By: Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
The Principality of Monaco will host round six of the 2011 FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) Formula One World Championship, a championship which so far has been dominated by Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel, who is leading the drivers’ championship 41 points ahead of the number two, Lewis Hamilton.
The first official Formula One Monaco GP in 1950 was won by the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio for Alfa Romeo, last year Mark Webber won the race for Red Bull. The race is one of the three most prestigious motor sport events, and together with 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500 is regarded as the unofficial ‘Triple Crown’ of motor sport. Only one driver has ever won that Triple Crown: Briton Graham Hill, who has won the Monaco Grand Prix five times, won the Indianapolis 500 in 1966 and the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1972.
The circuit with its famous harbor and narrow turns and hairpins bearing the names of Sainte Devote, Beau Rivage, Tabac and Rascasse, has been the scene of many classic Formula One races, and for drivers and fans it is the undisputed highlight of the year. Monaco is 1.98 m2 and has a population of almost 36,000. It is the most densely populated country in the world. Currently the 53-year old Prince Albert II is the head of the state and Monaco is also home to past and present Formula One drivers. The main attractions in Monte Carlo are the casinos and the mild Mediterranean climate, which makes it a popular tourist attraction.
Fernando Alonso said about the race: “Winning in Monte Carlo is the most special for a driver, even if winning your home Grand Prix is the best feeling. We all used to watch Monaco on TV when we were kids and now we are on the streets that are very special, with a fantastic atmosphere all weekend. Even the Friday when we have some other activities, you can feel the support from the fans, so winning this race is a big prize.”
Ferrari goes to Monaco without Aldo Costa
This week Ferrari announced a reshuffle in their technical staff, Aldo Costa stepped down and is no longer Technical Director, and it is expected more changes will follow. It is Ferrari’s reaction on the painful race in Spain, where both Ferraris finished one lap behind the leaders of the race.
All decisions are made in the best interests of the team.
Asked about his thoughts about Costa, Alonso replied: “We trust the team and we have full confidence in Stefano’s [Domenicali] decisions as to what is best for Ferrari. I can say I feel a very positive atmosphere today here at the track. All decisions are made in the best interests of the team, so I have full confidence for the future, when I hope we can be more competitive.”
Alonso has certainly not given up on winning this year’s title, and he remains optimistic. “We have only had five races, so no one can say bye bye to championship hopes after just five races,” he said. “The number of points we had at this stage last year is not too different to the situation we are in now. So I remain optimistic we can turn it around, but it is also true that we need to have a competitive car immediately.”
Felipe Massa who has struggled with the hard Pirelli tyres, is happy he can now use two types of soft tyres. “The fact we will not have to deal with the hard tyres can be a factor that gives us a chance to fight properly in the race from the beginning to the end. I think the use of the softer tyres should also help in qualifying, so in general, I expect to have a weekend that could be better than Barcelona and also better than some of the other races,” he commented.
McLaren duo confident of good performance
Both Hamilton and Jenson Button have won the Monaco Grand Prix, and McLaren’s Monaco track record is impressive, they have won this event 15 times. Hamilton is a great fan of the circuit, “I love Monaco, it’s a race I remember watching when I was a kid and it’s a place that really showcases Formula One at its very best: racing flat-out against around the toughest and greatest circuit in the world.” McLaren’s confidence was boosted by a strong performance in Spain and Hamilton is optimistic about his chances this weekend.
“After such a strong showing in Spain, I’m really looking forward to Monaco this year because I think we’ll see a different race from previous years. I think a combination of DRS, KERS Hybrid and the tyres will really make the racing come alive, and I’d love to see some overtaking action and some hard racing this year,” the 2008 champion said.
Button thinks McLaren’s KERS might help him to overtake, “There’s been some suggestion that KERS Hybrid might not provide a useful lap time benefit around Monaco, because you might think you couldn’t really exploit it to give you a boost onto a straight. But our simulations suggest that it’s worth as much at Monaco as it is pretty much anywhere else, which is another positive because I think that the Mercedes-Benz unit is the best in Formula One.”
And he added, “You'll still see the quick cars at the front but there's a smaller difference in qualifying and so one mistake from Red Bull and you've pipped them. It's a unique circuit where mechanical grip is important. We may not be as strong as Red Bull aerodynamically but mechanically we are strong. I'm looking forward to it and I can't wait to get out there tomorrow.”
Red Bull changes pit stop procedures
This time it is not Red Bull’s flexing wing nor its superior ‘off-throttle blown diffuser’ system that is under fire, the Austrian squad has now reversed the roles, and Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko has accused Ferrari of espionage, as he suspects the Maranello team has been listening to the Red Bull team radio. “We have noticed that Ferrari is doing some kind of espionage. We called Mark into the box relatively late, and yet they managed to get Alonso in as well. They had been able to respond to us,” the Austrian said.
