum levels of downforce in Monaco," said BMW Sauber technical director Willy Rampf. "That means using parts which generate a lot of downforce but also produce a large amount of drag. Downforce is everything here. You carry as much wing as possible and sometimes also use extra wing elements designed specially for this type of track -- all, quite simply, because aerodynamic efficiency is not as important as on other circuits."
For the first time this season one of the two tyre options is the 'super soft' compound. Teams tested those tyres and the 'soft' option on the short layout of the Paul Ricard circuit last week -- the super soft had better grip but more graining than the soft option but based on the data gained, Bridgestone believes the super soft will be more suited to Monaco. Basically, the more grip the better.
"Rear traction is crucial with acceleration out of so many corners, but you have to be careful as understeer is not desirable with so much Armco about," said Bridgestone's Kees van de Grint. "There is a very high demand on the tyres as they are very soft. We have also worked on minimising the wear rate as we want to allow the teams flexibility with their strategies."
Fernando Alonso, then with Renault, took victory in Monaco last year and, naturally, would like a repeat performance this time around with McLaren. The Spaniard faces some tough competition, off track as well as on, as the media seems intent on portraying him as unsettled by the success of teammate Lewis Hamilton. I doubt that someone with the proven mettle of a double champion is that easily shaken.
"It is very easy for things to go wrong at this track because it is very narrow and the barriers are very close, and this is why you have to stay focused," Alonso described Monaco from a driver's point of view. "Because of the barriers and the need to be very accurate, you do have to use a slightly different driving style here to perform well over the weekend. You tend to be less aggressive in the braking zones."
Kimi Raikkonen too is perhaps facing a tougher challenge from his teammate than many expected. Popular theory at the start of the season had the Finn leaving Felipe Massa trailing in his dust but after two victories in a row, Massa is five points ahead of Raikkonen in the standings. Of course, Raikkonen retired from the last race through no fault of his own but as with the McLaren duo, there's not much between the Ferrari pair.
"Of course, my personal target is to win here and that would definitely be better than anything I have managed in Monaco before," said Massa. "My best result here is only a fifth place, but the word "only" is wrong because I was in a Sauber, when that team was still very new to F1 and at the time, that was not so bad... I know that Monaco is a very unique race where there can be a lot of retirements, so the first thing is to try and finish the race."
Another race and another fourth place for BMW Sauber but in Spain it was Robert Kubica who took the honours. It was a satisfying result for the Pole, who for once encountered no problems but teammate Nick Heidfeld retired with a gearbox issue. BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen is confident that the problem has been resolved and the team aims to consolidate its third place in the standings this weekend.
David Coulthard scored Red Bull's first podium in Monaco last year in third and collected a few points more recently in Spain with fifth. However, those reliability gremlins seem to be plaguing quite a few teams as Mark Webber retired with a transmission problem. But the car seemed more competitive and given a good grid spot or problems for others, it's possible Red Bull could notch up some more points this weekend.
Renault continues to struggle although it must have been a bit of a relief for Heikki Kovalainen to pick up two points in Spain. But it's still far from what was expected from Renault after back-to-back constructors' championships. Seeing as this is Monaco, is there any light at the end of the tunnel? "There is no magic wand in Monte Carlo: a bad car doesn't suddenly become a good one," said technical director Bob Bell.
"You need plenty of downforce but, more than anything, the drivers need to be able to trust the car. At the moment, the R27 is not the easiest car to take to the limit with confidence, so that may make life more difficult for Giancarlo and Heikki. As always, we will be going to the next race with our heads held high -- and determined to take everything we can from the weekend."
Last of the points' scorers in Spain, but by no means the least, was Super Aguri's Takuma Sato. His eighth place was the maiden point for the team and the baby Japanese squad has beaten the might of parent company Honda onto the scoreboard this season. One can only imagine that it's a matter of mixed feelings for Honda. Sato is confident that the car is improving and will go well on the street circuit.
"I am looking forward to Monaco not only because of the success we had in Spain, but because in Monaco you need good mechanical grip and the new gearbox that we introduced at the last race and the new aero package that we tested in Ricard worked well," he commented. "I think that we are developing at a good pace, as everyone else is, and that we have a good car."
No matter how the teams expect to perform, Monaco can be as unpredictable as much as it can be an exercise of follow-my-leader. With a clean start and no outside interference the race can be no more interesting for a spectator than a procession with a pretty backdrop. But it only takes one small error, the temperament of the weather or an unexpected car problem for the whole thing to go mad. Which would you prefer?