Monaco's Monte Carlo street circuit is the highlight of the Formula One calendar, at least as far as glitz and glamour are concerned. For the teams and drivers, the twisty, narrow and bumpy track is one that requires a great deal of hard work,...
Monaco's Monte Carlo street circuit is the highlight of the Formula One calendar, at least as far as glitz and glamour are concerned. For the teams and drivers, the twisty, narrow and bumpy track is one that requires a great deal of hard work, both in the garage and behind the wheel. The surface has low grip and high downforce is a must, along with good traction out of the corners. Monaco's car-hungry barriers quickly punish the slightest lapse of a driver's concentration.
Getting the car just right is a bit of a gamble: "Monaco is usually the highest downforce circuit of the season," explained Sauber technical director Willy Rampf. "Mechanical set-up is also very important. This means generating as much grip from the car rather than the aerodynamics."
"At the same time, however, there is the added disadvantage that we have to run the highest ride heights of the season in order to avoid bottoming on the uneven surface of a street course, and this also levies a penalty in terms of lost downforce."
Monaco lends itself to tyres from the soft end of the compound range. As there is no testing in Monte Carlo, it's tricky to prepare for -- as Michelin's Pascal Vasselon remarked: "There is no other circuit like it."
Michelin is aiming for a hat trick this weekend, after its partner teams claimed victory in 2002 (David Coulthard, McLaren) and 2003 (Juan Pablo Montoya, Williams). "Michelin knows how to address the situation and for the past two seasons we have definitely had a tyre advantage in Monaco," said Montoya.
This year Monaco's cramped quarters have been eased by the new pit facilities that mean the teams will have garage space on site instead of having to trudge up the hill to the car park. Part of the track between the Swimming Pool and Rascasse has been moved, although the entry to the pits remains in the same place.
Overtaking is nigh on impossible at Monaco and as the first pit stop is currently crucial, that's going to be a bit of a gamble too. At Imola and Barcelona Ferrari's strategy gave Michael Schumacher the lead, letting him romp home to victory.
Qualifying at Monaco is very important but that first pit stop is going to be the crux of the matter if anyone beats Schumacher to the first corner. That is presuming Michael is at the sharp end of the grid -- it hardly seems likely he will be anywhere else. After finishing third in 2003, Schumacher is aiming for more this weekend: "Last year we didn't seem to have that spark about us and this time at Monaco we want to do better!" Said the reigning champ.
Williams woke up at Monaco last season, Ralf Schumacher taking pole and Montoya the victory. It was the start of a Williams revival through the mid-season and it would be great to see it happen again. Ralf seems to be communing with the mystical on a regular basis these days -- the last two races he warned not to expect any miracles and was duly proved correct. This time around he's hoping for a benign smile from above.
"At the moment we are far away from that possibility," Ralf said of regaining Williams' Monaco form of last year. "But I would like to believe in a little miracle in the Principality." Let's hope it's a miracle of the winning variety rather than Ralf suddenly discovering his water bottle is full of red wine.
Jenson Button suffered a whopping crash at Monaco last year and the BAR driver is ready to make amends. "Ferrari obviously remain the dominant force but it would be nice to get a good result and get back on the podium, especially after the accident I had here last year," said the Englishman. "All in all, I'm really looking forward to it."
Fresh from his third place podium finish in Spain, Renault's Jarno Trulli is confident for this weekend but cautious about predicting a repeat performance. "We will only find out how fast we are when we actually get on to the track, but the circuit should suit us," he commented. "I think this can be a good race for us, but there are too many variables now to make any definite predictions."
Olivier Panis won his first, and only, GP at Monaco in 1996 but the Toyota man doesn't think the street circuit is one that the team will shine at. "To be honest, I don't think Monaco is the perfect circuit for us right now, as our package is not fantastic at low speeds, but I have always enjoyed the grand prix," said the Frenchman.
Of all the Grands Prix, Monaco is the one that the drivers most want to conquer. "If I had to pick somewhere to win my first grand prix it would be Monaco," said Jaguar's Mark Webber. "It's extremely prestigious and has a wonderful history and tradition."
If one were a gambler, now would perhaps be the time to bet on someone beating Michael Schumacher for the first time this year. Considering Ferrari's form that may be too big a gamble to risk -- but if you can't have a bet this weekend, when can you? It's Monte Carlo or bust.