He used the word espionage, because all team radios are encrypted and teams cannot listen to each others communications, to do this they have to encrypt the radio traffic by methods that that might not be legal. Team Principal Christian Horner, “The radios tend to be encrypted, and digital radios these days, so... to hack a radio would be very difficult," said Horner.
All the teams are listening to the public transmissions.
The radio messages TV viewers hear are decrypted by the FOM, and it is of course also possible Ferrari simply listened to (all) the team radio messages that are aired by the FOM, which is something all teams do. Horner even admitted Red Bull does the same, “All the teams are listening to the public transmissions, because obviously if there is something that can be gleaned from that then it's knowledge that's useful for strategic decisions.”
Horner today announced Red Bull will nevertheless change its pit stop procedures. “I don't know whether mechanics were putting their hands in their pockets at the wrong time or somebody was picking a tyre up," he said. "So we've just changed our procedure this weekend to be less transparent,” the Briton explained.
Horner thinks it was not a coincidence Alonso pitted at the same time, but he thinks the spy story of Marko was misinterpreted by the media. “I think that it is probably more likely it has something to do with one of our procedures or movement in the garage, which is absolutely allowed. It was obviously quite frustrating for Mark that every time he came into the box, he's got a Ferrari right ahead of him.” And added, “In the end we made a dummy call and Fernando came in, Mark stayed out.”
Ferrari responded to the accusations and said they were simply watching every move Red Bull made, and called in Alonso every time Webber pitted because they were trying to get Alonso ahead of Webber during a pit stop.
Circuit de Monaco - Monte Carlo - Monaco
|Circuit de Monaco||Monte Carlo, Monaco|
|Circuit length||3.349 km|
|Corners||18 turns (12 right and 7 left)|
|Total number of race laps||78|
|Total race distance||260.520 km|
|Estimated top speed||288 km/h|
|Tyre compounds||Super Soft [Option] and Soft [Prime]|
|Brake wear||Medium to high|
|Lap record||M. Schumacher - Ferrari - 1:14.439 (2004)|
|2010 Pole Position||Mark Webber - Red Bull-Renault - 1m13.826|
|2010 Race Winner||Mark Webber - Red Bull-Renault - 1h50m13.355|
|Speed limits in the pit lane:60 km/h during practice sessions, 100 km/h during qualifying and race|
|FIA Stewards||Alain Prost (F), Lars Osterlind (SWE), Jose Abed (MEX)|
Monaco four-day weather forecast
|Day++||Forecast||Min Temperature||Max Temperature|
|Thursday||No clouds, sunny and warm weather||17C||28C|
|Friday||Cloudy with sunny intervals and warm weather||15C||25C|
|Saturday||No clouds, sunny and warm weather||16C||24C|
|Sunday||No clouds, sunny and warm weather||16C||24C|
Pirelli tyre report
Principality of Monaco Pirelli will introduce their Super Soft tyre compound, which will make its season debut at Monaco. Pirelli thinks the circuit with its tight corners is ideal for the Super Soft tyres. According to the Italian company, the tyre will provide an ‘ultimate performance’ and has a very short warm-up time, which means the performance is available straight from the first lap. However, Pirelli also warns this tyre has a track-life of less than 10 laps, and even less at the beginning of the race when cars are fully fuelled.
Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery about the circuit, “We’re very excited to see our PZero Red supersoft tyres making their debut around the twisty streets this weekend, although this type of circuit will obviously be a completely new experience as we’ve only tested on permanent tracks.” About strategies he said, “The super soft rubber is designed to provide outstanding performance over a short period of time but this comes at the price of durability, so all the teams will have to consider their strategies carefully, getting it right will make the difference between winning and losing.”
No tyres saving tactics expected during qualifying
It is expected teams will not sacrifice positions on the grid to save an extra set of tyres for the race, a new strategy that has been initiated by the fast degradation of this year’s Pirelli tyres. Most drivers still believe that a high position on the grid on a street circuit like Monaco is more important. Tactics as seen during the Spanish and Turkish Grands Prix where drivers pitted four times and then started to carve their way through the field very quickly on unused fresh soft tyres, will certainly not work as there are simply too little overtaking opportunities in Monaco.
Massa about the ideal strategy, “Strategy will be very important and we can expect to see different directions in terms of race strategy to what we are used to in the past.” And the Brazilian added, “The soft and super soft tyres will be interesting to use in qualifying, because the super soft will definitely be quicker and here in Monaco, it is still very important to start as near to the front of the grid as possible, therefore we might see people choose the optimum qualifying strategy, rather than save new tyres for the race. Tyre degradation is more likely to be a significant factor in overtaking.”
Hamilton is also adamant the tyres will be the key to success, “I think the tyres will probably give us the greatest scope for excitement and the best chance of passing. While I don’t think the super soft and soft compounds will be as critical around Monaco as they were at a place like Turkey, I still think the drop-off we encounter as the tyres go off should create opportunities for overtaking.”
