Thursday, May 22, 2008

Monaco Race Preview

Monaco, November 2007

Monaco may be just one of three street circuits on this year’s revamped Formula 1 calendar, but new tracks on the block Singapore and Valencia will need to be pretty jaw-dropping to have a hope of rivalling Monte Carlo for mystique.
The gloriously ridiculous concept of racing 200mph cars around the tortuous harbourside streets of a Mediterranean tax haven will never lose its allure for fans, most of whom readily accept the near-total lack of overtaking and just revel in the spectacle of the F1 drivers jinking between the barriers, as the cacophonous screams from their V8 engines echo off the luxury apartments.

Monaco tends either to showcase the dominance of the era’s greatest driver (Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher thrived there) or produce an upset such as Jarno Trulli’s win for Renault in 2004, or Olivier Panis’s brilliant victory for Ligier from 14th on the grid in 1996 – a result that still seems unbelievable more than a decade later.
Winning at Monte Carlo isn’t necessarily a good omen for a title contender: Only three of the last 12 Monaco Grands Prix have fallen to the man who went on to clinch that year’s championship.
And teams that win as they please elsewhere can find Monaco an irritatingly difficult nut to crack.
Ferrari has only won five times there in the last 30 seasons – and not at all since 2001 – while Monte Carlo success eluded Williams throughout its halcyon years, as Sir Frank’s team failed to win in the Principality between 1983 and 2003.
McLaren has a substantially better Monaco record, with 14 wins to its credit in the last 25 years.
Last year it waltzed away with the race, Fernando Alonso leading Lewis Hamilton in an imperious McLaren demonstration run.

This time around, the title rivals cannot agree on who is favourite for the Monte Carlo win.
Kimi Raikkonen reckons McLaren was so strong there last season that Ferrari remains the underdog, whereas Hamilton believes Ferrari has cured its 2007 low-speed corner troubles so successfully that he will be hard-pressed to keep the red cars in sight.
But even if Lewis is right about Ferrari’s advantage, don’t rule him out this weekend.
Boldness and improvisation behind the wheel really do pay dividends in Monte Carlo – and Hamilton has shown an abundance of both at this track.
He was unstoppable there in both Formula 3 and GP2, and it may well have been the scene of his first F1 win had he not been blocked in qualifying and prevented from beating Alonso to pole last year.
Raikkonen certainly isn’t slow at Monaco – he won there in 2005 after all – but he has yet to show the kind of affinity for its unique challenges that Hamilton has displayed.
This is Lewis’s best chance yet to interrupt Ferrari’s winning streak and thrust himself back into the title battle, so he must capitalise on it.

Even in years when Monaco has been won by the season’s benchmark driver and team, an underdog or two has still managed to slip into the top five.
Double Monte Carlo winners Fernando Alonso and David Coulthard must have a chance to pull off season-best results on the streets, as will Trulli, Mark Webber, Nico Rosberg, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jenson Button.
All of them have shown real flair here in the past – although Trulli and Button in particular also know that even track specialists can have a miserable time at Monaco in a poor car.
As Alonso suggested this week, a driver can make a difference in Monte Carlo, but there are only so many technical shortcomings he can overcome, and Renault’s poor traction is a particular concern for the Spaniard as he heads for a circuit where getting the power down out of tight corners is crucial to lap times.
With track position so crucial, Monaco also sees the most fraught qualifying session of the year – and provides one of the trickiest strategy quandaries.
No one wants to get stuck in traffic on a circuit where passing is all-but-impossible, so running lighter for a higher grid position must be tempting.
Conversely, the fastest strategy for the track is often to run heavy and pit as late as possible – and most of the midfielders are likely to choose this option.
Drivers who plan two stops must be confident that they can pull out a sufficient gap over the fuel-laden cars before they pit, for if they emerge behind a car that might not plan to stop for another 20 or even 30 laps, their race will be ruined.
However, under modern safety car rules, pitting early is often advisable when caution periods are a strong possibility, as they are in Monaco.
With no traction control or assisted engine braking to help the drivers on this bumpy and desperately slippery course, this weekend is likely to see more incidents than recent Monaco GPs.
But the major reason for the reduction in carnage has been the gradual easing back of the barriers over the past decade.
Sainte Devote, the Swimming Pool and Rascasse are all undeniably easier to navigate now that more room has been created around them.
‘Easy’ is very much a relative term at Monaco, however, and it will take a lot more than a few barrier realignments to neuter this most evocative and demanding circuit.

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