Trulli and Alonso ready to halt Schumacher train...
The tortuous Monte Carlo street circuit may give Ferraris rivals their first real shot at beating the red cars this season, adding even more of an edge to this weekends Monaco Grand Prix.
McLaren and Williams have been the victors in the past two seasons, but BAR are determined to score their maiden triumph and Renault would like to clinch their first Monaco win as a works team.
Can they do it, or will Michael Schumacher finally equal the record of six wins in the Principality of the late Ayrton Senna?
Everything will depend on qualifying position and race reliability. Car set-up is not necessarily optimised on the tight streets; more important is to have a car that goes exactly where the driver points it. Monaco is usually the highest downforce circuit of the season. Due to the new two-element rear wing rules this year there has been a reduction in downforce so you can expect to see a rash of extra rollhoop- and rear deck-mounted wings as designers try to exploit the regulations to maximise what downforce their cars can generate. It is vital to alleviate the problems of generating sufficient grip that often arise on street circuits. The surface is quite low grip, and though there is not a lot of really high-speed work there are plenty of medium-speed corners where downforce really counts.
It is also very important for teams to arrive with a good mechanical baseline set-up, so that the car generates as much grip from its suspension and weight distribution as it does from its aerodynamics, to punch it out of corners with minimal loss of adhesion and minimal wheelspin. Militating against this, however, is the need to run higher ride heights than usual to avoid bottoming on the uneven surface. This also costs a little downforce. On the credit side, however, teams run the softest tyre compounds of the season here, which helps them to go quicker.
There is one other vital change to the specification seen elsewhere. The Loews Hairpin is so tight that teams have to customise the steering geometry specifically so that the drivers have sufficient lock to negotiate it.
Since overtaking is virtually impossible on the streets, which is why qualifying is even more critical, though when deciding their strategy teams must also build in as much flexibility as possible. The changes to the pit lane have not affected the pit entry, which remains tight. That is just something else to be factored into race strategy, which will be taxing the minds of engineers up and down the pit lane. The need to qualify well (and therefore to minimise fuel load in qualifying) must be balanced against the need to avoid a first pit stop that could put the driver back on track in the dreaded Monaco traffic.
So who will win? It goes without saying that Ferrari will be very strong. Williams should also be highly competitive, but BAR and Renault are both very confident of strong performances. The former is keen to put the disappointment of Barcelona behind them, while the latters starting ability could well be a critical factor if a very optimistic Jarno Trulli or team mate Fernando Alonso qualify in the first two rows.
Following David Coulthards victory in 2002, and signs of progress at Paul Ricard where Kimi Raikkonen was second fastest, McLaren are also looking for a strong result.
Jaguar, who scored their first podium here with Eddie Irvine in 2002, also have high hopes and will have a touch of Hollywood about their camp all weekend as they help launch the forthcoming new Oceans 12 movie.
Elsewhere, Nick Heidfeld should be fit enough to race for Jordan after a 31g testing accident at Paul Ricard last week, and Anthony Davidson says he will be okay to test for BAR on Friday following problems with a trapped nerve in his back at the southern French circuit.
The 78-lap Monaco Grand Prix starts at 14.00 hours local time and, at 260.520 kilometres, is the shortest yet toughest race of the season.