Starting the race on the super soft tyre is a bit of a risk, the tyre only lasts eight or ten laps, and drivers risk to get caught in traffic if they make a very early pit stop. Vettel is also convinced different strategies will be used in Monaco, “ Grid position is very important and can determine your race, as traditionally overtaking in Monaco is very tricky. Managing the traffic during qualifying in Monaco is also a big challenge.”
The FIA has announced the setup of DRS for Monaco, the detection zone in which a driver has to be within one second of the car he wants to overtake, is 44 meters after Turn 16 (the last chicane before Rascasse). The activation zone starts 19 meters after Turn 19 (Anthony Noghes) and ends at the breaking zone before Sainte Devote. At the request of the drivers, who were worried about the safety aspects, the FIA has banned DRS usage in the tunnel.
Earlier this week Hamilton commented that DRS would give little extra opportunity to overtake at the street circuit, “I think the DRS zone at Monaco is only around 300 meters, so it’s pretty short, and not really long enough to enable us to really get enough of a launch on the car ahead. I think the aerodynamics will only really start working properly once we’ve reached the braking zone for Sainte Devote, so I don’t think we’ll see too many DRS-assisted overtaking moves next weekend.”
Massa agrees with Hamilton, “Given how hard overtaking is here and given the fact that the place where we will be allowed to use DRS is not the easiest part of the track, I do not expect the DRS to have such a significant effect as at the other tracks.” Mercedes GP team principal Ross Brawn stated overtaking in Monaco is always difficult, and not even KERS or DRS can change that, “With our strategic planning we do not think overtaking will be much easier than before, even a driver two or three seconds faster struggles to overtake here.”
Who to watch this weekend
In Monaco it will be all about getting the best position on the grid, which means the top six drivers in the championship will be equally poised to grab pole position on Saturday. As Vettel has won four out of the five races this season, he certainly is one of the favorites -- if not the favorite -- and the 23-year old German has never won this race before and of course wants to add the Monaco GP to his palmarès.
”It's a difficult one as it is a track where everything needs to be right, you need to have confidence and the car to your liking. You don't need the quickest car but you do need to feel comfortable,” Vettel told the BBC. “The focus is very intense and you need to concentrate. It's very tight, there's not a lot of space and the higher up you can qualify will better your chances on Sunday.” He also thinks the race could be very unpredictable with the new Pirellis, “We've seen some crazy races this year with the tyres and we don't know yet what to expect here or how many pit stops there will be.”
Hamilton is bullish about his chances to win the race, “It might be my best chance so far. When you go to circuits that are down force dependent [like Barcelona] we are less likely to win.” But he also knows it is always difficult to perform well on a street circuit, “A lot of my energy will be used up trying to keep myself out of the barriers. I hope that our car works well this weekend and we are able to extract the most from those tyres.” Will he be able to fight for the victory with Vettel? “At the moment the only person who has an answer to Sebastian is me, and in a car that is not as good as his, and I'm quite happy with that,” Hamilton answered.
Ferrari has not won the race since 2001 when Schumacher won the event for the fifth time, Alonso crashed heavily during the third practice session last year, his car couldn’t be fixed in time for qualifying which meant he had to start from the back of the grid. But Alonso is ready to put up a fight this time, “Monaco is so different compared to any other circuit, we always see some surprises here. I'm confident. Aerodynamics are less important there so hopefully we can have a good weekend and score some points.”
Button also had a disastrous race in 2010 after a mechanic had forgotten to remove a bung in the air intake of one of the side pods, and had to retire after two laps with an overheated engine. “Hopefully I'll spend more time in the race this year. It was a mistake and hopefully we won't make something like that again. We'll see how the car goes. It was pretty good last year and I think we know how to set up a car around Monaco,” Button said.
Webber won the race last year from pole position, however, statistics have proved that in the last ten years only six times the race was won by the man on pole. Straight line speed is not important, a well balanced car and a good grid position is more important, as well as a perfectly executed tyre strategy. It will be a long race, 78 laps, and last year it took Webber one hour and almost 51 minutes to cover the 260 kilometer distance, which also means drivers have to be in perfect physical shape.
Monaco has often been a race of surprises, and at a few occasions underdogs have won the race, in 1982 Riccardo Patrese surprisingly won the Monaco Grand Prix after the chaos that was caused by an unpredicted rain shower, the most surprised man was Patrese himself, as he even didn’t know had won the race when he crossed the finish line. In 1996 it was Olivier Panis who won the race for Ligier, the race was run in wet weather and only seven of the 22 cars finished the race, the rest crashed or had technical problems.
Anything can happen in Formula One, and certainly in Monaco, it is like they say in the movies: It’s Monte Carlo or bust!