The Monaco Grand Prix Preview 23 May 2007
Hamilton's first win, or will a dark horse spring a surprise?
Once upon a time the Monaco Grand Prix had a reputation for throwing up maverick results; remember Jean-Pierre Beltoises greatest day there in 1972? Or Olivier Paniss in 1996?
There may be a chance of a repeat this year, if the forecast for showers on Saturday and Sunday proves accurate. Otherwise, the big question will be whether the longer wheelbase of the swift Ferrari F2007 will militate against it on this tight little track, giving the edge to the McLaren MP4-22s.
Certainly, series leader Lewis Hamilton is determined to score his first Grand Prix victory this weekend on a track where he has previously been dominant in both Formula Three and GP2. There is pressure on team leader Fernando Alonso to push himself back ahead of the upstart rookie and to stamp his authority on McLarens championship campaign, but equally there is pressure on Hamilton to win in order to justify his place at the head of the points table in front of the seasons three race victors.
"I am really looking forward to Monaco, Hamilton says. It is one of the tracks I have always dreamed of racing at in Formula One, particularly having competed there for the past two seasons in the F3 Euroseries and GP2. For me it is the best circuit of the year, there is nowhere like it for getting the adrenaline going, because the track is so tight and there are no run-off areas, you have to be incredibly precise, there is no room for error and as a driver that makes it all the more exciting.
The BMW Saubers could spring the surprise here that they have been threatening all season, and may be capable of qualifying on the front two rows of the grid. Renault believe they have a better chance here than on the tracks on which they have raced so far this season, and Williams come to the Principality with high hopes after Mark Webbers brilliant run here last year, for the FW29 is certainly a much better car than the FW28 that he pushed up to second place at one stage.
Red Bull, too, had a decent race last year with David Coulthard finishing third, and the Scot will be hoping for a repeat as team mate Webber hopes for reliability and better fortune than he has enjoyed of late.
The Toyotas are dark horses and seem able to qualify well, which will be crucial here, while the Honda drivers are hoping for better things.
"Monaco is the most famous race of all, where all the glitz and glamour of Formula One is on display, and there is no question that it is a very special place over the race weekend, says Monegasque resident Jenson Button. It's a very different race from any other on the calendar with so much history and it means even more to me as I live here, so it is one of my home races. Yet ironically the qualities which make it so appealing also make it a frustrating weekend for the teams and drivers. It's unbelievably busy and getting around can be just impossible! When I'm not in the paddock, I'll be getting out of the Principality and up into the hills behind the action to relax and give myself some space.
"The circuit itself is very tight and twisty and you can really feel the speed of the car when the barriers are so close to you. The whole lap is one non-stop challenge and you just have to get your head down and keep focused. You have to keep the car out of the barriers but not worry too much about getting a few scrapes during the race. The absolute key to a really quick lap is being uninhibited and not letting the barriers intimidate you. This is a circuit that rewards precision like no other.
"Qualifying is crucial for getting the best grid position possible and then you have to make a good start in the race and do your overtaking there otherwise passing is almost impossible. You also need the right pit-stop strategy which can make all the difference to the outcome of your race. Good mechanical grip from the car is a fundamental requirement, coupled with as much downforce as possible."
Bearing that last point in mind, all of the teams tested revised maximum downforce configurations at Paul Ricard recently. Additionally, they have tuned their cars specifically for the track in other areas. Monacos streets are bumpy, sharply cambered and very slippery. This is especially true on any road markings, as Nigel Mansell discovered to his cost in the 1984 race. The surface also has relatively low grip, and though it continues to rubber-in all the way through the weekend, right up until the last lap of the race, the debris of marbles on either side of the racing line - rubber thrown from the tyres as the race continues - can be as slippery as ice for anyone who strays out of the groove.
Cars thus tend to run slightly higher ride heights and softer spring rates than usual, and have greater lock for the tracks infamously tight corners such as Loews and Rascasse.
Tyre performance is also crucial here and Bridgestone will introduce their super soft compound at this race following its successful debut over the first two days of the Paul Ricard test. This tyre will be particularly vital in qualifying, which frequently determines the race order on a track where overtaking is always so difficult.
You need as much grip as possible and teams will run their cars with a maximum downforce set-up, says Kees van de Grint, Bridgestone Motorsports head of track engineering operations. Rear traction is crucial with acceleration out of so many corners, but you have to be careful as understeer is not desirable with so much Armco about. There is a very high demand on the tyres as they are very soft. We have also worked on minimising the wear rate as we want to allow the teams flexibility with their strategies.
Monaco is gonna be a lottery, double 2007 winner Felipe Massa said in Spain, and hopefully we can be a little bit lucky in this lottery!
But Lewis Hamilton has other ideas. I dont see it as lottery, he says. Its always been a very strong race for me. One day well get him [Massa], and I think well be very strong in Monaco. Im looking forward to it, and for sure Ill be going there for a win.