Wednesday race preview - Monaco 28 May 2003
Welcome to the start of the Monaco Grand Prix weekend here in Monte Carlo, where the atmosphere is already heating up at the prospect of Formula One's most famous race being run under 2003's revised regulations.
Ever since the FIA introduced single-lap qualifying, and the rule that calls for drivers to race with the same fuel load and chassis set-up that they used for qualifying, everyone has been awaiting the Monaco Grand Prix.
This is the most difficult track in the whole calendar on which to overtake, so a place within the first two rows of the grid is absolutely essential. But now there is the added complexity of having to decide just the right strategy concerning fuel load.
If you run light you will go fast and should qualify well. Come the race though and Monaco's slow pit lane entry means that an early stop after a fast start could land a driver back in the middle of the pack. He would then stand to lose so much time getting through traffic that any advantage would be sapped away by the time his more heavily-fuelled rivals made their stops.
Then there is the advantage that the Friday morning teams (Thursday morning in this instance because Friday, of course, is traditionally a rest day here) will enjoy from two more crucial hours of track time.
"The two hours will definitely be vital," says Renault's executive director of engineering Pat Symonds. "Monaco is such a unique, special circuit that even though the drivers love racing here, they still need as much time in the car as possible. On the one hand they will be able to get more used to the track and adapt to it, and on the other it will give us the chance to fine-tune the race strategies we might use."
As far as aerodynamic and mechanical set-ups are concerned, things are at least more clear-cut for the engineers. You use the absolute maximum downforce that you can generate here, which means that small bibs and winglets proliferate and designers seek ingenious places to mount their new aerodynamic appendages to take any advantage of loopholes or grey areas in the rules. On the mechanical side, you need all the traction you can get to accelerate out of the tight corners.
You also need to perfect your electronic systems, none more so than launch control. David Coulthard admitted last year that he had little to do with the electric start that took him past pole-sitter Juan Pablo Montoya and into a lead he would never lose. "It was," he said, "all down to McLaren's software engineers."
Then there is the reliability issue. Besides giving the drivers no peace for the entire high-concentration lap, Monaco also takes no prisoners on the mechanical side. It is punishing for engines, transmissions and brakes.
Ferrari's well-balanced F2003-GA would appear tailor made for Monaco and Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello are expected to fly. However, last year Michelin had an advantage over Bridgestone, at least in qualifying, so expect the tyre battle to be as intense as ever.
McLaren has a very strong record here, and Coulthard's victory in the MP4-17A last year was textbook stuff. But had Montoya been able to get off the line faster, he could have done the same thing. Both teams are wholly capable of winning this weekend.
If the Michelins are as strong as expected, the surprise teams could be Renault and Jaguar. Likewise if the Bridgestones are as competitive as they usually are, BAR could feature strongly. It is this unpredictability that will make the 2003 Monaco Grand Prix so special.