Along with the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Indianapolis 500, the Monaco Grand Prix is one of the most famous motor sport events in the world and it is the one element that makes it stand out from the other venues on the F1 calendar that creates its...
Along with the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Indianapolis 500, the Monaco Grand Prix is one of the most famous motor sport events in the world and it is the one element that makes it stand out from the other venues on the F1 calendar that creates its biggest challenge for the teams - namely the fact it is run on narrow city streets that make passing another car a virtual impossibility.
So while it is true that, more than at any other circuit, a driver's ability can make a bigger difference than the car package at his disposal, it is also true that the best driver in the world can do nothing without a race strategy that gives him enough clear track to demonstrate his skill.
"Monaco is definitely the most difficult place to overtake on the track unless the guy in front has a major problem," confirms Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro's strategist, Luca Baldisserri. "I can remember many races here that a car running a pace three seconds slower was still making it impossible for a driver to overtake, as happened to Michael in 2002 when he had Coulthard in front of him. All the same, I think the track layout is fantastic and very challenging for a driver."
It is actually incorrect to simply talk about race strategy because in fact, strategic decisions that will affect the race have to be taken prior to the final part of Saturday's qualifying session, assuming a driver makes it through to the final ten to be guaranteed a top ten place on the grid. Because this is the moment of the weekend when the car has to be fuelled to the level with which it will start Sunday's race.
"It is vital to make the right calculation regarding how much fuel to take on board for this part of qualifying," says Baldisserri. "Also, you have to plan the strategy itself in order to be able to have a clean lap in qualifying with no traffic, to avoid what otherwise can be a disaster."
"Sometimes it is better to have a clear lap with no traffic than having maybe a little bit more fuel, as it is vital that you are in no way disturbed by the car ahead of you on the circuit. The importance of qualifying in Monte Carlo is again a lot greater than elsewhere, as starting from the front of the grid is a huge advantage."
At a "normal" circuit, if the indications throughout Friday and Saturday morning's free practice sessions is that you will find it difficult to produce very fast pace over the opening lap or so, then the usual strategic route to take is to sacrifice outright qualifying performance over a single lap, take on board a slightly heavier fuel load than the opposition and hope that the extra laps of clear track this will provide, will allow you to overtake the driver ahead during the first run of pit stops.
However, in Monaco, this is much harder to achieve and can be a problem because, if for example you start from the second or third row your lap times will lose out compared to the guy in front and so the advantage gained from staying out on track for a greater number of laps might not be enough to get ahead at the pit stops.
"It will be very important to try and qualify with a fuel load that permits you to run the correct amount of first stint length, because if you are too short you can risk getting caught up with traffic when you pit, whereas going too long, which involves taking more fuel on board on Saturday afternoon can see you mess up qualifying," explains Luca. "Getting this factor correct, in my opinion, constitutes between sixty and seventy percent of the strategists work at this event."
The nature of the circuit also makes it harder to change strategy from the pre-ordained plan to something different as a function of what has happened in the early part of the race. "Let's just say, if you are a long way back here, there is no strategy in the world that will allow you to make up more places," reveals Baldisserri.
"If you are fighting at the front end of the field, then there is a higher chance of being able to change the strategy during the race, depending on what your direct competitor does. I think this year in Monte Carlo all we will have to play with in terms of flexibility is two to three laps more or less, rather than a radical change of plan."
Based on the season so far, there is cause for optimism in the Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro camp for this coming weekend. "So far, in the last three races we went quite well in terms of qualifying performance and hopefully we can repeat this in Monte Carlo, which means that with the same fuel level we will definitely be competitive compared to our main rivals," says Baldisserri, although he offers a note of caution:
"Monaco is a completely different type of circuit, so we cannot be a hundred percent sure that our car will suit the Monaco track, that requires a very different set up, running with high downforce. Last week we tested in Paul Ricard and Fiorano specifically to move in that direction. We have an aero update, different tyres and some engine tuning and a revised set-up to ride the bumps better which is also very important when racing on normal roads."
One final point is that making the right choice between the two types of tyre available to the Scuderia from Bridgestone, will be closely linked to the strategy adopted. "Over the past few years we have seen our competitors come to Monaco with very very soft tyres in order to have excellent first lap performance before holding position in the race," recalls Baldisserri.
"We will have to see how our tyres will behave here. Tyre choice for this race is quite difficult because there is not a track that is close to it in terms of tyre behaviour, so we can be close but not completely sure until we actually run there in terms of checking first lap performance and tyre degradation. Monaco really is the worst place for the strategy man!"